Zable, Arnold

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ZABLE, Arnold

Nationality: Australian. Born: Wellington, New Zealand, 1947; grew up in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Education: Melbourne University; Columbia University, New York. Career: Lecturer in the Arts faculty, Melbourne University. Worked as an English and creative writing teacher and as a freelance journalist. Coeditor, The Melbourne Chronicle; columnist, The Age, Melbourne. Awards: National Council Lysbeth Cohen award and NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission award, both in 1991, and Braille Book of the Year award and Talking Book of the Year award, both in 1992, all for Jewels and Ashes.



Cafe Scheherazade. 2001.


Jewels and Ashes. 1991.


Clown Boy (for children). 1982.

The River Man (for children). 1982.

Wanderers and Dreamers: Tales of the David Herman Thea-tre. 1998.

Editor, The Industrial Yarra: Possibilities for Change. 1976.

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Arnold Zable, the son of prewar Polish Jewish migrants, was born in New Zealand in 1947 and grew up in Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne that then had a substantial Jewish population. He was an academic and migrant educator before becoming a full-time writer and journalist. Zable is one of the best known and most respected Australian Jewish writers of his generation. The writings, like the man, bring two potentially conflictual tendencies into close accord: on the one hand, a joyous cosmopolitanism that revels in cultural difference and passionately endorses Australian multiculturalism; on the other, a fierce loyalty to Jewish cultural traditions (though he is not an observant Jew)—in particular, to traditions of Jewish storytelling.

In addition to many shorter pieces, Zable has published three books: the award-winning Jewels and Ashes (1991), an autobiographical account focused on his travels in eastern Europe in 1986; Wanderers and Dreamers (1998), a history of Yiddish theater in Australia; and Café Scheherazade (2001), a novel in which Holocaust survivors, all patrons of the Café Scheherazade (a real-life eatery in St. Kilda, one of the centers of Melbourne Jewish life), recount their tales of survival. Each of these books evinces a powerful reconstructive impulse.

Jewels and Ashes seeks to reconstruct aspects of family and wider Polish Jewish history that were decimated by the Holocaust. It is an awesome quest: "Perhaps this is how it has always been for descendants of lost families: we search within a tangle of aborted memories, while stumbling towards a mythical home which seems to elude us as it recedes into false turns and dead ends." Yet the journey proves more availing than this might suggest. The second generation Australian's return journey reveals not just the "ashes" that the horror left behind but also the "jewels"—the people, the memories, the locales, the stories—that survived. The narrative's meld of lament and celebration is typical of Zable's writings; but in his work, unlike that of some other well-known Australian Jewish writers like Morris Lurie and Serge Liberman, the main emphasis falls on celebration. Perhaps in the final analysis Zable is a chronicler of enchantment.

This chronicling of enchantment is evident in Wanderers and Dreamers, with its celebration of the quixotic, chancy, inspired, unlikely but also passionately willed history of Yiddish theater in Australia. "Yiddish theatre," he writes, "is a tale of miraculous journeys." Since organized Yiddish theater in Australia began in the first decade of the twentieth century, many of the journeys in question occur prior to the Holocaust; but many also unfold in its shadow, as in the case of Mila and Moshe Potashinski, Auschwitz survivors who are reunited after the war and exercise the "power" of their "ancient craft" with special passion and poignancy in Europe and later Australia.

Miraculous journeys are also the essence of Café Scheherazade. Martin Davis, a journalist who is the principal narrator of the story, is "engaged in reconstructing other times, other worlds," as he listens to the stories of three Holocaust survivors, Yossel Bartnowski, Laizer Bialer, and Zalman Grintraum, and to those of Avram and Marsha Zeleznikow, the proprietors of the café. These narratives contain many terrible things; yet the book is also rich in romance, as in the story of how the café got its legendary name, and in moments of transcendence that pierce the darkness. As Zalman, the speaker most attuned to transcendence, says: "In every darkness there is a spark." He discerns "crevices of peace" in a nightmare world, and says: "This is what all my wanderings have taught me: that the moment itself is the haven, the true sanctuary."

But some places offer more secure sanctuary than others, and, like most Australian Jewish writers, Zable is in little doubt that for Jews, at least in relative terms, Australia is a gan eiden— a "golden land." In Zable's work storytelling is a matter of urgency as well as enchantment. Martin is acutely aware that "a generation is moving on. And with each passing life I feel it more keenly: there are tales aching to be told, craving to be heard, before they disappear into the grave." In the author's note with which the book concludes, Zable explains: "This is not a book about history. Rather, it is a homage to the power of story-telling, a meditation on displacement, and on the way in which the after-effects of war linger on in the minds of survivors." Here, as always, his vision, while rooted in Jewish history, is deeply attuned to that larger history of which the Jewish past, harrowing yet sublime, is but a part.

—Richard Freadman

See the essay on Jewels and Ashes.