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Authors: David Smiedt

From Russia with Lunch

David Smiedt was born in South Africa, but moved to Australia with his family when he was nineteen. He is the author of
Boom Boom: A Century of Australian Comedy
,
Delivering the Male
,
Prince Charming – Pick the Stayers from the Players
and
Are We There Yet?: Chasing a Childhood Through South Africa,
which was also published in the UK. He has contributed to anthologies such as
Girls' Night In 2: Gentlemen by Invitation, Girls' Night In 3: Big Night Out
and he writes for several publications including
Cleo, Madison, Home Beautiful, GQ
and
Sunday Life.

Also by David Smiedt

Boom Boom: A Century of Australian Comedy
(with Rob Johnson)

Delivering the Male: Your Guide to Modern Men Prince Charming: Pick the Stayers from the Players
(with Valerie Khoo)

Are We There Yet?:

Chasing a Childhood Through South Africa

For Jennie, with whom I am always home.

Borscht to the future

A rabbinical student returns home to Vilnius after years in America. ‘Tell me,' his mother says, ‘what happened to your beard?'

‘No one wears beards in Los Angeles,' says her son. ‘I shaved it off.'

‘But you still go to the synagogue every day?'

‘That's impossible in America. I'm way too busy,' counters the son.

His mother replies, ‘At least you make it on the Sabbath though?'

‘Mama, people work on Saturday in America.'

‘Tell me,' says the old woman, ‘are you still circumcised?'

It's called a mock
bris. Bris
is the term used to refer to the ritual circumcision of Jewish boys at eight days old. It's a small surgical procedure followed by a large buffet which is the ideal location at which to dust off the old chestnut ‘My
bris
hurt so much I couldn't walk for a year.'

The mock aspect comes from the fact that my grandfather didn't actually use a foreskinned newborn to perform his party trick. After dinner, he would draw a white sheet across the living room to separate himself from his audience. Strongly backlit so that his every movement was crisply silhouetted against the bed linen, he would proceed to act out a skit in which he played an ordained circumciser (known as a
mohel
) who was inexperienced, shortsighted, affected by sporadic tremors or all three. As his shadowy alter ego proceeded to disastrously experiment with a variety of blades, freshly serrated chunks of smallgoods would catapult over the sheet onto the floor and laps of dinner party guests. Good times.

In the chromosomal gumbo that is ancestry, progeny have no control over whose traits they inherit, but the more I learned about my maternal grandfather, Maurice Dibowitz, the more I yearned to emulate him. Maurice met me but I can't recall doing likewise. He died in 1969 when I was a few months old. My brother and sister, seven and eight years older than myself, fondly recall his generosity with presents and the fact that on their annual holidays from Johannesburg to Cape Town, he would drive them from the mountainside family home to sit beneath the garland of coloured light bulbs that fringed the shores of Camps Bay and gorge on ice-cream.

My initial fascination with the man was tied to a distinct physical resemblance. As a teenager, photographs from the past afforded me a glimpse into the future as I could view images of Maurice in his twenties and come away with a fairly accurate impression as to how I was going to turn out. While my brother and sister inherited my late father's luxuriously straight black hair, olive skin and business acumen, I dripped puddles straight from the Dibowitz gene pool through our house. Like Maurice, I have a hairline that is falling back quicker than a French army and eyes that appear somewhere between dozy and mournful.

Overshadowing these similarities, however, was a shared trait. Both Maurice and I found sustained joy in provoking laughter in those around us – with all the risk of embarrassment that this endeavour entails and perhaps the pathological desire for attention it betrays. While I attempt to sate this compulsion at stand-up comedy venues around Australia – ‘Good evening, Gympie. Who's ready to laugh?' – the young Maurice confined his efforts to the chuckle hutch of Yiddish theatre. These ministrations were later played out across the dinner party circuit of Cape Town throughout the forties, fifties and sixties with a repertoire of jokes so vast I have used some of the best to start each chapter of this book. (For those readers of the politically correct persuasion, please note that although these gags often use names like Hymie and Abie to signify Jewish characters, this is the manner in which these tales were, and continue to be, told.)

