7 October, Butterlands Butter Factory., Newstead, Victoria, Australia
Jews, Jews, Jews.
Jews drink, four cups of wine, then pour a fifth for Elijah. Elijah’s cup is poured, but not drunk, every year during Seder, the celebration of Passover.
The cup is raised and the lament begins. L a shana habahh b’ Yerusalem.
Next year in Jerusalem. The statement reminds us that wehave survived again, and to commemorateanother feast awaits us. The statement next Year in Jerusalem also serves as a reminder that no matter what, politics aside, there is always a safe place to go should things nasty again.
Say the word 'Jew' often enough in a range of places and you either laugh or cry.
Personally, I can’t say it enough, but I only started saying the word Jew on repeat recently, because I come late in life to a lot of things.
Like comedy I started when I was 38. The catalyst was my husband giving me a look when I went into labour with my second child that could only mean one thing: He was too pissed, so I would have to drive myself to hospital.
I took to comedy like others take to the drink. And when I would stumble out into the night searching for a stage in another dimly lit bar in Melbourne, my husband’s words echoing in my ears as he gestured to the television, the couch and the kitchen sink: ‘Is this not enough for you any more?’ And it wasn’t, dry stoicism morphed into wry wit as I grappled with the beguiling beast that is comedy and my desire to fill that chasm of need with the laughter of strangers.
I came late to education. Having failed year 12 twice, I steered clear of classrooms till I was 30, thenI got a bachelor of Community Development which equipped me to quickly arrange a wide variety of chairs and tables into welcoming circles, the intellectual acumen to distinguish between a working party a subcommittee and steering group and a wardrobe filled with non-threatening footwear.
And at 50, I’ve just started my Masters by research in creative writing on gender and comedy – women in comedy – please don’t get me started.
And I came very late in life to coming out as a Jew.
8 years ago my mother was over here on her annual visit from UK.
She puts a piece of paper on the dining table and says I have something to show you. It’s a hand-written family tree. My mother looks at me and she says:
‘My father suicided when I was 12.'
My mother went to a Swiss finishing school; they came from wealthy families; they dealt in furs and diamonds.
They fled Germany and went to England, everything stolen from them.
My mother baked honey cakes when I was little.
My father loved me, he called me 'meine Liebchen'.
He was always running, though. He would hold my hand and make me run too. He said that if we didn’t keep running then the Gestapo would catch us.
He was born in Obernkerken.
His name was Ludwig, his brother was Fritz.
Next to their names are their uncle’s names 'Julius and Siegfried’
Below that is the date 1942 and beneath that two words
I looked at her and she looked at me and I said, ‘Well that explains a lot.’
I grew up in North East England, a lot of things had closed down: the ship building, the steel works and most of the coal mines. So when I asked my mum anything about her past and she shut down, too, it kind of went with the landscape and I never pushed the issue.
As kids, we knew that we were Jewish, but we didn’t celebrate it. It was just something that sat in that bucket, the bucket of shame, like not having a car, or a phone or not being smart at school or always having head lice – shameful. You just didn’t talk about it.
So, I saw this family tree and something in me shifted. Like the time I sneezed a bit of carrot onto a woman’s hand - I was working in a fruit and vegetable shop at the time. I looked at her she looked at me and I said we’ll not charge you for that there bit of carrot on your hand.
A tree dating back to 1853 with branches burned off and we were still here..And it felt like it was time to come out as a Jew. My knee jerk reaction to everything in life to date had been to find the funny and this was the mother of all opportunities to do just that.
So, I created the inaugural Melbourne Jewish comedy festival because Jews and comedy, who knew that would work right?
But here’s the thing: there are 58,000 Jews living in Melbourne, and six of them live in a little shtetel called Preston. I am one of those six Jews. I’m what is known as a fabled Jew of the North. I am so far outside of the bagel belt I can’t even see the poppy seeds around the edges.
Coming out as a Jew is one thing. Getting some Jews in a room to be funny under the banner of the newly formed Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival as a completely unknown Jew in Melbourne is another thing all together.
But some things you just can’t push against, they are primal, they remind you that there is something bigger than you and your red lipstick wearing sarcasm. It’s a life force that made me realise that something came before me and there will be something after me and my glittering shing moment on earth is to add something and that thing is laughter. And I couldn’t fight against it – it was primal - Like when I had my first child when I was 30 and it was beyond me – because lord knows having children is an absolute pain in the butt, right? The urge to have them means the continuity of the human race; and they are born cute so you don’t reject them. But of course you spend the first few months covered in sate pooh and having let downs, During the kindergarten years and most of the primary years, you stink and have very greasy skin because of all the fundraising sausage sizzles you must run. And then they become teenagers: I gaffered up the bedroom window, nailed it and glue gunned it, but my teenager still escaped. And one night when I had picked her up from who knows where at who knows what time, she stated all the things she wanted::a t-shirt from jjays, a new phone and an overseas holiday, because it was an absolute embarrassment that we only went to Wilson’s Prom over the summer. My response was,‘Enough with the lists already.’
'Mum, she said in response – you should just begrateful that I’m still talking to you.'
