Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta on 26 January 1964
Sydney on 26 January 1964
North Bondi, Sydney
Typist in the NSW Department of Lands, Sydney.
My husband worked for Qantas as a ground engineer.
I was born in Calcutta. My parents and three of my grandparents were born there and their families had come from Iraq. We practiced the same traditional customs whether we were living in Iraq or Calcutta or Sydney.
My mother’s father was a typewriter salesman, a very honest man. When he came home at lunchtime I remember how my grandmother peeled his apples for him. She ate the skin and would give him the apple. She said she liked the skin. I couldn’t understand why she’d eat the skin but she was a very clever lady and I think she probably realised there was nourishment in the skin, so why waste it?
We visited my grandmother every weekend. We didn’t have cars in those days but we had the rickshaw. My grandparents lived with the extended family in a big house. My cousins were always there so we went on a Saturday and Sunday as a family. I remember this vase in my grandmother’s home in Calcutta. It was always in the showcase behind glass; it was never used. Actually, there was a pair and when we came to Australia my grandmother gave one to my mother and one to my mother’s sister. My mother really cherished it, I don’t know if it was because of what it’s worth or because it was her mother’s. I think it was a bit of both. This is the only thing I have from my grandmother.
Calcutta was over-populated. Dirty. A lot of poverty, a lot of people living on the streets, bathing and urinating on the streets. From a child’s point of view that’s just how it was. I had a very happy childhood. We were protected from the wars in Europe. We weren’t involved with any Hindu-Muslim conflict. We didn’t experience any anti-Semitism. We mixed mainly with Jewish people. We had Bengali, Chinese, Hindu and all sorts of people as neighbours. It can be seen as insular because the Bengalis would keep to themselves, the Chinese people would keep to themselves and the Jewish people would keep to themselves. But it was one big melting pot. Each group was respectful of the other. There were about 3,500 Jewish people and we had three big synagogues. I went to a Jewish school which had a Jewish hostel.
You could buy kosher meat in Bombay, but not in Calcutta. Our community wasn’t big enough to organise it and there was no refrigeration. But we ate chicken and I still remember the guy in the market who used to slaughter chickens according to the Jewish way. Our food was typically Sephardi Jewish. For Shabbat lunch, we ate cholent, which was chicken and rice. The chicken was prepared with a lot of tomato and was left on a coal-fire overnight so the flavour developed. The skin would be stuffed and that was called hashwa. And because it stayed on the stove for so long, the rice at the bottom would dry out. This was called hakaka which means crust I think, and was the most desired part of the dish.
There were a few reasons we decided to leave India. India gained her independence in 1948 and progressively India became really for the Indians. My parents weren’t in a hurry to leave their families. Around the same time Israel gained her independence and a lot of Jewish people were moving there as well as London, Canada and America, so the Jewish community was diminishing. My parents were really worried about China [and therefore Communism] coming into the bay. But we were not sure where to go. My father thought that in Israel his five daughters would be put in the army, given guns and put in the front line. This bothered him a lot and he didn’t understand that there were different jobs in the army. But also the language (Hebrew) would’ve been hard. It wasn’t easy to enter America and my mum didn’t like the cold temperatures of England and Canada. We were apprehensive about approaching the Australian High Commissioner because of the ‘White Australia’ policy. But actually we didn’t experience any discrimination, not from the first day my mother went to the office until we all had our health checks ready to go. I’d heard about Australia because, being in India, we learnt the history and the geography of the British Commonwealth.
At that stage of my life, all I wanted was to leave India because my social life was very limited. I was 18 and I couldn’t see any future there and I was ready for something new. And I’ve never looked back.
In 1964 we flew out of India on Republic Day and arrived in Sydney on Australia Day. My father’s cousin rented a place for us in North Bondi. After we had been there a short while, we were pressured into buying the house. It was a big financial stretch for us because whilst my dad and I found jobs quite easily, my mother didn’t find a job for six months. My dad was doing clerical work, earning £15 a week at Monsanto Chemicals. Fortunately I went to business college in India and had some experience. My mother eventually found a job as a librarian, but I think she first had to do an English exam. My sister also worked and my other three sisters were still at school.
I was very happy to be here. When you’re brought up in a country where everything is made by hand and crafted I was pleased to see machine made clothes with permanently pleated skirts and nylon. I was in my element. But my parents were very unhappy. I don’t think they knew what to expect. We had to learn everything; the way of life and culture is very different to India.
It was hard adapting to the culture here. It was so different from India. Having no choice, I used to go on Saturday mornings by bus, to do the family shopping. I broke almost every traditional Jewish rule that we were brought up not to break. I didn’t know what else to do, and my parents seemed to not know either. For many years, my father found life here very hard. He often regretted having come but knew he could never go back. We found a niche in the Jewish Sephardi synagogue in Fletcher Street, Woollahra. Here we were comfortable with other migrants. Here my parents met and socialized with people from the old country. They found it very hard to socialize with Australians. They didn’t drink and the cultures were just so different. Being more sociable, my mother met people through work, and found she could fit in with the Australian culture a bit more easily than my father. After a number of years though, my father became a very well respected member of the community. They were invited out a lot.
I met my husband, Ezra, about a year after we arrived. I must’ve been about 20. I had made friends with a girl through the synagogue, and she had a party at her house and invited him. He came with his family from Bombay and had only been here about six months. As soon as I met him, I knew he was the one for me. He was tall and had a great sense of humour. I went home and told my mother that I felt “socially secure” and I remember using those words. I think we danced that night and then I used to sometimes see him at shul (synagogue) or at our club held every Thursday night at the synagogue. We’d simply see each other there. I never asked him whether he was coming to the gatherings. I just knew that I was happy.
Six months after we met, he asked me out on our first date. That same night, he asked me to marry him. As much as I wanted to say yes, I knew I couldn’t because I had to ask my father first. So I came home and told my parents all about him. They hadn’t met him and my father thought he was too old for me because he was 13 years older. I guess I twisted his arm a bit. But I think they saw that I was happy with him. I married at 21.
When we married, we lived further up the same street in North Bondi. We were happily married for 21 years and then became sick in December 1984. He died in March 1985, just three months later. He had cancer of the stomach and that was it! My whole world turned upside down. I stayed in our house and did what I could for my two children. They were my number one priority in my life. My son, Ellis had just gone into Year 11, and my daughter, Mozelle, into Year 10. Those were dreadful years. I didn’t know anything about grief counselling and I thought Jewish welfare only provided clothes; I was grateful I didn’t need that. I received emotional support from my friends and sister. It was difficult because I couldn’t talk about it and I didn’t want the family to see me crying. I was so sorry that my husband didn’t even see them finish school. He would’ve been so proud of them, you know.
My daughter is 36 now and lives in Melbourne with her husband and five children. My son is 38 and he and my daughter-in-law with whom I am very close, have two children. They have bought a house in the same street so I see my grandchildren every day. Being a grandmother is very satisfying. My aim and biggest thing in life was to be a good mother. No career, no amount of accolades compares to that. At one stage in my life I thought that if I were a doctor or something professional, I would have been more confident. But now I know that doctors and lawyers are only people, as vulnerable as secretaries or whatever. I’ve been satisfied with the job I’ve done. I did what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.