Cafe Scheherazade

 Should I be sad because I already know too many people who never went to Cafe Scheherazade in Acland Street? After 40 years, it closed in 2008 and is fading into memory as St Kilda evolves into a different place.

Presented by: fortyfivedownstairsVenue: fortyfivedownstairs 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Saturday, 12 March, 2011 Cafe ScheherazadeShould I be sad because I already know too many people who never went to Cafe Scheherazade in Acland Street? After 40 years, it closed in 2008 and is fading into memory as St Kilda evolves into a different place.
Therese Radic’s Cafe Scheherazade is loosely based on Arnold Zable’s book and lets us share writer Martin’s experience of listening to and writing about the stories he heard at the famous and loved cafe. Dramatically, I’m not sure that there’s enough to draw a non-familar audience through, but there are enough generations who remember the “old” St Kilda to love a re-visit and its strength and vitality is its reflections on memories and the importance of telling our stories.
With live Klezmer music, Laminex tables and the room’s pillars covered in the very familiar brown and gold flowered wallpaper, it’s easy to be back in Acland Street. I even had a pang of jealousy because Martin (based on Zable) was served a vegetarian meal, even with the jibes. I never had a famous Scheherazade schnitzel, but I’m drooling at the memory of the plum dumplings.
The owners and customers Cafe Scheherazade share their stories about being Jewish in Europe in the 1940s. Sometimes they are reluctant as some experiences “can never be understood”. We have heard similar stories, but this work reminds us how they must keep being told. As too many people don’t know how good a cream cheese blintze is with black coffee, many haven’t heard first-hand stories about fleeing Europe. As this generation dies, their stories and voices have to remain.
It’s not easy to listen to something that is so far from our own experiences of life, but the discomfort is more ours than the teller’s. Our unease is shared by Martin who is compelled to hear how this generation of strangers ended up in beachside Melbourne, but knows that he cannot ever really understand; even in his imagination he has to stop at the gates of the ghetto.
His unease continues with his reluctance to share his stories. “A story must be answered with another story”; we can’t just be listeners.  Even if its facts are twisted to make the teller look good, it’s those “wonderful lies” that reveal the real truth.
I live in a Melbourne suburb where there are still more bakeries that sell Challah than there are Baker’s Delights, it’s easy to buy dairy-free chocolate and there’s no such thing as a bagel that hasn’t been boiled. Here, European Yiddish culture is as Aussie as a pie at the footy, but there is still palpable distance. This is touched on as a man talks to Martin about “you Australians” and still having no sense of belonging here, even after 50 years.
Fleeing your home and seeing atrocities that even the secular pray never happen again is so hard to understand if you’ve grown up safe. Perhaps we forget that many refugees (wherever they are from) didn’t imagine their futures in Australia. Even if they are welcomed with open arms and minds, “These people are not us” and many came because they had no choice.
Avram and Masha opened a cafe and gave us a taste of bohemian Europe and Black Forest cake, but Cafe Scherherazade gave many a memory of home, where they could “sit and eat like civilised men” and know that they were with others who understood why sometimes their stories were wonderful lies or left untold.
Cafe Scheherazade is nearly sold out, but there are some matinee tickets still available. If you miss the cafe, it’s almost as good as being there and the stories told remind us why they must never be forgotten. Until April 3rd, 2011

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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