Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 418 pages; 2001.
The Jewish immigrant experience has been much explored in British and American fiction. In Australia it’s a different story. Despite being a nation of immigrants, this is the first book I’ve ever read focusing on the Jewish in Australia.
A Promised Land? is actually three novels in one: The Boys from Bondi (first published in 1987), Going home (1993) and Joshua (1995). It is also known as the “Jacob Kaiser trilogy” because it follows the life of Jacob Kaiser, an Australian-born Jew, from his childhood in Sydney during the Great Depression to his early 40s during the Vietnam War era.
It’s clearly a semi-autobiographical work, because there are many similarities between Alan Collins’ early life and his fictional creation, Jacob Kaiser, as both were born in the 1920s and raised in a children’s home for Jews. This lends the story, in particular The Boys from Bondi, a truly authentic feel.
The first two novels, which cover the years 1935 to 1948, concentrate on Jacob’s search for identity. The third, set in 1967, addresses similar concerns, but it focuses more on Jacob’s son.
Reviewing this collection of novels is difficult without giving away crucial plot spoilers, because ultimately what happens in the first book impacts on everything else that follows. So if the outline feels vague, forgive me.
When we first meet Jacob he is 10 years old. It is 1935. His family, feeling the effects of the Great Depression, have come down in the world, moving from their stately home in Bellevue Hill to a boarding house, known as The Balconies, overlooking Bondi Beach.
When Jacob is 13 and his brother Solly is nine, tragedy strikes. They come home to find their step-mother, Carmel, has done a runner and are then told their father has died — he has “fallen off a cliff” while working in a road gang, although we never learn if it is an accident or suicide. Now orphans, Jacob and Solly, are taken in by a Jewish charity, the Abraham Samuelson Memorial Home school.
It is while at the children’s home that Jacob gets his first taste of what it is to be Jewish. As a third-generation Australian Jew, he feels more Australian than Jewish because the Kaisers have never been religiously observant. He hasn’t even taken his bar mitzvah.
But now, surrounded by European Jews fleeing prosecution in Nazi Germany (“The survivors of destroyed Jewish communities in countries that he knew only as blobs on a map of Europe”), he realises that he has little in common with other Jews. Their language, their rituals, their well-to-do European backgrounds feel foreign to him.
This is a common thread that runs throughout Collins’ triptych: where does an Australian-born Jew fit into the grand scheme of things? And what does it mean to be Jewish in a secular, supposedly egalitarian society?
Later, when Jacob leaves the children’s home, this search for meaning continues. He gains work in a printery as an apprentice, where he confronts anti-semitism from his boss, who calls him an “Ikey” and a “Yid”, and blames him for the fighting in Palestine over the formation of a Jewish state. But this casual bigotry is everywhere. Even his Gentile girlfriend, Peg, a student nurse from Bathurst, wonders why he hasn’t got a big nose?
“How many Jews do you know, Peg?”
“Well, there’s, um, Doctor whatsisname in Casualty. A really nice bloke. He gave me some pills for my hayfever. And then there’s–”
“Okay, that makes two — one has and one hasn’t. So you’re only half-right, aren’t you?”
It is at about this time, living in a house with his Jewish landlady Mrs Rothfield, that Jacob becomes politicised. Desperately lonely, with no immediate family of his own, he discovers the local library, works his way through countless classics and then stumbles upon Robert Tressall’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. His eyes are opened by the concepts of worker’s rights and of Socialism. Later, Peg, introduces him to Communism via the Eureka Youth League, and another female friend, the beguiling Ruti whom he went to school with, invites him to join the Zionist group to which she belongs.
Of course, a book about Jewish identity could not fail to mention Palestine, and it is here that Jacob eventually goes to explore his Jewish roots. There’s a particularly telling scene in the second novel in which he looks out the window of the kibbutz and sees “forlorn clusters of refugees” standing about waiting for direction.
One looked up and beckoned to him. Jacob was seized with terrible indecision. He did not want to be associated with these remnants; Jews they may be but what else did he have in common with them? In yet another guise it was the same problem that he had confronted so many times. Jews, he knew to his own longstanding confusion, came in so many varied and wildly disparate personae that one had ultimately to realise that Jewishness was their only common factor. And that Jewishness could not be definied merely as religion. The one thing that Jacob had learned was that the rituals of belief were only the externals of Judaism. It was the five thousand years of history that daunted him, which he carried on his back like the old man of the sea, unable to discard it even if he had wanted to.
In Jacob’s struggle to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile aspects of his life, we see that where we come from influences who we are and where we are going. In many ways this is a book as much about Australian identity as it is Jewish identity — and some of it, including the bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, makes for uncomfortable reading.
It’s particularly interesting to see the ways in which the attitudes to Jewish refugees (also known in a derogatory manner as “reffos”) changed during the 1930s and 1940s. Initially they were welcomed with open arms but later, when the Anzac’s began to return from war, they were scorned for taking jobs that Australians felt that their soldiers deserved. By the same token, the Vienna Wald coffee shop set up by Jewish refugee Mitzi Strauss, once regarded by locals as a place they would not be seen dead in, becomes popular with the coffee-drinking set in the 1960s.
I loved A Promised Land? despite my initial misgivings that the story didn’t sound particularly exciting going by the rather wan blurb description. The presentation of the book, with its uninspired cover image and the poor binding quality, also let it down.
But from the very first page, I was swept away by the tale of Jacob’s troubled life. Collins has an amazing gift for story-telling. The three novels are filled with drama, intrigue, adventure, grief and joy. There’s plenty of warmth, humour and poignancy too.
And his prose has that old-fashioned effortlessness to it, which makes eating up the pages very easy. It’s the characters which really make this book, though. I loved them all, especially Jacob’s undesirable Uncle Siddy, with his nefarious money-making schemes and eye for the ladies; Peg, the nurse from Bathurst, is a feisty, tell-it-as-it-is sort; and Mrs Rothfield is motherly and kind, even if she does warn Jacob to stay away from the Gentiles!
A Promised Land? is only available in Australia. For details of where you can buy it visit Alan Collins’ official website.
Finally, many thanks to Lisa from ANZLitLovers for giving me this book; I would never have read it otherwise. I would urge you to read Lisa’s review for another take on it.