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‘To the light of a candle, my grandfather and parents sang plaintive songs in Yiddish’

Ruth Wilson
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Published: 27 May 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In this extract from her memoir, RUTH WILSON recalls the warm memories of her grandfather’s Shabbat rituals during her childhood in regional Australia

A LOVE OF the sound of the English language was at the core of my passion for reading. It may sound incongruous, but an unlikely influence in this addiction was my paternal grandfather, with his thick European accent and very un-English habits of speech and social behaviour. His eccentric personality played a pivotal role in developing my verbal imagination.

I don’t know how, where or when he learned English, and in fact we were never quite sure where he came from. When he died, we found his passport, which recorded his birthplace as Bobroysk, Russia, his height as five foot ten, his eyes as dark grey and hair as grey.

But during his lifetime he insisted that he was subject to, and the subject of, no country in the old world. I can hear again the deep, heavily accented voice in which he wove simple but exciting stories around the courage of his parents as they fled from a pogrom presumably but improbably by train, since according to his account his mother miraculously gave birth to him on a train between Poland and Russia; his momentous decision as a young boy to make his way to Palestine on overhearing his parents’ decision to send him away to study religion; his hand-to-hand combat with ferocious bears in the dense forests he passed through; and an intimate account of his romantic meeting with my grandmother, who had emigrated from Russia with her parents and brother during what is known as the second migration of Jews to their ancient homeland.

I can hear again the deep, heavily accented voice in which my grandfather wove simple but exciting stories around the courage of his parents as they fled from a pogrom.

By the time I was sitting on his knee to watch more closely as he deftly removed a thin tissue of paper from his brass tobacco box and expertly rolled yet another cigarette, he spoke surprisingly good English. He could hold an audience in thrall. He entertained family and friends with stories of his early life that both defied and delighted the imagination, and with his love of storytelling went an endless supply of riddles and word puzzles.

Grandpa, as my brother and I called him, was given to telling stories at the drop of a hat. Some were addressed to general matters of life while others matched specific circumstances. He was always eager to comfort mourners, for example, with an exemplary tale of travellers, each of whom, when given the opportunity to exchange a personal suitcase of woes for someone else’s, refused to part with the familiar one.

The author's grandfather in Palestine in about 1937 with his daughter Cecelia’s son and husband (supplied)
The author's grandfather in Palestine in about 1937 with his daughter Cecelia’s son and husband (supplied)

Of course, my grandfather did not tell the tale so baldly; he embroidered it with details, personal and geographical, and accompanied it with philosophical commentary on the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. From memory, his parables were welcomed and seemed to bring comfort, even if only by way of bemusement, to his listener.

My most cherished memories of storytelling spring from the regular Saturday night ritual that completed our observance of the Sabbath. In the dim light of a single candle, my grandfather and my parents sang plaintive songs in Yiddish, the language that was, for all of them, their mother tongue. My father’s favourite song was a lullaby he remembered from his infancy, when his late mother, of whom he spoke with great fondness, sang him to sleep with the promise of almonds and raisins in his dreams.

My mother was born in Jerusalem and had learned a classical and sacred model of the Hebrew language from an ultra-Orthodox father who belonged to the priestly tribe called the ‘Cohanim’. She recited beautifully cadenced passages from the prophet Isaiah. Her light bell-like voice also suited the sweet melodies that had been composed to accompany lyrics in the modern Hebrew language, revived only shortly before she was born.

The words were celebrations of the miracle of life in a Jewish homeland. I wonder now, although it did not occur to me as a child, whether being transplanted from the old city of Jerusalem, with its exotic and turbulent history, its thronging crowds and colourful markets, to a dusty town in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area might in some way account for the throbbing headaches that sent her, like Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, to the couch for many hours of the day.

‘If you expect to rate as a gentleman, don’t expectorate here,’ he warned, wagging his finger at my brother. I could never understand how he came by such a funny sentence.

As far as I was concerned, the highlight of the evening was my grandfather’s rendition of songs through which he wove biblical stories of stark and compelling drama. Fragments of them remain in my unreliable musical memory. One of my favourites was about a little girl, Sara, who was transported to heaven, like the prophet Elijah – perhaps even with him, I can’t recall – in a chariot of fire.

My grandfather followed the song with a description of the girl – of course, she resembled me, with her long plaits and brown eyes – and Grandpa delighted me with an imitation of the snorting of the horses that pulled the chariot, impatient to get home to heaven.

The drama of that song was matched by a suite of songs that depicted the plight of the boy Joseph in his coat of many colours. Following an account of the jealousy roused in Joseph’s older brothers by their father Jacob’s gift of the coat came a syncopated oriental beat to accompany words that told of the discovery and rescue of Joseph from the pit where his brothers had disposed of him by a band of passing traders in their caravans.

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The climax was reached as the caravan bearing Joseph on its way to Egypt passed by his mother’s tomb. ‘Rachel, Rachel, Mother Rachel,’ he cried out piteously, and each time I heard it, my eyes filled with tears.

As I remember it, though, time spent with our grandfather was also full of fun and activity. When he visited us from Sydney, where he lived with several cats in a room above a commercial city garage, he did more than tell stories. He taught me to ride a bike, and he played energetic ball games with my brother.

When we came inside the house, he quizzed us. ‘What is black and white and red all over?’ he would ask. And we would giggle when he gasped in amazement, as he always did, when we answered correctly in unison, ‘A newspaper.’ And once again he would warn, ‘If you expect to rate as a gentleman, don’t expectorate here,’ wagging his finger at my brother. I could never understand how he came by such a funny sentence.

On a visit to Sydney when I was older, I read the words on a public notice in the tram that he would have taken from his sparse room near Central Station to his chess club, located in one of the city’s grandest department store buildings. I marvel now that he, for whom English was a language learned later in life, came to relish the word play that never failed to puzzle and delight us as children.

So, unlikely as it may be, word play in English was something that was shared by my family – descended from Eastern European migrants via the Levant and transplanted in its first Australian-born generation to a rural town in Wiradjuri country – and Jane Austen and her family, who inhabited what is called the pseudo-gentry in Regency England.

And the seed planted in me by my grandfather meant that I was receptive to the sophisticated use of riddles, conundrums and charades that I would encounter when I moved from the deceptively simple pleasures of Pride and Prejudice, which served as an antidote to adolescent doubts, to the antidote provide by the challenge of fictional puzzles in the novel Emma: a likely cure for a complacent mind.

This is an extract from The Jane Austen Remedy, by Ruth Wilson (Allen & Unwin). Rrp $24.75

About the author

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, who lives in Sydney, is a former teacher and the author of The Jane Austen Remedy, her recently-published memoir about growing up in a Jewish family in regional Australia, her career in teaching and love of Jane Austen.

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