Rocky has taken to barking whenever I raise my voice. Not just barking. He gallops towards me and as he does so, the bark is really a growl and bark combination, almost musical in its effect, which to me, sounds like a plea– if not an order– for me to calm down. If by the time he reaches me I have not done so, Rocky’s bark becomes full-throated and absent the growl. By then, his barking is so loud that I can only suppose he is determined to drown me out. This is a recent development which should be unsurprising in a maturing relationship that now stretches over almost two years. I assume that as time goes by, there will be even more things about me which Rocky will find irritating.
This development however, is not entirely to be welcomed. If the truth be told, I come from a family–if not a culture– in which loudness was –still is–considered a sign of engagement. Speaking over each other was not a sign of rudeness but rather enthusiasm. Nor was this a matter of gender discrimination: in my family, the women were often louder and more dominant in conversation and argument than the men. I am referring here to my sisters who, individually, were capable of taking on anyone prepared to challenge them in argument and debate and indeed, were capable of doing so even when unchallenged. Together as a group, they were symphonic in effect, each playing their designated part–designated by history and practice, their parts implicit rather than explicit for I do not think they ever discussed any of this–so that there was structure and ebb and flow in their performances. When I was a child, I loved hearing them in full flight, watching and listening, fascinated, sometimes puzzled, but rarely concerned that their vigour and their animation could lead to a serious rupture or a diminution of their commitment and love–if not always affection–for each other.
At these times, as I remember them, my mother was invariably silent. My mother was never animated. Sometimes, one of my sisters would turn to her for a judgement on the correctness of what this child of hers was saying, but I do not recall my mother ever taking sides. Except to defend, quietly but emphatically, as if she would brook no argument, Rita, my youngest sister, who unlike me, refused ever to accept that her older sisters were in a position to rule over any aspect of her life.
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These symphonies, were always conducted in Yiddish, at least they were Yiddish symphonies during those first few years in Australia when we lived in the old tumbling down weatherboard house in Caulfield. I think my middle sister Cesia who had married the boy she met in the DP Camp in Austria, stayed only a few months in that house before she moved out with her husband, to a milk bar they had bought on St Kilda Junction. The milk bar was across the road from the cabaret and restaurant owned by my aunt and uncle, Chella and Robert Maas, who had agreed to sponsor the family so that we could get a visa to come to Australia.
Cesia worked in the restaurant and cabaret. She was back then, and has remained, the fiestiest of the three sisters, fiesty and fiery and fierce when she felt slighted or when she felt any member of her family had been insulted. Her husband played soccer for Hakoah in the premier Victorian league. In the mid 1950s, the league was entirely made up of ethnically based clubs. Fights broke out at games, on and off the field. The conflicts that wrecked Europe between 1939 and 1945, were brought to the mud-covered soccer pitches of Melbourne and given that Hakoah was a Jewish club, the players and its supporters were involved in brawls most Saturday afternoons.
I do not know whether my brother in law was a good player, but I remember that he was quite a decent brawler. My father sold peanuts at the games and Cesia would often help him, even as she watched her husband play. One time, when he was felled by a kick to the back of his leg, she raced onto the field shouting in Yiddish `kim arup, kim arup, canst nisht shpiln’( come off come off, you can’t play). Did I see that? I can’t be sure, but I do know that when it came to soccer, she referred to her husband as the kalike, which literally translated means cripple, but in Yiddish, can also mean, as it did in this case, you are hopeless at something.
