When in Bali… eat Italian, Spanish, or French

What you quickly learn about Seminyak, the tourist enclave on Bali’s west coast – apart from its crippling traffic congestion – is an obsession with eating well.

Seminyak, from the rooftop bar of Double Six Hotel

Seminyak, from the rooftop bar of Double Six Hotel

Everyone has a favourite restaurant. Stuck in an endless traffic jam, as mopeds whizz by, the chatter in the minivan is all about gourmet cuisine.

People talk about Sardine, which serves international and French-inspired seafood creations by Californian chef Michael Shaheen, and beach club establishment Ku De Ta, where Byron Bay’s Ben Cross prepares Mediterranean-inspired cuisine while American pastry chef Jeff Goldfarb has set up a laboratory to develop new flavours. Then there’s Mama San, run by former Longrain chef Will Meyrick, offering an inventive pan-Asian menu.

Bali is undergoing a food revolution, with overseas chefs setting up establishments at a fraction of the cost of doing so back home, catering to the taste experiences demanded from Bali’s Australian, European and mainland Indonesian visitors.

Hipster joints

Having spent a good 90 minutes stuck on Jalan Petitenget, we give up on sampling some cheap local fare at Warung Sulawesi, a traditional Indonesian restaurant serving rice dishes, curries and stir-fries, and pull up instead at Latin American meat joint Barbacoa – a relatively new addition to the hipster list.

Barbacoa is a big open-plan establishment with mosaic-tiled floors and high ceilings. Near the entrance, a wood fire crackles below what makes the restaurant’s signature dish – slowly roasting whole pigs basted in chimichurri (an Argentinian herb and garlic sauce) – which must be ordered in advance.

Slow roasted pork, the speciality at Barbacoa

Slow roasted pork, the speciality at Barbacoa

Barbacoa is run by former Sydney chef Adam Dundas-Taylor, whose CV also includes stints at Nobu and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, both in London. We get a table outside and order a selection of tapas. Highlights include tender Cuban pulled pork sliders ($4.50) with pickled red onion, aioli and tomato, and salt brined chicken winglets with agave and pumpkin seed powder ($6.50). All are washed down with Bintang, the local brew.

Dundas-Taylor says he originally planned to open a Mexican restaurant in Seminyak with chef and business partner Sean Prenter, but was forced to “regroup” after a rush of Mexican establishments opened up in a short space of time.

“We kept a little bit of the Mexican tapas and then mixed it with my love of Argentinian charcoal cooking and my knowledge of Peruvian cooking from my days spent working at Nobu.”

High demand for international fare

While demand for international fare is high, competition among restaurateurs is intense. Offering something with an international flavour does not guarantee success. “It’s very important that you become one of the 10 restaurants on the dining circle in Bali,” Dundas-Taylor says. “A lot of people think Bali is dense in people and customers, but actually the food industry is quite [the] opposite.

“I feel that Bali is calling for a certain amount of international food. What some people may not realise is that the market in Bali is already saturated. and location and price point has a lot to do with your success. There are many restaurants struggling,”

In the new luxury Double-Six Seminyak hotel overlooking the beach and next door to the crazily popular Cocoon bar and nightclub, Sydney chef Robert Marchetti has created international food experiences with the backing of hotel owner and prominent Bali businessmen, Kadek Wiranatha.

Marchetti’s Seminyak Italian – his first venture here – overlooks the meandering hotel swimming pool (the longest in Bali) with gorgeous beach views. It includes a glassed-in pasta room where fresh spaghetti, ravioli and penne are made by hand. In another glass cubicle hang mortadella, salami and prosciutto alongside Italian cheeses, all part of Marchetti’s desire to create a “great fun Italian eatery” with local produce.

An faux-Italian  ice-cream vendor on wheels, hotel Double Six

An faux-Italian ice-cream vendor on wheels, hotel Double Six

“Burrata (an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) is made specifically for us on the island,” he says. “We use lots of local seafood and the mountains of Bali grow plenty of great fresh produce.”

Menu highlights include Granchio alla Veneta, hand-picked crab meat with garlic and chilli on a bed of mascarpone polenta ($9) and for dessert, tiramasu ($9) scooped straight from the baking tray at the table.

In October, Marchetti will open the Plantation Grill, a Great Gatsby-styled diner, specialising in dry aged meat and line-caught seafood cooked over open grills and in wood-fired ovens.

