Category Archives: Nostalgia

Musings on the representation of idealized pasts, both mine and those created by others in popular and other culture

Vaarwel, Manly Girl

Elizabeth_Wynhausen_11.04_2My friend Elisabeth Wynhausen died last week.  It feels odd to write a tribute from a distance, as I would much rather have been at the funeral/wake to hear from her friends Susie, Mary, Kim, her beloved niece and nephew Gabi and Jesse and their families, and so many others who would have shared copious memories of an amazing individual. Since fate has placed me 11,000 miles away, this will have to suffice. Apologies, Elisabeth – but I am in one of your favourite cities, and I will visit Roxy at the Seven Stars to raise a glass in your honour.

During my Cantorial life, I met people in multiple contexts, often associated with life events. With Elisabeth this was no different, and though the pathway to our friendship was, like hell, paved with good intentions, it was a path I am glad to have trod: it taught me a lot.

I first met Elisabeth through the pages of her novel Manly Girls, a biting, sharp, witty autobiography of her youth.  Only brief flashes of memory remain at this time, and I will re-read the work when I return to Australia; but I do remember being shocked, impressed, and moved by the way Elisabeth captured a sense of outsiderness in her experiences of Jewish life on Sydney’s North Shore in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, I remember a passage where she mentioned the cliquishness of certain sets of proper Jewish ladies, and their exclusionary behaviour that caused so much hurt at that time. With a certain amount of trepidation, I asked my mother (of a similar vintage to Elisabeth) whether she remembered her own time at Cheder (Hebrew school), and whether the social dynamics described by Elisabeth resonated in her memories. I was relieved to find out that mum’s experience of exclusion was almost identical, and that she treated similarly by those young, ‘white-gloved princesses’ (was that the phrase?) who had ruled the roost.  Both my mother and Elisabeth were outsiders of a different hue: my mother was from a single-parent family (her father having died when she was 12) and thus not ‘normal’ in either 1950s Australia or the Jewish community of that time; Elisabeth was Dutch, and her Holocaust survivors had decided not only to live outside the nominal Jewish ghetto of the Eastern Suburbs, but to do so in possibly one of the most Anglo suburbs in Sydney: Manly, southern capital of the Northern Beaches, the “Insular Peninsula”.

My first proper meeting with Elisabeth did not bode well for the establishment of a future friendship. I had just completed a four-month internship at St Vincent’s Hospital, and was working “on the floor” as a Jewish chaplain. The training was an intense process; the Certificate of Clinical Pastoral Education required a 40-hour working week at the hospital, spending up to 5 hours on the floor, visiting patients (of any or no denomination or faith), reflecting on such visits and writing them up in journals, debriefing with a team of incredible supervisors, learning the intricacies of Hospital politics, policy, theories of empathetic listening etc. If that wasn’t enough, I happened to be the first Jewish chaplain in NSW who had gone through such a course, and much of the theology was Christian in focus and language, a fact I had to address fairly resolutely (and respectfully) every day of my training.  One day when glancing at the list of Jewish patients, I noticed the name Nan Wynhausen. I felt a little bit of excitement at recognising the name of Elisabeth’s mother from the book, and I went to visit. We had a terrific conversation, most of it to do the pride she had in her daughter’s journalistic excellence, and my enthusiasm for Manly Girls.

In the back of my mind, an excitement built about the prospect of visiting Nan when Elisabeth was present, talking to her about the book, and her answering some of my [polite] enquiries.  Now, those of you who know Elisabeth know that she and organised religion were not on speaking terms … when the day came, my friendly approach was not only regarded with high suspicion (as proselytising), but most firmly refused. Ejected promptly from Nan’s room without the chance to even engage in conversation or explanation, I retired hurt.

It’s amazing how things turn. In the year 2000 (a few years after the hospital visit) Elisabeth’s brother Jules approached me with the idea of forming a community choir at Temple Emanuel. Although not religious, Jules loved Jewish identity, community and Jewish music, and wanted to sing for High Holydays. Together with his mate Leo van Biene and Geoff Cohn, I had an instant and enthusiastic bass section, and soon Jules encouraged others to join.  He helped with Hebrew translations, encouraged me to make recordings of the parts so that the non-music reading choristers could practice diligently at home or in the car.  Jules taught me how to relate to amateur singers: he gently revealed the value of working with limitations, in community. I loved his cynical dry wit and his enthusiasm, his enormous smile and the wicked twinkle in the eye. I used to watch him sidle up to the late Danny Slade (one of the elders of the Temple community, also a Dutch survivor) on Rosh Hashanah, and crack jokes (most likely obscene ones) in Dutch.

