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)

In memorium: the suburban video store

The joy of browsing for a movie...fading fast

The joy of browsing for a movie…fading fast

We watched a lot of DVDs on our recent family holiday on Phillip Island, courtesy of the local video store. We found Phillip Island Video Hire by chance, on the second evening of our holiday, while taking a stroll after dinner. Behind the counter, the spectacled, purple-haired proprietress, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt saved us from a twentieth viewing of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (in video format!) and the ultimate horror, enduring Jar-Jar Binks again and ‘The Phantom Menace’. Our holiday home was a cozy little cottage with a wood-burning fireplace, a TV the size of a postage stamp, one of those technological relics – a combination video and DVD player – and a small pile of reject videos and dust-covered DVDs. Thank god for the local video store! In the evenings, once our little girl was sound asleep, we’d brew tea, bring out the Tim Tams and stretch out in the darkened lounge, illuminated by the flickering orange fire, and watch a movie. (Our selections included the excellent ‘Kill the Messenger‘, the very watchable ‘November Man‘ and Australian-made crime drama, Son of a Gun) While it’s perhaps not that surprising to find a video store still in operation in a coastal holiday town like  Phillip Island (alongside second-hand bookstores and surf shops) in the suburbs of Melbourne and around the world, video stores are dying out in their droves, losing customers to a plethora of cheap video streaming services (Stan, Presto, Netflix, iTunes to name a few) that deliver movies instantly to your home TV, illegal downloading and DVD piracy. Rising rents have also hurt. In the past six months, two local stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy  – have closed in Niddrie, leaving our northern suburb without a video store. (For more stories on video store closures read here, here and here). In place of our local Blockbuster, there is now a giant Pet Warehouse (with DIY dog wash) while a little further down the main road, Video Ezy has been consumed by the neighbouring medical centre. Like the demise of newspapers, the internet or ‘technological progress’ has killed the suburban video store – what was once a fixture of every retail strip, high street and shopping complex alongside Chinese takeaways, bottle shops and pizza joints. More than that, it’s killed a tradition that I, as a child growing up in South Africa in the late seventies, eighties and nineties, remember fondly. In those day, a trip to the local corner video store in Germiston – a mining town about 20 minutes from Johannesburg –  was something to get excited about. It was a family outing!

betamax

We had a Betamax player, similar to this

Our store, Cachet Video, rented out not just movies, but video players as well, firstly Betamax and later VHS players, decades before the arrival of DVDs. I remember, fondly, our top-loading bulky brown Betamax player with a remote control that connected to the machine by cord and which was at one point, the envy of our street. There was the fun of browsing and choosing and I loved turning over the age-restricted movies – when no one was looking – to see what scenes from the movie were on the back. The video store proprietor stood behind a counter in the corner, like the lord of home cinema (also the owner of the attached convenience store South Africans call a ‘cafe’), who would pull out a hand written card bearing our account information when the time came to exchange our empty boxes for actual movies. Having checked we still had credit, he would then disappear into a cavernous back room and return with the precious movies.

Where Cachet Video once stood, an iconic childhood memory

At one time ,the premises of Cachet Video, Germiston, South Africa

A rental transaction always concluding with my mother or father asking: “How many moves do we have left on our account?” Being a conservatively-minded family, my parents only allowed age appropriate selections, but I confess, that on holidays, when my parents were at work and my siblings were elsewhere, I’d race down to the video store on my maroon-coloured 24 speed bike, rent a movie like Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, where there was a guaranteed fabled topless scene. The proprietor looked me up and down – shaking his head, or so I imagined – but never said anything when I sheepishly handed over the video box. Then I’d race back to watch the film, fast forwarding to the ‘important scenes’ and then furiously cycle back to return the movie, before my parents returned home. Later in life, when slightly more mature (and having a car), I made many trips to Johannesburg video establishments like Video Spot on Jan Smuts Avenue, Hyde Park, with its vast collection of art house films and foreign movies to choose from.I remember what I thought at the time were ingenious arrangements of films by actor (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino etc), director (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Allen etc) and franchise (The Godfather, James Bond etc).

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

Later, living in London, there were numerous trips to the Blockbuster video store on Golders Green High Street  (now also closed). In the afternoon, we’d wonder down in a group to choose a weekend movie or two, stopping on the way back home at the local Turkish Shop for cheap wine, pita, dolmades, dips and snacks. On one occasion, we forgot to return a movie before going on holiday for three weeks – the Blockbuster bill was about 60 quid. Living in Sydney, my wife and I and often the dog walked up William Street, past the drunks and prostitutes to the video store in Darlinghurst to rent episodes of The Office and The Sopranos. In Melbourne, it was Blockbuster of Video Ezy (or Video Sleazy as some called it) where browsing the aisles for a movie became a regular weekend fixture, invariably accompanied by a Thai curry. Even in the comparatively boring Niddrie Blockbuster, there was always the $2 section of classics, where you could find an old Woody Allen or re-acquaint yourself with a Clint Eastwood early Western. And there were the familiar faces – the small Asian man who ran the shop (and dished out the fines) who was close to tears when it closed down, the geeky guy with the half-formed goatee often on the phone reminding customers their movie was due back three days ago and the nerdy film buff – plus the huge selection of American candy, merchandise and figurines. Now all that’s left are a couple of self-service kiosks where there’s invariably someone standing behind you sighing heavily, while you try to choose something from a pathetically inadequate collection. So, I shed a tear for the video stores of my youth, my adolescence, my adulthood and my fatherhood and raise a glass to the nerds, geeks, rude bastards and eccentrics who worked in those stores. In fitting tribute, the classic video shop scene from Clerks:

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

Unhappy dick heads exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour: a cyclist’s view of motorists

cycling“Bloody dick head”

Actually it sounded more like “Bludy deek hed” spat out from a scowling face hanging out the side of a white Camry as it hurtled past me.

The man, in a rage, was yelling at me and speeding up at the same time, admonishing me for cycling across the street in front of him, while at the same time trying his best to run me down.

In my opinion I’d judged things perfectly; I am not by any stretch of the imagination a reckless cyclist (unless being slow is considered dangerous), but the crazy, googly-eyed man in the white Camry decided I was and let me know it, shaking his fist like King Kong.

Only three time since June last year (when I began cycling again) have I nearly been run over, the other two times by motorists who didn’t see me as I sped down a hill in the dark.

This  was despite having two flashing lights attached to the front of my bike. In the one instant, having nearly driven into me, rather than apologize, the young bloke in a red Mazda started hurling insults my way: “Bloody dick head,” I yelled back, or words to that effect.

The other time, the young lady driver drove away sheepishly after I’d slammed on the breaks in the middle of the road, a hand raised meekly in front of her face, before speeding off.

But these near calamities have been rarities and I am thankful that most motorists are overly cautious around me, some to the point of driving on the wrong side of the road and straight towards oncoming traffic.

My general experience of cycling on a daily basis since June last year has been uneventful.

I’ve not yet encountered any psycho motorists who have deliberately tried to run me off the road, or over.  The most dangerous drivers appear to be the elderly, whose chief problem is seeing above the steering wheel or judging the width of the road or their car.

But riding on two wheels, propelled forward by your own sweat and toil while cars zoom past does give one an unusual perspective on those on four wheels.

If I can blunt: motorists are not a happy bunch, at least they don’t look happy when driving.

angry-motorist-wants-angry-joggerThey sit hunched over their steering wheels, they snarl and they grimace. There is a zealous, craven look in their eyes.

If Freud had ridden a bicycle, he might have gained great insights into the  passive-aggressive personality type.

It seems to defy common sense that motorists deliberately ram the bottom of their cars over speed humps, rather than slowdown.

And while they for the most part, avoid hitting me, I’ve noticed another passive-aggressive tendency: speeding up extravagantly when passing me and then looking back at me through the rear view mirror to perhaps check that a) I am still upright and b) to remind me (with a nod to George Orwell) that, four wheels are always better than two.

Of course, I probably look peculiar to motorists, a heavily bearded man in an ill-fitting helmet and business clothes peddling a noisy bike up a hill, occasionally cursing the pensioner flying past.

A little while ago, an elderly lady passed me while cycling up a hill appearing to whistle and hardly trying at all. I was infuriated and vowed to pass her.

As she disappeared further and further into the distant: a bobbing grey-haired speck in high vis yellow, I furiously pedaled cranking my way through the gears until my thighs threatened to seize up and my chest burned. She was probably sipping a cup of tea by the time I pushed my bike through gate red-faced.

And I can only wonder what another older woman hidden behind a rose-bush in her immaculate garden thought when I decided on afternoon on my way home that it was safe to raise my butt cheeks triumphantly off the saddle and  expel and noisy, violent fart.

Wearing gloves and holding a pair of pruning scissors, her head appeared from behind the tree, while her nose twitched the freshly scented air.

“Bloody dick head” perhaps she muttered under her breath.

Black people with cockney accents and London flatshares: A tribute of sorts to Clive James

clive james bookI’ve started re-reading Clive James‘ second wonderful memoir “Falling Towards England” which recounts ‘our hero’s’ migration from Sydney to London in 1962.

I loved reading all of James’s hilarious, witty and erudite memoirs and it is a real treat to dip back in to the early year’s of one of Australia’s finest literary exports.

It is an endeavour tinged with sadness and nostalgia: sadness because Clive James has a terminal illness and because reading his memoir stirs up so many London memories for me.

I am only 40 or so pages into “Falling Towards England” where we find ‘our hero’ virtually penniless, rejected for numerous writing jobs, ill-prepared for the English winter and frequently surrounded by ill-mannered boorish South Africans, or ‘voortrekkers’ as he calls them who don’t like it when the ‘bleks’ talk back to white policemen on television.

James captures perfectly the harsh Afrikaner accent and the mentality of the neanderthals he was living with at the time:

“That’s what’s rewning Efrika,” said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.” Another chintz chair agreed. “Thet’s right,” it said. “They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.”