World-class destination

Marchetti says Bali has really evolved over the past five to 10 years to become a world-class food destination. And it just continues to get better, he continues. “It’s a really creative island in every sense and the possibilities are endless.”

Travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes, author of the Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok guide, understands the apparent dissonance between location and food. “Just because people are on Bali doesn’t mean they want to eat Balinese and Indonesian food every meal,” he says. And I say that as someone who loves nasi campur (lunchtime plate of mixed dishes) and babi guling (succulent roasted and spiced suckling pig).

Ver Berkmoes, who grew up in California, says a big part of Bali is eating out. “Bali has hit the sweet spot with a whole slew of excellent restaurants serving foods from around the world that you can eat for a fraction of what the same meal would cost at home.”

“The onslaught of tourists means that if you’re good, you do great business yet your costs are low, even if your food is grown organic or sourced internationally.”

The only thing that’s more expensive is the wine – around $50 a bottle for good Australian plonk – courtesy of Indonesia’s “insane Indonesian tax system.”

Ver Berkmoes’s advice: “Enjoy the $10 mains and learn to love Bintang.”

IMG_0048

The writer was a guest of Double-Six.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Serial killers: a reading list for the obssessed (or uninitiated)

jack the ripperIn 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of  ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.

Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.

At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.

I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’.  But doesn’t everyone?

Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.

zodiacThis re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.

I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.

I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry  – but it’s next on my reading list.

On the back cover it says tantalizingly:

An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.

There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal,  Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.

If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?

Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:

1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year.  “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.

2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of  the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.

3.  Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.

A poster for the movie "Ten Rillington Place" starring Richard Attenborough

A poster for the movie “Ten Rillington Place” starring Richard Attenborough

4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.

5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.

death in belmont6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.

Twitter’s anonymous racist underbelly is a parody account.

********Spoiler alert: @ozprotectionistparty is a parody**************

If you ever want to pick up the mood among Australia’s racist underbelly,  then Twitter is a great place to start.

Some of the vilest guff comes out the mouths of anonymous twitter accounts, racist cowards not brave enough to sign their name to their bile.

Take for example I wrongly picked this fella:

ozprotectpartyI recently came across his account as part of a Twitter war involving Wendy Bacon, an academic and journalist ( , Sharri Markson, media editor of The Australian () and News Corp ultra conservative columnist Miranda Devine ().

It was a classic lefty journalist criticising a News Corp editor, which descended into a slanging match.

The fuse seems to have been lit by Wendy Bacon. She tweeted in response to an article by Sharri Markson about how journalists that tweeted their own opinions (examples included Bacon herself, Crikey star writer Bernard Keane, former Channel Ten broadcaster Paul Bongiorno and journalist and blogger Margo Kingston) were putting journalism at risk.

sharri
It was a provocative tweet no doubt – Bacon was clearly incensed that her opinions had been cast as a threat to journalism.

Miranda Devine leapt to Sharri Markson’s defence in typical fashion:

devineAnd then it all erupted as you can see with all the retweets and favourites.

I won’t go into all the comments – it was essentially a slanging match between ultra-conservative tweeters and left-leaning thinkers.

Amongst it all,  @ozProtectionistParty caught my eye with this bogan-esque comment:

ozprotect1Then I read through OzProtectionistParty’s Twitter feed. These are just a few highlights:

On refugees:

ozprotect2Homosexuals and same-sex marriage (SSM):

ozprotect3
Women:

ozprotect4Renewable energy

ozprotect5
And so it goes on…

The twitter account is a  parody – which I understand to be that he is actually mocking the right wing/racist elements in Australian society.

Otherwise and were it not for the spelling mistakes, it seemed would be an almost perfect synthesis of all the worst right-wing stereotypes – refugees are illegal queue jumpers, feminists are power-hungry bitches, students are bludgers – cloaked behind an anonymous Twitter handle.

Ten years ago, this fellow – were he real – would be spewing this stuff down at the pub with his mates rather than on the public forum that is Twitter.

There’s thousand of REAL PEOPLE out there who are not a parody like this account, barometers of what’s lurking beneath the surface of people you might stand next to on the train on the way into work or who are in front of you in the queue at Hungry Jacks.

Eager funnels for every right wing ideology and stereotype that comes out of the mouths of white/male/conservative/bigots.

Just hope you don’t bump into one of these REAL PEOPLE on a bus or train:

Back to print: Is the Saturday Paper any good?

The_Saturday_Paper_-_Front_Cover_1_241_338_85_sThere were more than a few raised eyebrows (and conservative commentators choking on their muesli) when property developer and left-wing publisher Morry Schwartz launched The Saturday Paper roughly six months ago.

Schwartz, who also publishes features magazine The Monthly and long-form politics bible The Quarterly Essay (and in his spare time runs developer Pan Urban) said in March he saw an opportunity to enter the newspaper space with Fairfax and News Corp Australia “at their weakest”.

He said The Saturday Paper would target “readers like me”  meaning presumably forward thinking, inner city liberals with good jobs and good educations and that its launch fulfilled a 40 year ambition to have his own newspaper.

But is it any good?

Last week, I picked up a copy in Readings bookshop on Lygon Street, Carlton and ready it cover to cover.

Schwartz has hired an impressive stable of former ABC and Fairfax journalists including Mike Seccombe, who is the paper’s Sydney editor, Richard Ackland, its diarist and legal affairs editor and Helen Razor (Crikey among others) who is the paper’s television and gardening critic.

There’s also a whole bunch of “star” freelance writers including David Marr, Guy Rundle and ‘The Slap’ author Chris Tsiolkas.

As for the content, there was a lot to admire about the package of stories in the issue I read. Even if you’re political persuasions are right leaning, you’d find a number of articles of interest.

morry schwartz with erik jensen
The two front page articles were knock-outs.

The lead story was about the Essendon drugs saga and ensuing court room battle as told by chief correspondent  Martin Mckenzie-Murray. Schwartz has talked about “narrative” journalism and this was the first article I had read on the subject that actually told the story of how James Hird became the Essendon golden boy and his dramatic fall from grace. Having only come to Australia in 2004, I finally understood the hero-worship.

The second cover story was about the battle to usurp power from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Written by Mike Seccombe, it’s the classic ‘People’ versus “Big Business’ tale with Moore pitched against right-wing adversaries including shock jock Alan Jones and ultra-conservative homophobe the Reverend Fred Niles. It’s a ripping yarn about power, influence and revenge.

Canberra journalist Chris Wallace provided thought-provoking analysis of the recent troubles of Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, arguing convincingly that Hockey is part of a new breed of privileged Liberal politician, who unlike John Howard, are out of touch with the Australian public because they’ve never had a non-political job in their lives or ever known what its like to be a battler.

David Marr’s comment piece on asylum seeker rights – centred around a Pakistani shopkeeper thrown into detention following a negative ASIO assessment – was as expected, eloquent and powerful. Guy Rundle did a good job savaging the recent gaffs by government ministers.

Another standout was Chris Tsiolkas’s tribute to Robin Williams, which dispensed with the gushing praise, highlighting instead the many bad films Williams made and pointing the finger at Hollywood  for lacking the courage to give him roles that showcased his prodigious talent. It’s the kind of observation that alone justifies the $3.50 cover price.

Just to prove that The Saturday Paper is not just full of the “usual mawkish left-wing pieties” as The Australian’s editor, Chris Mitchell suggested it would be when it launched, there  was also a very interesting profile of Anthony Cappello, Australia’s most successful publisher of ultra conservative books.

Thankfully, not everything had a serious tone. Helen Razor wrote hilariously about the challenges and obsessions of those that grow their own tasty tomatoes  while basketball star Liz Campage made a good Q&A subject. There was a recipe for shakshouka and observations about the dish from chef Andrew McConnell plus book reviews and other bits and pieces. The cryptic crossword by Mungo MacCallum was beyond my abilities.

There are disappointments too.

Romy Ash’s on-set interview with actress Sigrid Thornton was pretentious, dull, waffly and full of self-important actorly observations that made you wince while Richard Ackland’s diary piece was too insidery and obscure to be of any interest to this humble reader.

Overall though, I’d say The Saturday Paper is definitely worth picking up on a Saturday morning to dip in and out of over coffee over the weekend. It was quite harshly judged when it launched in March, but editor Erik Jensen said it would take time to find its feet, and it appears to have done so (with plenty of high-end advertising thrown in too.)

