The news broke in 2015 that the British-born South African musician, who blended western and Zulu music had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to perform while receiving treatment. Then in September 2017, came the announcement that he was embarking on a final international tour that he called “The Final Journey”.
That journey came to an end this July when the icon who had defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and taken his Zulu-infused rock music around the world, finally succumbed to his terminal illness.
Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the singer describes his upbringing as “secular Jewish.” As a child he spent several months living in Israel, which he again visited in 2003 when his sister living in Ra’anana passed away.
He had planned a much-awaited revisit to Israel – this time to tour with his band in 2010 – hence the reason this writer called him on phone to interview him for Telfed, a South African community magazine in Israel that I had been editor of at the time. I tracked the musician down while on tour of New Zealand to a hotel room in Auckland. Within hours of a press release that Clegg would be performing in Israel, the Telfed office, which had undertaken to promote the concert in Israel, was inundated with inquiries.
A world away in Auckland, Clegg was happy to hear this upbeat update. “Israel is probably the country closest to my heart in terms of-ex-pats,” with close members of his family living in the Jewish homeland. “I have visited on two occasions, butthis will be the first time that I will be performing there,” he enthused.
One of the many hits he would be singing would be “Scatterlings of Africa” which rocked the charts in the UK “enabling me to give up lecturing in Anthropology at Wits University and focus on music.” In 1988 the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Clegg had once explained the inspiration for the song in a live concert, saying “When we wrote this song, the oldest human bones in the world had just been discovered at Olduvai Gorge, in Africa. So this is a song about how everyone can claim to be African … if they want to, that is.”
Harassment To Harmony
Prior to his overseas success, “making a living exclusively from music in apartheid South Africa was difficult.Our racially integrated band was refused airtime on the radio and our concerts were routinely broken-up by the police, who would barge onto the stage with dogs and shotguns.”
His band Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.
Clegg made it ‘possible’!
The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music.
The year that Clegg planned to tour Israel, was proving “very busy.”
Earlier in 2010, he told the writer, “We performed at a 9-day concert in Rabat, Morocco,” where his group joined some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue. Clegg had also recently finished recording his own compositions for a Nelson Mandela audiobook with narration by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had enjoyed a strong association with the iconic former state president and performed frequently to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat AIDS.
As an adolescent in Johannesburg‘s northern suburbs, he related befriending Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, “drawing me into the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance scene. Through Charlie, I mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar as well as the isishameni dance styles of the migrants.”
Johnny was on the way to becoming a “White Zulu”.
Clegg’s close association with black musicians frequently led to his arrest. His first arrest was at the age of fifteen and – in SA legal parlance – it was for violating the Group Areas Act that prohibited people of different races from congregating together outside select areas and at select times.
However, it was his meeting with Sipho Mchunu that had the next major impact on his life and music. “I was seventeen and Sipho was a Zulu migrant worker; we just clicked and that led to Juluka.”
He explained that “Juluka means “sweat” and also had been the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.
Clegg had a talent for integrating his knowledge of Anthropology with his music, which led him in the early stages of his musical career, to include in his songs snippets of Zulu culture.
Later, his lyrics would contain coded political messages and references to the battle against Apartheid, although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. “Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist”. For him, “a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Nevertheless, Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; it proved a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation – Apartheid. As a result of the political messages imbedded in their music, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. While harassed at home, Juluka managed to tour abroad playing in Europe, Canada and the USA , and had two platinum and five gold albums, emerging as a major international success.
In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon, France that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, allegedly complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen my fans”.
During a concert in 1999, Clegg was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the anti-Apartheid protest song dedicated to the President, “Asimbonanga“. Meaning – “We have not seen him” – Asimbonanga was one of the first songs to call for Nelson Mandela’s release while still imprisoned on Robben Island.
Unfortunately, Israelis would not get to hear Clegg live in 2010 with those great hits ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ and ‘Asimbonanga’because the tour to Israel was cancelled, much to his regret.
Paying tribute to his father, his son Jesse Clegg, expressed: “Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music, he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us, he awakened awareness.”
“They are the scatterlings of Africa
Each uprooted one
On the road to Phelamanga
Where the world began
I love the scatterlings of Africa”
Asimbonanga was an anti-apartheid song by Savuka, from their 1987 album Third World Child. It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island the time of song’s release, and other anti-apartheid activists.
*Title picture: WHITE ZULU: Johnny Clegg (Picture: Tsheko Kabasi)
Short In Distance, Bialik Street Is Long In History
By David E. Kaplan
There was sound reason why the organizers of Israel’s 2019 Eurovision Song Competition in Tel Aviv chose to hold the Semi-final Allocation Draw at the city’s former City Hall in Bialik Street.
While Bialik Street does not project the grandeur of Paris’ ‘Avenue des Champs-Elysees’, or the allure of New York’s 5th Avenue, it personifies the cultural journey of Tel Aviv – a journey where visitors require not tough shoes but adventurous minds.
Bialik street can take five minutes to casually stroll or five hours for a true experience – it all depends on your pace, for each pause is poetry. A side road off the pulsating Allenby with its cafés, pubs and restaurants, one exits the traffic and tumult of one world, to enter another of tranquility and charm. With its fine examples of Bauhaus architecture, Bialik Street is a UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Starting at the T-junction of Allenby and Bialik, we began its tour. The writer strolled down the little brick road, admiring the diverse architectural styles of the buildings, until arriving at the former home of one of Israel’s most celebrated artists, Reuven Rubin (1893-1974). Today it is the Rubin Museum and the writer met with its curator, Carmela Rubin, the daughter-in-law of the late artist.
Established in 1909 on desolate sand dunes, Tel Aviv in the 1920s drew like a magnet, many of the leading writers, artists, musicians, actors and journalists. Carmela attributed this to the arrival in 1924 of one man – Chaim Nachman Bialik, who would emerge in his lifetime as Israel’s National Poet and the celebrated resident of the street that would take his name.
“That he chose to settle in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem influenced others to follow him. People today are hardly aware of the monumental impact Bialik had on his generation.”
“Firstly, he arrived with such stature, a towering intellectual whose poetry and prose, calling for a reawakening of the Jewish people, resonated with a new breed of emerging Jew in Eastern Europe,” explained Carmela.
In this quest, language was the key and “Bialik was in the forefront in the renewal of the Hebrew language. Jews in Eastern Europe at that time spoke Yiddish; Hebrew was the language of the prayer book, reserved for the Sabbath. The Zionist movement had its central platform, the revival of Hebrew as the conversational language of Jews and Bialik was the spearhead in this mission.”
The generation of Hebrew poets who followed in Bialik’s footsteps, notably Jacob Steinberg and Jacob Fichman, would be referred to as ‘the Bialik generation’.
“Bialik was so much more than a renowned poet – he was a leader, and by choosing to settle in Tel Aviv in the 1920s, he transformed a small parochial city in Palestine into the center of contemporary cultural activity.”
Acknowledged as a leader of his city’s renaissance – as the Medici were to Florence – it was little wonder that his good friend, Meir Dizengoff, the mayor of Tel Aviv, not only assisted him to acquire a mortgage to build his house but also to rename the street in his honor before even the first brick had been laid. To so honor a person while still alive is rare in Jewish tradition – only for exceptional human beings.”
Bialik was one such person.
It was through the likes of Bialik that a fledging city transformed from sand dunes to cultural oasis.
Portrait of an Artist
It was into this milieu that the artist Reuven Rubin arrived in Palestine in 1923, this time to settle. At an exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1927, Bialik wrote in the catalogue: “Blessed is Rubin who has had the privilege of bonding with Eretz-Israel while his talent is in bloom. Eretz-Israel, presented as Rubin sees it – with its mountains and cities, its gardens and valleys, its old people and women, its Jews and Arabs, its donkeys and goats, its stones and plants, joined in unexpected combinations on one small square of canvas – looks like the legend of Eretz-Israel.”
But it’s Rubin’s art of Tel Aviv that provides “a visual documentation” of a strip of land transformed from sand dunes to city,” explains Carmela. “When I show groups around the museum, I talk less about the theories of art and more on that thin line where art meets and reflects life so that when visitors leave the museum, they will feel they have touched the soul of Tel Aviv. After all,” asserts Carmela, “art is long, human life short; Rubin is dead, but his art is alive and tells a story for future generations.”
The narrative of a city emerging out of sand dunes is poignantly portrayed in the two paintings Carmela shows this writer. In Self Portrait with a Flower, painted in 1922, the young artist with black curly hair stands proudly in front of the barren yellow sand dunes from which the city of Tel Aviv is still to arise. There are three small homes and the Mediterranean coast is seen in the background. Rubin is holding in his left hand a vase with a white lily symbolizing fertility and in his right, his paint brushes. “The painting is a commitment to the future; both hands visually express the promise of the artist to impact upon the barren landscape of Tel Aviv – through his personal life and through his art.”
He succeeds in both.
In Les Fiancées, painted seven years later in 1929, the artist appears – still with his paint brushes in his left hand – but now, seated on his right is no longer a vase of with a lily but his beautiful bride-to-be. They appear regal in dress and demeanor on a balcony overlooking an established city; conspicuously absent are the barren sand dunes. A small plane is seen flying over the Mediterranean, symbolizing modernity and civilization. Clearly, the personal life of the artist and the development of Tel Aviv have merged and matured – the fruition of the idealism that embodied the earlier 1922 painting.
These paintings reflect Rubin fulfilling the Zionist dream and when the artist’s work was exhibited in New York and bought by Jews in the 1920s, “It was bringing a visual image of Jewish enterprise in Palestine to a Diaspora who had little idea of what was happening here,” asserts Carmela. “Rubin’s work was performing a pivotal role. If the content of his paintings portrayed Jews physically planting seeds and cultivating the land, the ideological impact of his work was achieving precisely the same result in the mindset and perceptions of Jews abroad.”
What Bialik had achieved in literature, Ruben set out to enhance and enrich through art.
The Rubin Museum is on three floors, where apart from the works of the artist and his splendidly preserved studio on the top floor, the second floor presents a pictorial lifeline in photos of the artist. There are also rooms allocated to temporary exhibitions unrelated to Rubin. On the day of this writers visit, on exhibit were photographs of the different architectural styles prevalent in Israel.
I leave the Rubin Museum and walk to Kikar Bialik (Bialik Square) which is encircled by architectural diversity – the former Tel Aviv City Hall, the Felicja Blumental Music Centre and Library, the Bauhaus Museum, (sponsored by Ron Lauder, displaying Bauhaus-designed furniture, graphics, lamps, and glass and ceramic-ware by Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Christian Bell, Willhelm Wagenfeld and others) and the Jewel in the Crown, the Bialik House Museum.
Ayelet Bitan Shlonsky is the curator of the Bialik House Museum and manager of the Bialik Center, which includes running eight major “happenings” a year, notably in mid-summer, the annual White Night celebrations that attracted thousands to the square, as it does each year when local Tel Aviv musicians entertain till the early hours of the morning. “The concerts in the square are free and we celebrate Tel Aviv’s birthday each year with a different theme or genre of music from all over the world. Not only are we establishing Bialik Street as the city’s center for culture and history but also as a place for music and fun.”
Standing in the middle of the square, Ayelet points out the buildings in Bialik Street and explains the variety of architectural styles, notably Neo-classic, eclectic and Bauhaus. “In one short road,” she says, “we have it all – the phases and faces of Tel Aviv architecture. It’s all staring at us!”
Entering Bialik’s house is like opening a treasure trove. The eye feasts on a kaleidoscope of diverse designs and colors. The architect, Yosef Minor, a disciple of the Eretz-Israel school, integrated European and Arab architecture, and Bialik’s house is an outstanding example of a merger of contrasting styles. “This pleased Bialik,” explains Ayelet, “who preferred not to simply transplant western culture as the Bauhaus architects would do a decade later but rather integrate western concepts with the east.”
Despite the influence of the Orient with its arches and columns that beautify every corner of the house, the architect does not allow one to ever doubt that the house was built for one who was revered as one of the main spokesmen of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). The hearth and pillars on the reception floor are covered in tiles decorated with Jewish themes, the products of the Bezalel workshop in Jerusalem. The hearth depicts the journey of the Ark of the Covenant and the story of the spies Moses sent to scout the land, while the pillars are illustrated with the twelve tribes and the months of the Hebrew calendar. And if this was not enough, a further element underlines the connection between Jewish history and Zionist belief: On one side of the pillar appears a replica of the Roman coin Judea Capta and on the other, a coin of captured Judea freed from chains with a caption reading: “Judea liberated”. This theme of Jewish courage and revival are at the core of Bialik’s philosophy.
In 1903 Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg) sent a firsthand report to Bialik on the Kishinev pogrom where Jews were massacred. Based on Ahad Ha’am’s detailed account of the bloodbath, “A year later,” says Ayelet, “Bialik published his epic masterwork, ‘The City of Slaughter’, a searing condemnation of Jewish passivity.”
… the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
The Kishinev pogrom was instrumental in convincing tens of thousands of Russian Jews to leave for Palestine and became a rallying point for early Zionists.
“It is said that Bialik’s onslaught on Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitic violence,” says Ayellet, “inspired the idea of founding Jewish self-defense groups in Russia and later the Haganah in Palestine. You can see why Bialik was so important on so many levels.”
In 1922, Ahad Ha’am, now himself an established philosopher and writer and resident of Tel Aviv, attended the foundation stone-laying ceremony for Bialik’s house.”
Bialik’s original ‘The City of Slaughter’ is housed in the museum.
Across the square from the Bialik Museum is Beit Hair – Hebrew for ‘Town Hall’. The writer’s guide is Ruthie Amoma an instructor at the Bialik Center. Beit Ha’ir is both a museum and a cultural center. Here visitors will find a permanent exhibition focusing on the life and work of Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, alongside a photo exhibition that sets out to reflect and debate different aspects of the city’s history. Entitled ‘Revealing the Hidden City’, Ruthie explains that “the idea was to tell the story of Tel Aviv not from the writings and studies of historians but from the pictures and interviews of the residents of Tel Aviv. We set out to not only record what is known but to explore that which was unknown, hence the title of the exhibition.”
Who better to tell the story than the people themselves?
“An appeal went out to Tel Avivians,” continues Ruthie, “to submit photographs and to be interviewed. We anticipated receiving from some 3000 residents, which would have been sufficient to open the museum. But we were not banking on the enthusiasm of the residents of Tel Aviv. We received a staggering 28,000 photographs leading to new insights on the history of Tel Aviv!”
It is this enthusiasm that so characterizes the personality of Tel Aviv today.
The magnitude of the transition from the sand dunes of 1909 to the city of the 1930s is brought home when Ruthie guides me to Mayor Dizengoff’s majestic office that overlooks Bialik Square. Hung upon the wall behind the solid desk of Tel Aviv’s first mayor is a giant size original 1930s plan of the city, depicting in detail the spread and sizes of land ownership. Some of these lots would have been owned by those very founding families that participated in the beach lottery on the sand dunes in 1909 and seen in the iconic photograph, also in his office.
Clearly, if Tel Aviv of the 1930s was a ‘City on the Move’, it is even more so today, testifying to the best definition I have heard of Israel’s cultural capital:
“A city that wakes up every morning deciding what’s it’s going to be.”
Continuously evolving and redefining itself, Tel Aviv is a smorgasbord of ideas and it’s all captured in one short street called Bialik.
It’s well worth a visit.
* Title photo: Bialik Street viewed from the plaza with Bialik’s house on the left. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
In 1948 Alan Paton wrote a book on South Africa, “Cry the Beloved Country”. There are perhaps those of the younger generation who may not know of it or of the tragedy of the country, beloved then, as now to, all of its people. For hundreds of years it has been a beloved country; perhaps ever since man has walked its paths. It was and is a country of great beauty and presents vistas as fine as any in the world; a land rich with life; peoples as colourful as the rainbow, but side-by-side with joy and song, it has for centuries been crying. Bloody and fierce battles between tribes, ethnicities and races punctuated its turbulent history. Ultimately the blacks were brought to their knees by both the British and the Boers, losing their land, their livelihood, their culture and worst of all their dignity. The British and the Boers too fought bitter wars for control of this country, leaving behind ugly scars of suffering, hatred and destruction.
Despite the conflict, South Africa developed, becoming rich and powerful; a small minority living in comfort and wealth as only few in the world could boast. Millions remained exploited, poverty- stricken and humiliated – reduced to a lesser race, even in their own eyes. Racism, hatred, fear, conflict and crime reigned. In 1948, apartheid, a cruel and comprehensive system of racial segregation, became the law of the land. The country wept. This is the country I grew up in. I grew up enjoying the privileges of the white race but knew and heard the cry of the beloved country.
I left in 1962. I left an apartheid state. In 1994, after a long-protracted struggle of the black and coloured people, apartheid was abandoned, and the new South African democratic state came into being with a huge black majority voting in their own government.
Having family in Cape Town, I visit often. With each visit I rejoice anew. I rejoice at being with my loved ones; I rejoice at the unbeatable beauty of the surroundings; I rejoice at the familiar sounds and sights of my childhood; I rejoice at the incredible, no, miraculous change; I rejoice as I see black and white children splashing in the same sea resort; I see a white policeman helping an elderly black lady off the bus; I hear that at a graduation ceremony of engineers at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, more than fifty percent were black women; I listen to performers of all races at the Johannesburg symphony orchestra – when the black conductor stepped onto the podium I cried with joy. The people of the passport control, security people, travelers and businesspeople, not just the cleaners and porters, are black. I rejoice when the maid, a black maid, may use the same toilet as the mistress.
I visit a game reserve in Natal. The owners tell me that this land was owned by a few farmers, white farmers of course. They had turned their property into this magnificent resort and game reserve. The black people who lived on the farms all became share holders, they built their villages, homes, schools outside the areas fenced in for the animals. Those who wished were employed on the reserve. Surely a win-win situation.
Though the suburbs of Johannesburg are empty after dark, on the evening we visited Soweto it was full of people dancing and singing, black and white people. Could this have been then??
For all this and more I rejoice, but my memories of the apartheid period disturb and distress me to this day. How deep and destructive are the effects of a racist and conflict-ridden environment – to all who live within it.
Yet I hear other rumblings. I will tell here of some encounters I had on my visits: On a flight from Gauteng to Cape Town, I sit next to a well- dressed and fine- looking young black man. He tells me he is a statistician on his way to a meeting with the SA air force where he will be acting as an advisor. He has visited many countries in this capacity. He tells me he received his degree at Tuckies, the University of Pretoria which in my student days was a hot bed of extreme white Afrikaner nationalism. Only another South African of those times could understand my complete amazement.
This fellow passenger speaks with pained anger of today’s corruption, of the inadequate education system, of mismanagement. I ask him if there is nothing good that he can tell me. He agrees that all is not bad, that it is true that millions, literally millions of houses have been built; electricity has been extended to millions; water and sewerage reach many more; there is a rising black middle and upper class: HIV is being addressed. But this cannot be and is not enough.
Here I ask him if he remembers the apartheid period: the shootings, the torture, the beatings, the humiliation; when a white man’s ambulance was not permitted to drive an injured black man to a hospital; where the stations, the buses, the benches, the parks were forbidden to the black man; a premature black infant was not permitted the use of a vacant incubator from the white man’s hospital; the long lines of black people outside the small window of the spacious almost empty post office; when a man could not walk in the streets without a “pass’ from his white master; when families were torn apart to be sent home to the Bantustans. I remind him of the corruption, economic mismanagement and the ‘Bantu education’ of those times.
Could he and I have be sitting thus on the Johannesburg – Cape Town flight?
He says that the young people will not always remember the apartheid days. He says and I know that millions of poverty- stricken and unemployed have gained little from the new South Africa. The poor can only watch this apparently bustling prosperous country from the outside. Their hopes, their expectations of a better life, have not been realized. They will not accept such a situation forever.
This enlightening conversation comes to an end on our descent into Cape Town.
Thus, I hear and feel the good winds as I do the bad, but there is another, and for me, a more ominous wind. Sadly, one with which I am very familiar. I sense in some people a deep- rooted racism, an ailment which not all have been able to shake off. It is more subtle than it was, often expressed only in body language and suggestion or code. It goes beyond objective criticism. I am told it exists amongst the blacks too; I myself have come across it amongst whites. Every inadequacy, every criticism, every defect or imagined defect is directed to the “new” South Africa; There are some, less subtle who speak with bitterness and a longing for the pre 1994 era; who unashamedly regret the change. From time to time the derogatory and humiliating language of the past may be heard. I find this deeply hurtful. For too long has the land and its people been in the shadow of conflict. Too long for it to be able to let go completely of this burden of prejudice and intolerance.
To conclude I write these words to this country of my birth
I celebrate “The Beloved Country”;
I celebrate the mountains, the kopjes, the forest, the sea and the sky
I celebrate the Protea, the Acacia, the Baobab, the Aloe and the grassland
I celebrate the birds, the doe, the zebra and the giraffe
I celebrate the city, my cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Polokwane
I celebrate the people of the rainbow nation, their dance, their song, their multitude of tongues.
I celebrate their achievements, their freedom, their victory of tolerance and reconciliation. I envy this.
I hurt at their failings and faulting
I hurt deeply at the horrific poverty, frustration and despair in city and in village.
I hurt most at that lingering dark presence of racism.
The Beloved Country has much cause both to celebrate and to weep
And yes, the Beloved Country does still cry.
Richelle Shem-Tov an essayist and an author was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. A retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.
The Jewish ritual of reciting Kaddish as part of the mourning process for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse connects the mourner with the departed so that the deceased remains alive in thought and sentiment.
However, what of those family loved ones, who but for them you would not be, but never met?
How do we honour them or more important, how to we meaningfully acknowledge the impact they had on the destiny of the family?
A former South African in Israel, Richelle Shem-Tov found an innovative and enriching way through imagined letter writing set well over a century ago based on records, photographs, letters and personal recollections that brings her grandparents ‘alive’ but also provides insights into an era that resonates to this day and beyond.
“I never knew my grandfather,” writes Richelle Shem-Tov in the opening line to her ‘My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm in Africa.’
In truth, her grandfather never knew her as he died in 1922, but it appears the writer knew him well!
A retired physiotherapist living with her husband in Tel Aviv, Richelle, who grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), ingeniously plots a riveting journey of discovery revealing the history of her family from Courland in Latvia to a farm in the Woodbush area (Houtbosch), part of the Zoutpansberg or Pietersburg district through imagined letter writing.
The letters – covering the twilight period of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century from 1892 to 1912 – are all fiction. You would never think so as they are mostly based on real events, real people and real places from the lives and times of her grandparents, Herman and Doris Hirschmann. From what transpired over this tumultuous period covering people’s ‘greed for gold’ and the resultant Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), Richelle weaves a tapestry of trying times, revealing how young Jewish immigrants – her grandparents – with no knowledge of the terrain, the people, or able to speak the local languages (English, Afrikaans and African tribal) carved lives for themselves in this wilderness.
The ‘journey’ literally begins with Herman’s first letter written in 1892 to his friend Maurice in Palestine from an oxcart on the way from Pretoria to Woodbush:
“…You would not believe where I am right now – writing this letter to you at the side of a small wood-fire, next to an ox-wagon in the wild bushland, somewhere in the middle of “no-where.”
The opening line of this letter articulates the migratory patterns evolving amongst Jews from the Baltic States.
Thank you for your letter telling me that you have been released from prison and that you and your wife are leaving for Palestine. It has always been your dream…. I believe conditions in Palestine are very difficult but I think you will do well to leave Courland.”
This letter reveals how Jews, troubled with their circumstances living in the Russian Empire, embraced Zionism or socialism and other political causes, while others – like the writer’s grandparents – chose to emigrate, mainly to escape anti-Semitism, military conscription and economic hardship.
Having in time established a farm upon the land he bought, Herman writes to his father, “People living here have to travel about thirty miles to Pietersburg for their supplies – on horseback, by donkey or mule cart or by ox-wagon. And it can take days to get there.”
Retaining Judaism in this wilderness proves a challenge!
“There are few Jewish families in Pietersburg and in the district. We meet only rarely as travel is difficult, but I am grateful for their company, especially on the Yomtavim (Jewish holy days).”
And yet Herman would succeed, attesting to his many great-great-grandchildren living today in South Africa, the US, England and Israel.
However, before the writer’s grandmother Doris was ‘chosen’, and sent from Latvia to be Herman’s wife, there were temptations!
Wild at Heart
Writing to his friend in Palestine what he dares not reveal to his father in Courland, Herman describes how he is “enjoying the company of many a young lady in the homes of my neighbours and there are some of whom I feel rather fancy me. One such young and fair meidjie nursed me through a bad dose of fever. She brought me muthi – some Black or Dutch concoction. She wiped my burning brow, while also turning my head and my heart. It never went further as she was promised to a young Afrikaaner from the Limpopo River area. This is just as well as I could not hurt my family by marrying out the faith. It took me some time to regain my strength after the fever and to still my heart after parting with that fair young lady.”
It is a great day when Herman writes to his father on August 12,1885:
“Well, I am now a “burgher” – a citizen of the “Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek” and have been presented with a certificate in Dutch. I had the certificate framed and it hangs on the wall of our shop.”
Herman now feels “a sense of belonging”. He owns a large farm, is a citizen, and now “I hope and pray I will be able to raise a fine Jewish family in this beautiful country amongst these good and hospitable people.”
Not Black and White
The spectre of souring race relations rears its ugly head in Herman’s August 1885 letter to his idealist friend in Palestine:
“You ask me about the conditions of the Blacks. I must admit that it is very convenient being a white citizen with all the privileges that come with it, but I do feel a degree of shame. We used to be very critical of the rich landowners in Europe and the exploitation of the poor and the peasants. Believe me the conditions of the Blacks here is no better and perhaps worse. And yet, I find myself part of this system. There are some areas in our district still controlled by native tribes, but more and more of their land is being taken over by the Whites – by both the Boers and by the English.”
Herman is clearly uneasy.
“…. they can work a small plot around their kraal and may keep some livestock of their own. In return, they are required to do all the work on the farm and are remunerated only for ninety days a year. Although, in my eyes they are pitifully poor, my white friends believe that their needs are very limited. This is questionable as many of these men leave their homes for the towns and cities to find work and earn extra money.”
Herman concludes “I have learned much from a “boy”. In fact, he is not a boy but a man of my age but is so termed.”
It is 1885 and Herman is revealing the ugly beginnings of 20th century Apartheid.
Love & War
As the farm begins to prosper, so does a romance blossom between Herman and Doris in an exchange of letters that prepares her to leave her home in Mitau, Courland 1897, for a land she has never seen nor a man she has never met.
It would be the first Jewish wedding in the district and in the years ahead, Doris Hirschmann would emerge as a great Zionist leader – Vice Chairman of the Pietersburg-Zoutpansberg Zionist Society as well as the first chairman of the Woman’s Zionist League.
Long before this, war intervenes.
Herman writes to his family in November 1899:
“Despite all our hopes that somehow it could have been avoided, war has broken out in this most beautiful of countries, between two nations which have given us a home and a country. I fear this war will bring with it much suffering and sorrow. We Jews find ourselves neither here nor there and, as you well know, we in the country areas tend to sympathize with the Boers. However, we, certainly I, have no wish to participate in this foolish fighting game for either side. I am a burgher of the Republic but hopefully, I will not be called upon to join the fighting forces.”
How often were the Jews in foreign lands throughout history – before they had a Jewish state – faced with this dilemma?
In imperial Russia where Jews experienced horrendous persecution, they were nevertheless drafted into the Tsar’s army to serve for periods up to 25 years.
Jewish youths as young as twelve years of age were conscripted.
Would Herman be called up to fight in a war he so opposed?
“…the future looks none to cheerful,” writes Herman in October 1900. “On the eve of the New Year, unlike in previous years, we did not join our English friends in Haenertsburg, as we did not want to be regarded as taking sides. We remained at home and were joined by a few other Jewish families.”
“So far,” pens Herman, “the fighting has not reached our part of the world.”
By November 1901, the tide of the war has changed and Herman writes, “Pietersburg was occupied by the English in April… The British are ruthlessly burning the farms and rounding up the farming population, both black and white.” He describes watching a fierce battle from a hill on his farm and writing, “Perhaps one day when all this is over, you will be here with us and I will show you the site and describe this painful event to you.”
There would still be many days of pain for both Herman and Doris who were separated from their children while they were imprisoned in a British concentration camp.
However, following the war and “back in the saddle”, life resumed, and there would be the years of joy when the Hirschmann family would grow and prosper.
There would be some prophetic musings in his 1902 letter to his friends in Palestine. Following the Anglo Boer War that “left so many dead and wounded … causing so much suffering, poverty and hate that could surely have been avoided,” Herman writes:
“Maurice, my friend, there is great interest here in events taking place in Palestine, particularly since so many of our people have immigrated there. I understand that you generally get on well with your Arab neighbours, but now there seems to be a growing resentment towards the Jewish people since the Arabs are afraid of losing their land. This rings a familiar note, which I fear can lead to armed conflict and violence.”
