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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Beautiful and delicate

Just a quick post today, as I have too much preparation on my plate for tomorrow. Last night (Monday) I went to hear the St Lawrence String Quartet and Diana Doherty at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. Sadly, I could only stay for the first half of the program, which comprised Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, op 20 no 5, Gordon Kerry’s Elegy for String Quartet (2007) and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K370.

Years ago, someone told me of a categorization of certain music lovers: it was either Bach or Handel, and either Haydn or Mozart. Well, for me it will always be Bach and Haydn.

But back to the performance itself. The Haydn was a beautiful, idiosyncratic reading. It was a slow reading in terms of tempo, somewhat unusual, perhaps making a certain statement from the ensemble against the more regular tendency to take Haydn at a livelier pace. The first movement always feels to me like a violin concerto with accompaniment, and the flailing legs and hips of the first violinist added to this preconception (at times, the movements were somewhat irksome and distracting … but the extraneous limbs seemed to settle after the first movement). The third movement, the Siciliana in F major really stood out, with extraordinarily delicate playing. The St Lawrence String Quartet have outstanding control in their dynamic range, and add subtle and sophisticated bowing techniques to enhance the notes on the score. The final fugue was spectacular.

Gordon Kerry’s Elegy, written after the occasion of the death of his mother, was an intensely personal work. A disclaimer: Gordon is a personal friend. I would like to hear this piece a few times more, before making a proper assessment. My first impressions are that of contrasting figures of joy and sorrow, befitting the process that transforms our memories of a loved one from the pain of loss to the comfort of reminiscence. The St Lawrence String Quartet performed the many extended techniques written in the score with the same masterly finesse on display in the Haydn. The end floated away in a most ethereal manner.

The audience favourite of the first half was undoubtedly Diana Doherty’s performance of the Mozart Oboe Quartet in F major. The sigh from the audience at the end of the first movement signaled a few things to me, in no particular order: relief in the tonal sounds of Herr Mozart after Gordon Kerry’s haunting, modern tone colours; delight at the continued improvement and subtlety of Diana Doherty’s masterful playing (better with each iteration); joy at the ever-familiar and popular Mozart work. Call me a philistine, call me a brute, call me anything but late for dinner, but the Mozart Oboe Quartet is not to my taste. Still, it was an essential crowd pleaser, beautifully rendered by Doherty and members of the St Lawrence String Quartet.

If you want to see them, they’re still on tour in Australia until 28 April. Next Sydney performance is this Saturday night. For more information, visit the Musica Viva website:

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Festival of the Quince

I really love quinces. They undergo an incredible transformation over the process of about 8 hours. Although they have a delicious fragrance, they also have a strange furry coating, and after being cut open they oxidize immediately. Baking them is the easiest treatment, and you need not worry about oxidization. I washed the quinces, peeled the skin, cut the cores out of the slices and placed them in a cast-iron pot, with a heavy sugar syrup (flavoured with vanilla pod and the juice of a lemon). The cores also went into the pot, in a muslin bag. Then they were baked slowly for 8 hours in a low oven (about 150º C).  Then they were ready to use.

But I’m all about utilising ingredients to the fullest extent. So I made part of the cooking syrup into a beautiful pink custard, with the addition of egg yolks and cream.


I boiled the rest down into a thick, incredibly rich glaze, and used spoonfuls of that on top of the dessert.


Here it is in its final iteration, assembled in some brandy snap baskets, and later on with a scoop of ice-cream on top.  I must say that it was VERY sweet – next time I would use a pastry shell, or even just have the quinces with the custard and ice-cream, and leave the brandy snap out of the equation.  But it was still very delicious!

Huge credits to the one and only Stephanie Alexander for her quince recipes.

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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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Autumn begins

Autumn is often a bit iffy here in Sydney. We’ve had one of the wettest summers on record, so the beautiful Japanese maples in Leura (my favourite Autumnal display) have had a very good drink over summer, perhaps more than they would usually desire. As a result of wet feet, they are clinging onto their foliage for dear life.

Thankfully, the wet weather has been followed by some glorious warm, sunny days. However, if we do not get some cool, crisp evenings, colour will not emerge and we will have a late, disappointing brown fall of leaves. Here’s a picture of one of the maples outside our house in Leura. It dwells in partial shade, and has changed earlier than most of the other beautiful trees that line the road.

The signs for the end of the week aren’t looking promising for colour: we have a series of wet days ahead, and this will just promote leaf fall. Darnit … I want my autumnal colours, but I think they will elude us in 2012.

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A witty fail

A glorious Autumn day in Sydney’s Blue Mountains:

Sitting in the Garage Café at lunchtime, we experienced the sort of idiosyncratic Basil Fawltyesque service that only comes natural in la-di-da Leura. Our appalling waiter suffered the classic foot-in-mouth disease throughout the service, culminating in the following charming exchange:

Garçon (and I use the term advisedly): “Did you enjoy your lunch?”
J: “Why yes, it was delicious!”
G: “Well, I hope it was lunch, and not just a snack.”

Needless to say, my lunch guests and I were completely nonplussed. What on earth did Basil Fawlty mean? After an intense discussion between us, we decided that he was just one of those people who attempt wit, and fail … miserably. Ergo, according to A, he was a half-wit. Case closed.

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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

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.


Filed under Nostalgia