- Popular term for a non-Jew
- Even more popular term for a non-Jew with more than a passing interest in alcohol
Every Sunday morning of my childhood we were awakened by yelling, bellowing, and general inter-personal mayhem emanating from the house at the top of the hill. My aunt Penina and uncle Johann were having their usual Sunday morning chat.
It was not that they argued a lot; they merely tended to agree with each other very loudly, as is often the way with Jewish families.
Penina, Johann, and my parents, were part of the first wave of immigrants to post-war Australia. My parents arrived via Sri Lanka where my father had a two year contract managing the orchestra at a five-star hotel in Colombo, and my mother ran a travel agency on behalf of its parent company, a British merchant bank. Having met during World War II, and made friends with the many Australians posted to the Middle East, Australia was a curiosity for them, and once my father’s contract expired, they decided to take a short holiday to check it out.
The climate, and the relaxed lifestyle appealed to them, and almost immediately they fell in love with a quaint, hexagonal, stone cottage, in the hills above Adelaide. That was that; the return passage to England was cancelled, George and Alysa Scheel settled in ‘The Roundhouse’, Longwood Road, Stirling, and yours truly did not end up being born in Herne Bay, Kent, as was the original intention.
But if my parents’ immigration was voluntary and accidental, that of my mother’s sisters and brothers was deliberate, and, if not exactly a matter of life and death, then certainly something pretty close to it.
At the time they all still lived in the Middle East, then, as now, a supremely volatile region in which personal safety could never be guaranteed, especially if you were Jewish. After my mother became safely ensconced in Australia, her brother Avram, sister Penina and brother-in-law Johann, all made the journey to Australia. They desperately wanted to get out of Egypt and all had good reason.
The fledgling Zionist republic across the Sinai had survived its inauguration by a mere whisker, and despite assurances from the newly-founded United Nations, there was no guarantee that the Jewish state of Israel would remain an independent nation. Penina and Johann had four school-age children, and this was not a time—however tempting—for nationalistic loyalty to hold sway over parental responsibility.
In contrast, Avram was a bachelor, but his position was if anything more precarious, for he had taken on the family business, which was centred around the production of soaps and shampoos. He ran two factories, one in Cairo, the other in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, and had a thriving export trade to what had been, until recently, Palestine.
An innocent enough occupation, had the crates he exported actually contained ‘product as labelled’. But Avram was the most ardent Zionist in a fiercely Zionist family, and his soap crates usually only contained a couple of layers of real soap, concealing an arsenal of ex-Army-issue rifles, destined for the Irgun, one of the two para-military groups involved in the independence struggle.
Johann, a huge man with a bark much bigger than his bite, and Avram, a diminutive, bald, bespectacled terrier, decided it was time to go. Australia would be the final stop on a journey the family had embarked on some fifty years earlier, when the last wave of Czarist pogroms initiated an exodus which saw the family arrive in Egypt via Belarus, the Ukraine, Moldavia, and any other bolthole that would accept them.
Arranging the rites of passage took time, but a stroke of pure luck saw the family become our neighbours, when the only other house in the valley apart from our own suddenly came upon the market. My parents put a deposit on it until Johann and Co arrived.
The two houses were no more than five minutes away on foot, but given the heavily wooded terrain it took some months before a walking track became permanent. Not that this hiatus prevented communication. Despite their Russian parentage, my mother and Penina always conversed in French, the language in which the sisters had been educated in Egypt. Penina was a born talker, my mother a natural listener, and the telephone traffic between the two houses was ever alive as Penina delivered her monologues, my mother merely content to punctuate the stream of consciousness with the occasional ‘oui’. I used to watch, fascinated, as after a ‘oui’, my mother would gently put the receiver down, make herself a cup of Turkish coffee in an antiquated brass kanaka, return ten minutes later, pick up the receiver again, and say ‘oui’, with Penina none the wiser. Sometimes I was drafted in to hold the receiver, and listen attentively to a latter-day Molly Bloom in full cry, except that Molly was speaking French with a Russian accent.
Penina had a good business head, and proved it by managing to run Johann’s business for more than a dozen years after his death. But she was equally no linguist, and if her French was overlaid with a slavic brogue, her English became a family talking point.
One day, when I was six, I decided enough was enough. There was simply no reasoning with my mother. Why shouldn’t Theseus, Agamemnon and Hercules swim in the toilet bowl? After all, a frog’s place was in the water. A furious argument ensued. It was time to leave home.
As there was no obvious refuge except the house at the top of the hill, I went to stay with Penina, who, doubtless, thought the whole thing very amusing. But in a sibling pact with my mother, Penina threatened to send me to gaol if I didn’t return home the next morning. So I spent the night with Penina, after enduring a supervised bath quite at odds with my mother’s gentle touch. Armed with a sponge Penina was a human exfoliant.