In March 2003 a devastating bicycle accident left Jules in a coma, and after rehabilitation, a profound change in personality. No longer able to enjoy music in the way he had previously, our previously jovial relationship faltered during the many hospital visits I made to see him. This was understandable as I was a fairly new friend in his life, and I think the brain injury caused irreparable damage to short term memory.  My sadness was assuaged by the knowledge that Jules had a team of devoted friends and family who visited all the time.  And when he passed away in July 2007, it was a great honour to officiate at the funeral of a man I described as a non-conformist, philosopher, singer, linguist, stubborn and generous lover of life, nature and humanity.

Through Jules’ death I finally got to meet Elisabeth. Properly. The Elisabeth I knew I would like, who liked me back equally. We worked on the tributes to Jules together, with Jesse, Gabi and Eve. Within a month, we were working together again, to craft an appropriate tribute to Elisabeth’s mother Nan, who passed away less than four weeks after Jules.  Nan’s story of growing up in Arnhem (Holland), her experiences with the cream of German cabaret in Scheveningen during the Nazi occupation, her miraculous escape into Switzerland, her love for Paul, building a new life in Australia – that alone is worth another blog entry.  But this process of co-writing really bound Elisabeth and I together in friendship.  We shared many discussions, keeping in touch regularly via email. In 2009 Al and I were in the United Kingdom for a holiday and the celebration of my sister’s wedding.  Elisabeth was in town, and took us to her favourite haunt: a 407 year old pub in Holborn called the Seven Stars, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1666. After a great night, we vowed to see each other more back in Australia.  A minor disaster struck when I invited her to my 40th birthday party – she was the only person who didn’t receive the email of the change of venue, and turned up at the Civic Hotel instead of the UTS Loft.  Thankfully, Elisabeth forgave the error, and we continued to write to each other.  I wrote to her my news of the fellowship in the United States – she wrote back and reconnected me with a friend and congregant, Susie, living at that time in New York.  When I moved to DC, Elisabeth’s nephew Jesse and his wife Jo were staying at Susie’s – they too showed amazing hospitality, and we had a few very special nights out: going to see the preview of The Book of Mormon, later on dancing to the music of Danny Krivit at Sessions 708 in celebration of my dissertation passing examination.

Many roads led me to Elisabeth. At first bristling and prickly, cautious and suspicious (often with good reason), when she let you in, generosity and support flooded through, and she connected like-minded people in a profound, joyous and communal way. In 2011 I finally had the chance to repay the hospitality to both Susie and Elisabeth with a dinner  at our house.  We had a boozy, opinionated, raucous night, filled with laughter and salacious conversation.  When Gabi put her aunt’s blog onto Facebook in January this year, it prompted me to write again to her on the email. Alas, no reply – this should have alerted me that all was not well.

As Ferris said: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

I am so sorry I missed the last part of your life, Elisabeth. I would have loved to say goodbye in person. I would have loved to have you and Susie over for dinner again. I would have loved to have just chatted for an hour or more.  Alas, it was not to be. You will remain in my heart and memory as a fabulous, generous individual.  Vaarwel.

 

Elisabeth and Al

Elisabeth and Al in London, July 2009

 

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Winter baking and marmalade making

When the temperature drops and the wintry rain discountenances outdoor activities, a gratifying distraction on such occasions is to formulate an indoor cooking project.  We retreated to the mountains hideaway this weekend accompanied by our friends Tim and Karl, and later Marty and Kel.  Tim is an accomplished baker and preserver.  (Is there an elegant word for a person who makes jams and preserves? I haven’t found one as yet.)  With such auspicious alignments in mind (that is, bad weather and a cooking collaborator), I thought that the weekend would be perfect for my first foray into the world of preserves, jams and marmalades, guided by one who had gone before me with many successes.

But what to preserve?  I had some lovely red grapefruit that had been purchased with the intention of being used in a fennel salad; and mum and dad’s meyer lemon tree had also yielded an amazingly good crop of lemons in its first year.  With such a bounty, what could one do but make Lemon and Grapefruit Marmalade?

The recipe was fairly easy.  2 grapefruits, 4 lemons, sliced finely, the seeds and some pith preserved in a muslin.  Soak the fruit overnight in 2.5L of cold water.  The next day, pour into a pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Then add 2.5kg sugar which had been warming in the oven for the last 15 minutes of the simmer.  Remove any scum that rises to the surface. Cook, stirring for 10 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring back up to the boil, and cook for up to an hour, or until the jam has set.  Let cool, pour into sterilised glass jars, and admire! If you want the recipe that I based mine on, here’s a link to it.