Seeing the two words, “Died Auschwitz” on the family tree. And creating the festival was like that: primal, the continuation of the species, a compulsion and a statement that we are still here.
Don’t get me wrong I didn’t go as far as going Kosher, but I began to go from being a bit Jewish to being a bit Jewy. Even my kids were like suggested that I should change your name to 'Jewstine Shlep.’
I became like the old Jew in the joke on the desert island.
His name is Heyme, he has been on the dessert island for years when he is finally rescued
The old Jewish guy, Heyme, takes the sailors who rescue him around the island where he has been all these years.
He shows them the temple he’s built. It’s incredible, adorned with shells and seaweed.
The sailors are amazed.
Heymie takes them to the other side of the island. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘here is the other temple I built.' It is equally exquisite with architectural magnificence particularly in the bima area. The sailors are dumfounded. ‘Tthese are amazing,’ they say, ‘but why two temples?’ ‘This one –’ Heymie points to the first one on the other side of the island – ‘this is the one I go to. The other –’ he nods towards it – ‘that one I wouldn’t be seen dead in.’
I became that Jew, we have a perfectly good comedy festival in Melbourne, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival, that is the one I go to.The other one – pah! – I wouldn’t be seen dead in it.
Being a Jew became a point of pride and a huge learning curve: Melbourne is the second largest population of holocaust survivors outside of Israel, and there are so many Jewish institutions: Jewish News, Jewish Film Festival, Bagel Appreciation Society, and a radio station. I had a radio show called the Morning Kvetch but that was nowhere near enough, we had to make it the whole day. The lines were jammed with people wanting to complain: about the weather, about their sons, about their grandchildren sitting in hipster cafes all day on milk crates. We should have just taken all the other shows off air and called the station Kvetch 87.8 FM.
I get so Jew’d up, in fact, I even decide, at 50, to go to Israel for the first time, taking with me a comedy show called ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’. And there I am wondering around a Tel Aviv night having done a gig in a bar, and I’m lost. So I ask a woman for directions back to my hotel. We get talking and I tell her I’m the creative director of Melbourne Jewish comedy festival. She gives me a withering glance.‘Oh,’ she says,‘We’re all Jewish here.’
After Israel, I take the comedy show to Krakow, because someone had to do it.
It’s a very strange thing to stand at the tourist booth in Krakow and have the choice of a day trip to Schindler’s factory, white water rafting,or a day trip to Auschwitz. Nine thousand people visit Auswitch every day. There’s no business-like Shoah business, it would seem. I took the tour bus, I laid the stone in remberance of my family who had perished there. Then I got lost in the car park trying to find the tour bus..
Doing comedy in Krakow was the most ironic thing I could do. Slightly mad, deeply meaningful and a very tough gig. The show I had performed in Melbourne in front of back slapping mates yelling ‘Mazeltov!’ at the end was greeted in Krakow with such earnest expressions that my face ached from laughing at their non-reaction to my comedy show. The 50-minute show got truncated to 23 minutes, and at the end when I asked by way of breaking the earnest ice, ‘Any questions?’ a guy stood up, wanting clarification on a line I glibly throw away ‘I’m one of seven sisters from five different marriages’. ‘Of those sisters,’ the guy had asked me, ‘can you just clarify of the seven sisters can you tell us are they all Halachically Jewish?’
Tough crowd, right? Not as tough as the gigs I get in Melbourne, the Jewish gigs I get asked to do – invited to events on the basis of being Jewish, to events, to gigs – and I’ve not even had a bat mitzvah.
When I came out I had no idea that there were so many ways to be Jewish. There’s orthodox, liberal, reform and everything in between. And there are the rabbis. Whatever you do just don’t shake a rabbi’s hand – its forbidden.
The tagline for the festival is a celebration of culture through comedy and, indeed, that’s what Jews do – we do comedy, we are known for it. That and the holy days every week to celebrate the fact that we didn’t die. We eat unleavened breadat Passover (we didn’t die); we light candles and eat greasy foods during Channukah (we didn’t die); We eat dairy foods and mainly cheesecake during another celebration – again - because we didn’t die.
The odd thing about this, though, is that Jews aren’t known on the Melbourne cultural calendar for their food – for literature, for philanthorpy, for comedy, sure – but it amazes me that there aren’t chicken soup bars on every corner with blintz and bagel bars or festivals of unleavened bread, maybe there’s an opportunity there, we run out of jokes we can open up a kosher caravan.
I’m a Jew, I say it, all the time. I can see the stifled yawn of friends – ‘Bless, she’s a Jew, but she only just came out’. You can tell by my hair. I say I’m a Jewish woman of curls.
But if I you think I’m a late starter, I took my mum who is 74 to Germany for the first time in July this year. There was me, my kids and my mum, three generations of Jews. We stood at the door of her family homes, the summer house and the city house. I wanted to knock on the doors of these houses and say, ‘I think you’ll find that these houses don’t belong to you.’ But repatriation is not that easy and the Holocaust, no matter how you look at it, just isn’t funny.
But survival – now there’s a punchline.