Leon the tourguide

Leon the tourguide
Leon the Tour Guide

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ma's Kitchen

In my Mother’s Kitchen

Getting up in the morning was my favorite activity of the day. The white cushion and cozy blankets couldn’t hold me back from rushing to meet the new day. I had spent enough time lying there after waking, gazing through my bedroom window at my beloved plum tree in our garden and listening, through the partly drawn, curtains to the rustling leaves of the giant eucalyptus trees in the park across the road, thinking how pleasantly I could spend my day.

Society had other plans; it was time to get up and get ready for school. Without further reverie I jumped out of bed, ran to the bathroom to get ready for the great occasion that started my school day, the morning assembly, my socks pulled up, tie straight and hair combed.

I was nearly at the door when my mother called me back:

 “Leon!!!! Where do you think you’re off to? sit right down there at that kitchen table and finish your breakfast Leon. You don’t go anywhere without finishing your breakfast. It’s on the table in the kitchen and I’m not going to throw it down the drain.”

Sometimes I still had undone homework and my dog was going to try and follow me to school and I’d have to coax him back home. These were time consuming events that I hadn’t taken into account when I started thinking about the pleasant day ahead. I walked, on the pavement, my ma called it “dawdling”, along the fence that enclosed the school soccer field, a little too high with sharp spikes for me to risk climbing it to get to a short cut through the soccer field.

I had a fetish of running my fingers over each and every spiked stave of the fence until I reach the school entrance. Then I had to put my school bag in my class and only then enter the assembly. So I was late quite often. Of all the terrible crimes a pupil could perpetrate, at Krugersdorp Town School this was the most serious. Punishment involved a wack or two on the tail by Mr. Kirchmann, the principal.

One could say that my life was lived in a feeling of constant anxiety of being late. To my great annoyance, to this day I am thought of as a person who comes late. Personally I believe that this is a libel. I’m not that kind of person, neither am I any of the other things people accuse me of being: a dreamer, a dawdler, a time waster or a spendthrift. Somehow people, even people I have just met, somehow adopt these opinions of me as if they were personally in my mother’s kitchen, where ma used to attach these appellations to me. They just stuck to me as if she had put a sign around my neck, impossible to remove for the rest of my life.

Breakfast and ma’s kitchen complicated my life. I could have been on time for school had it not been for that. Today I realize that ma loved me and just wanted to see me at least once a day, because I was always disappearing, usually with the dog, the cat or the chickens or whatever sideline amusement was available to a child constantly on the lookout for pleasure and adventure.

You can add another appellation, “moaner”, because I was always moaning that it wasn’t fair that I had to comply with all ma’s demands; I always moaned in a long drawn out voice : “oh Maaa”. Life could have been smooth and cool. My opinion was that my mother was complicating a life that could have been lived simply without the drama caused by her insistence, every day, on eating breakfast, lunch and supper.

She was “one helluva cook”, using my brother Raymond’s rather crude but suitable expression. I always had the feeling that Raymond only said this out of politeness but I really did like my mother’s cooking. He still is a polite person. Not like me; I never thought of politeness or diplomacy, I said what I thought. Ma accused me of not thinking before I spoke. But I appreciated her superhuman efforts to prepare food for the family every day, three times a day. I adored her, even though I didn’t put it into words. I grew up thinking wrongly that those direct complements shouldn’t be said. It’s different with my kids now. I never stop telling them how wonderful they are and I mean it, I’m not just being polite or kind.

She had help, usually a black lady kitchen maid, whose name was usually, Elizabeth, Mary or Lydia and a black gentleman by the name of John, but mostly she did the work. Their function, as far as “Ma” was concerned was to be shouted at when things didn’t go right or when a dish got broken, or when the food got burnt. There were many things, I learnt from bitter experience that could go wrong in ma’s kitchen and ma didn’t hesitate to let the culprit know how she felt. It was an anomaly of the era that criticizing was acceptable, in those funny days but complements were considered being polite. Nobody gave complements. If you thought some good thought about someone you kept it to yourself. If you have some criticism you spoke it out. Today I realize that this was a very weird characteristic of life as I lived it. The result was that I always felt guilty, even if I wasn’t. I stored up guilt like a miser stores up gold.

