THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE
(or Why be wary of the number '9'?)
‘I knew a world of innocence, when I was blind;
I fear a world of terror, now I've opened my eyes’.
-------- Epiphany --------
I keep a copy of my birth certificate in the bedroom drawer. It says I was born on the 9th September, 1954. That’s the 9th day of the 9th month in the 1950s. Add up the last two digits of this birth date and you also get the number 9. That’s a lot of 9s associated with a birth, which might explain why I am the way I am. It might not as well given the number 9 represents spiritual completion in a number of numerological systems. Fifteen years after I was born, in the year 1969, I heard The Beatles’ song Revolution 9 and nearly flipped out. These days I can frequently be heard humming the words to that song repeatedly – ‘number nine, number nine, number nine…..’. Not many people know that my guru gave it to me as a mantra. He said it would free me from obsessive tendencies.
Also on my birth certificate, under the section titled ‘Name, and whether present or not’, is written in clear black and white: Edward, not present. This is either due to an inebriated member of the hospital staff goofing off, or a prophetic statement of my future propensity for being elsewhere. In any case, if I wasn’t present at my own birth, then who came out through my mother’s birth canal? And where was I during the whole process? The problem is I cannot remember the event, so I have to rely on my parents’ account. They reckon it was me that appeared but I’m not convinced it was.
My mother had wanted a girl to balance out the boy she had birthed four years earlier. However, when I first came into view, the first thing she looked at was not what was between my legs, but whether I had the full arrangement of fingers and toes. I did, much to her relief. My brother cried for days, not because I had all my fingers and toes, but because he did care what was between my legs. He wanted a sister. The setback probably explains why he tormented me for years with stories of the boogie-man under the bed. That might also explain why I have suffered persistent insomnia much of my adult life.
My parents owned a fruit shop on 94 Swan Street, Richmond, one of the main thoroughfares leading into the CBD of Melbourne, and it was there they took me after bundling me up and leaving the hospital. The building was a century-old semi-detached Victorian house which was converted into a living section on top of the shop and a kitchen and laundry out the back. A lane ran alongside the building and behind, on the other side of which was a major train-line into and out of the city. A key tram-line also ran out the front of the building.
Although Richmond was mainly an Italian neighbourhood back then, I heard numerous foreign languages spoken around the house and the shop. Italian, Greek, and a little English were the mainstays in the shop, while Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish (Jewish) and the occasional broken English were the languages my parents spoke with their friends around the home. There was much amusement listening to them chatter, with up to four different languages forming each conversation. Remarkably, I didn’t realize my parents spoke accented English till after they sent me an audio cassette of themselves talking many years later while travelling overseas.
Our family had little in the way of worldly goods. The sofa comprised several fruit boxes with a blanket on top, and the toilet was the classic outdoor Australian dunny with a chain for flushing, a wooden seat and a broken-down door. There were no videos or computer games. Transistor radios hadn’t yet been introduced into the country, let alone DVDs and televisions. We had one phone, a heavy contraption where a finger had to be placed inside a circular turning mechanism in order to dial a number, and one car, an old Austin A50 that didn’t always get us to our intended destination.
On our first interstate road trip, the car broke down somewhere in Grafton en-route to Surfers Paradise. Rather than wait the week it would take for spare parts to arrive, we got on a plane the next day. It was the first airplane flight any of us had been on and my mum was shaking.
“There’s no need to worry,” my Dad said, “We’re all together.”
This attempt at appeasement, however, did not diminish my mother’s anxiety. Nor mine entirely. But whatever fear I had was soon swept away by the thrill of escaping the earth’s gravitational force for the first time and looking far down at the terrain below.
Whatever scarcities we might or might not have had in those early days, I was a happy child. The world was a place full of fun and adventure, and I was insatiably curious, continually asking my mother questions. ‘Why this, why that?’ I would plead, following her around everywhere. She called me her schwanz, a tail in Yiddish. ‘How come this, how come that?’ I would ask. My mother deserved a medal for her extraordinary tolerance of my incessant questioning and chatter. Wanting to show my gratitude on one occasion, I took the 9 shillings I had saved up to Dimmeys, the corner shop a long way down the street, and bought her a necklace. It’s hard to imagine parents being young and a mother being a woman, but her smile on receiving the gift is etched into my heart forever. It was also a valuable early lesson on how to show appreciation towards females.
