Tag Archives: Jewish

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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Krim Spinach

So, you vant to know how to mek krim spinatch?

Nothing says the Double Bay of old to me more than creamed spinach. Twenty-One, Georges, the Double Bay Steakhouse …
Well, many years ago I found this recipe in the Canberra Times (I was working for a press clipping agency at the time), and cut it out so I could try to emulate the delicious memories.

For years I was a purist. Nothing but English spinach would suffice. Silverbeet? The very mention of the word would cast a pall over my face. I didn’t even consider chard as an option. Well, I’m glad to say that my snobbery has been put to rest: in the past year I’ve experimented with English spinach OR Silverbeet, and in this latest version I was brave enough to go with a beautiful bunch of organic rainbow chard. Save the red stems and use as part of a gratin recipe (see Stephanie Alexander for a great gratin recipe, under the Silverbeet section).

Here’s the general principles if you’re kosher. If it’s a milkhig meal, use milk instead of chicken stock. Although it’s called creamed spinach, you do NOT need to use cream. If it’s a fleyshig/pareve meal, use chicken stock (or vegetarian stock) instead of milk.  Vegetarians can eat this with impunity if you use either vegetarian stock or milk.

Step 1: Wash leaves thoroughly. Grit is disgusting and gets in your teeth. Then boil a kettle, put your leaves in a large bowl or the sink, and pour the boiling water over them. This will cook them perfectly, and save washing up a saucepan.

Step 2: Soak a bread-roll in stock or milk. Don’t make creamed spinach without the bread roll. Don’t make creamed spinach at Pesakh, you shmendrik! Squeeze some of the liquid out of the bread roll once it is nice and soft.

Step 3: Place the drained leaves and bread roll in a food processer, and blend. Now you are ready to make the roux.

Step 4: Cut up 3 garlic cloves, and cook them incredibly slowly in 3 tablespoons of neutral oil (I use light olive oil). Do not let them colour or burn!
Step 5: Then add 3 good tablespoons of flour to the mix, incorporate and stir constantly, and wait until the flour is ‘cooked out’, that is, turns a nice blond shade. This is called a blond roux. See? I told you not to cook this on Pesakh!
Step 6: Add the spinach/bread mixture into the roux. Stir well. Add stock/milk to make a sauce-like consistency, and continue cooking on a low heat until you get a nice coating on the back of the spoon.

Enjoy! Krim Spinatch. MMM.


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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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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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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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Best. Matseh Klays. [Thus Far]

Some people call them kneydlakh  … but in my family, my parents always referred to Matzoh balls as “Matseh Klays (Matzah Kleis)”. Some like them small and floaty, others like them huge and heavy. One of the strongest food memories of my childhood was going to 21 Restaurant in Double Bay in the 1970s, having my cheeks squeezed by the owner Janczi, receiving a packet of chewing gum, and waiting for my father to order Matzah Ball soup.

Back to the present:  I have been experimenting with recipes for matseh klays for some years now.  As a novice, I started using the instant Osem brand of Matza balls.  They are extremely consistent, but fairly bland in character.  And having made them, I figured out that it was probably just as easy to make from scratch.

First rule: I use coarse matseh meal. Fine matseh meal will produce a much more dense dumpling, if that’s what you want (bleh).  Vary the meal (coarse+fine) if you like.  I prefer Snider’s coarse matseh meal, but the Australian Solomons brand is just fine.

Second rule: separate the eggs, and beat the whites to stiff peaks. This will give you a  lightness to the dumplings, even if you want the heavy sinker types. Oh, and use the BEST eggs you can possibly get. Free range, organic, biodynamic – this will make a huge difference to the taste.

Third rule: you may add any spices that you like … but the most traditional besides the regular salt and pepper is ground (powdered) ginger.  I used white pepper this time instead of black, and also grated in some nutmeg.  Finely chopped fresh parsley is often added.

Fourth rule: you need to add a fat to bind them more thoroughly. Shmalts (chicken fat) is traditional); but olive oil is perfectly acceptable. You can fry a chopped onion in either, and add that to the mixture if you like.  I didn’t add the onions this time, but I did add a slug of oil. I think it gives a lighter feel to the dumplings than shmalts.

