Tag Archives: Australia

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:


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.


Filed under Nostalgia

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:


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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Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy, Yiddish

A busy, Yiddishe Wednesday …

Oops. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? This Wednesday I am speaking at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Music Colloquium Series (4pm, Room 3003 at the Con) on aspects of my doctoral work. The paper is entitled “Hidden Testimony: musical experience and memory in Jewish Holocaust survivors”. Here’s the abstract:

Considering music as a feature of testimony is not a new endeavour in the field of Holocaust studies. The collection ofmusical memories and songs of those times began as early as 1945, with individual zamlers (song collectors) such as Szmerke Kaczerginski, and ethnographers such as David Boder and Israel Adler. For the past fourteen years, I have also undertaken a similar project of sorts, collecting musical testimonies from over ninety survivors in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel. My interviewee subjects were asked to focus primarily (but not exclusively) on musical experience in theperiod 1939-1945, in camp, ghetto, hiding or partisan groups, as well as contextualising and reflecting their personal musical backgrounds before, during, and afterwards. Throughout this process, survivors spoke not only of extant melodies and experiences, but also added subtle and significant nuances to existing knowledge as well as adding to the general body of musical experience with new works and newly described musical experiences. Interviews were conducted in English, and songs collected in Yiddish, Czech, German, Polish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French and Russian.

Musical experience and its memory is a unique testimonial construct, arguably distinct from the more judicial process of historical testimony. From the earliest accounts arising out of the Holocaust, to recollections from survivors 65 years after the events, it speaks in a profoundly subjective manner about many difference life experiences during times of trauma. Whereas the musical form in testimony can complement and add nuance to historical readings of the Holocaust, musical testimony as a theoretical construct and practice can offer the possibility of new approaches to the Holocaust, treating survivors as living rather than dying witnesses, and preserving the Holocaust in perhaps the most durable form of testimony itself: narrative song.

So if you are interested, come to the Con on Wednesday at 4pm. The session lasts approximately an hour.

But wait … there’s more … later on in the evening on Wednesday, at Newtown Shul (Georgina St, Newtown) I am directing the inaugural rehearsal of a new choir in Sydney, dedicated completely to the performance of Yiddish song. Organised by the wonderful Clare Fester and Sean Sidky after their successful fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Pennsylvania, our choir is called “Dos Pintele Syd”. The name is a pun on the famous Yiddish musical by Thomashevsky, Dos Pintele Yid, translated somewhat inadequately as “the Jewish Spark”. If you want to know a bit more about this expression, here’s a fairly good explanation on the web:


Anyway, our new Yiddish choir is open to anyone who has a voice, regardless of age, gender, belief, background or hair colour. You don’t need to be able to read music, you don’t need to be able to read Yiddish, but you do need to be able to sing in tune.

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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:


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.


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy