Hazel Frankel is a painter, calligrapher and teacher who lives in Johannesburg. Her first novel, Counting Sleeping Beauties (Jacana, 2009) was short-listed for the European Union Literary Award and the Telegraph UK, First Book Award. A poetry collection, Drawing from Memory, was published by Cinnamon Press (2007), and in Memoirs: Our Stories, Our Lives (2010), she gathers together the stories of the journeys of immigrants who left Europe before World War II. She is currently completing a doctorate in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom.
Hazel Frankel’s multilayered new book takes you on a search for meaning at the heart of an apparently comfortable life in suburban Johannesburg. It’s simultaneously an evocation of the Highveld, of hadedahs and sprinklers and night-time meals under the Milky Way, of traditional Jewish food like taygl and cheesecake … and an exploration of the heritage of violence.
Cally, a calligrapher – or soferet in the Jewish tradition – wields her pens and brushes, her paints and inks, to work a transforming magic. She is busy with three projects: an anniversary gift for her husband Jake, a ketubah – an illuminated legal document that records a couple’s wedding vows – for her new friend Aaron and his bride, and she’s inscribing a series of poems inherited from her Lithuanian grandmother, Judith, who escaped the Holocaust.
As Judith’s exquisite poems reveal her story, of lost love and homeland, of horror, courage and of change and new beginnings, Cally faces the impact of the violence of the past in her own life – of Jake’s years as a conscript in the South African Defence Force. While she painstakingly captures hope and promise within the gilded ketubah, her marriage unravels. Forced into the understanding that there are times when even the most treasured traditions can fail you, she carries Judith’s wisdom with her into her present.
from ‘The Judith Poems’
Sugar, eggs, meal,
She rolled out the mixture,
length by length,
cut it up and made rings,
the dough sticking to everything,
left to rise under a dish cloth,
in a warm place,
plunged them into bubbling syrup
with zest of one orange, grated.
Room redolent, gingery sweet
she opened the pot;
steam enveloped her,
fork by fork she lifted the rings,
left them to cool:
from her golden hands.
from Rose’s golden hands.
beneath the crown of the Torah scroll,
beneath the eye of the silver lion,
my father murmured ancient blessings,
as the choir croaked like crows,
except for my father, kissing the fringes
in our tent of his talis,
raising his rough chin,
where a tiny cotton ball caught his blood;
except for my father whose heart
beat my answers, whose song
flew from the siddur like doves.
Every Shabbos, twisting his strings,
I whispered my wishes through the webbing,
my fingers coiled in his fingers,
my fingers touching him through the fringes,
leaning into the warmth of linen and wool,
where the silken ladder swayed with his shoulders,
where his kite lifted me up from the dark pew,
a small girl who didn’t understand the patterns,
a small girl enclosed in a coven of men.
blind to the holes,
I knotted a cradle with the strands,
until his voice unraveled into emptiness,
until my silence echoed in his silence:
his talis still tents his body,
his ladder still reaches to me.
For us, home was one bad czar after another,
hatred and extreme weather
congenial bedfellows; counting Nicholases and Alexanders,
we had no way of measuring who was worst:
Alexander II was assassinated,
Alexander III sent in his Cossacks.
We lost everything more than once;
changing borders kept us moving,
forced removals confined us in the Pale,
Suwalki, Kovno, Vilna,
Grodna, Vitebsk, Minsk;
Rakeshik Kupershik, Krok, Telze;
chopping off a brother’s limb,
adopting a neighbour’s son,
we saved boys from conscription;
sixty roubles could buy a ticket
away from the coal stove to another world.
For us it was one long winter after the other:
cabbage and rotten potatoes,
no herring, only brine,
beets like babushkas,
wine dregs rancid in barrels;
we huddled and shared
maternal melody, meagre meals,
Nights of sabres, nights of steel,
nights of running, nights with nowhere to run,
nights of weeping
as the vodka drinkers hurled
glasses at the wall
curses at the wall
babies at the wall;
bones on the cobbles,
blood in the mud,
our mother’s softness
bound in burlap,
our father’s beard
flecked with grey,
hacked away –
one kaddish after another for us
as our lives, our land,
our babies, our hopes
from Illuminating Love (Jacana, 2011).
Visit Jacana’s website.