There are a whole series of nostalgic memories surrounding marmalade. My grandmother Essie (z”l) was an excellent cook, and was the first person to introduce me to marmalade as a child: in particular, Rose’s Lime Marmalade.  And my maternal aunty Wendy had a cumquat tree at her house in Killara, and I remember as a small boy visiting there, and enjoying the most intensely sour and sweet smell of cumquat marmalade cooking on the stove.  We had a small sample on hot, crusty bread with butter.  Delicious.

Tim and I decided to make another nostalgic treat: melting moments.  The recipe was easy – basically a shortbread by any other name, with the crucial ingredient of custard powder added, for flavour and colour.  I creamed butter with the seeds of one vanilla pod.  Then I combined icing sugar, custard powder and plain flour in a bowl, and beat it into the butter with a wooden spoon.  It’s crucial to beat it in lightly, so that you do not work the gluten in the flour.  Then we rolled it into small balls, made the characteristic prong marks with the fork tines, and baked in a medium oven for 18 minutes.

Here’s the controversial part.  Essie used to make very special melting moments with dulce de leche rather than the lemon or passionfruit icing.  For this, she would boil a can of condensed milk on the stove for 2 hours, making sure that the water was always in the pan so the can did not explode.  Two hours later: caramel, or dulce de leche.  Sandwiched between the shortcrust biscuits, these are incredibly rich and delicious.  I can’t ever eat more than one.

 

 

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One Day in April …

Yesterday was Anzac Day: for non-Australians reading the blog, it is our national day of commemoration for those who died serving Australia in the wars of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

First, a personal disclaimer: for many years I co-ordinated the service for Anzac Day at my Synagogue, and I aimed to make it a dignified and respectful service. That particular Synagogue (Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, formerly Temple Emanuel) had a history inextricably bound to the events of the Second World War. As far as I know, it was one of the only Synagogues to be built during the war years (at the same time that so many were being deliberately razed to the ground by the Nazis and their collaborators).  The women’s guild of Temple Emanuel raised funds for activities through active contribution to the war effort, making camouflage netting and other important materials. A great many congregants of Temple served in the armed forces, and the most senior Jewish member of the Australian armed forces, Major General Paul Cullen AC was the founding treasurer of the congregation. For all these reasons and more, I was happy to co-ordinate a dignified memorial service for those ex-servicewomen and men who had seen military service. I saw this as an intrinsic part of the Synagogue’s history, and an important moment for the elderly women and men who would come especially for this one day in April.

However, there is another side to Anzac Day that has risen in recent years. Growing up, I used to like the ambivalent position of Anzac Day in Australia, exemplified in Alan Seymour’s play “The One Day of the Year”. When I was young, Anzac Day was the day for ex-servicemen to get drunk with their mates at the pub, and a quiet day off for the rest of us. Those who attended the dawn service or other events did so because they were connected to it directly through family who had served, or those who were still serving. It functioned a lot more like the American Memorial Day. I feel nostalgic for this past way of commemorating our war dead. Back then, there was little of the ridiculous public chest-beating and almost no connection to the sort of nationalism that occurs these days. No-one went to Gallipoli on a ‘pilgrimage’. The transmogrification of Anzac Day happened during the Howard years, when national identity was firmly planted in the soil of the blood-stained Anatolian cliffs, where thousands of young Australians AND New Zealanders were pointlessly and callously slaughtered in 1915 because of the laziness and stupidity of the British commanding forces. The question we asked during those days of ambivalence was: did Australia need to experience this catastrophic generational loss in order to formulate a national identity, to enshrine the notion of ‘mateship’ in our  consciousness?

Regarding mateship, my gut says that ‘mateship’ has a far older origin than the place of Anzac Cove. I’m sure mateship existed in the chain gangs of those convicts, transported to the other side of the world for the most trivial of crimes, supporting each other through their misery. I’m sure mateship existed in the phenomenally corrupt Rum Corps and the way in which they ran New South Wales. Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose?  Wasn’t mateship a part of the Kelly gang, and all the other bushrangers, skirting the law? I’m pretty sure mateship existed in the various tragic explorations into the interior of the continent. I also think that a far darker and less pleasant mateship existed in the organised eradication and dispossession of land, culture and life from the first people who had existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to us Johhny-come-latelies. In short, although I think that mateship is an intrinsic part of how we construct our identity, I don’t believe it was codified at Anzac Cove, nor do I think it holds a definitively ‘beneficial’ or positive aspect. It is the way we socialise in our culture, and I suspect has its true heritage in British forms of social village behaviour, in rural and disadvantaged parts; and also perhaps a transference of such behaviours to the emerging working-class areas of expanding city life during industrialisation. There is a certain tribal nature to ‘mateship’.