Fifth and most important rule: after having beaten the whites until stiff, you beat the yolks lightly with the spices, and then fold together with a large metal spoon. Then add the matseh meal, and mix extremely sparingly (i.e. only barely combine).  Put the mixture into the fridge, and let it rest for 30 minutes minimum.

Sixth rule: boil a light stock (using powder will be fine); when it comes to a rolling boil, take the mixture out of the fridge, wet your hands, and form the balls into the size of a 20c piece (US – size of a quarter; UK – size of a 50p coin). Drop them straight into the stock, turn the flame down.  Roll the dumplings around so they absorb the stock evenly. They will take 30 minutes to cook.

Once the klays have been made, they can be refridgerated and then heated in the boiling chicken soup (goldene yoykh) before being served.  Klays take up a lot of liquid in the initial stage, so if you have an excess of stock then by all means, use that during the initial stage … but if not, instant stock will do just as well.  It won’t take long to reheat the klays in the fresh stock.

Special credits and thanks to the great Claudia Roden, upon whose recipe I based my own matseh klays (Roden uses the term kneydlakh). Her work, “The Book of Jewish Food” (Penguin, 1996) is one of the greatest cultural resources: a comprehensive history of the Jewish diaspora as well as a superb cooking book.

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Risk it for the Brisket

Okay, I don’t usually blog about meat-based recipes, because my partner A and I have a mostly vegetarian or fish-based diet, supplemented by the occasional free range chook (that’s chicken in Australian).  But on Pesakh (Passover) I usually become a bit of a backslider, and cook a brisket for 1st and 2nd night Seder.  It’s probably the most traditional Passover meat to eat in Ashkenaz households. This year’s brisket worked rather well.  I had about a 6 lb. piece (about 2.5kg), and started at about 9:30am on Erev Pesakh by rubbing the meat with a dry herb rub: chinese five-spice powder, a spice rub from Tasmania which included ginseng and bush pepper, some olive oil to bind and a bit of golden syrup.  Then after leaving it to rest for about 20 minutes, I sealed the brisket in our outdoor barbeque.  Brisket is a cut of meat that barbeque devotees in the United States consider very highly, but here in Australia we don’t tend to use it in the same way. Butchers usually chop it up for stewing meat.


Having sealed the meat all over, I brought it back inside and added more eastern spices: whole cinnamon sticks, star anise, some grated nutmeg and some green (spring) onions. Then I added root vegetables: carrots, fennel (instead of celery – I hate celery), red sweet potato (kumera), spanish (red) onions.  I also added about a punnet of baby tomatoes.               After this, I made up a weak stock with some kosher stock powder; then also added about half a bottle of red wine, and a bit more salt and pepper.  I covered with tin-foil,  and put it in a slow oven (140°) for 2 hours.  Then I turned the oven fan on, and baked for another 1.5 hours.  Finally I took the cover off and cooked it for a final 30 minutes. I took the meat out to rest in silver foil.





I also removed the vegetables carefully, and put them in a roasting pan along with par-boiled Dutch Cream potatoes (a particularly good roasting spud) that had been roughed up, tossed with olive oil and salt, and some thin cut parsnip pieces.  The vegetables would go in later to crisp up, and they were a treat!


Meanwhile, we had this enormous amount of really fine braising stock at the bottom of the pan … what to do?  Well, I decided to put it on the heat and just reduce it to about one quarter of its original volume.  You can’t use thickening agents on Passover except matzo meal, and it’s pretty yuk to use in such circumstances. The reducing method worked a treat.  The sauce was like a classic demi-glace, without all the irritation and labour of preparation.  And the proof of the pudding was in the eating – it was, beyond doubt, the best brisket I had ever cooked.  You could taste the spices in all their complexity, thanks to the sauce.  All this goes to prove that sometimes, you really need to risk it for the brisket.

p.s.  If you want to see les décorations séduisante and A’s haute couture for the evening, visit his blog:


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