Overall, I give The Saturday Paper 8/10 for the quality of the writing, choice and range of subjects and knowledge imparted  – or 6.5/10 if you’re a conservative reader.

Death by @Twitter: Do my tweets matter that much?

A strange thing happened to me on Twitter a little while ago.

It was at the time that the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was being sent to jail on outrageous, fabricated charges in Egypt and I tweeted something like:

I think the Abbott govt would have made more of an effort to help Peter Greste if he worked for News Corp.

The tweet was in bad taste, but I had blundered even further by being completely unaware that the verdict had just been handed out in a Cairo kangaroo court.

It stayed up a couple of hours while I was out at the movies.

When I returned, my Twitter notification box was lit up: half a dozen people had seen my remark and hurled abuse at me – via tweets calling me an insensitive so and so.

Others had retweeted their condemnation of my tweet. The wheels – I thought – were in motion.

For a moment, I was in a blind panic. Would I suffer the fate of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted about going  Africa and getting AIDS and become a social media sensation (for all the wrong reasons) and get sacked?

Justine SaccoWould #whereisLarry? start trending?

In a cold sweat, I frantically deleted the tweet and tweeted my apologies to the most incensed in the Twitter-sphere (Complete strangers actually).

We all made up – and life went on.

Looking back on it now, I can’t decide if I completely over-reacted or on the other hand – had defused a ticking time bomb.

I think perhaps the former: My tweet was not nearly provocative enough and it was neither racist, sexist or xenophobic, the kind of tweets that really land you in to trouble.

In fact, now I kind of wish I’d left it up – just to see what might have happened.

Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968 that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. He probably never thought that so many people would achieve it via social media or reality TV?

Had I missed out on mine?

Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

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You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.

The many layers of my Jewish skin

Certain things remind me of my Jewish roots. Some bring me closer, other repel me. Make me want to run a mile.

Like watching Manny Wax talk about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of David Cyprus, a security guard at the Yeshiva College Melbourne, the subsequent community cover up and shameful treatment of Manny’s family by their supposed friends. These things repel. They push me away.

Then I see a man like Zephaniah Wax, Manny’s father, an orthodox Jew with a modern-day understanding of the world, who is kind, thoughtful and funny, whom I instantly admire and like, a man I would love to discuss the philosophies of life with over a meal.

He is nothing like the orthodox woman who tought me at cheder (Jewish studies I attended in the afternoon while I was at primary school) who told me I should try not associate with non-Jewish people. Or the awful history teacher at high school, who tried to make us learn to draw the map of Israel by heart. She repelled me as did the forced morning prayer, the constant yelling at kids who didn’t pray and the shovelling of religion and zionism down our throats.

The truth is being Jewish is complicated. It’s probably why Woody Allen depicts his characters – primarily New York jews – as guilt-ridden, questioning, uncomfortable people. Never quite at home in their own skins. I love those characters and identify with them.

My own admission is that I have willingly and easily slipped the yolk of my religion. I’ve married out the faith, I eat what I like, I never attend synagogue and don’t observe the sabbath or any of the festivals. I am very much a secular Jew.

But it wasn’t always this way.

It was my mother who instilled in me my Jewish identity. She got it from her father, my grandfather Harry, who died – on of all days – on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.

My grandfather Harry, far left - not quite how I remember him

My grandfather Harry, far left – not quite how I remember him

It shook me when he died on that very day. Having been told endlessly that Yom Kippur was the day when you were inscribed either in the book of life or the book of death, his passing felt huge and momentous. In my mind, I always pictured Yom Kippur as the hand of God writing names in one of two enormous, leather-bound books somewhere up above clouds. On the cover of one was written “LIFE” on the other “DEATH”.

Harry, who we called ‘Zayda’  (Yiddish for ‘Grandfather’) and his son, my Uncle Sydney, who we all called ‘Uncle Yoel’ were the religious centre of our extended family when we grew up in South Africa in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Zayda was a distant, but kind man with big watery eyes made huge behind thick glasses, a bald head always covered with a kippah and a bow-legged walk. He was an old man from my earliest memories. Zayda was the impetus for us observing the rituals of the Sabbath and the festivals. Before Passover, he would hide ‘chametz’ (pieces of bread) around the house and then we would walk behind him in the dark as he tried to remember where he hid them. Zaydah would hold a candle and a little shovel he’d made from cardboard and using a feather, sweep up the “unleavened bread” in ritual cleansing of the house of bread before it was filled with boxes of Matzoh. My sister, brother and I could hardly keep a straight face as we marched around the house searching for bread. My grandfather was never amused by our snorting. Many months later, we’d find stale pieces of bread on bookshelves or somewhere else Zaydah had forgotten about.

