Sunday, November 30, 2008
what a povery of thought and feeling
magazines and newspapers bursting with huge catalogues
of things and things and things
to ram down each others stockings like Foie Gras feed
down the throats of geese
what a meaningless orgy of evasion
as if buying what is shiny today and discarded tomorrow
could somehow substitute for husbands giving
their attention to wives
parents giving their attention to children
employees giving their attention to what they were hired to do
people giving attention to their environments
this is not giving
this is running as far from giving
as matter will allow
but at least mercy is shown
to millions of pigs and sheep
who receive their Christmas gift
as a bolt in the brain or a knife at the throat
and do not have to witness
the drunks and the glass wounds
and the emergency rooms
and the desperation induced
by the gap between
the adverts and the reality
(Of course the States is the same , or worse, check out
Saturday, November 29, 2008
to make themselves seem this or that way
did I translate myself well?
did it make the source seem ok?
but the original, not bound by any edition
remains unseen and richer than any translation / version (unknown)
I censor what you see of me / I censor what I show to you
fearing parts of myself are ugly / unacceptable
lots of hiding and lots of faking (and I give you what I think is acceptable)
In the theatre of my own making
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Jewishness: difference for the sake of difference or difference that makes a difference?
"ממקומו הוא יפן ברחמים"
"From G-d's place G-d will turn in mercy...."(from the shabbat liturgy)
The stillness of
and everything in its
this is the SatGuru
from the formless space
in a particular
time and place
A sub cullture that does not define itself in opposition to the dominant culture is likely to be co-opted by it - hence the state of progressive Judaism today - in flux, uncertain, with very little to offer except gender equality and inclusivity rather than exclusivity - but no depth or intensity or "spiritual' insight or tribal solidarity
I want to push more intensively the idea of "naaseh venishma" as a hugely profound educational principle - especially at the school that I teach at. I'm not sure that we honour that principle enough.
What happens when you have outgrown a set of emotional loyalties, but still understand their appeal, and their value as a bonding device? For example, the "us" and "them" encoded into many Jewish holidays - "we" the few, "they" the many, "we" the persecuted and enslaved, "they" the opressors and the wicked...I find in myself the ability to resonate as much with the Egyptians in thePesach story and the Greeks in the Hanukah story as I can with the Hebrews and Israelis....yet the sweetness of children's faces clustered around the Chanukah lights still calls in avisceral way...and to sing the words of "maoz tzur" - despite their rather vengeful lyrics.
The "Greeks" within all of us and the "Yehudi" within all of us...in this cosmology, the Greek is to value appearance over substance, to reinforce societal values where physical excellence is valued and celebrated more broadly than moral or intellectual excellence, where the body beautiful is commodified a million times a day and used to sell products we don't need, where people are urged to live beyond their means to sustain unsustainable appearances etc etc...vs the Jewish-Hebrew values of modesty, restraint, and sustainability.
How to universalise the Hanukah story? Make it a protest against commodification, against the over valuing of appearance (the tyranny of cosmetics and fashion and consumerism), and the emphasising of doing acts of altruism as the source of true beauty.
It is often more productive to "(be)hold" Judaism as a dialogue, not a set of answers…and in the process the answers emerge for you, in your time and place and stage, they become clear.
A polemic arguing for the establishment of a second Jewish state (in addition to Israel)
On the need for a Jewish holiday which is offered up to the Australian public. Perhap simchat beyt hashoeyva during Sukkot because this was traditionally a time when all the nation sent offerings to Jerusalem. Simchat beyt hashoeyva involves street parades, jugglers, acrobats, wise fools, and lots and lots of devotional music.
Milchemet haotiot - all the children got dressed up as letters - aleph kicked the thin and reedy vav very hard in the shins - the children arrangd themselvs into the words zayin baayin...lech habayta mora revital...etc etc... lamed smeared their lunch all over taf's face...then Mr Porter came in, dressed as the mighty mem
Some mind talk ( see ) or self-talk on hearing of anti-Semitic behaviour/speech by some priviledged Australian kids in elite private schools. The words of Eckhart Tolle come to mind...
be at least as interested in your response as in the lifeshock ( ) stimulus that triggers the response
I must protect myself by getting clear
I coul drown in this fear and anxiety
This threatens my very survival
If I don't fight this we will not survive
The truth is I (if I is identified as the body) will not survive irrespective, whether I am eaten by a shark or die of cancer or old age or in a cr crash or killd by a criminal or die peacefully in bed. Given that I will not survive irrepective then waht is the fear that arises of? Of anhilation? Of "premature" anhilation. So is this a wake up call to jettison false senses of self?
I must equip my children to deal with this
I must repond to this in some way
Some practical responses to anti Semitism:
Ecstatic dancing and ecstatic singing of wordless nigunim
Missiles and bombs and sustained small arm fire
An equal and opposite focus and celebration of philo-Semitism
An ongoing and sustained acknowledgement of ourselves and our worth, both as human beings and as manifestations of the infinite and divine
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Peter, tall, black hair , pigeon chest, glasses, rooibos tea with milk,
curious human eyes and understanding smile, embroidered stories of his child
days and wild days, cocreator of Yizo Yizo, playwrite - The Chimp Project at the Market Theatre, Peter and his latest infatuation, Peter with his philo-Semitism, Peter as contributor to
the Apartheid museum, and author of dozens of textbooks, many of which are prescribed text
books in SA, in several disciplines, from maths to history, Peter with his
wide ranging and eclectic friendships which crossed all boundaries, Peter
and Storyteller comics, Peter and his marriage in his last year of life...