When I was growing up, some historical commentary treated the events of Anzac differently. This perspective saw the awakening of the Australian identity at Anzac through the act of British abandonment. The wholesale slaughter of these young men spoke to later generations as a conscious revelation that we, the colonies, were not inextricably linked to the Mother Country as we had perceived up to that point. This unease was reinforced in World War II, when tens of thousands of our best trained Australian and New Zealand troops were caught in the European conflict ‘on loan’ to the Mother Country, whilst our borders sat exposed to the threat of attack and possible invasion.  Again, I am simplifying complex issues and intercontinental relations, but this contributed to the severing of the imperial umbilical cord in the minds of many Australians.

While I admire and pay respect to those who served in various conflicts for Australia, I despair at the growing sense of jingoistic nationalism that surrounds this history. I wonder, was it a coincidence that the rise of Anzac Day consciousness during the Howard years also occurred during the diminution (and in some cases, revisionism) of the more shameful aspects of our colonial past, that is, the dispossession and oppression of indigenous cultures? If we are going to be full and frank about this, then the way in which we treated our indigenous soldiers left much to be desired.

A point in case: if you go into detail regarding our policies for Torres Strait Islander men, the following facts can be stated. First, they were paid at less than half the rate of the non-Indigenous soldiers; second, as heads of their villages, they were understandably concerned when their women and children were left exposed to Japanese bombing and attack, with absolutely no plan of evacuation or protection implemented by the Australian government. If you want to read in more detail about this largely forgotten history, here’s a good link to the history of the war in TSI:

http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/ww2/bfa/island_defenders.html

Despite the very subjective nature of those who recount, History should not be a pick-and-choose game. If we are to continue towards a more mature understanding of our national identity, we must consider all different aspects of our history with a keen and critical eye, and not resort to nostalgia for some sections, and amnesia for others. Methinks we still have a very long way to go.

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Savoury treats for the Allkie talkie

 

 

 

Our friends Stephen and Beth are coming over for an afternoon of fashion documentaries and chats. I suggested to Beth that we name such events “Allkie talkies” because they involve a lot of chatting, and Stephen’s last name is Allkins. She loved the idea.

But what to cook? Beth usually brings the best hummus in Sydney (made by Erciyes in Crown Street, Surry Hills – others may dispute this and nominate Abduls, but I like the Turkish version more).  I thought I would make something a little nostalgic: an onion puff pastry tart – something a little like the delicious Pissaladière of southern France.

Why would I dub this nostalgic?  Well, the first recipe book to get me back into cooking after an 8 year hiatus was Jill Dupleix’s New Food. Contained within its enormous covers was a delicious recipe for caramelised onion, as the basis of an onion soup. In 1994, the Dupleix’s book was an inspiration for two reasons: the language contained within was plain, simple, and unpretentious; almost larrikin in nature, the humour and personality of the author shone out; secondly, the food styling was seriously beautiful, clever (often focussing on ingredients and their beauty over the finished product of the recipe) and mouthwatering. The recipes weren’t genius – they were simple, delicious, accessible and easy to prepare. New Food was my gateway back to the love of cooking, and without it I would never have been able to approach the austere scholarship and comprehensive knowledge of Stephanie Alexander’s (my most treasured cookbook, along with Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food).

So today I will make a couple of variations on the traditional Pissaladière. Beth is vegetarian, and I will make one of the tarts without anchovies, but with the addition of some cherry tomatoes and a splash of A’s homemade tomato jam to add complexity. Second, the pastry will be pre-purchased puff (PPP) – I’m not going to make a bread dough, nor will I make pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry), because short-cuts are quite acceptable in my book. Here’s what you will need for these delicious goodies. If you can’t find vino cotto at your specialist wanky delicatessen, then you may substitute it for 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Alternatively, leave out the 2 tablespoons of red-wine vinegar, and substitute with 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

  • 1 packet puff pastry
  • 8 Spanish (red) onions
  • 3 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped from stalks
  • 50g butter
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry or red-wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon vino cotto
  • 1 punnet cherry tomatoes AND/OR adequate reserves of anchovies
  • 100g olives (pitted)

Preheat the oven to 190ºC.


 

 

 

 

 

Peel your onions, and slice.  There’s no need to chop into fine dice – the sliced onions will give a lovely texture.  Heat your butter and oil, and when foaming, throw the onions in. Turn the heat down to about low-medium. You want the onions to cook slowly, get soft and caramelize as they go – it will take between 30 and 40 minutes, with occasional stirring.  In the last 5 minutes, stir in the vino cotto and the red wine vinegar (alternatively the balsamic vinegar; third alternative, dissolve the brown sugar in the red wine vinegar and then stir it in).

 

Let the onions cool.  Now get your frozen puff pastry out of the fridge. Score a ridge along the side of it with a knife, but be careful not to cut right through!  Then spread your onion mixture onto the pastry, and arrange the ingredients (olives and/or anchovies and/or tomatoes and or whatever) on top.  Place on a baking sheet, and into the oven for 20-25 minutes.

Easy peasy!  I forgot how easy and fun these are to make.  The only irritant is all that onion peeling and slicing at the beginning.  They went down a treat as we watched three special documentaries: Florent, Queen of the Meat Market (about a restauranteur activist and icon of New York’s Meatpacking District, Florent Morellet); Elizabeth Taylor: Auction of a Lifetime (the auction of Her jewellery) and L’Amour Fou (about the art collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé).  What a nice Anzac Day treat!

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E Pluribus Facebook

In my post on vows (see http://josephtoltz.com.au/?p=499) I mentioned that I had taken the decision to suspend my Facebook account for the month of April. A few reasons led to this resolution.  First, I suspected that I was spending far too much time looking at Facebook. Indeed, my suspicions have been confirmed, for the past three weeks have seen many more opportunities to stay ahead of work preparation, write my blog regularly, begin piano practice again and generally find a lot more time to do things rather than view things. I estimate that I was spending approximately two hours per day trawling Facebook posts, looking up what my friends were doing but not feeling that I was interacting with them in a proper, meaningful way.

After the film “The Social Network” was released in 2010, the author Zadie Smith wrote an article in the New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010) entitled “Generation Why”.

Here’s a link to her full article, should you wish to read it for yourselves:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/?pagination=false

 

Smith reviewed the film, and combined the review with reportage on the reaction to the film by Zuckerberg, the issues and controversies surrounding the website at that time, a more general discussion of the website, and why she gave Facebook up.

I went back to Smith’s article to look at her particular critiques, in order to see if some of her thoughts resonated with my own discomfort and the subsequent decision to suspend the account for a month. One of the really interesting writers she cites is the programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier:

“Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information under-represents reality. [In Facebook, life is turned into a database and this is a degradation] based on a philosophical mistake … the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”

Smith goes on to emphasise the point (later made by Lanier) that software is NOT a neutral format:

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.”

These are a series of fascinating observations. We spend so much of our time online. Rarely do we consider that the tools at our disposal are actually not neutral in character, but shape the way we communicate, the way we interact with the internet itself, and how we communicate with others. We tend to notice such features when highly commercially explicit issues are at stake: only then are our hackles raised: for example, when Microsoft or Apple control in a proprietorial way that we are forced to purchase one product over the other; or when we receive junk-mail that resembles our ‘tastes’ in a curiously accurate manner based on browsing history; or in news items, when some poor sap in a mid-Western state of the US is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for copyright infringement, and we look on with guilty sympathy, knowing that he/she is merely a “fall-guy” (for want of a better term) for the millions who are perpetrating the same ‘victimless crimes’.

In practice, one simple answer against buying into the marketed product of Facebook is to create (or update) a blog – hence my own rather more active writing during the month of April. Blogs feel more proprietorial, individual, encapsulating a personal presentation of our personalities and opinions. Sure, we are still imprisoned to some extent by our ability to manipulate the software (WordPress in my case), but ownership feels more secure, presentation/layout seems more flexible and you can vet comments and responses.  But, I hear you FB loyalists cry, Facebook can do all of this and more, and it does it all for us with such ease!  Well yes, it certainly can provide such features and more – but I do find myself feeling uneasy about the intellectual property of my the images and thoughts contained on my Facebook profile; and then there the surprising and jarring global decisions on the part of Facebook to change formats without consultation or the chance for feedback.