I really loved our kitchen. I could hear the stove being opened and closed, the rhythmic kneading of the dough for another lemon cake or some “kichel” (a sort of Jewish cracker you first used to scoop up the chopped herring and then ate). The really hard kneading was Mom preparing the dough for her famous “kneidlach” (the taste of this was the true measure of a good Jewish mother and ma was one of the best).

The busiest times in the kitchen were the day before a festival. I’ll never forget the gorgeous aroma of meat roasting on the one side and a cake baking in the oven on the other. A big chunk of red Meat, blood draining off, was being soaked and salted on a big wooden board by the sink; ma was plucking out the feathers of a plump turkey, chicken or duck, whose flesh was still warm from a life recently curtailed by the slaughterer (shochet). The poor creature had once roamed happily in our back yard pecking at the corn I had scattered on the ground and saying “gobble, gobble”. Little did that chicken know what his eventual fate would be, but he sure tasted good thanks to mom’s expert treatment. I usually took them to the ritual slaughterer tied to handle bars of my turquoise Raleigh bicycle. Once I carried 4 chickens that way.

While the whole house slept the lights burn in the kitchen showing that “Ma” was still working there until 3 o’clock in the morning. It was like the throbbing heart of the house. She cooked for many people besides us kids and my “old man”. There was the old Mrs Fineberg up there in Leopard Str, old Mrs.Videgas down there at the bottom of Burger str. They used to kiss and hug me when I brought some tasty dish from my mom’s kitchen. I can still recall the delicious soft smell of their face powder and the enticing feel of their soft fleshy bodies. At first I delivered “Ma’s” food on my bicycle and later I used my dad’s Wolsely and later his green Chev.

The main apparatus in her kitchen, as far as I could see was a coal burning Ellis stove, a sturdy wooden table, a pantry, full of good things stored in glass jars and tine bins, which got stocked up every Saturday and the kitchen sink. My happiest moments were when the groceries arrived on Saturday morning, timed just right to coincide with my return from Saturday synagogue worship so that I could begin my search for the chocolates, cold meats and polony, which I knew for sure was there and which I knew were forbidden because they were for visitors who would come to play cards at night or would be comming for lunch on Sunday. Those were usually the uncles and aunts from Germiston or Springs. Sometimes they visited us and other times we’d all pile in the car; mom and dad and my two brothers. The journey always started with a good old fight between us kids for a window seat and between mom and dad about which road to take. The choice was between main reef road and ontdekkers road. Then once we had reached Johannesburg there was another fight between those who supported going the Commissioner Str way or the Jubilee way. These fights reached their peak on the journey home. They went on interminably.

While seeming to be helping with unpacking the groceries from Salmonovitz’ grocery, an event which took place practically every Saturday morning, very conveniently just as I got back from Shul (I used to go to shul (the synagogue) every Saturday morning), I was really looking for the good stuff, namely sweets, meant for the guests who inevitably would come on Sunday for lunch or for tea, and the polony. I think it was made by Mr. Davidson, the butcher or perhaps he imported it from Goldenbergs in Johannesburg. There were also, hopefully sausages which I loved cooked, seeing them blow up like balloons, if I wasn't too impatient.

Sometimes I used to have to go to the coal shed in the back yard to collect a bucket of coal, when, once again our manservant, John was absent from work for being arrested because he didn't have a pass or some other minor offence for which black people could be arrested by the police. Nobody arrested him for drunkedness, because that was his natural state and he was quite harmless like that. When my mother spoke about him, usually to complain about his absence, she’d never just say “Where is John”, but “Where is John, the k---r?” She said it as if there was someone else by that name around the house.

The outside toilet, in our back yard was a place I could escape to. It was like a holy place that nobody disturbs you while you’re there, as if you were performing some holy task and everyone knew that a person in the toilet wasn’t to be disturbed. Only after finishing my activities there did I get a mouthful, like “what do you do all day in the toilet?” but nobody really expected an answer.

My call to the toilet didn’t come from my bowels but from an urgent need to read my “Beano” and “Hotspur” which one couldn’t read without being chastised anywhere else. I used to sit for hours, mostly contemplating all the magical toys advertised on the back cover, that one could order from England, the enchanted land of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, of Robin Hood and wicked prince John, who always got beaten in true justice.

