Anzac Day: an immigrant’s education

6968598698_f28850d25b_z This Anzac Day, my eleventh in Australia, was a milestone for me.

While I didn’t attend a Dawn service – something I would still like to do – for the first time I got an education about April 25, 1915 and what it means

(And…what it clearly doesn’t mean to a fair proportion of Australians, including SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre, sacked for his disparaging views.)

Firstly, I wanted to understand why “April 25” and what in fact was being commemorated.

An excellent article by Age journalist Tony Wright “Nation forged by heroes & horror” was a great starting point. Wright wrote his account of the significance of Anzac Day in Gallipoli ahead of the commemoration services.

While evoking the horror of the battles below the cliffs at Anzac Cove –  “shells roaring a few metres overhead, the bodies piling up and the flies and the lice” – Wright provided a neat summary of the important facts and figures:

– that about 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisted to fight in the Great War (the Returned Services League provides the exact number, 331,781)

– that they were all volunteers (this came as a complete shock)

– that they all thought they were going on a “fine adventure’ (another shock), the RSL says they “rushed to enlist for an exciting war”.

– that 8709 young Australian men died at Gallipoli on a patch of land ” barely larger than an Australian farm” and more than 21,000 were injured, (and that more than 60,000 in total died during the War and more than twice that number were wounded).

– that the invasion of Gallipoli by the Anzacs was a military failure, that achieved “precisely nothing for the invaders in the course of World War 1”.

The innocence, bravery and naivety of the Anzacs astonished me, the loss of life monumental for a small country of just 4.9 million at the time (though I disagree with Wright that the numbers are unimaginable: as a Jew, the slaughter of six million by the Nazis in the holocaust is truly unimaginable).

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania - 1916

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania – 1916

Another excellent article, by Tony Stephens, author of The Last Anzacs entitled “Legend outgrows the men who fought“, provided an understanding of what was achieved from the point of view of actual Anzac veterans.

Peeling back the almost cult-like, untouchable heroic status that Anzac Day has undoubtedly achieved among many Australians (among them, the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” McIntyre derides in his contentious tweets) there thoughts are sobering and cautionary:

– Tom Epps of the 27th Battalion: “It provided a lesson in the futility of war.”

– Harry Newhouse of the 4th Battalion: “The Turks never did anything to us and we never did anything to the Turks. We did not think we were going to fight them, poor buggers.”

– Albert White of the 25th Battalion: “I never understood what we were fighting for. I went because most of my cobbers went.”

– Ted Matthews, of the Ist Division Signals: “Some people called us ‘five-bob-a-day murderers’ but the politicians were the murderers. Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”

Stephens writes that Gallipoli built national pride and confidence, but that it’s a “tired cliché to say it marks the birth of a nation, or a coming of age”.

Other events, he says like Federation in 1901, prime minister John Curtin defying Churchill in the Second World War and bringing troops home to defend Australia against Japan, the 1967 referendum that included aborigines in the Census ( I would add the 2008 Rudd government apology to the stolen generations), could all be said to be defining moments in the continual evolution of the shifting Australian national identity.

Many Australian I know – educated, smart, well read – don’t care much for Anzac Day, or how it is remembered.

There views may not be as extreme as Scott McIntyre, but what they really want is some authenticity about how Gallipoli and the Anzacs are remembered and they revile the crass commercialisation, hijacked by the likes of VB, Anzac biscuit makers, Woolworths and others.

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There were hundreds of people, including senior politicians like Malcolm Turnbull who welcomed the sacking of McIntyre for airing his views, but debate about what Anzac Day should mean is healthy and necessary if it is to have resonance for immigrants like myself and our children.

I agree with Guardian columnist and satirist Geoff Lemon, who wrote in light of the sacking of McIntyre, that while his tweets were historically “flawed”…

“…the greatest insult you can offer the fallen is to lie about who they were and what they did – to whitewash their sins and burnish their glories.

Keeping Anzac Day alive and strong starts with education – in my case self-education – not deception, myth-making, political spin and marketing tricks.

I feel a greater affinity with my adopted country, armed with a bit more knowledge about its history.

Lest we forget (…what really happens in war-time)

All hail The Waterboys

waterboysThe fact was I could not sell my spare Waterboys ticket.

“Who are The Waterboys?”

That was the common response I got when I told people I was going to their gig at the Melbourne Recital Centre this past Friday night and had a spare ticket.

“You know that song ‘The whole of the moon’” and then I would badly hum the tune.

“Oh yes THAT song” was the reply. Others had never heard of the band formed by Scotsman Mike Scott  in 1983.

It was about 14 years since I last saw them perform at a folk music festival in Finsbury Park, London, headlined by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, which also featured the late, great Gary Moore.