Smith’s argument against Facebook is that it operates under the rubric of E pluribus Unim – (one from many). This phrase, embedded in the coat of arms of the United States is turned on its head in a beautifully ironic fashion by the writer. The height of her argument is encapsulated in the following paragraph:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Ouch! Harsh but very persuasive words. Reductionism is something that we tolerate in our society, and manifests in the way we function within structures based on transcendental premises. The structures that are transcendental in our society include the law, the education system and the government (and, in times past, the arts).  They exceed our present reality as participants in society, denying immediate gratification for the promise of a greater reward. They reduce us to a general public, and we sacrifice our individuality in order that the general well being of society can function in an orderly fashion: ergo, the utilitarian social contract.

But we have not chosen any form of reductionism in our personal or general interactions on the Internet, despite the rhetoric and desire of governments (and, we suspect, private interests) to to regulate the Internet in various clumsy ways. When we choose Facebook over independent internet presentations of our selves, we unconsciously limit ourselves to what Zadie Smith bluntly terms a representation of us “entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”  There is nothing at all wrong in doing this. Facebook can help us reconnect with friends of years past; it can help us keep in touch with friends many miles away. But it is doing so through another person’s filter, and it’s worth keeping that at the forefront of our communications.

When I return to Facebook in May, I will enjoy reconnecting with friends and keeping up to date with the latest events, parties, photos and celebrations. I will enjoy being guided by friends towards fascinating and engaging articles, great musical and video gems.

But I will hesitate just a little bit when sharing my own personal thoughts and musings …

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Peasants from Plock

The family of my maternal grandmother’s father’s side were named Levy, indicating an ancestral claim to be descended from the ancient Levitical tribe (servers in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Levites were also musicians during sacred service, and I sort of like that musical link).

I imagine them to have been good solid European Jewish peasant stock, vainly toiling the frozen ground in Plock, Poland, fleeing political and religious persecution to England, and from there migrating to one of the far-flung colonies. What motivated my great-great-grandparents Joseph Levy (1840-1919) and Esther Cohen (c.1851-1902) to leave Mile End for Sydney? Overcrowding in the increasingly Jewish East End? A reunion of sorts with family who had already moved out here? So far I have located Esther’s sister, Hannah Cohen, who married Solomon Goldstein, and we know of some the children of the Goldstein family.  But that’s it so far in terms of details.

Unfortunately, I doubt we will ever find out any tangible reasons for the relocation. Joseph went on ahead in March 1876 on the SS Rotarua, leaving behind a pregnant wife with three young children: Mark (4 years old), Daniel (3 years old) and Ann (2 years old). Clara was born in 1877, and Esther arrived in Sydney with her four children on February 24, 1878, free passengers on the Lochee. In Sydney she would give birth to five more children: Fanny (1879), my great-grandfather Simeon (1881), Rosa (1882), either Isaac or Isadore (1884), and an infant who did not survive, Samuel (1885).

In Sydney, my great-grandfather Simeon married Emma Maude, and had three children: my grandmother Esther, and her two brothers, David and Neville. Both brothers had a form of muscular dystrophy, and died in their teenage years (David died at 14 in 1918, Neville died at 16 in 1927). My grandmother was taken out of Fort Street High School,  where she was excelling at science and hoping to train in chemistry, so that she could nurse her brothers through their sicknesses. She never spoke of this to us – but I always sensed a deep sadness in her, a bias towards male relatives, and a profound personal regret in the cessation of her formal education.

The most famous and successful of the Levy family was my grandmother’s uncle Daniel. A precocious lad, he attended Crown Street Superior Public School, where according to family legend he apparently used to play cricket with Victor Trumper. I am a little doubtful of this … Dan was 5 years older than Victor, and I cannot imagine an 11 year old playing cricket with a 6 year old in the playground. Still, stranger things have happened …

Dan went on to obtain a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School, where he won the Knox Prize  and Morehead Scholarship. Proceeding onto Sydney University, he won the University medal in Classics. No wonder my grandmother was so keen on my continuing study in Latin!

Uncle Dan, as he was known in the family, became Sir Daniel Levy MLA, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the NSW Parliament. You can read all about his career in the following link, written by Lionel Fredman:

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levy-sir-daniel-7181

In subsequent posts, I will write a bit more about Uncle Dan. His personal life is shrouded in mystery, because the day after his death his sister Fanny went to the house and burned all the personal papers in the back yard. He was unmarried – was there some scandal involving a non-Jewish mistress? Or was he secretly gay?  We shall never know …

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Imagining the stars tonight …

Rain, rain and more rain … here’s hoping we will still have a turnout for the inaugural rehearsal of Dos Pintele Syd tonight. For the rehearsal, I’ve just finished a 4-part arrangement of one of the most beautiful songs to come out of the Vilna Ghetto, Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern, written by the late great Abraham Sutzkever, with music by Abraham Brudno.