In the morning Penina asked me: ‘Do you eat mice for breakfast?’
This really was taking the punishment to extremes. Mice?
‘Not mice, silly boy, mice.’
After minutes of to-ing and fro-ing across the Anglo-French linguistic border it transpired that ‘mice’ equalled mais, equalled ‘maize’ equalled cornflakes.
At that moment there was a knock on the door.
‘There’s a tradesman here to see you,’ said my cousin, Uri. ‘He says he spoke to you about the job the other day.’
Penina peered through the window. ‘I do not know him from Eve,’ she pronounced, emphatically. ‘You mean Adam,’ said Uri.
‘Adam. You don’t know him from Adam.’
‘Neither do I,’ said Penina. ‘And I don’t know him from Eve, either. I don’t know either of them. Send him away.’
If Penina and my mother were the peacemakers of the family, the uncles were the warmongers. Avram and Johann were both volatile characters, and showed red rags to each other with disturbing regularity, yet both uncles also shared a passion for cars.
With Australia’s automotive industry still in its infancy we relied as a nation on imports and hand-me-downs, much as India does to this day, its streets still clogged with re-pressed 1950s Austin Ambassadors. Johann’s first vehicle was none other than a Model T Ford, already an antiquated machine, for which spares were not readily available. And it needed them, never more obviously than when the city fathers erected a traffic light at the base of the road from the hills to the town proper. This intersection was placed at the end of a downhill run of several miles, and Johann’s first encounter with it saw his normally swarthy complexion mimic a chameleon: green, when he first saw the offending object, then red, when, with no brakes, he sped through it, only to be instantly flagged down by the police.
‘I was overtaking,’ he explained, meekly. ‘Overtaking what? You’re the only car on this side of the road.’ Johann smiled wanly. ‘A pedestrian.’
Shortly afterwards, with his fledgling textile distribution business having crossed the economic rubicon from break-even to something approaching a profit, Johann swapped the ancient death-trap for a car that has become a museum piece, a Triumph Mayflower. This aberration had been designed by someone with a personal grudge against aerodynamics. Moulded entirely in sharp right-angles it looked like every pre-schooler’s drawing of a car. A box on wheels. And how such a tall man as Johann even got into it remained a mystery.
It would have better suited Avram, but he went the other way, and bought something inside which you could have staged Aida. A huge Armstrong-Siddeley. Now this was aerodynamic. Long and sleek, it was destined to become a motoring classic. The only problem with it was that Avram could not see over the steering wheel. He only survived because everyone knew his car; everyone knew him, and his hat, which was the only thing visible from outside. By day, motorists all over Adelaide took precautions to avoid ‘the driving hat’. By night I suspect Avram navigated by the stars.
Johann died when I was not yet seven years old. Nowadays he would be classified as a typical Type A person; highly strung, explosive, and possessed of a mental energy which his body could no longer match, thanks to his first heart attack, and stubborn refusal to relinquish cigarettes. A second attack finished him, at the ridiculously early age of 54.
Such memories as I have of Johann are engraved in my mind as sharply as a Durer woodcut, and when he was not berating me for walking on tip-toes (which he hated) he was both expansive, and fun. Not in a strictly comical sense, given that his sense of humour was somewhat heavy-handed. But he loved putting on a show, and was the soul of bonhomie as head of the table, playing his coveted role of clan patriarch. Of course he loved to argue, but the debate was good-humoured, and even Avram thought it politic to defer.
The extrovert side of his nature was never more on show than at the annual Passover service.
Passovers are odd events. Of all the sentinel days in the Jewish calendar the first night of Passover is, along with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most important. Both services are highly ritualised, yet susceptible to the strangest deviations amongst all but the most Orthodox. My mother’s family had had a strictly orthodox upbringing, first in the various Jewish enclaves of Russia, and then in Egypt, and retained the majority of orthodox precepts. But exposure to, and enthusiasm for, the increasing complexities of modern society gradually coerced them away from adherence to pure dogma, although they retained an unshakeable belief in the essence of its teachings.
Kosher meat, for example, was obtainable only with difficulty and at a price. And as the cost of whitegoods was exorbitant, only the most zealous and rich could entertain the prospect of having separate refrigerators for milk and meat products.
My mother had even gone so far as to break the mold totally by indulging in that most heterodox of actions, namely, marrying a goy1, and what is more a goy shicker2, thus becoming the only member of her family to ‘marry out’.
Thus my family was classed as Liberal Jewish. Nevertheless the significance of Passover represented a consolidation of that most Jewish of sentiments, tradition, and therefore the ceremony was not to be tampered with, even by a gathering of progressive, middle class intellectuals.
