Friday, September 17, 2010

Ancestral Furniture

Two things have inspired this post. The first was a beautiful post from Cath. The second is the night - it's Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish liturgical calendar, when we reflect on the misdeeds of the past year and how we can become better. Yom Kippur is always a bit of a slog for the unobservant me; but the Kol Nidre service is very beautiful, and I'm a little sad not to be going to a service tonight.

Instead, I'm going to tell you all about furniture.

But wait, there's more. It's not just any old furniture - for furniture marks my own ancestry, my own Jewish past, which, therefore, allows for a certain amount of reflection, and also a style of confessional similar to that of the well-known televisual emission Who Do You Think You Are? in which slebs trace their genealogies.

I can trace my ancestry back to my great-great-grandfather, one Aaron Israel Ginsberg, who lived somewhere in Russia, and died, I believe, in 1924. I knew nothing whatsoever about him except his name, until I was given a plastic bag of stuff from the effects of my late great-uncle Monté, one of the sage's grandsons. They included a silk tallit, which was so fragile that it ripped with every movement I made when I tried to wear it in the synagogue; together with some decayed leather tefillin.

There was also a siddur - a service book - written in Russian and Hebrew, with an inscription in cursive Yiddish, which proved all but impenetrable even to an expert reader (my good friend and co-conspirator Mr A. K. of Barkingside), though we did manage to work out the year of Aaron's death, and that the siddur had been printed in 1909 in Vilna, once a great centre of Jewish learning. I know nothing whatsoever of Aaron or his life, but I suspect Fiddler On The Roof is a much-romanticized version of some of it. Aaron was not the village milkman, like Tevye - he was almost certainly the village furniture maker. It seems that cabinet-making was the family trade.

It was Aaron's son Wolf who came to England, bringing his skills with him. For a long time all I knew of Wolf was an old photo of a severe-looking Russian in a flat hat, and a mahogany sideboard in my parent's house. My back still aches at the memory of its weight, as my father and I moved it from one end of the hall to the other.  However, I was recently given six mahogany dining chairs, made by Wolf. These are probably the nearest things I have to heirlooms, for all that Canis croxorum gnawed the legs of one of them. Here is one of them.

Wolf had three children, Bea, Ernie and the baby Monté, all of whom possessed a great gift for arts and crafts, especially woodwork. Bea married a man called Lionel, a skilled craftsman who walked from Swansea to London in the Depression in search of work. He worked for Wolf - and married his daughter. Lionel and Bea were a veritable hothouse of activity. I still remember the house they built in Hampshire, with Lionel's 300-foot-long garden full of greenhouses and orchards, his astonishingly skilfully made furniture (he panelled their living room with linenfold panels, each one carved by hand from oak) and Bea's ceaseless activity with the needle and the pickle-jar. Their three children inherited the volcanic talents of both.

Monté was also an excellent craftsman, but for him music was in the ascendant. He learned to play the saxophone and the violin, and spent many years in orchestras on cruise ships. His son went on to be a recording engineer (he assisted on a couple of early Queen albums).

It was Ernie who was my grandfather. He changed the family name from Ginsberg to Gee, but I never got to meet him - he died young, just before I was born. However, I have seen a few of his tools and artefacts, including a 'masterpiece' of a box and lid carved out of a single block of lignum vitae. Ernie was a cabinet-maker for Rolls Royce, and in the war used his skills to build Spitfires.

My father trained as a lawyer. But when I was young he had a workshop in which he produced all sorts of beautiful things. When he was the age I am now, he made this dresser

which as you can see gets a lot of use in the Salon Des Girrafes.

Which brings me to ... er ... me. Now, I don't have the patience or the skill of my forebears, or even my threebears. On the other hand, when I put up a shelf, it stays up. When I hang a door, it stays hung. And I have found that when the elder male of the clan reaches his mid-forties, he is seized by an implacable urge to make pine dressers. The Cuisine Des Girrafes is largely furnished by my own efforts, which Mrs Crox charitably describes as 'rustic'.
So, when I look at the handmade furniture in the Maison Des Girrafes, whose degree of finesse correlates with its age, and whose manufacture goes back four generations, I am minded of my own heritage. And so, dear readers, I'm signing off, in the hope that you will all be inscribed in the Book of Life.


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