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A Broyges that goes back to the Goldrush

August 7, 2011 – 1:34 pmNo Comment
Kozminsky Jewellers in the Melbourne CBD

Kozminsky Jewellers in the Melbourne CBD

By Bracha Rafael

This July my entire family travelled to California to attend my grandfather’s 90th birthday party. The day we landed in San Francisco, my sister received an email from a long-lost cousin of ours. He is a historian who had been looking for people from my grandfather’s side of the family for over 30 years. He found my sister, an amateur genealogist, on ancestry.com. And he came to our family reunion, to tell my grandfather why his side of the family had abandoned our side of the family 110 years ago.

In the midst of all this drama, I was reading about a different rift that occurred within a different family, but at almost exactly the same time. It is the story of Simon Kozminsky and his family, and the abrupt departure of one his sons from the family circle.

Tangea Tansley has written an imagined version of her family’s arrival to Australia in the height of the gold rush. With snippets of information gleaned from her father’s stories and the few primary documents that do exist, she has filled the gaps with creativity and verve. Unaware of her Jewish ancestry until well into her adult life, A Break in the Chain depicts the events that explain why, three generations later, this is so.

Her story begins with Simon Kozminsky’s journey to Australia from Prussia in the mid-19th century, and finishes in 1936 in London. In between we witness the infancy of Kozminsky, the Melbourne jewellery icon, and are given rare insight into the world of 20th century astrology. Tansley examines difficult questions of identity, from ancestry to faith to names. The story moves at a comfortable pace, and we see Melbourne grow and transform as does Simon’s business and family.

Tansley is to be commended for the research she must have done into Jewish traditions: but for one scene containing a couple of glaring errors, her depiction of the casual orthodoxy prevalent in eastern Europe in the 19th century feels authentic. Her searing descriptions of the goldfields are also something to behold.

“And so now nothing would live here; nothing could live in a place where all that was left was the curious grey harshness of the felled trees lying with their roots pointing at the sun, where the soil was trampled to fine dust, where the flies still hovered over piles of cans, flour bags and torn cardboard boxes, and all the water was gone. Just as on the voyage, Simon thought, it was man against nature and to see this destruction it would seem that man had won.”

All of that said, I have some serious misgivings about the novel.

Tansley’s characters are forever imparting wisdom to the younger generation, to the point where you wonder if they ever spoke about mundane things. They also tend to speak in paragraphs rather than in phrases, and this makes for uninspiring reading.

As a collection of imagined significant moments in her great-grandfather and grandfather’s lives, they satisfy, but I couldn’t help but feel that too much is left out. When was Simon Kozminsky first confronted by the difficulty of keeping Shabbat in Australia? How did he feel? What did he do? We see nothing of this: we meet Simon as an unphilosophical observant Jew at age 20, and then are reintroduced to him in his 30’s, where he breakfasts on bacon and eggs before making his way to shul on Shabbat.

However, at certain points such gaps intensify the reading experience. We are as bewildered as Israel (Simon’s son) by his parents’ rejection of his non-Jewish partner. And we can easily see how this bewilderment, with its lack of explanation or dialogue or interest offered over so many years, leads to an irrecoverable hurt, and the irreparable rift in the family.

Disappointingly, Tansley does a lot of telling rather than showing. We hear a lot about Simon’s difficulty with the English language, but beyond a couple of stilted conversations during his crossing to Australia, we don’t see it. He makes many impassioned speeches to his young son, and not once does he struggle for words. We never see a business deal go wrong or an argument lost because of his imperfect English. And yet we are told, many times, that he struggles with the language.

Language itself is often a bit hit-and-miss with Tansley. Her creative similes are often delightful, but frequently fall flat: “it had ignited, in fact, somewhat like a spark set to a stagnant puddle of energy.” At other times, however, her prose is pitch-perfect:

“[Rhizomes] had a lot in common with extended families. Not much to be seen on the surface, but underneath you could be sure there was a vast network of tentacles working away in their subterranean hideout, linked for the term of their natural lives in dark and closeted conspiracy.”

She also uses terms that struck me as a little anachronistic. While Jews in the early 20th century were certainly struggling with issues of identity, culture, community and assimilation, I can’t believe they discussed them using these terms. The tone of these arguments is altogether too postmodern to be convincing.

Despite these faults, A Break in the Chain is an engaging story that gives a human face to Melbourne’s explosive growth during the gold rush. The dilemmas facing Tansley’s family are no less significant or relevant today than a century ago. The rift in my own family is still felt keenly by my grandfather, even though the events that caused it occurred years before he was born. He openly wept at his own birthday party when he welcomed our mysterious cousin back into the fold. For him, our cousin’s presence meant that the tragedy that had stained his family had finally been overcome. For Tansley, it seems that an intergenerational reconciliation occurred in the researching and writing of her first novel.

A Break in the Chain will resonate with anyone who has ever witnessed the deep, astonishing antagonism to an interfaith relationship, and the permanent damage to family ties that such antagonism can cause.

 

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