This month, I want you to introduce you to something that is not actually in my writing box at all. It has nevertheless fuelled a lot of writing in class. It is also a little topical. I chose this item today because it’s election day in the US and a lot of the things I discuss when I use this item are part of this election year. They’re issues that relate to people’s lives and how we see them, even if those people live on the far side of the world.
One of the specific skills I teach is how to write using the five senses. I have many tools for this. Several for each sense, in fact, so that I can adjust the teaching to meet the class, since students don’t always learn the same. This object is something that adapts particularly well for family stories and memoirs and intimate novels written in the first person.
My great-grandparents were refugees from Kishinev. The pogroms destroyed the family there in the early twentieth century and sent everyone running. They ran to different places. My great-uncle Yunkle had an orchard in what’s now Israel, and my great-great grandmother’s grave is, I believe, in Alexandria in Egypt. It was safer to be in these places than in Kishinev and Jewish.
My corner of the family came to Australia during World War I. The journey was fraught and one of my relatives was scarred for life when she was two, solely because she was Jewish and someone thought that a two year old needed boiling water thrown at them. Life for a refugee wasn’t any safer then than it is now.
My family arrived here and things got better.
As soon as there was spare money (this might have taken a while) my great-grandparents bought records. The few (very few) records in Yiddish are in a museum. This post is about the remainder.
I find copies of the same or similar recordings for class, and play them and teach my students how to evoke time and place using music. Or I tell them the story of my ancestors and teach them that when everything one knows is gone, there are replacements and that those replacements can tell you a lot about the family and its origins. The ones bought early (and some of these records date before 1920) show which parts of culture they could not do without.
My great-grandparents may have been from Kishinev, but they loved Elgar and Clara Butt and other very English music. They were still Ashkenazi Jewish, and kept kosher and went to shul and lived a proper life. But they loved Elgar.
Until I met this collection I assumed that this branch of my family was a city version of Tevye’s, because I had been taught that all Eastern European Jews were culturally small town or village. My family, however, was quintessentially middle class and from a big city. Yiddish culture was a part of their heritage (as the records held by the museum attest) but in so many other ways that side of the family didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of Jewish refugees. Books, music, food, military service, university education, card parties: these are the things I remember from the stories of my childhood.
I use the records, then, to teach that we can write music into our work and break down stereotypes with that music.
This is another thing I use the records to teach.
Writers are human beings. We classify people so that we can make sense of them in story. I use my own family to show that we can get better story if we show even the minor characters s full human beings. I tell my students the infamous Clara Butt joke and play her singing Elgar to them and it’s an Elgar someone always recognises, for it’s related to coronations.
This breaks down stereotypes even further, for the international Jew in my family was never the worldwide conspiracy ‘international Jew’ that gets bandied around by people who don’t know as much as they think. It’s the international behaviour of a family that connects to music and enjoys the great British composers.
Whenever I teach music as a tool to understand character as part of my five senses teaching, it leads to a bit of history, sure as light follows darkness and I get to explain how music was international a century ago. For it was over a century ago that my family bought the first records in the collection. The history gives my students yet more tools they can use to break down stereotypes and to create whole characters.
This is a two hour workshop on sound. It works every time.
I admit, not everyone likes Butt’s voice. One student clapped her hands over her ears and ran out of the room. That, too, was part of the lesson. We don’t have to write about all aspects of history in fiction, but it helps everyone If we don’t leave readers seeing characters in the grip of stereotypes or writers clinging to them as if those stereotypes are writing gold.
The music may be different a hundred years later, but what it tells us about humans remains important.