It poured with rain that day and my chief memory is dancing in the mud to classic Waterboy songs like ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, with its glorious, rollicking fiddle melody, the mournful ‘Bang the drum’ – surely one of the most beautiful songs ever written – and the storytelling charm of ‘A girl called Jonny’.

Mike-Scott

Waterboys singer-songwriter Mike Scott

Age has not diminished the Dylan-esque voice, guitar and piano playing, and showmanship of Scott (a folky Mick Jagger) nor the wonderful fiddle playing of Steve Wickham, (considered the best rock fiddle player in the world by many) who gives The Waterboys their distinctive folk sound.

It was wonderful hearing all these songs again third row from front in an auditorium designed with the acoustics for classical music concerts.

The band performed five or six songs from their latest album – Modern Blues (against the backdrop of the album’s cover, a giant ‘nature man seemingly conducting music from a field of lavendar) – beginning with the rocking ‘Destinies Entwined’ and creating that rich ‘wall of sound’ with organ, keyboards, fiddle and guitars, before moving into familiar storytelling mode with the ‘The girl who slept for Scotland’, the cheeky ‘Rosalind you married the wrong guy’ and ‘Nearest thing to hip’ about the demise of British shopping streets, where the cool shops have all been replaced by bland chain stores.

By the end of the near two hour set, many people were dancing in the aisles, cheering and stomping their feet.

And next to me was an empty seat, a missed chance to see one of the world’s best rock-folk bands in blistering form.

For a taste of what you missed, Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys

“Fisherman’s Blues”

I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearin’ down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

I wish I was the brakeman
On a hurtlin’ fevered train
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland
Like a cannon in the rain
With the beating of the sleepers
And the burnin’ of the coal
Counting the towns flashing by
In a night that’s full of soul
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

Tomorrow I will be loosened
From bonds that hold me fast
That the chains all hung around me
Will fall away at last
And on that fine and fateful day
I will take thee in my hands
I will ride on the train
I will be the fisherman
With light in my head
You in my arms

Light in my head
You in my arms

Melburnians – enjoy the world’s best liveability while it lasts

traffic jam

Gridlock: where Melbourne is heading

Melburnians love to crow about Melbourne’s long-running status as the world’s most liveable city.

Melbourne has ranked top city in the world for the last four years in a row according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey – with Sydney a lowly seventh.

Melburnians rightly love to lord it over Sydneysiders and other global city dwellers, but I’m afraid our world’s best status is fading fast.

I could point to a hundred different articles (try this one on urbanisation by Fairfax economics writer Ross Gittins) or extensive research data to explain that we are building upwards at such a rate but without the necessary investment in transport infrastructure to get everyone to and from work, schools and the shops. 

My own daily commute into work is a good case study of the looming chaos that awaits. It begins with a short 15 minute bicycle ride from my home in Niddrie in the northern burbs to Essendon Station, where the Craigieburn line stutters along towards the city, 15 kilometres away.

What a year ago was a pleasant cycle down a quiet backstreet, where I could drift off into my own thoughts, is now a busy road packed with frustrated people-movers, utes, sedans and station wagons, who weave past me in desperation to avoid the gridlock on the main thoroughfare, Keilor Road.

Even this far out from the city, any vacant lot, deserted car yard or decrepid office building is giving way to an apartment block with dozens of units crammed on top. On the quieter streets, old houses have been bulldozed and replaced with three townhouses. 

 More people, more cars, same roads, same frequency of trains and trams. 

At Essendon Station, Rose Street is most days clogged with cars and buses while the train platform is just as crowded, heaving with already weary-looking fellow commuters.

melbourne platform

Flinders Station, Melbourne

There’s a collective groan as the citybound train pulls in and commuter’s faces stare back from inside carriages, pressed against the glass.

And that’s on a good day when there isn’t a dreary announcement about a train cancellation forcing two sets of commuters onto the same train, resulting in carriages packed so tightly you fear getting an itch you could never scratch.

Finally, twenty minutes later we pull into Southern Cross station. I extract my head from under a stranger’s armpit, apologise for inadvertently rubbing my backside against a pensioner’s bald head (hey, at least they got a seat), exhale, and make my way towards the escalators and the exit. Here a gang of transport Gestapo (train police) are usually standing by ready to spear tackle the elderly, children, mothers with babies and minority groups, should they have forgotten to swipe their Myki card.

Lucky for me I fit none of those categories.

 

queen liz

Fit for a queen? I think not!

Yet more fun awaits me later in the day when I hop onto a tram on Collins or Bourke Street for a meeting uptown – the geniuses who came up with the idea of free CBD trams seemingly did not factor in that every man, woman, child, homeless bum and confused tourist now chooses to take a tram rather than walk a city block.  Tempers flare as we all contort ourselves into weird shapes and postures. The tram driver, oblivious to the gang of drunk vagabonds that have boarded the train with shopping trolleys, four large dogs and a spicey pepperoni aroma, yells out that he won’t close the doors until we get off the steps.

