A Melbourne childhood: Recalling painful memories of youth - opinion

I did it for them, but if I let myself, even now, think of the humiliation I suffered at that clique of upper-class Jewish girls, tears come to my eyes.

 An illustrative photo of a young child holding someone's hand. (photo credit: Sandra Seitamaa/ Unsplash)
An illustrative photo of a young child holding someone's hand.
(photo credit: Sandra Seitamaa/ Unsplash)

Perhaps it’s dangerous to go down that road. It brings back too much pain, too many emotions, and events that one really doesn’t want to remember.

It is too easy to come up with those platitudes about childhood being the happiest time of your life. I hate it when people say that, and I’ve made sure never to say it to my children or grandchildren. You are impotent as a child, not in any way the master of your own fate. Everyone makes decisions for you – your parents, your teachers – and you are swept along in their wake, with nobody looking to see how you really feel.

When I was born, it was 1931, the worst year of the worldwide depression. I was the fifth child in a family that could barely afford to feed and educate the other four. We were very poor, but I hardly realized it because I had no means of comparison.

There was a division of labor in my family in that my father involved himself in raising the boys, and it was my mother’s job to raise the girls. She didn’t work outside the home (a mark of disgrace in those days), but nevertheless it was not easy for her. She was very inventive at preparing meals from the least expensive ingredients; stretching her tiny housekeeping allowance to its outer limits; and avoiding the landlord when there just wasn’t enough money to pay him. I loved my mother deeply and had these fantasies about one day being rich and able to buy her fabulous clothes and jewels.

We lived in St. Kilda, not the most salubrious suburb, on Jackson Street behind the Prince of Wales Hotel. It was a colorful street, with interesting neighbors: “Penelope,” of local radio fame, who lived opposite in a small cottage with a garden full of cacti and luridly painted plaster gnomes, next door to a family whose son Jimmy was a jockey. Farther down lived a prostitute, and in my innocence during World War II, I marveled at how popular she was, with an endless stream of sailors and “Yanks,” as we called the American servicemen, entering her front gate. I thought it must be wonderful to have so many friends, although at times I did wonder that they were all men.

Melbourne, Australia (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Melbourne, Australia (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I was a pupil at St. Kilda Park Primary School. I don’t suppose it was worse than other state schools, but I was at a terrible disadvantage. I was the only Jewish child in the school. I hated being different, and I had no other Jewish friends. I didn’t know the word “assimilated” back then, but I suppose that’s what we were to a large extent. Both my parents were born in Australia, and their knowledge of Yiddishkeit was very limited. Even the few things we did, set us apart. There were certain meats we didn’t eat; my mother lit candles on Friday night without quite understanding why, and we always had a Seder at Passover. Although my parents never accompanied me, I was sent to shul every Saturday morning.

For some misguided reason, my mother believed it was necessary for me to wear a hat, and my father’s Uncle Dave, who had a cap factory, made me a monstrosity out of brown velvet. It was a kind of tam-o’-shanter, with a tassel that hung down one side. I must have been a remarkably compliant child that I never “accidentally” lost it or destroyed it, but I hated it beyond belief. To get to St. Kilda synagogue, I had to walk the whole length of Fitzroy Street and I lived in continual dread of meeting kids from school who would be on their way to the beach. I would be wearing this idiotic headgear, and my face would be scarlet with mortification. Even when I safely reached shul, I suffered. The choir at that time sat in a balcony above the ark exactly opposite the women’s gallery. It was a mixed choir, and there was much joking during the service. Every time I saw someone in the choir laughing, I was convinced they were laughing at my hat.

Because I had no Jewish friends, my mother insisted I join a Jewish Brownies pack and later their Girl Guides. Both were another form of torture for me. The other kids went to private schools (albeit church schools like Methodist Ladies College, St. Michaels, Presbyterian Ladies College), and I was again an outsider. My poor mother was always worried that I would one day “marry out,” and she hoped I would develop a circle of Jewish friends. I tried, but they didn’t really want me. My gentile friends, although they knew I was “Jewy” as they called it, were in fact much kinder to me.

The crowning torture was when I was 17. It was my mother’s dream that I make my debut at the Bachelor’s Ball. She must have gone without so many things to be able to afford the dancing lessons, the price of the tickets, and the gorgeous white dress and long white gloves which were compulsory.

Once again, all the other girls were from affluent Jewish families and were driven to the rehearsals. My father never owned a car in his life. The girls and their partners had a whole season of house parties, and I don’t think I was ever invited to any of them. But I went to the ball with my partner, made my curtsy to the lady mayoress, had a horrendous evening which my parents believed was pure magic, and I never disillusioned them. I did it for them, but if I let myself, even now, think of the humiliation I suffered at that clique of upper-class Jewish girls, tears come to my eyes.

The golden years in Jerusalem after a youth of pain in Melbourne

NO, YOUTH was a very painful time for me, and I have never wished to have it back. “You can’t go home again” is more than a cliché. It’s a truth. But those were the painful years, and I’ve had golden periods since then. The years of my life in Jerusalem have brought fulfillment in every way. I’ve seen my children marry and have wonderful families of their own in Israel, who never had to suffer the pain of being “different.” And now I also have very many great-grandchildren, all living in Israel and bringing continual joy into my life. I’ve had professional fulfillment and spiritual fulfillment, and I live in the most beautiful, spiritual city in the whole world, which I am proud to call home.

On one of my visits to Melbourne to see my mother many years ago before she died, she held my hand as we looked at photos I had brought of her grandchildren in Israel. I remember her soft words: “We never had much money, but we tried to give you what we could. You had a happy childhood, didn’t you?” I squeezed her hand. “Yes, I had a very happy childhood,” I told her. 

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at dwaysman@gmail.com