To sit through a Passover service you not only have to endure the entire story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt, drawn from the Book of Exodus, but you also have to participate by asking questions of the host and hearing his replies, also drawn from the second book of the Pentateuch. Additionally, you should, in theory, listen to the commentaries given on the text by numerous—no, let’s be honest, endless—rabbis throughout history. Then there are the symbolic offerings: the Paschal Lamb, which is only displayed, the Hahrozeth (bitter herbs) and other minute comestibles representing a life of suffering during Moses’ 40-year meanderings across the Sinai desert.
If the service is done according to the book you are, by the time you get to nibbling the symbols, utterly famished! And the symbols themselves are hardly Rabelaisian: a bit of boiled potato and a hard-boiled egg, both dipped in salt water; a finger of Matzoth smeared with horseradish. On a diet like that it is small wonder that Moses got lost.
And Johann did it by the book. Only later did the family adopt the more liberal cry of ‘Cut the Rabbis!’. But even with a shortened service the essentials were always maintained. Its appeal was, and is, one of undiluted atavism. And no-one knows more about atavism than the Jews. After all, they invented it.
I marvelled at the sheer magnificence of it all. As a very small boy it was my first exposure to formality, though I confess I was mainly thinking about the food. And not just food. Suddenly there would appear plates, bowls, knives, forks, all emerging from a year-long hibernation to be used only on this day of the year. Such opulence! To think that people could reserve whole sets of cutlery, crockery, even kitchen utensils, for a single, annual event!
Drooling like mad dogs, we awaited the dinner, where Johann came into his own as master carver, and Penina as head chef.
The first course, invariably, was chicken soup, lethally hot and greasy. Everyone gingerly sucked in the liquid through pursed lips, slurping it loudly. Even today if you visit a Jewish restaurant you will be able to identify the older, Ashkenazy diners by the sound they make when the soup is served. Forget Bronx cheers and Mexican waves; listen to the Kishinev slurp.
The main course was roast chicken. What? Mere chicken for a feast of such importance? But these were the days before consumerism; before happy, smiling (and presumably suicidal) chickens advertised themselves in a neon plethora of southern fried, cajun, tandoori and burger-pulped disguises. At that time today’s junk bird was a considerable luxury. Beef and lamb formed the Australian staple diet, poultry was available only on request, and generally via a waiting list. The super-chic David Jones department store offered a ready-cooked roast chicken, size one, at fourteen shillings, a sum difficult to transcribe across decades, decimal currency and metric measures, but quite comparable to buying a whole side of smoked salmon these days.
If the chicken was a real treat, the middle and final courses were the true conversation pieces, for opposite reasons. The middle course was gefúlte fish; essentially nothing more than balls of fish fashioned from three or four different varieties of fish, minced.
The taste lay in the choice of combinations: two dark fish and two white fish would achieve a heavier consistency than one dark and three white. But would the flavour be the same? It was ever a matter of intense family debate. Penina had her own secret recipe; one, incidentally, that she took to the grave with her. No-one ever equalled her gefúlte fish, though all, my mother included, tried in vain. My aunt spent hours on the task.
The other culinary mystery was the final course. With Penina having commandeered the main menu the rest of the family vied to produce the apotheosis. The fruit compote. This was the evening’s great anticlimax. Everybody hated it. The stomach-churning finale was, year in, year out, a mix of stewed prunes, grapes and apricots in syrup. Apparently, sometime in deep, dark, recorded history, some sweet-toothed, masochistic maniac of a rabbi had ordained that this muck be served to ruin an otherwise enjoyable evening.
If the rabbi had said it hundreds of years ago, then it had to be done. Therefore my mother, and Avram’s young wife, Helen, always produced a fruit compote. Each. There were two of these vomitorious concoctions, and utterly identical. I never recall anyone actually partaking of this sludge, but mother always volunteered to take ours back home, and Helen’s, too, bravely avowing that we in fact liked it.
In those days we only possessed a mini-fridge, so there was no room in it for a spare fruit compote, let alone two. The birds had a field day.
Those early Passovers were seminal to me. I do not know how much I learned about Judaism from them. Probably very little. But as an only child they represented a rare opportunity to be en groupe, to discover that sense of family unity and solidarity which is such a hallmark of the Jewish people, and which has enabled this endlessly and needlessly persecuted people to survive five thousand and more years of unspeakable maltreatment with its beliefs and traditions not only intact, but inviolable.
As the birds digested their fruit compote they would void its remnants. One day in late summer we found a tiny grapevine thrusting its way skyward through what had been barren earth.© David Scheel