A little later in life I graduated to “The Listener” and “The New Statesman” and occasionally, “Men only” and “Saga”. Really adult magazines like “Penthouse” or “Playboy” were banned, but it didn’t matter because “Ma” considered all my reading pleasures a waste of time. As far as she was concerned the only worthwhile activity was doing homework.

Our outside toilet was next to the mulberry tree where I used to reach the best mulberries by climbing on the roof of the toilet to reach the high branches with the sweetest, blackest and biggest mulberries.

There were three highly polished red steps leading from the yard to the kitchen where I used to sit, warmed by the sun, playing with my dog, Binkie or Butch or Sandy, there were too many to mention, meditating, on nothing in particular, just enjoying life but my “Ma” called it day dreaming. Once my father came to chat. Quite an unusual event when I was young. I think that he wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees but didn't quite know where to begin. He should have taught me because to this day I'm not sure how those things work. 

Later on he would often discuss religion with me. He’d probably concluded that I was doing something associated with sex in the outside toilet, because he spoke to me about the dangers of sex. I appreciated the effort and even accepted his ideas at that time. It took me a long time to realize that he was wrong but by then I had missed having many good relations I could have had. But I don't have any regrets. 

That was life in those days. We need to forgive ourselves and others, like our parents for the pleasures and opportunities we missed. We can only enable ourselves to have a better life by giving forgiveness. I believe the past must be left behind. 

Today I realize he was wrong and I forgive him but those talks really did quite a lot to make me quite an inhibited person, always being worried that relationships with the opposite sex might lead to some disaster or other, like getting a dreaded disease or getting some girl pregnant. He was wrong, in my opinion it’s a pity about that.
It was very difficult for him to broach the subject, but he warned me that ejaculation was dangerous. I’ll never forget that talk. I wonder if he really believed what he had told me.

I have ambivalent feelings about the kitchen caused by an early childhood love of food as a source of pleasure, on the one hand, playing with it and eating it and on the other getting punished for messing with it or messing the kitchen while I prepared it. The result is the today I don't prepare food, its kind of scary for me. But I still enjoy eating it.

As a baby I remember sitting in my high chair grabbing handfuls of porridge and smearing it decoratively over the tray, then using my hands to scoop it up and place it on the spoon, which I then used to shovel it into my mouth. Altogether this gave me a lot of pleasure, but here also society, in the form of my beloved mother, had other ideas.

Already at an early age I aspired to being creative with food. Despite constant rejections I never stopped nagging her to let me help her in the kitchen, until she relented and allowed me to roll the dough, to mix flour into the bowl and so on. Then things went wrong, usually through no fault of mine; flour would spatter all over the kitchen, milk would spill, the stove would catch fire, the soup would burn because I didn’t take it off the stove soon enough, there wasn’t enough mixture for making a cake because I had eaten too much of it or something. Somehow something always went wrong when I was around the kitchen.

The result of this is that I have developed a cooking phobia and an eating compulsion. I have guilt feels if I cook and if I don’t eat.

 I think that my mother discouraged these aspirations. The only time she encouraged me to enter her kitchen was to eat breakfast. 

I blame it all on the kitchen and breakfast. Life could have been much easier without that.

When I was young, from about 7 years old until I finished high school at the age of 18, my bedroom was in the middle of the house, next to the bathroom. The only two things I remember doing there was combing my hair in the morning, for school, and taking a hot bath at night before going to bed. I performed these actions because these were the instructions emanating from the kitchen where my dear mother was usually located, like God in His heavens, preparing her magical concoctions, with black lady assistant. I’m sure they were very helpful to my mother, but she always seemed to be shouting at them. She gave them instructions in the morning and would then go off to work in the shop. The shouting was mostly in the evening because of instructions that hadn’t been carried out for the day  like washing the dishes and peeling potatoes.