Then there was the matter of Maurice's elegance. As a young man who would grow up to spend a portion of his career working as a writer for fashion magazines, I admired both the cut of his jib and his jackets. The founder of a men's clothing label with the marvellously gentile brand name of Rex Trueform, photographs of Maurice invariably feature a blazer with contrasting pocket square folded in the kind of precise triangle most often seen these days on the first sheet of toilet paper in upmarket hotels. His tuxedo was custom-made, double-breasted and nipped in at the waist to accentuate his six foot two inch frame. I inherited the height but not the garment.

Sharp of wit and style, he was what would be called a player in modern parlance. Which is where the resemblance to myself dilutes from wishful thinking to watery envy. In such matters, I take after my dad. Ronald Smiedt approached women with caution, making them look twice with manners before winning them over with conservative dependability. Even when his contemporaries were cut from a different cloth, he was husband material.

His no-nonsense approach to life is best exemplified in a story my mother tells of their courtship. Mum – whose beauty won her the Miss Bubblegum pageant award – had several suitors when Dad first appeared on the scene and it so happened that on consecutive nights she found herself at the same restaurant. Deciding to play a game of compare and contrast, Mum asked Lothario One what he thought was behind a beaded curtain in the Moroccan eatery. The man in question immediately launched into a sunset tale of Arabian steeds galloping across the windswept Sahara beneath a Valentinoesque lover. She put the same question to Dad the next evening. His response: ‘It's probably where they take out the rubbish.'

I inherited all this and less. In fact, from my teenage years through to my early twenties, the only thing I was consistently capable of arousing in women was suspicion. At the same time, the passing years had turned memory to eulogy. Any of the negative traits that Maurice may have had were buried with him while his legend as a bon vivant of wit and panache was buffed to an enviable sheen.

Maurice Dibowitz was born on 14 January 1907 in the small Lithuanian town of Birzai and would have been celebrating his 100th birthday as this book was being written. His real name was actually Moses Dibobis. Which fits rather neatly into the syncopation of ‘Moses Dibobis his toeses are roses' should you find yourself numbed with boredom while you search the births, deaths and marriage records of a town half a world and one century away. A month after his eighteenth birthday, he said goodbye to his father Samuel, a baker, and mother Rachel for the last time. A new life awaited in South Africa. Precisely why he left remains unclear. He rarely spoke of the parents and eight siblings he had left behind, only one of whom he would ever see again. The memories were just too painful and while he often began to sing ‘My Yiddishe Mama' after a round of gags, emotion would rarely allow him to complete the standard.

Certainly, from the ages of seven to eleven, Moses would have witnessed Lithuania's perilous predicament as one of the major staging grounds of World War I. Since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Lithuania had been under the brutal control of tzarist Russia. In addition to a system of virtual serfdom that remained entrenched until the second half of the nineteenth century, the tzars forcibly implemented the conversion of Catholic churches to Russian Orthodox, banned the Lithuanian language and suppressed several civil uprisings with deadly tenacity. The Russian empire only crumbled in the wake of the Great War, but it did not fall easily and Lithuania paid a heavy price. By autumn 1915, the nation was under German occupation, had been ravaged in the process and Jews were being used as forced labour.

Three years on, the pendulum had swung Russia's way once more and Bolshevik troops had pushed German soldiers out of Lithuania then proclaimed the Provisional Lithuanian Revolutionary Government of Workers and Peasants. It's thus hardly surprising that one of the few memories Moses would share of his homeland is that ‘there were times you never knew which army you were running from'. And run they did, with the tzarists often scapegoating Jews for their own mismanagement of the nation. They thus had pretexts aplenty to launch what were known as pogroms. Which were ostensibly punishment raids against Jews for the misdemeanour du jour but were essentially orgies of looting, torture, murder and rape.

The enforcers of Imperial Russia were also able to marshal many willing agents of Semitic destruction in the form of freelance gangs known as the Black Hundreds. According to Masha Greenbaum in
The Jews of Lithuania,
‘Their [the peasant population's] priests had taught them to hate Catholics because of the authoritarian hierarchy in Rome, Protestants for their individualism and above all, Jews, who had “killed Christ”. They believed in the “blood libel”, the New Testament explanation of Jewish suffering, which they invoked to excuse the shedding of Jewish blood.' Further fuel was added to the anti-Semitic fire when a small number of Jews joined revolutionary political organisations, thus providing the tzarist-controlled media with ammunition to brand the entire race traitors. And just in case those whose prejudices they wanted to inflame were illiterate, agitators were hired to read Jew-baiting material aloud in public places. The idea, of course, was to rid themselves of what they termed ‘the Jewish problem'. The machinations of this plan were elucidated by Konstantin Pobiedonovstzev, a confidante of Tzar Alexander III. He prophesised that one-third of Jews would be forced to emigrate, one-third would be baptised and the remainder starved.

