Things My Father Taught Me: Danny Katz

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Danny Katz is a veteran columnist (The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age) and the author of the award-winning children’s book series, Little Lunch. Here, he reflects on his dad’s “god-like” influence and excruciating jokes.

Dad is a scientist but he was obsessed with music and was a big Bob Dylan fan – a bit of a hippie. His record collection was the most eclectic thing I have ever seen. He would have Broadway musicals and Leonard Cohen and comedy albums – it was all messed up. And then there was this huge collection of Jewish folk song albums – it all fed into me. We listened to My Fair Lady at least once a week, or West Side Story. I am still obsessed with musicals – good musicals. West Side Story is as good as it gets.

I think Dad chose geology because it was a field where there was plenty of work but, really, he could have gone in many different directions. He was interested in being a filmmaker at one stage. He was always writing as well – poetry or stories or diaries. He fancies himself as a bit of a Kerouac-style writer, very free-form.

Dad and Mum are Jewish, but not very religious. We did Shabbos every Friday night. And, every year, the whole family got together for Passover, which is Dad’s big annual showman-day – we still do Passover every year, never miss it. Dad takes charge of the ceremony. He sits at the head of the table and reads from the Haggadah, which is the book that tells the Passover story about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. He tells the same terrible jokes each time about how ‘Moses went forth, but came fifth’. Or how the Jewish people eat the Matzoh balls, and other parts of the Matzoh too. Excruciating. But the night wouldn’t be the same without those jokes.

We were always very conscious of our Jewishness. I’m not sure that he believes in God – I mean, he’s a scientist and he sees the world rationally – but I know the Holocaust had a tremendous effect on him. He was seven or eight when the war ended and he was in Canada, so I think he was completely oblivious to what was happening in Europe. Then the survivors came to Toronto. Dad didn’t really understand it all at the time. He said, ‘We didn’t know what they had been through.’

Years later, he told me that he was listening to a radio show on which they were listing all the children who had died in a particular concentration camp – they were all born in the same year he was born – and it just struck him: it could have been him. That really impacted on him.

He has spent a lot of time trying to understand the Holocaust. It affects him very deeply. How could it not? He passed that down to me. I also read a lot about the Holocaust, think about it constantly. And as Dad did with us, I want to make sure my kids know what happened, the scale of it, as well as that it must never happen again to anyone.

When his grandchildren are around, he is like a sun. He just sits there and all the kids get caught in his gravitational pull. He doesn’t need to do anything. Simply make funny faces or say silly, made-up words. That is one way I have tried to be like him – in creative play. Those were the times I really remember connecting with my dad, so I tried to be like that with my own kids. He’s got this childish thing about him, a childish sense of wonder, a childish naughtiness, bundled inside the body of a bald, bearded geologist. He is very charismatic.

I can’t talk to him about heavy stuff – I go to Mum if there are big problems or parenting questions or whatever. Nine and a half minutes is all my dad and I need for a catch-up chat. He’ll say, ‘How’s the car running?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, not bad, the car’s good.’ Then he’ll ask what I’ve been up to, and I’ll ask what he’s been up to. Then we’ll eat pistachios and throw the shells into the garden. And after nine and a half minutes, he’ll stand up and say, ‘Better check what your mother’s doing.’ That’s it. We’re done. You never go to him for deep and meaningful.

He is – and always will be – a god-like figure to me. He’s lived a big life. He managed to escape his working-class upbringing and get a university education – unheard of in his family. And then escape Canada and see the world, which was also unheard of. I admire that. He always did what he wanted.

This is an excerpt from Things My Father Taught Me, by Claire Halliday that features interviews with a collection of Australian identities talking about the impact their relationship with their dad had on their lives. Buy it here