I think the poem encapsulates the antitheodical conundrum facing Jewish culture at its darkest moment. In a place of fear and entrapment, with an immanent threat of death, the song expresses the longing for some divine comfort, a place or being that the poet is not sure even exists.

Zachary Braiterman in his excellent book (God) After Auschwitz cites Sutzkever’s friend in the ghetto Zelig Kalmanovitsch commenting thus about the poet’s calling God to trial in the poem Kol Nidre:

“Ver es hot a din-toyre mit Got darft koydem kol gleybt in Got.”
(Whoever calls God to account must first of all believe in God)

Marc Chagall wrote of Sutskever that “Once upon a time we were dreaming of sweet and imaginary fires and of crumbling wedding canopies, but he, Sutzkever, beheld man in his utter ugliness, in his physical and spiritual degradation.”

It is not possible to know what exact poems Chagall was thinking of when he described Sutzkever’s work in such terms, but I don’t think that Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern fits this description. It is a work that exists between hope and doubt.

Here’s one of the most beautiful renditions of this song, performed by Chava Alberstein:

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Tabula Rasa

The philosophical concept of “tabula rasa”, or blank slate, has been attributed to Aristotle, later developed in the 11th century by Avicenna, and brought into the modern context through John Locke’s empirical theories.

The term is specifically applied to the construction of our consciousness. According to classical notions of tabula rasa, at birth we are a blank slate, and that through our own sensory experiences, data is added and the rules for processing are formed. It is significantly supportive of the notion of free will, but also supports an idea of nurture over nature.

According to this fascinating blog, tabula rasa theories manifest also in certain modernist aesthetics, like that of Le Corbousier:

http://thlandscapedesign.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/tabula-rasa.html

I wonder if one can apply (or if someone has applied) the notion of tabula rasa to particular societies and their aesthetic or philosophical identity, how they construct and reveal themselves. Going back to the original Latin meaning, a tabula rasa is not an untouched tablet, but rather one whose writing has been erased … scraped off. In this sense, it corresponds to our colloquialism, “a clean slate”, which has had particular resonance in the migratory patterns in Australia since colonial times.

I often question what it is that guides or forms an overarching Australian identity, and whether we can glean a trope through our aesthetic (specifically musical) portrayals. At certain times, I tend to favour the idea that the Australian aesthetic is guided by an imperative to forget … an erasure of history, of stain, of taint, a desire to keep silent about a shameful past. The “clean slate” is, in fact, a trompe l’oeil, an optical illusion of a non-existent blank state that allows us to reconstruct a ‘new’ identity, without having to come to terms with past heritage, history, baggage, issues and problems.

I’ll come back to this idea in future posts, but for now, I should clarify that the times when I do favour this idea of a forgetful aesthetic are the times when I am pessimistic about the direction of our culture. It is not my constant belief about the state of Australian culture.

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Afternoon tea with Alice

I met Alice (Aliza) Herz-Sommer in her London flat in the summer of 2008. Through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor and funding from the University of Sydney (via the Kath O’Neil Scholarship, a special research scholarship for post-graduate Arts students), I travelled specifically to interview her, along with other Holocaust survivors living in the UK and Israel. Alice was a sprightly 103 years old at the time.

Alice is a gregarious and generous person, and receives visitors every day, offering coffee and cake at each sitting. After calling her from Australia to let her know I was coming specifically to interview her, I called again upon my arrival. She nominated a day and time, and I duly turned up that afternoon, digital recorder at the ready, and questions in hand and in mind.

At that time, Alice’s biography, A Garden of Eden in Hell (by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki) had been recently translated by Giles MacDonogh and published in English.  I used this as the background for my various questions, but my primary focus was more upon her understanding and relationship with four most prominent composers in the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt): Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Pavel Haas.

Some fine documentaries have been made of her life and her remarkably optimistic perspective. In my opinion, the biography by Müller and Piechocki is a little sentimental and awkward in its portrayal of an extraordinarily complex, rigorous intellect as Alice (especially with the clumsy metaphorical pairing of emotional aspects of the Chopin Études with personalities from the Ghetto). However, this biography does contain excellent detail of Alice’s early life, her relationship with her loved ones, her time in Terezín and afterwards. Time will tell if the new biography by Caroline Stoessinger provides any new material.

