March 29th, 2012

(no subject)

The joys of this time of year. Each year I assume that the extra energies spent explaining to the Canberra community the year before was a blip. Nothing big and nothing wrong, just trying to sort out meetings (work meetings) where the manager has decided to shout us lunch ... during Passover. I've sorted out what I will and won't do but this manager hasn't met Passover before and that's where it gets tricky. What's new to her is something I've made so many compromises on that my mother would be a bit horrified if I outlined them. Each year I have to run through the whole thing and explain the rules and show how far I'm bending them to be able to have that coffee and fruit platter and that really and truly a sandwich or a hot meal would be a problem. Especially a sandwich. The problem is, of course, that for Australian work lunches 'only a sandwich' is a phrase often used to persuade people to eat.

This year won't be as messy as other years, simply because Belconnen Community Services is sensitive and will listen. I've taught creative writing for them for five years and I have good experience of their wonderful people awareness. The problem is with me, and explanation-fatigue. For everyone else this is the first time they've encountered Jewish food laws. Any Jewish food laws, not just the special ones for Passover. For me, it's something I have to explain and explain and explain and be patient and friendly because for each and every questioner it's the first time they've ever asked those questions or (for most of them) even realised that there are questions that need asking. They shouldn't be punished for not knowing practising Jews and not being the first person to ask. In fact, it's good that they do ask and that they try to sort things out.

For me, though, it's the millionth time. There are not many Jews in Canberra and most aren't public about their Judaism. I get asked these things a lot. And this month is not an easy month for maintaining my cheer and giving Passover 101 yet again. I shall though, because it's important.

Compare this eternal newness with what happens on the phone to my mother. Yesterday we were debating whether the Sephardi 1/8 of me was allowed rice during Passover, or whether the Ashkenazi majority should rule. Rice is not one of the five grains. This means there's room for wiggle, I say. She says she has heard of a community that didn't eat pineapple for some years because the rabbi wasn't sure how to classify it. One errs on the side of caution, she says. I say "Rice! Maybe stir fried with onion and garlic. Rice!"

And we talked about modern Kabbalah and how it's linking closer and closer to areas of Judaism that have been influenced by evangelical Christianity. By no means all Kabbalah, but enough so that Mum's current lecturer is saying some truly daft things from a Jewish viewpoint. We dissect it historically and consider its relationship to the earlier texts and the Zohar's connections to Talmud and we work out that we don't want to be modern Kabbalists.

We discuss examples and anecdotes that Mum can use when she's giving tours at the Jewish Museum. And we swap the best recipes for a milchig lunch with three mutually exclusive sets of allergies present and then for the same group of family members for a fleschig Shabbat dinner. We talk about using up ingredients and how we are from being ready for Pesach and I admit relief that this year, my birthday doesn't fall on Pesach.

And that's my home Judaism.

We need Australian Jewish super heroes. They have a total advantage over most other super heroes. There's already such a difference between the private and the public life that secret identities will be a doddle.

Women's History Month - guest post from Angela Slatter

Art is Eternal ...

"Art is eternal, but life is short..." "I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose."

I love Evelyn de Morgan – the quote above is from her diary on the morning of her 17th birthday! She was a Pre-Raphaelite painter – yes, there were quite a few, not all the women of the era were ‘mere’ models for Rossetti et al. I love the fact that she had to fight to go to art school. I love her use of mythological figures and themes, and two of my absolute favourites are Medea and Cassandra.

In viewing the paintings what you cannot see is the starting point for the art. You cannot know what the jumping off point was, what sparked the inspiration for the painting. You, as the viewer, don’t know precisely what set off the artist’s intent, but you see the result.

I love her use of colour and light, how the details in the background are as important as the figure in the foreground. The echo of the colour of Medea’s dress in the discarded roses on the floor and the potion in the vial in her hand; the detailed work on the marbled walls, the tiled floors, the lion’s head pedestal base, and the torch sconce on the wall behind the sorceress.

Similarly, the blue of Cassandra’s robes is echoed in the smoke from the flames devouring Troy behind her; the famed Trojan horse is there too. The gold and sand hues of her wrap reflect that of the walls – and, tellingly, her hair is more flame-tinted than the inferno – can the burning of her mind, the intensity of her madness, be greater than that of her city? She has suffered longer than it has after all.

I love how these women stand, how they don’t quite face the viewer. Cassandra because she is seeing things across time, her distress all-consuming. Medea because she’s contemplating what she’s about to do, and there is no shame, no second thoughts, she will have her rightful revenge. I love the implication of the dead birds on the floor that she’s been testing out her potions in preparation. Medea is, no matter what, a very clever woman.

The viewer, to these women, is utterly irrelevant. They are captured in the moment of concentration, the very moment of turning inward and, conversely, looking ahead.

I can’t know de Morgan’s spark but I can know the spark it sets off in my own creative mind – Cassandra inspired a piece of micro-fiction when I was writing for The Daily Cabal, below for your reading pleasure.