Running the fruit-shop was hard work for both my parents. My Dad would begin most days getting up around four o’clock in the morning and drive his truck down to the fruit and vegetable market a few kilometres away. I would eagerly await his return later in the morning, hoping there would be a bag of Kit-Kats in addition to the fruit and vegies.
Dad was my hero in those days. He seemed large and invincible, and able to do anything. Sadly, not everyone felt the same way, especially the cat we bought in order to scare off the mice in the shop. In response to his grumpiness and irritability, she would urinate on the pumpkins and on the one chair he used to stack his clothes at bedtime. I have always enjoyed observing the quiet intelligence of cats, but none so much as that wonderfully intuitive moggie. That we eventually ended up with thirteen cats at one time, is a testament to my father’s tolerance, endurance, and survival skills; traits he developed through his experiences in the country of his birth, Poland, prior to the Second World War, as well as in concentration camps during the war.
My mother also worked in the shop, stacking fruit and vegetables and serving customers. She is a short, strong-bodied woman, whose interminable optimism and resolute will helped her prevail over the many obstacles in her life. Her star sign in the Zodiac is Taurus the Bull - reliable, determined and indelibly strong-willed. She was born in the Romanian state of Transylvania, and I daresay even Dracula would step aside if he was in her way.
I am indebted to my mother for passing on to me the qualities of sensitivity and positivity; they have counteracted my father’s more cynical and hardened disposition. I have not been appreciative, however, of her adherence to a lifelong practise of calling me by anything but my birth-name ‘Edward’. Of the many names she has used, in four different languages, the one most often employed has been Bubbeleh, a Yiddish term of endearment, meaning something like ‘my cute, little sweetie-pie’. I can recall times when my mother would call me Bubbeleh in front of my friends.
“Bubbeleh, it’s time to go,” she once shouted while as a small boy I was trying to make out with Rachel behind the shed in her backyard.
“Mum,” I replied, quickly extricating my tongue from Rachel’s mouth. “I’m busy. And do you have to call me that name?”
“Why not? What’s wrong with Bubbeleh? Hurry up my skinny Zaba, we’ve got to go home.”
Zaba means ‘frog’ in Polish and I nearly died with embarrassment when Rachel started laughing hysterically. I have been unduly thin most of my life, and such comments touching on my appearance were not helpful for my self-esteem. Rachel never took me seriously again. She never let me stick my tongue in her mouth again either.
If there is any consolation to the whole name shemozzle, it’s due to my father. He has always called me ‘Eddie’, for which I am most grateful. Unfortunately, his name has some confusing elements to it as well. On his birth certificate is written the name, ‘Izak’, which is a variant of the Hebrew word Yitzchak meaning ‘laughter.’ The closest English equivalent is ‘Isaac’. My parents’ European friends know him as ‘Itzhak’, while my mum has always called him something like (the unpronounceable except by her) ‘Itchokshe’. To make it easier for Anglo-Saxons, my father has suggested they call him ‘George’, the name which now appears on his Australian passport. I call him ‘Dad’, and there isn’t a better one in the whole world. Unfortunately, when he abbreviated my name ‘Edward’, he spelt it ‘Edy’, which is a girl’s name. It wasn’t till 1969 that my then girl-friend spotted the error on my pencil-case and changed it to ‘Eddie’. It has remained that way ever since.
This early confusion about names, and who in the family was called what in which language, was compounded by my parents’ puzzling perspective on religion. They keep no religious beliefs or practices, but if you ask them what religion they are, they say ‘Jewish.’ They further claim to be Zionists and Atheists. This combination of identities holds no contradictions or dilemmas for them. They do, however, maintain hostile attitudes towards all religions including, at times, even Judaism.
“Do you know,” my father once told me, “There are religious Jewish fanatics in Israel who want the country to no longer exist as a nation because the Moshiach (messiah) hasn’t yet arrived?”
I love my father’s humour even when he’s serious.