The sad-glad news that Peter Esterhuysen died on
Friday April 9th 2004.
Sad because he was a quiet hero who never complained about his Cystic
Fibrosis and who put in 16 hour days creating wonderful comics, scripts and
plays...while living on a daily regime of 80 pills and having only the use
of 20% of his lungs.
Peter was one of the oldest surviving people with CF in SA, and fought a
long and ingenious war with the debilitating condition. He could have held
himself a victim, but he chose to live his life to the full, and you never
knew you were interacting with someone who was engaged in an almost daily
struggle to keep his body functioning...
He was a wonderful raconteur, a bright, alert, enthusiastic and curious
human being, a skilld write and editor, and a good friend who always
encouraged others in their
creative efforts (for example he published an anthology of new SA writing in
in the early 90's), a sweet and lovely and inspiring man whose passing
leaves a void
Glad because his last few weeks were not good and eventually he was put on a
respirator...something he'd said he did not want...
Here is a piece Peter wrote about his play "The Chimp Project" which played at Johannesburg's famous Market Theatre in 2000. The extract is lifted from the Handspring Puppet Company's website
"This play had its genesis one Saturday afternoon when my friend and collaborator Barak Morgan began entertaining me with stories about wild chimps, based on the work of Jane Goodall. He told me stories about the chimps called Goblin, Gremlin and Greybeard: stories that illustrated the complex reciprocal social relationships and power dynamics within chimp communities. He spoke about Jane's discovery that different chimp communities groups appear to have different 'culture': different ways of collecting food, fashioning primitive tools or using medicinal plants to fight disease. Finally, he related the story of the Kasakela chimp community and their four year long furtive war waged against the Kahama community which ended in the latter community being wiped out. The anecdotes, which evoked in my mind a kind of chimp Middle Earth, were startling: chimp behaviour seemed to include acts of empathy, altruism, murder and war - behaviour which I had always regarded as uniquely human.
I had long admired Handspring Puppet Company's work with William Kentridge. When I bumped into Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler at a party that same evening I mentioned the idea of using puppets to explore the world of chimps. Basil and Adrian were intrigued by the idea, and a few months later the four of us found ourselves in the forests of Gombe.
Coming face to face with wild chimps was a profoundly unsettling experience: they were quite unlike any other animal I had ever encountered. So humanlike and yet so completely other: they defied conventional categorisation as animal or human.
In the forest reserve of Gombe it seemed only natural that these unique creatures should be granted the special rights which form the basis of the Great Ape Project's world campaign. But as soon as we ventured beyond Gombe into the eroded landscape and stark poverty of the surrounding villages, the picture started to muddy again. At night, while staring out at the lights of the fishing boats on Lake Tanganyika, we had many a heated discussion about the rights of people versus the rights of chimps. Did the local people get any benefit from a reserve like Gombe? How long would the forest or the chimps last if people were allowed in? Is it blind human arrogance that makes us think that only we have rights? Yet can we talk of chimp rights at all? What would happen if chimps started claiming their rights? What if their idea of rights conflicted with our idea of the rights we wanted to confer on them. If chimps could talk...
We turned to the books we had brought on signing chimps and so began our long sojourn in the controversial, intriguing, often tragic world of cross-fostered chimps that have been raised as human children and taught to communicate using sign language. One of the most famous of the signing chimps was Lucy, who had a vocabulary of 120 words of human sign language. Lucy's life was a caricature of a 70s American teenager. She enjoyed watching soap operas, poured and mixed her own drinks, paged through magazines and became sexually aroused when she saw pictures of naked human men. Lucy thought that she was human.
From our camp outside the forest, Lucy's suburban America seemed a universe away. And yet this great divide was one that Lucy herself was forced to cross. At ten she became too big for her domestic world and was sent to a chimp rehabilitation colony in the Gambia, where she was successfully weaned off gin and tonic and magazines, and taught with other orphan chimps how to survive in the African Forest.
The real Lucy died at the hands of poachers. But the arrival in the forest of a signing chimp and her long-suffering human companion seemed a fitting place to begin a journey into the ever-shifting 'border zones' between human and animal, nature and culture."
ABOUT PETER ESTERHUYZEN (this also from the Handspring website)
"Peter Esterhuyzen is a former academic and literacy teacher turned professional writer. In 1989 he co-foundered a comic publishing company called The Storyteller Group.
Since then he has written more than forty comic books and text books, and helped create three popular comic series. He first collaborated with Handspring Puppet Company on a multimedia educational series for children called Spider's Place. After leaving the Storyteller Group, he freelanced in the television industry for three years before making his television debut as a co-creator and co-writer of the controversial series, Yizo-Yizo. He is currently working on the sequel. The Chimp Project was his second play."
Yehi zichro baruch - may his memory be a blessing, and may he rest in peace,
surrounded by the things he cherished - women, rich friendships,
beautiful words and ideas, and knowing that he was, and is, loved, admired
Inscription on my gravestone: "Now no one can bother me."
Alternative inscription: "Seeing as you still have bodies, have a hug and a bonk for me..." (Just playing - the real inscription is below, in Hebrew)
Readings for my celebratory funeral farewell:
End of "Leaves of Grass" Walt Whitman
End of Kaddish: Alan Ginsberg
Inbalim bemireh veshrikot
vezahav bisadot ad erev
dumiyat be'ehrot yerukot
merchavim sheli vaderech
haeytzim shealu min hatal
notzetzim kizchuchit umatechet
lehabit lo echdal, velinshom loechdal
veamut veamshich lalechet
Please also read a few pages from "I AmThat" - anywhere would be good, but especially the words of consolation about everyone ripens in their own time, and ultimate liberation is unavoidable.
Rabbis of any sort are welcome at my funeral, but not to officiate. I never liked the idea of clergy. My friends and family can all do little parts.
"Po nikbar gufo shel Immanuel Richard Suttner
bead eyleh bli kol
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Jeremy Gordin, Sunday Independent
Nonetheless, many contemporary poets, both white and black, have sought to explore new and interstitial spaces of identity, and express experiences more hybrid than has traditionally been allowed for. Goodenough Mashego, for instance, sees the challenge for South African poets as finding ways “to position themselves to a point where they cannot be black/white/coloured or Indian but poets.” The result has been, at best, poetry of a rich complexity. One of the most delightful examples is Johannesburg poet Immanuel Suttner’s appropriation of rastafarian discourse to comment on his white, Jewish roots: Kelwyn Sole, Mediations http://www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/licking-the-stage-or-hauling-down-the-sky
Um yisrael wen ‘cross to babylon
started callin hisself irwin cohn
writin for de newspaper in washinton
bin nice n pleasant to everyone
or got hasidic in ol new york
bowin to de hot air in de rebbe’s talk
dancin to de beet of de fals messiah stalk
dey say he gonna come if we stay away from pork
me i say me eyes is full o sand
i gotta smash de idols bilt by de fader’s hand
like trotsky done or like avram’s stand
and bild mehself meh own promise land
(“De terach hammer”)
Hidden and Revealed was published by Quartz Press in conjunction with Snail Press. In Australia copies are available from Berkelouw Books, from Lindfield Bookshop, and from Books and Beyond (RRP $15).
im shlatim vecruzim "dam haparot hefker"
ve "dam haparot eyno hefker"
aval beyn ko ve cho
adayin hofchim otam le meilay ohr
Kol mishkal shtikat heyekum rovetz eylai
yacholti lomar harbei lu hayiti meshuchna
shehabdidut shekadma ledibur
ota shtika ikeshet, lelo makshiv hee, koraytlev (ken, mila achat!)
vehapaam ulai muchan ehiyeh
shehalev achen yikarei
tachat omes ze
bli lehasiach et daati mimena
oh lidchot et ha rega
boded bayekum ani mevakesh
et habilti efshari
lechabeyk oti kemeahev veaym
(Shurot eylu nichtvu beMelbourne b'veidah lemechanchei Tziyonut)
ayayfut ayn chayker
oti el cheyka
hashkuva, ha sha'anahnah
Ani kevar mitgageya le yeladim
shelifnei shvuayim lo ratziti lachshov aleyhem
ki im hapreydah
lo nuchal lehaamik et hadoo siach beyneynu
yesh po eyze hefsed
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
yes to organic vegetable gardens
yes to gathering in parks and informal games of cricket
yes to coming together to get high on each other's blessed being without
the need for alcohol
yes to devotional music which makes no one wrong and expresses the longing to return home
yes to walks in forests
yes to solar panels
yes to letting go of perfectionism
yes to simple food
yes to hard work
yes to no effort
yes to encouragement and affirmation
yes to bicycles
yes to stroking and hugging and recreational consensual sex
yes to clotheslines and free range eggs
yes to sharing your time and giving your attention
No to trudging off to school each day
to teach things to kids which are not my agenda
and not theirs
no to the absurdity
no to the heavyness
no to the bleak grey dullness
no to the fear that keeps it all in place
where is the light?
where is the life?
where is the joy?
If this is what responsibility brings of what use is responsibility?
I cannot agree with pubs
I cannot agree with plastic bags and riculous, unconscious, planet-malicious superfluous packaging
I cannot agree with over-indulged companion animals while millions of other animals are farmed and transported in appalling conditions
I cannot agree to our ruthless rearranging of the world to make it seems more convenient and comfortable for us
I cannot agree to toilet cleaners and household chemicals that over sterilise and create a thousand new allergies every day
I cannot agree to the lonely comforts of ipods and facebook when I and you want a hug or a bonk
I cannot agree to Sydney's sterile and animal free streets and species supremacism
I cannot agree with washing powder commercials
I will not make my peace with wrestling or reality shows or synthetic pop or commodified rebellion
I will not agree to pretend things are OK
tho I pretend so every day
min hamaamakim karati Yah.... (from the depths I called to you Jah)
ananani bemerchav Yah (you answered me with the wideness of Jah)
Saturday, November 8, 2008
"Come down Stewart or I'll fuck you up"
"I'm not coming down."
"I'm warning you china (= buddy in South African slang), I want my fridge."
"It's not your fridge."
"It's my fridge. And once you've given that back, you'll still owe me 2 000 bucks."
"I don't owe you anything."
"You fucking owe me for three hundred shirts. I'm warning you china, if I meet you in the street I'll beat the shit out of you."
"No you won't."
"Just wait and see."
Then there is the noise of a Beetle roaring off and a window being slammed. Stewart knows a woman working in some company and he regularly pops in to her office to use her phone, fax, copier, laser printer. When she stays over at him she moans very loudly while they fuck and I get enormously turned on and stride up and down my flat. He also has a cat called Rambo, a bushy tailed creature who wakes me up every morning by meeping like an alarm clock. I open the window, Rambo comes in, and then we both go back to sleep. The neighbours feed Rambo, because Stewart never does.
On the other side of me lives an old Jewish lady who, when she was living in England, having come there as a refugee from Hitler, personally met and spent time with Jesus Christ. Since becoming a devout believer she's studied Hebrew and Aramaic through UNISA (a South African correspondence university) and has been teaching for years and years at the Baptist college next to Johannesburg General Hospital. We often meet on the stairs because she's always rushing in and out. For an old lady of seventy five she's got an enormous amount of energy. She's constantly shlepping people, or visiting the sick, or giving some Japanese student extra lessons in Corinthians II.
Sometimes when I'm walking past her door she pops out, at seventy words a minute, and hands me a lemon meringue pie she's made from tennis biscuits, condensed milk and lemons.
I go to my flat, lock the door, and immediately eat the entire pie. Afterwards my nose streams because milk kicks my mucus membranes into war time production. Occasionally I buy her some fruit or a cake in return. When I step down the corridor to deliver it, she's either not there, or in the bath.
She baths in the dark, perhaps because to look at your flesh is sinful, or perhaps because simply, at seventy five, it's sad. I wait while she stuffs her ample bean bag body into a dress and opens the door. Then we begin our little ritual.
"No, no, no you shoodn't. You spoil me."
"Please. Its nothing."
"No, really, you're very naughty. I can't accept this. You really shoodn't. I'm going to have to refuse."
"Well you're always giving me cakes."
"Only on your birthday."
"But you gave me one last week, and my birthday was six months ago..."
And so on. Eventually she takes it. She's often trying to convert me, in a gentle sort of way, but I feel fairly immune. If I think my own religion is confused, arbitrary, and blind, you can imagine my ambivalence about the blood stained pantheon of religions all pledging allegiance to a God in human form who stage managed his own death. But that's where I stay. Between a Mama Teresele and an ex Durbanite on a trajectory of big talk, unpaid bills, and nicotine-induced yellowing teeth. Between carelessness and a faith which seems harmless enough, between lovemaking which definitely does not have procreation as its goal, and cake baking which I suspect has proselytising as its chief ingredient.
Besides Rambo, I also have a lover called Merissa, who lives near by, two blocks away in fact. She took a flat there so that we could be close to each other, without actually moving in together, which we both thought would be too risky. Tonight we're going to friends for supper. At exactly seven thirty there is a soft knock on my door. Merissa's always very punctual. The moment I open the door and see her I fill with irritation. She's dressed all wrong. She's wearing bright red lipstick and I hate makeup. I peck her on the cheek and avoid eye contact. There is a silence which I refuse to break.
"How're you", she asks tentatively.
She has a Kenyan woven grass bag on her shoulder. She always has an enormous bag with her, filled with books, toiletries, an apple which never gets eaten, car keys, car immobilisers, a little troll doll with long spikey hair which can be combed, sugar free Dentyne, an umbrella, and it turns out, a bottle of shampoo not tested on animals she bought for me at a Woolies sale. She really is a good soul. I try to stuff my irritation into an inner cupboard and almost manage to shut the door on it, although bits of it, like some bulky duvet, keep on popping out.
We walk over to Vered and Ilan, who have invited us for supper. Vered and Ilan are Israelis who wish to be South Americans. Vered has an impressive flame of henna hair and does a pretty good hip swinging number which turns heads. Ilan imports bamboo steamers from Taiwan, which I sell on the weekends at Bruma flea market. So we have supper and then light a zol, except for Merissa who doesn't ever smoke. I have a few drags and nothing happens. So I have a few more. Still nothing. When the joint comes around again I have another.
We're sitting on mattresses against the wall and suddenly it hits me. Waves of stonedness climb up me, over me, into me. The dagga is trying to unzip me, and I am suddenly full of the most enormous terror. I will loose control. I will whimper like a baby and beg for help. I will call Ilan and Vered mommy and daddy. The strain of keeping my panic hidden is enormous. I grow very cold. Vered brings me a poncho, and I sit huddled in it, shivering and trying to make small talk. I take Merissa's hand for reassurance. She squeezes mine comfortingly. She's always there when I need her. I'm safe with her. Which is why I don't value her.
Several times during the evening I have substituted Vered's name for Merissa's, who doesn't seem to be hurt by my Freudian slips, but it adds to my worries. Now everyone knows I am secretly infatuated with Vered, and being stoned, I will probably make some worse gaffe. I'll never be able to come here again. They'll think I'm a weakling, afraid of my own shadow. Which right now I am.
I can't stand anymore of this holding my terror back. I must pace up and down, mumble, moan, express whatever is in me. The normal restraining mechanisms have been blown away by the weed. All I can do is to make rapid excuses and get away before I ruin the initially positive impression I imagine I made on Vered and Ilan. We leave. I'm always leaving. Maybe it's a Jewish thing. But then, Vered and Ilan are Jewish, and they're always arriving. Maybe it's the fact they're more Israeli than Jewish. Or maybe its just that I'm me.
Either way, in a long coat, holding Merissa's arm, we cross still streets. I am jabbering away. Is she OK ? She mustn't be frightened, this is what happens when people get stoned, its fine, everything's under control, did I say something stupid, am I making sense ?
"Yes", she says, but she's never seen me like this before.
We're now at my building, and I fumble for the keys for the downstairs gate. I'm desperate to be able to ride this out in the privacy of my own flat.
"It'll soon pass soon" I tell Merissa. "soon choon. Foon."
I feel I must allay any fears she has because I don't want her to freak out at my freaking out because then, boy, I'll really freak. We go upstairs, to my flat, and I shut the door behind us. Then I've taken off my coat and am lying on the mattress. It doesn't feel good. I'm dizzy. The room is spinning around me, and if I stay lying down I will slip off somewhere into space and not touch earth again. In addition I want to vomit up my supper. I must get up and pace.
I walk backwards and forwards, in the process tripping over the phone cord and pulling it out of the socket. All the while I am mumbling words in mantric-like fashion, little assurances to myself that its OK, that this panic is merely a small neurochemical sandstorm in my head, and that my body will continue to do the things it normally does - like breathe - even if the control centre is temporally out of whack.
While I am pacing, muttering snatches of the psalms and pop psychology self esteem slogans ("I am enough", "create in me a pure heart", "from a narrow space I called to you", "it's OK to be human") my nausea subsides, and in its place rises both the desire to eat and an enormous need for sex. Our months together have established that Merissa is pliant. She wants to be loved and needed - by whom or why seems to be of secondary importance. She finds it easier to give than to receive, both in and out of bed, which in my state of almost permanent hunger suits me fine. I feel relief and anticipation. How perfect the universe seems when a craving and the opportunity to satisfy it arrive on your doorstep at the same time ...which is why I find myself in the kitchen munching something, and then back on the bed, legs splayed, my head resting comfortably on a pillow.
I look at Merissa, who is sitting on the mattress near me. Then groaning a little, as if I am in pain, I ease my pants off. I let go of the pretence of being concerned about anything other than my own sweet pleasure. Here there is no hiding. I have been stripped - literally and metaphorically - down to one immense demand for gratification. Encased in a friendly mist which guarantees that this time there will be no boulders, no overhanging branches to get snagged on, I float downstream on a river of sensations towards some great and pounding waterfall. For this I was created, to lie at the centre of the universe and feel.
And feel I do. Not just the concentrated feelings of sex, which gather in the stomach and groin, and which in their specificity have a certain exclusiveness which leaves the rest of the body out in the cold. No, this is a warm blanket of feeling, the feelings you have when being massaged or stroked.
From all over the extension of my mind which is my body little pin pricks of heat, or current, or something touching and not touching are expanding and contracting, ebbing and rising, flowing in and back out. My scalp tingles as if I'd just eaten spoonfuls of mayonnaise or pure monosodium glutamate. My feet are buzzing. And I lie there, listening with my body to this gentle polyphony of sensations, curious about what will come next and finding it coming to me, independent of my will, unsolicited, freely, effortlessly.So this - as I knew all along - is what is meant by the hymn of the flesh.
Merissa's mouth feels soft and warm and persistent as it moves up and down and the fact that this all happens in slow motion while floating in a neural cloud means that it has been a slow tram coming, yes, but now I hear its horn, blasting warning, trumpeting, "Get out of my way, I'm a coming, I'm a coming."
Oh my God.I'm coming.
Afterwards I feel enormously grateful and thank Merissa and tell her that that was the most amazing blow job I have ever had. Just as I am lying there in a stoned post orgasmic stupor there is a knock on the door. It's Gavin:
"I tried to phone but it's so late so I thought I'd come and pick you up because I need your help urgently, you know my Gran's got very mild Alzheimer’s and she's vanished so I'm organising a search party to find her without involving my parents or the police. I'm sorry, I know its late but this is a real emergency. I tried to phone. You know what my gran's like. Oh, is Merissa here.If my folks find out they'll put her in the old aged home tomorrow, and then she's got maximum two weeks to live. I want to just find her and not say a word about this. She's so cute my Gran, a real sweety. You know what she's like. I must find her. Come with me now, both of you, we'll have some hot chocolate and then look for her. I've got Sam and Larry and Doris all looking for her. You know Sam, the gardener. And Doris the woman who takes care of my Gran. She's amazing. What's wrong with your phone ?"