Medea still eludes me. The image is powerful, I feel I know her better than Cassandra, but I haven’t been moved to write anything based on this painting as yet. She has been a screensaver on and off for years. I look at her every so often and wonder when she will speak to me. Who knows how long it will take? To her, the viewer is irrelevant.

I don’t want to go in.

He’s there now, didn’t hesitate. It’s his home though he’s been away for long years. I warned him, or tried to but who listens to me?

I saw his wife in the shadows just before she stepped through the door, and in that moment she seemed a huge, swarming. Then she moved forward, into sunlight and she shone.

Not as beautiful as her sister, but no one is. Tall, broad-shouldered, jaw strong, forehead wide, cheekbones high. Clytemnestra is handsome rather than lovely. She moves with deceptive slowness, but there are muscles evident beneath her rich robes. She’s a warrior queen and has not let herself run to fat. Her hair, red-gold in the sun burns like liquid copper.

The smile she gives Agamemnon is frozen; she speaks soft words of welcome and he is deceived. When she looks at me she sees no Trojan princess, merely a slave, hair lank and oily, back and shoulders hunched as if deprived of wings and ashamed of their nakedness.

‘Don’t go inside,’ I whispered to my master, my owner, my thief. In spite of it all, I did not want him to walk all unawares into his fate, for his end means mine. But he gave me an annoyed glare, sick unto death of my constant warnings and plaints, of the sharp dreams that have broken my sleep (and thus his) these past months as we travelled to Argos. He has no patience. He is tired unto death of my madness.

He took his wife’s welcome as his due and went in to the bath she had prepared for him. Clytemnestra watched me and nodded slowly before she turned and followed him. I waited, held my breath, counted the beats until I heard him scream, heard the wet sound of a great axe burying itself in muscle and flesh, releasing blood into the air. She waits inside now; another man by her side.

I have seen this for so many days. Fate cannot be avoided. I am a Trojan princess. I step down from the chariot, swallowing hard. I put my foot on the first step and mount the portico. My end lies here.

Angela Slatter is a Brisbane writer of dark fantasy and horror. Her work has appeared in venues such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Fantasy Magazine, Dreaming Again, Steampunk Reloaded, and Strange Tales. In 2011 The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales won the Aurealis Award for Best Collection and Sourdough and Other Stories was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Midnight and Moonshine, co-authored with Lisa L. Hannett, will be out in November 2012. She blogs over here about shiny things that catch her eye.

Secret rituals exposed

I have undertaken the strange annual ritual of delving into the dark heart of my larder and I have drawn forth the unwanted. I didn't do any baking this year, so the unwanted includes nearly 4 kg of flour. These will become biscuits and cupcakes for just as long as the other ingredients last, or until Passover, whichever comes first.

Let me predict that if you see me at all in the next few days, you may find yourself the unwilling recipient of baked goods. This is a family tradition and it would be really rude of you to resist. What you should do (if you look at them and think what an appalling cook I am, or wonder why I put those particular ingredients together) is hand them on to the next person you see. Develop a reputation as an eccentric deliverer of baked goods (not baked gods - the ancient family ways don't extend to baked gods any more, though I have heard stories...).

The recipes will all be ancient and traditional. They go something like this.

"Flour - yes. Lots. Good.
What goes with flour?
Eggs? Yes, have eggs.
Sugar. Where did all this sugar come from? Why didn't the ants get at it? Why do I have sugar at all? What about honey? Both. Why do I have both? Now I have to decide between them. {don't look at the treacle and molasses and corn syrup - they do not exist - my eyes are blind to them]
Almonds? Oh yes.
Oil or milk - got both - need to think
Vanilla essence - oh yes, but isn't it dull. Arak essence maybe, or pandan, or coffee, or apricot brandy or... I grab three at random and the problem is solved. Except that one is eucalyptus oil, so I switch that for something less extravagantly Australian. I'm not feeding my biscuits to koalas, after all. Although if they asked politely, they could have some.
And spices. Medieval, Ancient Roman or Other? Which goes with almonds? With chocolate? With nori? No, nori cake won't work. Nor will quinoa and galingale biscuits, though that one might be fun to try.
What have I forgotten? Let me check those dark recesses again to remind myself."

You can see the ancient process at work. I work through what I have and what I feel like making. A varied array of goods eventuates, but it always includes chocolate ginger biscuits, for these are my personal favourites, sometimes studded with almond shards. At the end of the day most of the ingredients will be finished, my larder will be saved from use by dates, weevils and chametz, and many many innocents will have suffered.

Recipes? I have them. The real family thing, written down in my handwritten memories of other peoples' cooking. Sometimes I remember to check them after I'm finished, just to wonder why I didn't think of them earlier.

PS I mostly cook this way when I'm not doing food history or discovering amazing new recipes. It's very wrong of me and I will reform. Except I will lose the joy of not knowing, if I reform. And what would I do with leftover verjuice and poppyseed and lemon myrtle?