I remember them well. The first was my nanny whose age was unknowable being hidden by the flatness of her face, crumpled as if it had been in squashed perpendicularly at the birth. She always shuffled around the house and in the yard. I don’t think she could lift her feet off the ground moving with great speed, nevertheless to rouse me in the morning, to get the washing done in the laundry, which was in the bathroom, then to the kitchen to make sure that master Leon’s breakfast of Jungle oats stood ready, with exactly the right amount of milk, separately in a jug, covered by a cloth with little alabaster colored plastic beads jingling round the edge, waiting to prepare whatever kind of egg I happended to desire on that particular day. I usually went for a bulls eye, because I love popping it and the scooping up the goo with a slice of hot white bread. shappened to be in service, Mary or Elizabeth or Lydia

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Introducing Disobedience Gen 2:16-17

Introducing Disobedience.

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17).

Obviously disobedience did not exist until Adam and Eve disobeyed this commandment of God. The snake succeeded in tempting Eve to be disobedient by telling her she wouldn’t die from eating the fruit, and he was correct in that, because she knew which fruit was poisonous and which not and apparently the fruit she saw was not poisonous, as the verse says: “and she saw that it was good to eat” Gen 3:6.

She possessed that kind of knowledge. She didn’t have to be disobedient to learn that eating poisonous fruit could kill her. But she obviously didn’t know that there was another kind of death, namely death as a punishment for carrying out a morally evil act.

When God told Adam “for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” he didn’t understand that it referred to a morally bad act. He thought it referred to the fruit being bad, meaning poisonous, that’s why he would die if he ate it. But God meant that if he ate from the fruit he would be disobeying God’s commandment, which is a morally evil act and warrants punishment, perhaps even the punishment of death..

The snake’s crime is that he led Eve into carrying out a moral crime, the crime of disobedience. This was a crime which never existed. Eve brought it into existence by falling into the trap of the snake.

This therefore is the sin of Adam and Eve. They brought disobedience into the world. Now it was necessary to make laws regarding the various punishments for various crimes, hence the creation of Torah, the book in which God tells us what we may and what we may not do and the various punishments for disobeying His word.

The words “for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” aren’t a threat, they are meant to teach Adam that moral evils are punishable by death. Disobedience to the word of God is a morally evil action, although not so severe to be punishable by death. That is why they don’t die after eating the fruit. That’s why after Adam and Eve eat the fruit God doesn’t carry out the death penalty and gives them lighter punishments instead.

So Adam learns, the hard way, something he didn’t know before, namely that a morally evil action, like disobedience, can lead to death as surely as a physically bad action, like eating poison fruit.

It’s not the fruit which carries the death penalty. The snake isn’t lying when he says that Eve won’t die from eating the fruit. He and Adam and Eve all possess knowledge that the fruit wasn’t poisonous. It’s disobedience to the word of God which is liable to be punished by death.

The punishment for disobedience isn’t death but expulsion from the Garden of Eden because that is the place for obedient people. It is the place of perfection where perfectly obedient people have access to the tree of life.

But it’s difficult because now the inclination to disobedience has become part of our nature and it’s become impossible to be perfectly obedient. That is why God gave us the Torah, which is the tree of life outside the Garden of Eden.

God gave us His Torah so that we can learn knowledge of good and evil and by doing the good and rejecting the evil we have life. God wanted Adam and Eve to have life and to have knowledge of moral goodness and moral evil.

The two things, life and knowledge go together as is made clear from this verse, hereunder and many others like it in the Torah.

“Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:5)

 I don’t think that Adam and Eve saw their act of eating the fruit as an act of disobedience. They were also confused by the crafty snake who told them that God’s warning that they would die didn’t apply to eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He was referring to the physical qualities of the fruit, but he was aware that eating that fruit as healthy as it was, constituted an act of disobedience of the word of God. He tricked them into being disobedient.

It would be wrong to assume from our verse above that God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to acquire knowledge. Had this been His intention He would not have created a tree of knowledge and planted it in the Garden of Eden. Neither, for that matter, would he have planted a tree of life in the Garden. The fact that He planted these trees in the Garden is a clear sign that He wants Adam and Eve to have life and to have knowledge of Good and Evil; knowledge is a moral good not a moral evil.

The verse isn’t talking about knowledge as such, on the contrary, God wants them to acquire knowledge and the most important knowledge of all is to know that moral evil is punishable by death.

So, therefore, in my opinion we must consider God’s prohibition here anew, and we should consider this in the light of Torah. Because God tells us in the Torah that the Torah is life and the Torah is the way to acquiring knowledge of good and evil.