Wizened from his own experiences, Herman counsels:
“I doubt you and I can have any influence on these events in either country, but my advice to you is to keep your distance from anything like war, from killing or being killed. We have seen here, as we saw in the old country, the appalling results of armed conflict.”
Herman describes a fierce battle his family observed between the Boers and the British on two hills bordering their farm, shortly before their arrest by the English. “We saw in the distance the fall of many a horse and rider. We heard the noise of it; the shouting in triumph and in suffering, and the hollow sound of bugles. We saw the Boers surrendering and fleeing an we saw the bodies – many bloodied covering the once green and brown earth. It was too far to actually see their faces, but we knew that some of them were of boys who grew up in the district. It was the last attempt to prevent the English from taking over the farms on the hill and burning it.”
Fortunately, “our farm was left relatively untouched since it was used to house British troops. For this we are truly grateful.”
And “truly grateful” can be today’s readers of My Dear Papa for such personal insights on a past that has bearing on the present as it will have in the future.
And on a personal level for the author, through these insightful letters, “I feel,” says Shem-Tov, “that I am bringing my family from whom I came, back to life.”
Richelle Shem-Tov was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. Today she is a retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Her book, My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm In South Africa can be purchased directly from the author Richelle Shem-Tov. Call (Israel) 03-5347074; (Cell) 050-6689457; email: firstname.lastname@example.org or from Amazon.com in paperback or in Kindle.
An interview with Israel’s celebrated sculptor and experimental artist – Yaacov Agam– widely considered the father of Kinetic Art.
His message: “Words divide us; sight unites us”
By David. E. Kaplan
The finest description I ever heard of Tel Aviv is “A city that wakes up each morning wondering what it’s going to be.” Like its city – change, vibrancy, uncertainty and promise – are all characteristics that Yaacov Agam’s ‘Fire and Water Fountain” in Tel Aviv’s recently rejuvenated Dizengoff Square celebrates.
After decades of public outcry, the iconic site frequently referred to as the “Times Square of Tel Aviv” – finally returned in 2018 to its original glory. Originally constructed in 1986, the kinetic fountain celebrates life, as well as unity-in-diversity, an important feature of Tel Aviv’s ethos, considered one of the most free and tolerant cities in the world.
To learn more of this evolving urban landscape and the man and his art, Lay Of The Land sat down for an exclusive interview with the 90-year-old artist at the new Yaacov Agam Museum of Art in the city of his birth – Rishon LeZion. In the words of the artist, “it is the only museum in the world that is dedicated to art in motion.”
Apart from motion within the artist’s work, there is plenty of motion in the artist himself. Picking up on my South African accent, the artist revealed, “I went on a travelling exhibition to South Africa in 1977 when Anton Rupert,” the South African billionaire businessman, philanthropist and art collector, “bought a number of my works. As an innovative entrepreneur he was fascinated by the ever-changing nature of my art – that perspective varies from the position you look at it.”
Before meeting the artist, I ‘met’ his wife Clilla – without even realising it.
From the moment you step onto the grounds of the 3,200-square-meter Yaacov Agam Museum of Art (YAMA), one is engulfed into the rainbow world of the artist – surrounded by a sculpture garden of twenty multicolored pillars all dedicated to Agam’s late wife, Clilla. She remains so much part of his life, his world and his art.
Looking every inch an artist with long gray hair under a well-worn hat and a full beard, we sat down for over two hours of animated conversation. Abounding in energy – “I’m off to Paris in a few days’ time” – I came quickly to understand how this diminutive man was a giant in the art world, transforming city landscapes and influencing people’s perspectives.
It was apparent from the answer to my first question that the interview would be as challenging as understanding the man’s art.
Where do you live?
“I live on my shoulders. As you can see, I am here now in Israel. Next week I will be in France. I live wherever I am at the moment.”
The answer incapsulated the character of the man, his art and the museum, which had greeted me with twenty multicolored pillars at the entrance, and nine more inside, all changing as you walk by. The artist explains:
“Usually, when you see a painting in a museum, you stand in front, you look at it, and then you move on. With my work, you will never see everything. I want people who come to the museum to be able to see the paintings from every angle, so it’s also changing the way you look at art.”
The foremost pioneer of optical-Kinetic art, Agam encourages spectator participation. When I revealed that I received a stiff rebuke when I got too close to a painting in a renowned museum in New York, he replied “that will never happen with here – I want people to physically connect with my art.”
It is little wonder why children love Agam’s art and why the artist honours children by appealing directly to them.
Kinetics for Kids
The “Agam Method” for which the artist was awarded in 1996 the Jan Amos Comenius Medal for the non-verbal visual education of young children by UNESCO, teaches children to identify, analyze, and create with the visual building blocks that make up our world. Together, these building blocks – such as shapes, patterns, directions, and symmetry – form a universal “visual language.” The Agam Method has a long history of classroom implementation, research, and refinement dating back to the 1980s. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel led experimental studies to determine its impact on young children’s learning. Data from 1990 through to 2007 indicate that children who engaged with the method, improved significantly in early geometry and visual-spatial skills, including shape identification and deconstruction, visual acuity, and mental rotation of objects. Children also demonstrated significantly higher problem-solving and school readiness skills, particularly in the areas of writing and math.
“Do you have any grandchildren?” Agam asks.
“Two,” I reply.
On happily hearing that are both aged in months rather than in years, he asks, “If I gave them a pencil, what do think they will do with it.”
All my answers wrong, Agam demonstrates grabbing a pencil and thrusting up and down making points on the table.
“Points is the most primary act of creation and is born out in the first drawings found in prehistoric caves.”
“What about the line?” I ask.
“Now you are talking evolution – that came much later; could be 1000 years later or even 10,000 years. We do not know. The line is the most significant advancement in the history of evolution.”
Following my rudimentary lesson in the history of art, we jump many millennia forward to Dizengoff Square 2018.