In the house in Caulfield, we lived, my father, my mother, Rita and I, with my oldest sister Hinda, her husband Henyek and my two nephews, as well as Frau Schaeffer and Kurt Schaeffer whose bedroom was beside the kitchen and was therefore where I went to bed each night, comforted by the talk and the coffee making and the dish -washing nearby. I think each night, before he andFrau Schaeffer retired, Kurt carried me to my parents’ bedroom at the front of the house where I slept. Kurt played piano with great gusto, by ear, untaught, and he could play virtually anything–Beethoven or Mozart or Bach– though each piece, I must admit, sounded more or less the same, for Kurt loved to add his improvisations, yes, even to Beethoven and Bach and Mozart. Kurt drew landscapes in black ink, trees set against mountains mostly, though he did portraits as well, all drawn from memory so that they looked like memories, nightmares some of them, for Kurt and Frau Schaeffer had both been in Dachau and later, in Bergen Belsen. My father, with affection, referred to them as the Yekkes, which was the word, used as a form of abuse really, by Polish Jews when they talked of Austrian and German Jews. There was also Lipshitz who lived with us, a single man who I guess was in his thirties, quiet, so softly spoken that I hardly ever knew what he was saying. All I remember of Lipshitz–I am not even sure whether that was his first name or his surname– was the way he sat silent and composed, as my father, speaking to no-one in particular, wondered out loud how it was that Lipshitz always managed to beat him at dominoes, a game the two of them played for an hour or so every Sunday afternoon, my father dressed in his Sunday suit, his white shirt perfectly ironed, his tie matching his double-breasted brown suit, the two of them sitting at the table in the dining room, drinking lemon tea, my father with a sugar cube in his mouth, gripped between his teeth, the hot liquid passing through the slowly dissolving cube, sweetening the tea.
At the end of the dominoes session which Lipshitz mostly ended when he thought my father was close to total frustration and despair, my father would stand before the small mirror in the bathroom and comb his black curly hair. He would straighen his tie and pat down the lapels of his suit. Then he would leave the house without any farewells. This happened every Sunday afternoon and my father wouldn’t return home until after I was asleep in Kurt and Frau Schaeffer’s bed. He would attend, first, a meeting of the Bund and later, would go on to either a lecture by one or other of the local Yiddish literary critics, some of whom were among the best Yiddish literary scholars in the world, or a meeting of the committee of the Lowicher Landsmannschaft. In the 1950s, virtually every town and city in Poland had landsmannshafts in Melbourne, organised groups of Jewish survivors of these Polish towns, large and small, who had settled in Australia. My father joined the Lowicher group because, though he had been born in Lodz, he had grown up in Lowich, a small town close to Lodz. He also joined the Lowicher because one of his childhood friends, Vishagrotski, a kindly man who always greeted me, when I came to Lowicher evenings to recite a Yiddish poem, with heavy sighs despite the smiles, was the president of the group. I still have the Yiskor Bukh — the Book of Memory— that my father and Vishagrotski and the Lowicher committee labored to produce over several years. In it is the story, with photographs, of every Lowicher Jew who died during the Holocaust. In that book are pictures of my father’s sister and her small blond-haired daughter.
As far as I can remember, my mother never accompanied my father on these Sunday afternoon and evening outings. She stayed home and listened, more or less in silence, to the music of my sisters, all of whom were there, together, in the house in Caulfield on Sunday afternoons. I loved that time, the energy of it and the loudness of it and I guess, looking back, the female-ness of it, the way women and girls were with each other and with me, though the men I lived with, Kurt and Henyek in particular, both having lost their families, their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, embraced me with the unlimited affection of those who have lost everything.
I grew up in a house of loudness and I suppose, despite the fact that back then I was more often quiet, even silent, certainly than any of my siblings, in time, I too managed to add something to my sisters’ symphonies, though I do not think I ever became a lead player. While I consider myself to be not in the same league as my sisters- certainly less animated than any of them ever were– Rocky’s recent behavior suggests that perhaps there are rather more similarities I share with my sisters than I had imagined.
Where then does all this leave us, Rocky and me? Am I, for the sake of Rocky’s peace of mind, to try, at this late stage of my life, to abandon familial and cultural traditions for an anglo politeness that feels rather alien to me? Is not multiculturalism in part about accepting that different cultures have different concepts of what is meant by polite conversation and when it is appropriate to be loud?
For instance, I find that at the football, while all around me fans are shouting–often in a very abusive manner– I am mostly quiet, well relatively quiet, even when I am overcome with despair or joy at something that has happened on the field. Rocky, were he able to attend a game, would be most impressed. Even when the Bombers have been destroyed by the umpiring, even then, I am mostly quiet, angry and terribly frustrated, filled sometimes with hate, but quiet nevertheless. At the football,the influence of my sisters and their loudness is minimal at best.
In most other situations, it seems, if Rocky is be believed, my sisters have had a profound effect on me. I am, when it comes to loudness, their heirs, obviously something that I cannot expect Rocky to understand. These questions remain: how is it that only now, almost two year into our relationship, he finds my loudness irritating? And will this pass, this irritation, or is it a sign that our relationship is entering a more turbulent phase.