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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interview with Marian Appel Shaah Tovah 2010

Marian Apple

I met Marian at a three day women's retreat in the Galilee. She had come with her daughter and daughter-in-law; I had come with my mother-in-law. I was attracted to her unique blend of restrain and warmth, and the understated wisdom that comes from a rich life experience.

Marian: I was born during the Second World War, during the bombing of London. With all the explosions, my mother was afraid that she wouldn't make it to the hospital in time. Of course I don't remember the war -- after all, I was just an infant. But its impact left a deep impression on me. For years afterwards I'd cover my ears whenever I heard a loud bang.

My father was originally from Russia. As a young man he moved to Poland and then Belgium until eventually he ended up in Dublin, Ireland, where he was a teacher. My mother was raised in London. They were married in 1938. For my mother, a real London girl, life in Dublin was a culture shock. People were in awe of her fine clothes and would literally grab at whatever she was wearing and then ask their dressmakers to copy it.

On 3 September, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland, England declared war on Germany. By then my parents had returned to London to be closer to my grandparents. My father found a position as rav of a shul in South Tottenham, the suburb next to Stamford Hill.

We were evacuated from London. My entire family -- my older sister, my parents and my grandparents -- went to a village called Bushey, which, today, is part of Greater London, but then it was in the country. My two younger siblings were born there.

In the eyes of a small child, life in Bushey was idyllic. We had a house with a garden and chickens as pets, although every once in while one of them would disappear when my grandmother took it to the shochet! My grandfather led the Shabbos services that were held in our house and attended by the other Jewish evacuees. But my father did not attend. Instead, each week he returned to London to be with his congregation in South Tottenheim. He used the dining room table as an ersatz bomb shelter. A sound sleeper who could sleep through anything, he would be shocked the next day to discover that he had slept through an air raid! 

When we returned to London at the end of the War we found shards of glass in my grandparents' garden. Thank G-d that was the extent of the damage. My parents and grandparents were grateful to be able to return to normal life again.

My grandmother hired an Irish maid - sight unseen. Maggie the maid looked like a witch, replete with black teeth and straggly black hair. But she sure knew how to clean! She worked for my parents for close to thirty years, until they moved to Israel in 1965, at which point I inherited her.

I had planned to attend a teachers' training college in South London. But when I discovered that twice a month classes finished late on Friday afternoon, I changed my mind and enrolled in the newly formed women's program at Jews' College.

It was really beshert because that's where I met my husband. Originally from Australia, Raymond attended the College's semicha and teacher's training program. He was from a traditional, although not strictly Orthodox home. Raymond was only sixteen when his mother passed away. She was a very educated woman who graduated university with a degree in modern languages in 1921, long before it was common for women to get a higher education. Baruch Hashem he met some excellent teachers who had a very positive impact on his life and influenced him to become the wonderful person that he is today. One of them was a German Jewish professor, extremely cultured and totally frum. The Jews in Melbourne found his combination of gentility and frumkeit extremely attractive.  The first time we visited him, we sat in the living room as he played Beethoven for us on his piano.

When Raymond got a position at the historic Bayswater Synagogue in West London, I found myself plunged into the role of rebbetzin. I had grown up in a Yiddish-speaking home, very different from this upper class congregation which even included a few knights!  I was in awe of the older, worldly women and asked my mother for some ideas for conversation. Her suggestion: talk about recipes, which is what I did. In addition to making friends, I acquired some wonderful recipes!

The shul provided us with a beautiful apartment adjacent to a lovely private park. But once we had a couple of children we wanted to live near other religious families. So when my husband was offered a position in West Hampstead, a Jewish area in Northwest London, he grabbed it.

The Hampstead community was lovely. It was a younger congregation with lots of small children. They had just opened a community center and my husband was expected to organize the activities – which he did. In addition to teaching the Bas Mitzvah class I was involved with the women's guild, where I helped to organize a monthly lunch and speaker program.  Both my husband and I were also active in J.M.E.C., the Jewish Marriage Education Council, where we taught both premarital classes as well as courses for newly married couples. Although most of our clientele were not particularly Orthodox, we hope that we had a positive influence on them.

In a write up about us in the local paper it was mentioned that I had graduated with a teacher's degree from Jews' College. As a result, the local girls' school offered me a position teaching the Jewish girls about their religion during their one hour a week of religious instruction. For me, this was a tremendous opportunity to introduce these girls to their heritage. Although I don't know any girls who became frum as a result of my lessons, I'm sure it impacted their sense of Jewish identity and perhaps some of them decided to lead more committed Jewish lives. For me, it was the perfect job. I could walk to work. I also had a built in babysitter – Maggie the Irish maid, whom we had inherited when my parents moved to Israel.

I took a course offered by the Jewish Marriage Education Council to become a school counselor. After graduating, I became a school counselor at JFS, an enormous Jewish school in Northwest London. A large percentage of the children that came to me for counseling suffered because of serious shalom bayis issues. For me, this emphasized the importance of the marriage classes that my husband and I were teaching under the auspices of J.M.E.C. 