I doubt that my interview with Alice was in any way more revelatory than any other interview done. However, two things stood out in our discussions. The first was the emphasis she placed on protecting her young son Rafi during incarceration in the ghetto. She spoke at length about his musicality in utero and at even at the age of three, listening to Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Op. 39 No. 5) from the Liederkreis song cycle, and crying at the beauty of the music. Just in case you are curious, here is the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing this, accompanied by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The second remarkable account was the method by which she coped during perhaps her lowest point during the war: accompanying her 73 year old mother in 1942 to the place of deportation from Prague. On the way back, a revelation came to Alice, almost Paulian in character. This is what she said to me at the time:

” now, even after 70 years I believe, I remember the place where it happened, near our house.  I had to stop, and like an inner voice spoke to me in my depression; I was so unhappy.  An inner voice spoke – not the doctor.  I went to the doctor – I couldn’t eat.  Not the baby, not nothing can help yourself – only you can you help. And at the same moment … ‘ 24 Études by Chopin ‘.  So I was running home, and from this moment, two years, hundreds and hundreds of times, I can’t tell you – I didn’t stop playing and playing and playing.  What is interesting – nowadays, in the time of technology where everything goes so quickly, there is not a single composer which composed so difficult for piano as Chopin.”

I mentioned earlier that Alice regularly serves coffee and cake to all her afternoon visitors. She has an extraordinarily regimented routine. Mornings comprise of a walk around the block, followed by 2-3 hours of piano work, receiving visitors in the afternoon, and quiet time at night. The flat is modest but fulfills her needs. She does not eat cake, nor does she drink coffee, tea or alcohol. She eats one meal a day – a nourishing chicken stew. She is often interviewed about her longevity (asking me at one point whether I had ever met anyone as old as her), and is also approached by scholars interested in Franz Kafka (she knew the writer as a friend of the family).  By the end of the interview she was asking me about my musical life and the encouragement that I received from my mother! It was one of the most memorable conversations I have had, and I continue to be grateful to those who made it possible.

Alice celebrated her 108th birthday last year, and is still going strong. Here’s one of her most recent interviews, made with the famous motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Unfortunately, there are moments of inaccuracy and sensationalism, as always seems to happen in popular portrayal of  Holocaust narratives. For example: Alice didn’t write her biography – she was, of course, intimately involved, but the work is by Müller and Piechocki. Another strange inclusion in this clip are  images of death camps and emaciated survivors in the standard issue striped pyjamas. Terezín, although a hell-hole and a place of deprivation, misery and infection (33,000 people died of communicable diseases there between 1942 and 1945) was not a place of extermination. It was a ghetto, a place of concentration in the most literal sense, and for a time, a show camp and intended subject for future propaganda purposes. The third strange feature of the clip is the lack of credit of Alice’s friend who is interviewed, Zdenka Fantlová. But even with these inaccuracies (and I could probably mention more), it is still inspirational to listen to Alice’s words and ponder on the resilience of an optimistic spirit.

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A clever conversion…

We’ve been tidying out our house recently: selling old books and tchatchkes, consolidating possessions and assessing what we need and what we don’t. The first step in doing this was tackling the front room, which had become somewhat of a dumping ground for unused but potentially useful stuff.

A week ago I was sitting in the aforementioned dumping ground, working away at preparations for University tutorials, when I glanced over at an old sea-chest sitting in the corner. It was given to us by our dear friend Ramon Rutherford, who passed away some years ago. Ray and his wife Beth saved our finances and our lives after we purchased our house, offering us their granny flat for very little rent when we were unceremoniously kicked out of our rental property in Paddington. We were able to save for all our appliances through their generosity and kindness. After Ray’s death, Beth gave us some of his beautiful objects, including a magnificent 19th century sea chest and some unique marionette dolls. The objects went towards decorating my stepson’s room during his teenage years.

During that time, the sea chest sat in the corner of the front room, the repository of childhood toys. My stepson (now almost 23) cleaned it out a year or so ago, taking all the toys he wanted to keep, and donating the rest to charity. Since then, the chest has been storing blankets and other objects. It’s a beautiful, solid piece, but impractical because of its weight (constructed of leather, wood and metal).

Suddenly an idea came to me: why don’t we convert it into a coffee table? A had already repainted it when we first got it, and did some judicious distressing of the texture of the outside. A got some castors, drilled and bolted them on, and voilá … a new coffee table that we enjoy.

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