By 1920, however, a sense of muted hope was in the cordite-tanged air for Lithuanian Jews such as Moses. The Lithuanian army had ousted a numerically superior Russian force, leading to a peace treaty being signed on 12 July 1920 and the subsequent declaration of independence. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks and the tzarists were still engaged in running battles that periodically raged through Lithuania (and that Poland had annexed a chunk of the nation's western territory), Lithuanian minority groups inherited a bundle of newly minted civil rights in what became known as ‘the Paris declaration' of 1919. A dedicated ministry was formed to deal with Jewish affairs, there was proportional representation in all forms of government, the right to use the Yiddish language was guaranteed and autonomy was promised across internal affairs such as religion, education, social services and culture.

So why did Moses up and leave with nothing but a packed lunch and a ticket of passage just five years later? In a paper presented under the auspices of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain in April 2000, researcher Aubrey Newman attributed such migrations to South Africa to a combination of ‘push' and ‘pull' factors. On the ‘push' score were many of the historically universal drivers of migration: poverty, disease and memories of ethnic persecutions which were promised never to be repeated but invariably resurfaced. As ever, the Jews were determined to be who they were and had come to believe the newly independent nation in which they lived would allow them to do so. It was not to be. Once again, they were branded traitors in refusing to abandon Yiddish for Lithuanian and one journalist summed up the Semitic character with the comment: ‘Jews will join forces with those parties from which they can extract the most.'

Two years before Moses set sail, the parliament scrapped the Ministry of Jewish Affairs. Within a year, trade on Sundays was banned – a devastating blow to Jews who closed their establishments from Friday afternoon to Saturday night in respect of the Sabbath – and the display of Hebrew and Yiddish storefronts, names and signs declared illegal. Everything old was new again. Which is why what Newman terms ‘the Uncle Hymie syndrome' was so enticing to Moses and the hundreds of thousands of other Jews who fled from Lithuania. Despite sounding like a medical condition in which certain elderly gentlemen can't descend to/ ascend from a sofa without emitting several involuntary vowels, it is in fact more fiscal than physical. ‘[It's a] chain reaction,' notes Newman, ‘where persons go out and join their relations and friends who have already gone and done well for themselves.'

Ticking this box was a cousin of Moses' who had travelled to South Africa around 1915 and established a tailor shop in Cape Town. In exchange for a year's work, his cousin's family would sponsor his passage and allow him to live in a small room out the back of their house. This is where the ‘pull' factors come into play. By 1925, Moses was by no means treading new ground. The Hebrew and Yiddish press of the time regularly featured advertisements from the Union-Castle line offering transport to South Africa, a migration route that was far less competitive than that to North America.

According to his passport, Moses travelled from Birzai to the then Lithuanian capital of Kaunas and on to Hamburg where he caught a steamer to London. This was no pleasure cruise. Many of the vessels used were constructed to transport timber or cattle – both of which often accompanied the passengers. Livestock was of more concern to many captains than their human cargo, and the cattle needed constant mucking out. This entailed water being pumped out over the cattle decks, often drenching the passengers in the cramped holds below.

Just getting this far could be an accomplishment. Many travellers were turned back at the German border when authorities refused to recognise the validity of tickets purchased by relatives overseas on the grounds that they were faulty or invalid. It was, of course, a situation that could be rectified with some palm greasing. One observer noted, ‘People were fleeced by being forced, sometimes, to twist their intended route for the benefit of competing steamship lines. At control stations, where it was necessary to bathe and have the clothes disinfected, a simple fleecing device of the agents was to tell the people as they passed in their clothing for fumigation to take their money in their hands as the intense heat of the fumigation might destroy the bills. Thus they came to know to what extent they could bleed the immigrant.' On the other side of the North Sea awaited so-called porters who would pocket the bewildered migrants' hard-earned under the guise of purchasing unnecessary railway tickets or by directing them to lodging houses which had perfected the art of robbing the naive blind and dumping them on the street penniless.

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