I remember with great clarity on my very first trip to London with my mother, aged 13 in 1987, when there was still an anti-apartheid protest moored permanently outside South Africa house on Trafalgar Square, walking into McDonald’s for the first time (that too a novelty) and hearing the black man in dreads behind the counter ask me what I wanted in a thick cockney English accent. I got the shock of my life.

“The bleks are not supposed to talk like thet,” is probably what raced through my naive South African head at the time.

Beyond that funny re-collection, Clive James’s depiction of flat sharing in the 196os  reminded me of my own early years in London (I was there from 2000 to 2004), when I lived above a kebab shop on Brent Road, Hendon.

The top floor flat above "Flame" kebab shop was my home for three years

The top floor flat above “Flame” kebab shop was my home for three years

Of course, I didn’t have to feed money into a heater to generate some warmth as James did and my finances were not quite as dire as his – my first full time salary was £16,000 a year working as a ‘content developer’ for Accountancy Age on Broadwick Street, Soho.

I do though remember the barrenness of my little room with its pigeon-shit encrusted window that overlooked some miserable discount shops, a ‘caf’ where you could get breakfast for a few pounds and my local Tesco, where I witnessed numerous disputes between the staff and local yobbos, attempting their daily ritual of shoplifting bottle’s of Winkleigh’s White Lightning cider.

My landlord was a kindly, jovial Jewish man called Harold Schogger who ran the local bridge club on the floor below our third-floor flat. Coming home from work, I’d have to make my way past a posse of bride club players filling the air with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke (One later had a heart attack and died on the landing).

My first flatmates were as follows:

  • Andy and Dave, who both hailed from Rochdale, near Manchester in the North of England. Andy, a chubby, bearded fellow, fond of eating but not washing up and Dave, a quieter, intellectual type with the eyes of kindly badger, whose chief pre-occupation was smoking marijuana on a fairly continuous basis
  • Sagey, a lanky, pony-tailed Israeli, who spent large parts of the day and night in his lair (the biggest room in the flat) smoking dope, and shagging women (the moans reverberated through the passage walls). Sagey would sometimes invite me into his darkened den for a smoke and to watch a movie.  I would sit on a large poof in the cozy lounge area he had created next to his bed, getting deeply stoned, watching something or other on Sagey’s television.
Brent Street Hendon, where I Lived above the kebab shop

Brent Street Hendon,

My evening activities home from work via the Northern Line began with concocting some kind of meal in our narrow little kitchen usually piled up to the ceiling with dirty plates, or grabbing a kebab from the Afghanistani  who ran the shop below our flat. Then I would sit with Andy or Dave watching something or other on television (the Frank Skinner show was a favourite) as they passed joint after joint around the pungent room.

I must confess here to mild theft – having asked Dave, for a bit of weed one evening, I discovered that he kept it in a drawer by his bed. Later, when my own stash ran low, I’d help myself to some of his when he’d left work for the day – never too much to arouse suspicion, but enough to get me “nicely toasted”. For this act of treachery, I do apologise to Dave, where-ever he may be these days (probably stoned somewhere).

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

Thus I spent much of my first two years in London in a weed-induced trance, often finding myself up past midnight flicking through the endless channels of Sky TV. Or else, taking the bus up Finchley Road to visit my friends in a share house in Golders Green.

Over three years, a whole stream of eclectic and eccentric characters came and went from the three bedroom flat above the kebab shop. There was:

  • Debbie,  curly-haired aspiring singer from Cape Town, who aroused the passions of the local drunks in the nearby pub, when she sang show tunes for them (and who rejected my advances on the living room couch)
  • Jacqui,  a lovely ‘older’ woman (she was in her 40s to my late-2os) with a high-pitched voice, red-cheeked face, who took up the violin with great passion
  • Joe, a googly-eyed school assistant, drug fiend and cyclist, fond of opium-dealing in our living room, whilst quietly building a North London property portfolio
  • A good-looking Spanish guy (his name has disappeared from memory) who received phone calls on our landline from Europe at all hours of the night and whom I distinctly remember hating.
  • Two Israeli girls, one fond of loud bonking (though not with me), the other…sleeping (she worked the 11pm to 7am shift at John Lewis)
  • and many others whom have disappeared in the marijuana haze.

I remember those flat-sharing days in much the same way as  Clive James recalls his formative months in London with poignancy, hilarity, shocking embarrasment and a great deal of nostalgia.

There was also plenty of rejection and a fair degree of loneliness too among those years.

I recall being turned down for half a dozen other flat-shares,  inviting places with big open plan lounges, people that dressed well and leafy gardens.

I remember those experiences like Clive James wrote them, where each incumbent resident “wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the shortlist, after which the final selection is by written examination”.

In the end, I think I got the room in the shabby flat above the kebab shop because no one else wanted it, but at the time it was a cause for major celebration: London, I had arrived!

The flat is no longer there, given way to some apartment development, but the bridge club has remained.

And the kebab shop, where I paid frequent late night visits drunk or stoned, is still there, serving its greasy fare.

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.

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

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Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

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Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” –

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.