Gavin's granny. About four foot two. Her back's so bent her head seems to emerge from her chest. A mouthful of rotting teeth. Deliciously senile, or aiverbottel, as they say in Yiddish. She has to manoeuvre, like a small tugboat, in order to see you, because of the angle of her head. First backs away, then swivels, till her reamy blue eyes find you.
Are old people still in there ? Hello, anyone at home ? Sometimes it's as if their soul's already jumped ship and only a skeleton crew remains behind to guide the faltering body until it reaches the last port of call.She is dressed each morning in a blue skirt, a girl's white blouse and a pink cardigan, with a tissue or two in the sleeve for safety. Most of her day is spent dozing or waiting or dozing again, in the sunroom of her decaying Houghton manor. In the 1940s it was a mansion. Now its a cross between a museum, a mausoleum, and a moulderheap. Old books. Old saggy massive furniture. Old bric a brac. Old photographs. An old radio which doesn't work when you plug it in and play around with the bakelite nobs. Old records: Richard Tucker, Great Tenor Arias. Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, Rythms from Latin America.
Sam the gardener runs a shebeen (unlicensed drinking establishment) from his back room and there's often riotous laughter coming from there. The property has only a low fence, which you can hop over with ease. People stroll across the lawn and no one knows who they are. Shebeen customers ? Passers by who've come to filch something ? Gavin’s parents don't want the cost of building a high wall. They installed a rapid response alarm but it doesn't make Doris, the black woman who looks after Gavin’s Granny, or Gavin, feel much more secure. The only one who feels secure in that house is Gavin's granny.
I often have quaint conversations with her where I get a chance to improvise, indulge my sense of the ridiculous, and in general explore the delights of non linear repartee.
"Please eat" she tells me.
"Thank you I will."
"How are the children ?"
"Fine, the little one's doing matric (Year 12) now."
"You must be very hungry. Have you eaten."
"More than enough."
"It's no trouble. Doris will get you something. Yoohoo, Doris."
"Yes kuku", says Doris, who is as patient and egoless as an ant colony.
"O kae ntate" Doris asks me. (Sesotho. How are you ?)
"Ke teng Rakgadi, wena o kae ?" (Ok Aunty. And you ?)
"She speaks a good Yiddish, don't you kuku", says granny.
"A bissele, ich red a bissel kuku" says Doris. (I speak a bit)
"Are you both kuku ?" I ask.
"Yes, both of us", explains Doris.
She's such a sweety, says Gavin's granny...how're the children ?"
"Getting bigger all the time. The eldest starts nursery school next year."
"I'm glad to hear it. Was she ill ?"
"Not too much."
"You mustn't go home hungry. I've so enjoyed talking to you. How's the family ?"
We follow Gavin back to Houghton. He is driving a big puce Datsun Laurel he inherited from an uncle who - like many other Jewish South Africans - now lives in Perth. We are in Melissa’s vintage 83 Golf. When we get to the house we reorganise - after much misunderstanding, especially on the part of Sam, the granny search party. Which is how I find myself at four o clock in the morning walking down a leafy Houghton avenue on a night where the half moon has almost vanished, the temperature is pleasantly warm, and I am starting to feel the sluggishness of thought produced by tiredness and the aftermath of dagga.
The stars are tiny overhead, and seem more numerous tonight because the street lamps aren't working. The big houses sit behind their walls. The pavements here are bigger than some people's garden's. I sit on the moist grass and lay my head, for a moment, upon it. I am about to doze off so I get up and continue walking. I take a left into 11th street. A dog barks somewhere, otherwise I'm alone in the world.
Big oak leaves crackle underfoot. Tennis courts peep out over high fences topped with metal spikes. Through wrought iron gates I catch a glimpse of panelled front doors or long driveways or several cars parked for the night. I go past a little electrical substation, down a dip in the road, over a bridge which crosses a water culvert, fenced with razor wire on which several plastic shopping bags have been festooned. There is a bus stop near the end of the next block. I will walk to the end of that block - the blocks are big here in Houghton - and then turn back. Unusual, actually to see a bus stop here. They're few and far between in this suburb. Maybe the residents didn't want their pavements disfigured with the ugly structures, or perhaps some municipal planner mused 'Houghton ? - let them use cars.'
I reach the bus stop. Someone has scrawled on the side, in thick purple marking pen "I am a round peg in a square hole." Under this is the addendum of another graffiti artist: "At least you found a hole." There is only one potential passenger sitting there. It is Gavin's granny, perhaps waiting for the celestial omnibus. She is awake.
"Hello, she says, "are you also waiting for the tram ?""Yes", I say, humbled by the stillness and the sadness of a bus stop at four o clock in the morning with two people in it waiting for a tram both have missed by thirty years."I'm very grateful you came to visit", she says, "Will the tram come ?"
"Are you sure ?"
"It always has until now. Aren't you cold ?"
"Very well, thank you."
"Bist du kalt ?" (Are you cold ?)