Cursing under my breath, I decide to walk back to the office from my meeting…

Liveability my ass.

Melbourne’s crown is slipping as the city grinds towards eventual gridlock.

Anyone who takes a bus, train or tram – or is crazy enough to drive into work – can surely see that for themselves. The old cliched saying of “what goes up, must come down” applies when “up” means high rise apartments and “down” means liveability without investment in public transport

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

The utter ridiculousness of the very big beard

The Ned Kelly and the Bin Laden are most popular these days

The Ned Kelly and the Bin Laden are most popular these days

The big, bushy beard is back in a big, bushy way.

The three-day stubble, the elegant goatee, the humble moustache, the soul patch (think Howie Mandel) have all been replaced with creations that would not be out of place among the members of ZZ Top, or on the set of a Ned Kelly movie, or perhaps even among a gathering of Chassidic Jews or devout Muslims.

This is not “I’ve forgotten to shave for the last week”, this is throwing out the razor for the year.

Just this week, standing on the train platform, was a young man with a neatly combed head of hair, below which he wore a black beard in the shape and thickness of a straw broom.  As the wind picked up and the train approached I thought his beard might actually drag him off his feet.

Other beards are so long, they risk tripping up their owner, some so deep they might hide an illegal stash of drugs or a small mammal or bird.

I am seeing these enormous hair explosions everywhere, on the ‘suits’ that take the train into work, on latte-sipping hipsters perched on cafe stools, on baristas and on fashion designers. They’re peering back at me from album covers and magazine covers, and on the footie, rugby and soccer highlights. They’re flowing out of bicycle helmets and motorcycle helmets and waving out of the windows of utes and station wagons.

Australian soccer player, Josh Brilliante

Australian soccer player, Josh Brilliante

These facial fiascos seem especially popular among young twenty-something blokes, who seem intent on making themselves look they’re ready to receive a government pension (Even my sixty-something father-in-law shaves his wildman beard off after a few months in the bush).

Girls say no

I’ve done my research – girls don’t find these hairy adornments appealing or sexy. None of them are keen on getting up close and personal with a man that has the equivalent of a German Shepard’s tail attached to their chin.

Growing up Jewish, I always associated beard with learned and slightly fearsome rabbis. They would grow long, pointy ones, or if they were elderly – grey and white things that also sprouted out from ears and nose. But this wasn’t fashion, this was piety (or so I was told).

But beards are now being used to sell men’s clothing: here’s the lumberjack look, courtesy of Apparel Clothing

A model wearing Apparel Clothing

A model wearing Apparel Clothing

Hollywood has certainly played it’s part – George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Jake Gyllenhaal have all grown beards of various lengths at one time or another, but nothing like the enormous facial explosions that are being dragged around town these days.

Earlier this year, Fairfax journalist John Bailey interviewed barbers and male groomers about the rising popularity of beards. There explanations were as varied as they were creative: a movement against shaving, to create an edgy look, non-conformity, to show dedication, to show maturity.

Some claim that a beard shows a rejection of the instant gratification “me generation” hooked on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Beards take time and commitment to grow.

But, really, let’s be honest, the big beard is just a fashion statement gone wrong. Looking like a hillbilly, yokel, rabbi, wise old man or dodgy criminal is not very cool, unless you really are one.

Thankfully, it seems the fad has peaked and is in decline.

Research carried out by the University of NSW of the reactions to beards found that they had reached their saturation point – in short, what may have seemed for a time cool and edgy is now mainstream, boring, and uncool.

If you’ve grown a big beard to look cool, hip or even rebellious, it’s time to shave it off, or at least trim it to something that still shows the contours of your face.

Of course there are exceptions and I include myself, possessor of a somewhat rounded face that some have unkindly likened to a “soccer ball”.

I grew a beard and moustache at my wife’s suggestion while we went back-packing around the world in 2010 and have kept it ever since.

At its most unruly, I was mistaken – much to my amusement – as a fellow Arab while wandering around Cairo, but it never got completely out of control, it never resembled a curtain of hair.

The author, in Mexico in 2010

The author, in Mexico in 2010

The thing is once you’ve had a beard for a while and then you shave it off, your own clean-shaven appearance can frighten you half to death: who is this scary pink creature looking back at me?

“Give me back my hairy complexion?” you scream out, “I’m hideous”

So mine will stay long after the fad gives way to something less ridiculous.

Perhaps it will be the return of clean shaven look, as Canadian beard expert Allan Peterkin, author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair suggested might happen in five year’s time – inspired by shows like Mad Men.

Let’s hope its a lot sooner than that.

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?

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.