My husband usually jokes about how though I’m not Jewish, you’ll understand me better if you were!! I grew up in a very culturally emaciated household-my parents were born into a culture that they didn’t particularly hold dear or even identify with and so they role-played; needless to say the self-consciousness rubbed off on us as well! As a Jewish saying goes- ” A Jew is his most Jewish self in the face of a Gentile”; that was largely true of us too – we were our tradition-fluid best in the face of any tradition-richness that befell us!
With Woody Allen’s winning the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe being all-pervasive news, and it being accepted by none other than his Annie Hall collaborator, Diane Keaton, catapulted me back to a very significant time period in my childhood in which both had a part to play! (Watching Diane Keaton deliver her acceptance speech also cleared up the ‘Did Ralph Lauren make Annie Hall or the converse, controversy’. I’ve come across that sartorial debacle often enough since the film entered my subconscious about whether Ruth Morley, who officially designed Annie Hall, or Lauren, the all-American, preppy designer (who walked away with the accolades), was responsible for the signature androgynous look the film toted! Glad Keaton cleared up all that murkiness by choosing a made-to-fit Ralph Lauren pantsuit for the ceremony! I did miss her pastel polos and boat shoes, though! My greater takeaway from the speech was a song I can teach my children and rest in the knowledge that the best of celebrities still live with bad looking nails! )
My earliest association with folklore were those of my father’s persuasion! He was a war fiction enthusiast, studied history of the two World Wars and read a whole lot about Jewish culture and religion! He was hardly what I’d call a sociable man! I grew up hearing stories about Mottel the tailor, Tevye the Milkman and The Fiddler on the Roof. I didn’t know about the movie till decades later as for the longest time I believed that Sholom Aleichem (on whose works The Fiddler on the Roof is based), was my father’s creative construct…really, who goes through life with that name?! We had Jewish family friends, Dan and Iris- Hasidic Jews on the fringes of Hasidim who were liberal enough to befriend traditionally-fluid Indians! My entire memory of them can be crystallised in the one evening we spent at their house celebrating Rosh Hashannah… the Jewish New Year! There was such a lead up in my own little world where I scampered around telling everyone that I was going to be spending a whole evening, a whole evening with my parents’ foreign friends, and that they were making foreign food for us! My mother had told me in the typically fantasmagorical, story-telling way that parents have when they talk to their young about an impending adventure – about having Challah which was the soft-test bread in the whole world, and borscht- the pink-kest soup in the whole world, and there would be fell-apples, that mummy was learning to make fell-apples as well, so it was all going to be a whole day of being immersed in another world! It was all very Lewis Carroll, and I couldn’t wait to go down the rabbit hole!
It seems awkward now that that was really the meeting of two polarities – one family running away from tradition, the other thirsting for every last drop! In all honesty, Indians and the American Jews have enough of a cultural similarity to get along jauntily! Let me iterate that with a American Jewish joke :
It’s time for summer holidays on the East Coast of the USA, and a plane full of New York jews is heading south to Miami. After a while, a woman stands up at the front of the plane and shouts, “A doctor, I need a doctor! Is there a doctor on the plane?” There is a pause, some discussion among passengers, then a young man stands up and replies, “Excuse me madam, but I’m a doctor.””Good!” says the woman, “Come here and meet my daughter, what a nice wife she would make!”
Well, the day came and I was carried throught it on the merit of sheer childish exuberance, and as the night carried on , I realised to my dismay that the metaphorical clock had struck! My late ’80’s polyester frock had gone from being my dizzy-with-delight party gown to something scratchy and non-sleepingworthy, my carriage went back to being a pumpkin, and my horses – mice!! The borscht wasn’t something I could have more than a few spoonfuls of, the smoked and brined lox (smoked salmon) and cream cheese, again- lost on my palate! The falafels, made from the best of Knorr, was a vegetarian bajji! The challah I schlepped around, slathered with butter and chewed on it’s crunchy crust as the families settled in to watch Annie Hall, which would go on to become one of my parents’ favourite films! Ethic food and children? I’d wait till they realised that the world was a large, indomitable place, not necessarily one that revolved around them! ! So I sat there, clutching my bread and winding the end of my mother’s handloom saree, still fresh with the smell of handprintable dye, around my finger, watching an absurd film where the talking never stopped.
Family for me has always had multifaceted meanings- some of them not entirely comforting! I’ve often noticed that when one grows up with a particular disability; physical or emotional, one seems to have a heightened sensibility of things that touch or resonate against that shifted core. By that stretch, a blind child grows with a keener sense of touch and hearing, as does a deaf one-with keener sight and smell perhaps. I for one, seem to have grown with a heightened perception of family ties. Bonds of touch, love and belonging. Those that go deeper than blood. And of small, everyday things that change and alter those very bonds as they continue to grow together; in love or apart.
Allen’s neuroticism pierced through me in patches that night; when Annie asks him if he loves her, he says love is really too weak a word, he actually lurved her, you know, loaved her, luffed her, two F’s!!! I learned that night that you need to love with more than just love! I also learned the way another culture saw the power of my life – Iris, the Jewish woman with a wig, who knew to read life’s signs said to me that I was born under the strength of an air sign! Air moves over the earth and the water, it controls both whilst being controlled by none. I could make any path I chose to if I used all my strength to make it! That would be my biggest argument for thinking outside the box and the need to interact with a cultural ethos different to your own. Those words changed my inner landscape! I was viewed as an entitled, hyper-irritable annoyance in my own world! And then the talk of Dan quoting Allen’s recently said” Eighty percent of success is showing up!” A dictum that holds me well, even on mornings when I cannot wait for the peace of post-schoolruns or feel like the vilest of parents! I showed up, and in doing so, there was success!! I heard those lines often! My parents almost always concurred on Allen, if not much else!
On a regular basis, as an Asian living in England or even just plainly as an Asian, I revisit Annie Hall and especially revel in the Easter scene -the clash of the relatively calm socio-cultural niceties of Upper East Side Manhattan and the often chaotic, rapidly-fluctuating emotional personality of Brooklyn! The similarities are glaring – clearly, we aren’t all in this together! In a family, a lot is unspoken, a lot is said in the high-pitched tones of conviviality …or the silence! I learned to understand a philosophy through it’s jokes!
Keaton aptly said whilst accepting the award on behalf of Allen, that women love to star in his films because “Woody’s women can’t be compartmentalised. “…I mean, they struggle, they love, they fall apart, they dominate, they’re funny, they’re flawed. They are, in fact, the hallmark of Woody’s work. But what’s even more remarkable is that absolutely nothing links these unforgettable characters from the fact that they came from the mind of Woody Allen. And there you have it.”
Probably the reason I love his work so much… and because “Woody’s films have been changing the way we think about life, love and the pursuit of neuroses forever”!
Leaving you with scenes from one that’s seminally touched mine…X
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