"Oh, you speak Yiddish, that's very clever of you. Thank you for coming."
She's perched on the end of the bench and her feet just touch the ground. Both of her hands are on top of her stick, and her chin rests on top of her hands. I am curious to know what she sees.
"Where are you" I ask.
The head on a stick doesn’t answer.
"What year is it", I try again.
"The war’s over" she says.
"Hitler's dead " she says.
"I hope so." Silence. Then I see the head on the stick swivel and the blue reamy eyes bore into mine.
"Where are you ?" she says.
What ? For some reason my heart is pounding. Is this a message ? Is God trying to tell me something ? Using Gavin's granny to teach me a thing or two about staying calm even when you come face to face with the familiar estate of self being sold off and broken up ?
"I'm here with you kuku" I tell her, although that tells neither of us where here really is. But I'm back in virtuous mode, cos' maybe the universe doesn't like my scientific exploration of the contents of old ladies' heads.
"Have you had breakfast", she says, "kuku can make you an egg. I don’t think we have any sausage."
"I'll have some later. Let's walk to the next stop. We'll catch the tram there."
Unprotesting she takes my arm and I help her up. We walk down the lonely street. Into the sunrise. Fade. Cut. Young drugged nobleman rescues altzheimer granny. Grateful children shower him with gilt edged stocks. At press interview afterwards Granny admits: "I've been stoned since I was seventy eight. This Alzheimer’s is the worst trip ever. Shoin."
It is still dark and we are walking about an inch a minute. At this rate we'll be back in the sunroom in a fortnight. I yawn. I hear a car coming down the road, and then the street in front of us is lit up by it's headlamps. It slows behind us. Trouble. Drunkards ? Louts looking to beat someone up ? Muggers ? Granny jackers ?
It's Merissa in her beat up old Golf. Again she has rescued me. How terrible to be indebted to one you feel uncertain about. But how wonderful to see her.
"Are you the conductor", Gavin's granny asks me.
"Yes madam, and this tram will take you straight to Goch street."
The explanation seems to satisfy her. After much manoeuvring, we manage to get her in the car. Then we go back to the house, to general rejoicing and cups of hot chocolate or coffee, drunk in the subterranean kitchen with the linoleum floor, cracked tiles and the Fuchsware electric stove from 1938.
"I've had a wonderful time", says Gavin's granny.
Merissa, who is a nurse, goes off to work. I am tired. It is 6:00 and a grey light has dawned on all of us who are alive to see it. We drink more coffee. I get into my car and drive home. On the way I pass a newspaper vendor and an early jogger. I unlock my flat, pull off my shoes, let Rambo in, and climb into bed fully clothed. Rambo is purring, but neither he or I can get comfortable on the same bed. So I kick him off. After a while he settles on my one and only chair.
Then we both go to sleep.
(This story emerged in 1992 0r 1993. It was published in the UK magazine The Jewish Quarterly)
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Celebrity shopping and name dropping
The supremely talented Lisa Melman and I at launch of Hidden and Revealed - she sang I fumbled
Nor did this unconscious graffiti come to the phantom's attention, and it advanced from class to class innocently chalking up more indelible and incoherent Hebrew hieroglyphics on more boards in classrooms near and far, so that the Hebrew teacher too was unable to write on the board, and spent her lesson raging and muttering against the phantom, whose identity was well known to her, the maths teachers, and the authorities.
Angry emails flew backwards and forwards between the phantom's victims and the deputy head, and accusing fingers were pointed at a certain S________, becuase who else could be guilty of a) writing nonsense and b) writing it indeliblely, if not on the hearts of the students, then on the whiteboard. The word went out - get S______, and get him over there with mineral turps to undo the damage.
And when S_____, (for indeed it was he who was the graffiti teacher) tired and bewildered but proud of having survived another three or so lessons marched with a fakely confident stride into the staffroom (which collapsed immediately into a defeated crumple as he shut the door behind him and no-longer needed to worry that the students might be observing him), he sat down after pouring himslf a cup of hot water, flipped open his infernal lap top, and downloaded his emails, when he was gently summonsed to his HODs office, and was told there semed to be a problem with the whiteboards and that they (the HOD kindly used the plural, and meant it) would need to clean it up. S______ was surprised, and anxious, because he understood that underneath the gentle understatement, lay a number of emails (they leapt out at his eye from the HODs monitor) which expressed the kind of outrage that brews when people running down their familiar daily tracks are forced off them by the blunders of as yet unclassified additions to the school landscape to whom it should have occurred etc etc. And S______ truthfully had never thought about the whiteboards at all befre that moment, despite having stood in front of them for almost 8 months of school. And S______ was both mortified and defensively defiant and >internally and externally apologetic (would this be the beginning of the end?), and the next morning rushed over to the groundsmen to get turps and rags and tried to clean, but the boards had already been cleaned and what remained - the stains - would not be diminished.
Sometimes at school I feel like Our Man in Damascus, lehavdil elef alfei havadalot, zicharon tzadik livracha, leadin this intolerable double life, except that when I get "caught" it will be a great relief, forcing me to find another way to earn the rent which perhaps has more integrity....