Carousal of Color
So what is Agam’s response to the major transformation of Dizengoff Square which in the 1930s was the fashionable hub of the city but as the years passed, became seedy? Many blamed it on the square’s elevation above the street below and so what gave the Hebrew slang verb “l’hizdangef” (“to Dizengoff”), coined to describe strolling down the Tel Aviv’s iconic north-south artery, by the 1980s exposed not only a disconnect from vehicular traffic, but a disconnect from people.
Reinstalled back to street level, with traffic proceeding around rather than beneath, Tel Aviv center is again living up to its image of change.
What did you aim to express with your fountain at the very epicenter of Tel Aviv?
“Firstly, the buildings surrounding the square are German – designed by architects fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s – and I wanted to brand the square distinctly Israeli with vibrant colours expressing life to contrast with the stark utilitarianism of the Bauhaus architecture. This I achieve with over 1000 colors visible through the water!”
Noting my disbelief, he said: “Come with me now; I’ll show you!”
Like his art, there was something ‘kinetic’ about this 90-year-old!
The fountain combines fire and water – two contrasting elements. Is this not unusual?
“More than unusual; its unique No other artist in the world has combined water and fire together. It was once said in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) during a tough debate:
“If Agam can make fire and water, what’s the problem?”
Agam explains how the fountain comprises several big jagged wheels – coloured geometric shapes, which are perceived as different images from different angles. A technological mechanism automatically activates at different times of the day and night that turns the wheels on their hinges, shooting fire and water upwards accompanied to music.
The artist’s vision is for people across the globe to be able to activate the fountain through an app. “I don’t want it simply like before; we have to move forward with technology – combining science and art making it globally accessible.”
Why is global interest so important to you?
“Because the fountain’s message is universal. I believe it provides Dizengoff with gravitas; the miracle of fire and water with over 1000 colours, ‘reflects’ diversity. The fountain sends a message to the people of the world that although we are different, we are one.”
Over the Rainbow
What influence did your father – a rabbi – have on your perspective on life and your art?
“My father was an orthodox rabbi and a Kabbalist; I am a visual rabbi and every work of mine is a visual prayer.
Is this why symbols of the bible like the rainbow are integral in your art?
“After the flood, God promised Noah never to destroy the earth again, and placed the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of that covenant. It is a visual prayer of peace, reminding that everyone is a party to the covenant to protect our environment.”
Showing me a painting of a rainbow, Agam continued:
“The rainbow is one of the loveliest sights in God’s creation as the colours stand out individually and yet merge with the colour next to it reflecting unity in diversity.”
You seem to suggest that the visual trumps words in our understanding of reality?
“If the message of the rainbow was only in words, only those who understood the language would understand – some would understand, others would not. Words divide us, sight unites us. Children are born into a world of seeing before speaking. When they start to talk, that introduces separation and disunity. Seeing is so important that when God wanted us to understand him, he provided visions and so when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, it is written that the People of Israel “SEE” not only hear the word of God.”
Is it the same with the vision of the rainbow – the need to SEE rather than read of God’s communication with man?
“Yes; following the flood, it is written in Genesis that whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, “I will SEE it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” The problem today is that people do not know how to see; they rely too much on language to understand – and the soul of reality alludes them.”
Through The Prism Of Prison
While Agam trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem before moving to Zurich, Switzerland in 1949 where he continued his education at the Kunstgewerbe Schule, he cites the unexpected and unplanned as no less instructive in his education as an artist.
Who would have thought that such education included prison?
“Yes, I was imprisoned by the British in Latrun, and who would join me there in 1946 was Moshe Sharett who would later become Israel’s second Prime Minister. He taught me Hebrew and grammar and he told me over and over that while there is a past and a future, there is no present in Jewish thinking. The present is fleeting; gone forever in a flash. Through our discussions, I formulated a perspective of time that is at the core of my art that is mobile, in a state of constant change; nothing is static. I met all the great artists at the time – Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp – but they were stuck in the past, and the past does not exist, I prefer to be in the state of becoming, like the true meaning of Shabbat (Sabbath) – resting to prepare for the coming week.”
I interrupt and suggest that Marcel Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase (no 2) painted in 1912, is not static, that it captures the movement of a figure in descent.
“So why, one hundred years later, is she still descending the stairs?”
I had no answer!
“Like Abraham leaving his father to create a nation,” Agam too feels he has “created something new; a new way of thinking different to the other artists,” a far cry from the early 1950s then with his young wife in Paris “we literally starved and had to go to the Salvation Army for food.” In 1953, he had his first one-man show and sold his first panting to the famous surrealist artist Max Ernst.
When Robert Lebel (1901–1986), the famous French art critic and writer, “saw my work, he said, “We have a new prophet.”
He was not wrong.
Victor Vasarely, the Hungarian-French artist, widely accepted as a “grandfather” and leader of the op art movement, “told me you have no right make static work. Young artists, particularly from South America were attracted to my style and started to imitate me.”
In time, Agam’s art would attract the attention of President Pompidou of France. “When he was the Prime Minister, he went to see my show. I later received a call from the Secretary General of Artistic Creation who asked me, “What did you do to our PM. He went back and forward in front of your painting; he could not understand it but was fascinated.”
Later, when he became President, “he wanted a sculpture in his office and asked for a presentation of modern sculptures without the names of the artists.
“I will decide,” he said.
He chose mine because he could move it.” This led to a commission by the President of a moving salon environment at the Élysée Palace in 1972, where the environment shifted according to the viewer’s position. Enjoying tea with President Pompidou, “He revealed to me that he guided Queen Elizabeth through the salon and that she said she loved it.”
Asked to make a work commemorating the peacemaking efforts of the president of Egypt, Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Agam created in 1978 a mesmerising Star of Peace. A kinetic sculpture, it appears from one direction to be the five-pointed star of Islam, from another, the six-pointed Star of David, and from a third – a new star formed from their fusion.