Like many Jews of his era, a favourite pastime was reading the obituaries in The Star newspaper in the afternoon to see who had died. This he did with a magnifying glass, hunched over the paper. Having come to South Africa from Russia where he ran a concession store on the mines, I think he had endured a tough life. He had a sad face and suffered the loss of wife Lily, my ‘bobba’ when she passed away suddenly many years before I was born.

I was very close to my Uncle Yoel  – a slim man with a neatly trimmed black beard, always full of ideas, patient, kind  and well liked by all who knew him. I used to go to his flat in Hillbrow (and inner city Johannesburg suburb that has since fallen on hard times), where we studied the portion of the Torah I was to read for my Bar Mitzvah. I’d come to his flat on Sunday mornings to study, but we also talked about cricket and other things.I am not quite sure what my Uncle did for a living, but for a long time he sold a course of motivational tapes from the ‘Success Motivation International‘  – SMI as I called it – that created a program for setting and achieving goals. He gave me a set of tapes and we would also sit in his flat planning my goals and how I would achieve them. One of them was to be a good Bar Mitzvah boy, which I achieved.

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

After my Uncle Yoel married his wife Esher – a native of Chicago with a big beaming smile who seemed to find everything I said funny – and started to have children they moved to a big house in Yeoville,  an predominantly orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of square brick houses and shady trees reminiscent back then of the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava with its kosher cafes, Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Here our family and my Uncle’s family would gather on Friday nights for the Shabbot (Sabbath) meal. We would sing songs in hebrew and say the prayers and then feast in the traditional Jewish way: by overeating. First would come the chopped liver piled high on challah (platted loaves of bread topped with sesame seeds) on to which I heaped horse-radish or mustard. This was followed by chicken soup, a broth that contained soft pieces of chicken, necks and stomachs and sometimes chicken feet followed by a main course of chicken or meat or both, roast vegetables, kugel (potato pudding) and salads. Dessert was non-dairy chocolate mousse which my mother made with something called Orley Whip, a staple of every Jewish household in Johannesburg.

A couple of years later my Uncle Yoel emigrated with his family to an othordox neighbourhood of Chicago. Over the years, as I have drifted further and further away from Judaism, we have sadly lost touch and lost that close bond we had when I was a young boy and teenager. The last time I saw him was at my brother’s wedding in Miami in 2010 and before that it had been many, many years since we had seen each other.

Over the years, I have shaken off layer upon layer of my Jewish skin.  But there are many layers.

I have remained – at heart – a proud, non-observant Jew.

My core Jewishness remains and deeper than traditional foods, the jokes, anxiety and guilt.

Sometimes I feel a longing to sit in  synagogue and sing some of the familiar Friday night songs. On the  odd occasion I get invited for a Friday night meal or to celebrate one of the festivals, it’s a special treat. Sometimes I find myself humming the tunes I used to sing in synagogue.

It was a sad, but also defiant moment on the ABC’s Compass show that aired the story of Manny Wax when Manny’s father Zephaniah and his wife are seen sitting alone at their vast dinner table, because their own family and community have cast them out.

It takes me back to those big Friday night dinners in Berea, that I remember now so clearly, but yhat are also so distant.

There’s the enormous meal before us. I’m calling on someone to pass me the ‘chrain’ (horse-radish) to spread on my chopped liver. There is herring and kichel (sweet Israeli crackers). The two families are gathered together. My Zayda is there eating slowly. He is very old and struggling to hear what everyone is talking about. My Uncle Yoel is discussing cricket or asking me about my week at school and the food keeps coming. The house is suffused with the smell of chicken and potato pudding. Wax drips down the shabbat candles, which flicker and burn on a silver tray. Later we ‘bench’ – sing prayers of thanks for our meal –  and make our way home by car through quiet Friday night streets of Yeoville and Observatory.

These were things that bound us together back then and are a layer that I keep beneath my skin.