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
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
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.