“They believe that only when he appears, will Israel become an authentic nation and the Jewish people will return to live there; even the dead ones, who will tunnel all the way underground.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, right?” I replied.
“And a large fish will appear in the ocean, big enough for everyone to eat.”
“Come on dad, you’re making this up.”
“No, really, we learnt this at school. We sang songs about it. This is what religious Jews believe.”
The lessons my father is recalling occurred over half a century earlier in the Jewish school he attended in Poland, so I am sceptical about their veracity. But he’s adamant, and he completes the discussion by giving me a short lesson of his own.
“Eddie, keep away from religious fanatics - Jews, Christians, whatever - they’re all the same.”
Like just about everyone else on this planet, my father’s point-of-view was shaped by the experiences of his life; his time in Poland before the war, his encounters during the war, and the myriad of events since. He cautions me because he wants to protect me from the villains he reckons are lurking behind religious beliefs and institutions. He hasn’t really delved into the underlying motives of religious endeavour, or how they might differ from ‘spiritual’ ones, but the conflicts he has seen in his life based on religious affiliations have convinced him that the god of religion is as real as Santa Claus or the coming of the Messiah. I wonder what expression would appear on his face if, years from now, he popped up in Israel after tunnelling underground all the way from Melbourne!
Whatever the ruminations of my father, I understood intuitively as a young child that all beliefs are arbitrary, whether they derive from religious conviction or rational deliberation. I recognized that a religious Jew treating the Old Testament as the word of God was not in a superior position to a Muslim believing in the infallibility of the prophet Mohammed, or a Christian worshipping Jesus. Or an atheist claiming to believe in nothing. I felt an immediacy of life that made all such considerations superfluous. I further saw that all parameters of communal identification such as culture, race, religion, nationality and the like, were misconceptions of reality that caused divisions among people and wars among nations. I wasn’t able to articulate these recognitions through words, but I ‘knew’ it, felt it, at a preverbal level.
In those early years I also felt the rhythm of life through the shapes and sounds of music. My parents owned a set of old 78rpm records and we would listen to Italian tenors such as Mario Lanza and Beniamino Gigli sing popular Italian songs. Danny Kaye would chip in with favourites from his movie, Hans Christian Anderson, followed by Dean Martin crooning That’s Amore and Volare. It was the early 60s, a time when Australian popular music was in its infancy. My hero was The Wild One, Johnny O’Keefe, and I remember as a 6-year-old walking across the street to the record shop and handing over a 10 shilling note for his hit single, I’m Ready For You. I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be a musician and emulate my idols.
Apart from music, I had three other major interests in life: girls, playing and running. These activities might not seem interconnected, but my ability to run fast enabled me to elude the bunch of girls who regularly chased me around the schoolyard wanting to include me in their playtime. Secretly, I wanted to be caught, but I never let on. Not so with my cousin Suzie, who, on more than one occasion, cornered me in the upstairs room of my aunt’s clothes shop wanting to play Doctors and Nurses. She would make me an offer I couldn’t refuse - ‘Show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ - which I always accepted with heart-thumping eagerness. What a revelation it was seeing a girl’s genitals for the first time. I was only seven-years-old, but it fostered a fascination with the female form that has remained ever since.
The innocence I knew as a child, however, changed in my 9th year. I was playing Cowboys and Indians with Fabio, the Italian boy who lived on the other side of the fence, when a question appeared in my mind: ‘If Australia and Italy went to war, would we be required to fight each other?’ I looked at Fabio with his dark, curly hair, his brown eyes, and the Cross at the end of his necklace, then brought to mind my own blonde hair, blue eyes and Jewish background. It was as if a knife had severed my umbilical cord, and for the first time I was aware that people not only appeared physically different, they distinguished themselves by where they were born and what beliefs they had acquired. Fabio was classified as an Italian and a Catholic; I was classified as an Australian and a Jew.
Them and us.
Although from then on I would be buffeted by society’s relentless emphasis on consumerism and exalted self-image as the primary means to happiness, the sense that all divisions between people are arbitrary, and therefore unnecessary, would remain as the underlying principle of my life. Moreover, this awareness would continually inform me throughout the myriad of experiences and adventures I was to undergo.