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Monday, November 3, 2008
Last week Jacob Rosenberg died. I had never encountered this author before coming to Australia. Rosenberg lost his parents and siblings in the Lodz ghetto, and at Aushwitz. he came to Australia in 1948 and lived in Melbourne until his death.
East of Time - a collection of vignettes of life in Poland before and during the Holocaust, was published in 2005, when Rosenberg was already 83. The book won the national biography award. A lot of it makes for harrowing, depressing and difficult reading, its lyricism often strangely at odds with its bleak and tortuous subject matter. Yet his sketches of people - of lives truncated by the calculated violence of the Nazi killing machine and their willing Polish assisstants - are rich and nuanced and evocative - a telling that has to be told and retold. Here are two extracts. One is called On The Slope, and the second is called Mercy:
On The Slope
Time had embarked on a precipitous, irreversible journey, roller-coasting along the brink of a fathomless abyss. A smouldering breeze from the west brought evil tidings. Newspapers, radio and the politicians screamed: War is imminent! Yet the government in the land of my birth was more concerned with devoting all its energies to the Jewish question. One million Jews must go! — to
There was a kind of unreality about my parents friend, the tailor Fishl Binko. He seemed to be driven by a gregarious solitude, the simultaneous need to be in a crowd and to be alone. Fishl was also a great teller of fables - what a pity he never wrote any of them down. I can still remember a few.
A mountain-climber seeking mercy from the winds enters a little hut. The hut is filled with books, and its sole inhabitant, a philosopher sated with years, welcomes him. 'Who are you stranger?' he asks the climber. 'A wanderer sir' the other replies. 'Have you read any books my young wanderer, have you any schooling?' 'No Sir.' 'Then please' begs the old philosopher 'tarry a little. I am in dire need of an honest teacher.'
Fishl was large and imposing of stature, with an olive complexion, and beneath his pitch-black bushy brows, his brown fathomless eyes and his sagging lips, he wore an expression of disenchantment. He had once been a great believer in justice and human decency, but the war, the ghetto, Europe's betrayal of his people, and awareness of our lives' permanent ephemerality - of which he didn't dare to speak, even to his closest, for fear of the very words - had transformed him into a fierce sceptic.
His wife Frumet, whom he had married in 1928, was a willowy woman from a traditional home, and four years his junior. She had an elongated face and rosy but slightly fallen cheeks. Her shiny dark-blond hair parted in the middle made her resemble, I thought, the image of a suffering Madonna, and not without reason. Like the biblical Hannah, Frumer had been plagued with barreness; like Hannah, she had implored God in her wretchedness yto open her womb. It took eight long and tearful years before the almighty in His mercy finally answered her prayers.
Mirka was a beautiful, chubby child; thanks to her parents, even that starving ghetto of ours could not deprive her cheeks of their sweet dimples. As for Frumet, she was content with a few spoons of watery soup; her berad, to its last crumb, was put aside to nourish her growing Mirka, who by the autumn of 1942 was six years old.
When it was proclaimed early in September that all children under the age of ten were to be 'resettled', the whole family went into hiding. On the morning of the 7th, the Jewish police raided the Binkos' apartment. Satisfied with its deadly emptiness, they were about to leave when Mirka, who had been hiding under several layesr of blankets, gave a little cough. Within seconds she was dragged from under the bedding. Fishl jumped to her rescue from his hiding-place but was swiftly knocked out. Then Frumet emerged, pounding away with both fists at the policeman's faces, screaming 'My baby! My baby!'
Shortly afterwards the distraught, demented mother stood like a black hole in time before the ghetto fence. She had no more tears to cry, no voice left to scream with. Just beyond, on the outside, a little girl with a knapsack, holding on to her mother's han, was walking to school; a boy was riding a bicycle; lovers were strolling, smiling, laughing....Of course, all this was an illusion. The only reality was the barbed wire fence, and the guard. 'Take pity, merciful soldier, please", she implored. 'Pull your trigger. Shoot me. Here, right here - right in my miserable heart!'
The guard duly obliged.
At night Fishl, like a sack emptied of ts contents, sat on a low stool in the darkness, with ash on his had. Over and over, he was reciting a passage from the Bible:
Perish the day on which I was born
And the night it was announced
'A male has been conceived!'
May that day be darkness
May God above pay no heed to it;
May no light shine upon it;
May darkness and deep gloom reclaim it;
May a pall lie over it;
May what blackens the day terrify it.
May obscurity carry off that night;
May it not be counted among the days of the year...
So Fishl cursed the day of his birth, his life, his very being. But ghetto legend has it - and most of our legends are so rooted in reality that sometimes it's hard to tell which is which - that one night an angel paid him a visit. 'Fishl', he sai. 'God admits that he sinned against you. He is about to give you a new wife, and three Mirkas. Remember Job?'
'No, no!' the stricken man answered. 'Go back to G0d and tell Him that Fishl Binko is overburdened with His mercies.'
'What do you intend to do' asked the angel, growing uneasy.
'That would be to defy the Master?
'So be it.'
'But Fishl all those who committed suicide in the ghetto are walking around in Hell.'
'That may be true. But their faces are shining.'