What was it like being a rebbetzin? My mother was not a typical rebbetzin – she never went to shul – so I was never particularly conscious of my position in the community until someone pointed out to me that the other women in shul were watching my every move. "They stand when you stand and they sit when you sit." I found that a bit disconcerting. "After all," I said to myself, "I'm human. Sometimes I come late to shul and try to catch up!"

Debbie: Although I'm not a rebbetzin, I also had that experience! I was spending Shabbos in a city with a very tiny Jewish community, and came to shul a bit later than I should have (although, considering it was a two mile walk, I should be proud that I made it to shul at all!). As I tried to catch up with the congregation, I noticed that everyone stood when I stood and sat when I sat. I had a strange sense of power and had this very wicked urge to have fun with it, sitting and then standing and then sitting again, but of course I didn't. It wouldn't have been fair (but it certainly would have been fun)!

Marian: In 1971 Sydney's historic Great Synagogue asked my husband to become its rabbi. It was a difficult decision. We were very happy in Hampstead. We loved the community and felt fulfilled knowing that we were really contributing to klal Yisrael. But because the synagogue in Hampstead was part of the United Synagogue, major decisions were made at the head office, which meant that the local rabbi had little opportunity to apply his rabbinic learning. In Sydney, however, my husband would be more or less the communal chief rabbi, a position that would stretch him personally, professionally and rabbinically.

We traveled by boat to Australia. The Australian government, trying to lure its citizens to return home, paid for my husband's fare. As his spouse, my fare – paid by the shul – was only ten pounds and our children went for free. So we really got a good deal!

The journey took four weeks. Since there was no kosher kitchen we brought along canned meat and a large cheese. The salads were prepared in a separate kitchen, so we ate lots of fresh salads. We lost a lot of weight!

We spent Chanukah on the ship. Prior to the holiday, I walked up and down the corridor "Jew-spotting" -- looking for other people to celebrate with us. When I saw someone who looked Jewish, I'd ask, in Yiddish, "Undzera?" "Are you one of ours?" and if they answered in the affirmative, I would invite them to join us in lighting the Chanukah menorah.

The four-week trip was a real vacation. We even stopped in the Canary Islands, where we tried to find kosher tuna fish, and in Cape-Town, where we spent a lovely day with the rabbi. We arrived in Sydney in December, 1972. It was the middle of the summer.  The shul provided us with a ground floor apartment; the cantor lived on the floor above us. They were older than us; their youngest was ten, the same age as my oldest. They became our children's surrogate grandparents. I don't know what I would have done without them.

I felt very much at home in the community. Australians are friendly and generally don't stand on ceremony. But it was hard to acclimatize to the heat. My first Shabbos there it was 106'! One hundred and six degrees Fahrenheit! Coming from perpetually cool England, I was completely unprepared for the weather. My first Shabbos in Sydney I walked to shul very fashionably overdressed, and was miserable! The shul was built in 1878, and there was no air conditioning! The ladies fanned themselves with paper fans while I sat and shvitzed

We always had lots of guests. Since we lived downtown we attracted frum tourists. In addition, on Shabbos afternoon we hosted an Oneg Shabbos followed by a communal shalosh seudos. Our kids usually brought home friends for the meals, so between our guests and the children's guests, life in Sydney was never dull!

The Great Synagogue was a popular place to hold weddings.  My husband and I developed a special two day course for couples getting married in our shul, which was held on two consecutive Sundays. Baruch Hashem the program was extremely successful. Today, many years later, people tell me that they still remember some of the things we told them! When my youngest son was a chassan, he attended the course and commented, "It's a lot better than I thought it would be."  Coming from one of my own, this was a huge compliment.

I was intensely involved with the Sydney community, a real "rebbetzin." After I retired, I asked another rebbetzin how she was enjoying her position. Her response, "Mrs. Apple, these days we're not two for the price of one!" It's true that most of my work was done without monetary compensation, but that's not why I was doing it. I was happy to be making a real difference in people's lives.  

In addition to my volunteer work, I taught at both high school and university level and worked as a school counselor in a Jewish school. I later took a course in how to teach English as a second language (ESL), and then taught English at the University of New South Wales.  

I used to be shy, but today I'm not. I find it easy to speak in public and am involved in many different organizations. I felt that living in downtown Sydney, rather than in the more Jewish suburbs, gave me the opportunity to develop myself. We could walk to the Jewish area if we wanted to – it took us an hour and a half– but at the same time I could grow at my own rate.

Throughout the years my husband and I dreamed of moving to Eretz Yisrael. In 2005 we took the big step and made aliya. My biggest hurdle is the language. If I try speaking to my grandchildren in Hebrew, they respond, "But Savta, we speak English!"

Here, too, I work in kiruv. Last year I taught potential gerim, all very high caliber people -- two doctors, a mathematician, real intelligent, seeking people. In addition, one morning a week I attend shiurim, another morning it's learning Hebrew at the Ulpan, and then of course I spend lots of time with my children and grandchildren. After all, that's one of the main reason we're here!

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