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Never Mind The Width, Feel the Quality!

June 21, 2009

As a young, gentile, boy,  I was introduced to the Melbourne sub culture of Jewish people.  My father worked in what was referred to as the ‘rag’ trade, or in the yiddish, the schmatters.  He worked as a salesman for a company called Andrews Brothers, nothing Jewish in that name.  However many of his clients were european born Jews.  He sold fabrics for clothing, mens and womens.  I remember visiting him in his workplace, always a tape measure hanging from his neck like a doctor wears his stethescope, a kind of signifier of his profession.  It was the 50’s and he went to work always in a suit and tie and a felt hat.  He seemed happy enough with a job he had after several years in the Australian Army as a Second Lieutenant.  He considered himself both an officer and a gentleman.  He spoke quietly and never exhibited signs of an ‘ockker’.  This was a word I was later to learn came from a comic called Ginger Meggs.

He caught a train from Melbournes outer south eastern suburbs into the city each week day.  In order to earn a few extra pounds, not a large amount I am sure, selling men’s suits in a Tailor shop, owned and run by a Jewish, older man.  This he did each Saturday morning for many years.  My mother was a domestic goddess.  She made her clothes and mine as well.  I was an only child for ten years so there were only the three of us in our solid brick home, not was to become brick-veneer later on in the building trade.

I can remember coming home from school and finding the living room awash with tissue paper, these were clothing patterns she used to cut out the fabric for dresses/frocks etc.  She was talented.  Pins and white chalk were part of her trade.  The treadle sewing machine on the back verandah where she would sew the pieces together and her efforts were admired by family and friends.  Later on this would become a booming industry in Melbournes inner suburbs, the work being done my immigrants, who are now called ‘out workers’.  She did it to save costs on buying ready made clothing, sadly a thriftiness I never inherited.

Often I was able to accompany my father to his Saturday morning, part time job in the Tailor’s shop which had a retail section attached.  This was to be the first exposure for me to a foreign languages.  The Latin, French etc were to come from my secondary schooling.  The customers, mostly Jewish men would arrive and my father would measure them up for what it was they wished to have made.

I was fascinated by this experience.  I had no idea what they were saying, but it was the difference from my own language that made it attractive.  This attraction remains with me 50 years later.  I was a great mimic.  I listened and tried to make the same sounds that I heard in the Tailor Shop.  What came out of my mouth was meaningless but I managed cadence and pronunciation to develop my own kind of Yiddish.

When I started imitating these men, my parents, and especially my grandparents were greatly amused.  The loved it.  Probably saw me as some kind of actor, a performer.  How right they were to be years later.  ‘Strine’ was yet to be invented.  No Barrry Mckenzie in the mid 50’s.

At school we had an elocution teacher.  What would that word mean to this generation.  The teacher was a middle aged woman, noted for her bright red lipstick and almost vaudeville exterior.  I guess I should be grateful that I was taught to speak ‘proper’ english.  We did pronunciation exercises ad nauseum but there was an element of humour as we all had to follow her expressions each week in class.  There was no plumb in the mouth as we would say.  She was no Penelope Keith but she did speak and enunciate in a clear and refined manner.  Later on in secondary school, we attended elocution lessons each week.  It was part of the curriculum that the ‘Unchristian’ brothers offered in their schools for boys.

My mother was always big on politeness.  This extended to raising my school cap whenever I passed elderly female neighbors.  My mother was uneducated but held great hopes for her only son.  She used often say, ” Manners cost nothing”, like so many cliches offered at that time.  And a respect for ones elders was de riguer.  Something that is culturally inherent in Asia, not so much in the West.   So often the elderly are invisible in Western Culture.  Just as are women in Patriarchal societies.

Rituals have always fascinated me, and of course the church provided an over dose of these and at that time in Latin, not the vulgate of post Vatican Two.  By this time I had developed my own yiddish patter.  It was meaningless in its content and vocabulary but I enjoyed being able to perform.

At about 9 years of age my grandparents were so impressed that they would say, ‘Do the Jewish Tailor’.  This meant standing up in front of family and friends and spew forth semi guttral sounds along with lots of hand gestures.  It became my first stand up routine and I was happy to oblige.  It was a form of recognition, a kind of assurance that I was a clever boy.  No other kids I knew were able to perform such an act.  I was unique, and who does not like the affirmation of an audience when performing.  Ask Barry Humphries, ask any performer, comic or serious actor.  Theatre gives us the opportunity to receive acclaim, applause, even awards.  Of course all the world is a stage, but in the living room of a suburban house, I was the star.

For many years later I joined Theatre companies and had small roles.  However I think the greatest role I played was that of a Teacher.  The voice was my instrument.  A good teacher must be a good actor.  Students switch off with dull teachers, one remembers the ones who made learning an exciting and desirable activity.  We all can name at least one teacher whom for years later we still recall as being ‘good’, ‘interesting’, ‘alive’ and having made an indelible mark on our education.

Years later when British Televison showed the series on the Jewish Tailor, the title of this post, give or take a word or two, those childhood experiences in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, the heartland of Jewish Schmatters Industry, rushed back into my consciousness.

I still have memories of my father saying to friends whom I brought home, ‘That’s a very good fabric!’ whilst feeling the material of some friends clothes.  The only thing that was missing was his inabilty to mimic the Yiddish that I had done so well decades before as a young boy.  He went on for nearly 60 years to become the doyen of the textile industry in Melbourne.

One phrase I recall him saying was, “You know denim is so passe!’   I dont think he got it right, like many things in his life.  However he was a catalyst for my love of languages.  I am sure this has enabled me to be reasonably fluent in thai, so far removed from the Romance languages of my schooling and even further from the wonderful Yiddish phrases I have subsequently included in my repertoire….as a dear friend said to me late in life, ‘You are such a Mensch”…google that one my friends!

One Comment leave one →
  1. dyoll09 permalink*
    June 21, 2009 3:14 pm

    Dedicated to all those with a love of Language!

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