Other public projects include a 1987 memorial at the Western Wall for the victims of the Holocaust, and the world’s largest menorah: a 32-foot, 4000-pound structure at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan and based on the original menorah in Jerusalem’s Holly Temple, “not the fake version you see on the Arch of Titus in Rome.”
Concluding the interview, I ask:
Is there any one of your work you prize most?
“It’s impossible. My art is about movement and you can’t have all movement in one work of art. It’s like prayers in Judaism; there is no one prayer but many.”
Fair eneough; is there at least one artist that influenced you the most?
While in November 2018, a Hamas delegation from Gaza visited Cape Town and called for Jihad against Israel, in January 2019, it was visiting Israelis doing the talking – but with a different message.
Debating teams from Israeli universities won top honours at UCT (University of Cape Town) against the best universities in the world.
ByDavid E. Kaplan
Israel is full of surprises. Situated in one of the most dry regions on the planet, Israel has far less of a water problem than Cape Town, which for Israel has an enviable supply. The answer to this anomaly might explain how a Hebrew-speaking country bested in debate, teams from the best universities in the world – notably Oxford and Cambridge.
The World University Debating Championships – the largest student-run event globally – was hosted by the University of Cape Town from the 27 December 2018 to the 4 January 2019 and included students from Malaysia, Germany, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States who descended on the city in hopes of becoming world champions.
That honour went to Israel.
It was Israel’s prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem debate team that won the World Universities Debate Championship in South Africa’s ‘Mother City’, in the English Second-Language category, in other words, not in their ‘mother’ tongue.
Roy Shulmann and Elaye Karstadt competed against thousands of students from 20 countries winning the judges over “on stances on a multitude of current events.”
In addition to Shulmann and Karstadt’s defeat of the Russian, Malaysian and Japanese teams in the final round of the championships, the Tel Aviv University (TAU) team, made up of Israeli Debating League chairman Amichai Even-Chen and Ido Kotler, made it to the final rounds of the general Open competition, which included native English speakers from around the globe. They competed against some of the top universities in the world, including Oxford and Harvard.
“Debate is not only a sport, but rather a unique tool for the development of logical and rhetorical capabilities,” said Shulmann. “It exposes students to a wide range of opinions, challenges their positions, and gets them to truly listen to the other side and answer the heart of the issue instead of the heart of the person.”
Shulmann said he hoped to “encourage a different ‘discussion culture’, one that allows us as a society to hold a real dialogue regarding disputes.”
This was a far cry from the Hamas spokespeople who in November proudly signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at Cape Town’s parliament that stated South Africa “will work towards the full boycott of ALL Israeli products and the support of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel; and will ensure that ANC leaders and government officials do not visit Israel.” And this MOU was signed only weeks after 500 missiles were fired in under 24 hours into Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza – one of which struck a bus.
While Hamas in Cape Town championed support for murder, Israelis in Cape Town spoke about holding “a real dialogue regarding disputes.”
And who won?
Hebrew University debate team chairman, Naama Weiss, said that the Israeli teams are “used to meeting students at the competitions from countries hostile towards Israel.”
They have to be.
Competing against the team from Malaysia in the finals, the Israeli debaters could not have put entirely out of their minds that the antisemitic Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, has banned entry to Israeli paraplegic swimmers to compete in his country that will be hosting the World Para Swimming Championships in July.
Despite this, there were only “good vibes” between the participants of the competing countries at UCT.
“We never felt different,” said Weiss. “We actually become friends with them. It is important that we hold discussions with those that disagree with us, as well.”
Pity the Hamas delegation didn’t visit Cape Town a month later and hear these messages!
Mark My Word
Israeli debate teams achieved multiple successes throughout 2018. The same team of Even-Chen and Kotler, won last August the European Universities Debating Championship in Serbia in the English Second Language category. In that same competition, Noam Dahan and Tom Manor, also of Tel Aviv University, won the Open competition.
However, the international competition in Novi Sad, Serbia was not all fun and ‘debates’. The Qatar representatives repeatedly refused to participate in debates in which they were competing against Israel, stating on multiple occasions that they refuse to debate alongside an “apartheid state.” This is the same Qatar that is spending billions to build hotels, subways, shopping centers and stadiums ahead of the World Cup in 2022 but those working on the projects are mostly foreigners who are poorly paid and poorly housed, hidden from the rest of Qatari society, like outcasts. These wretched and abused workers live on the edge of the dream that they help build but are precluded from experiencing.
If ever there is apartheid, it is in Qatar!
Nevertheless, despite Qatari hypocrisy and attempts to politicise a major debate tournament by refusing to engage with students from Israel, the two Israeli teams topped the European Universities Debating Championship in Serbia.
If there were a prize for epic boycott failure, Qatar won it!
Its efforts to boycott debating Israel, ended up by getting BDS banned from European debates.
School Of Thought
Israeli university debating teams doing so well internationally may partly be explained because Israeli schools too are doing so well.
Afterall, one feeds the other.
Debaters are given topics – sometimes with just an hour or two to prepare – and told which side they represent. They often find themselves arguing the opposite of their personal beliefs. “That’s the idea,” said Maya Levi, 18, of Ohel Shem school in Ramat Gan. “In debate, beyond learning rhetoric, you learn how to think and see an issue from both sides. The challenge is stepping into someone else’s shoes when it’s not your point of view.”
The Israeli national high school debate team won the EurOpen debate competition in Stuttgart, Germany in November 2018, raising eyebrows for going undefeated for all 12 rounds of the competition.
The team beat 37 of the best debate teams in the world, including those of Germany, China and the USA.
Unbeaten throughout all twelve rounds was a rare achievement in debate, particularly for a team comprised of non-native English speakers.
Two of the members on the team, Maya Carmon and Omer Zilberberg, are students at the Atid High School for Arts and Sciences in Lod. The other students on the team, Tamir West and Tomer Zucker, study at the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem and at Oleh Shem High School in Ramat Hasharon, respectively.
“It was a privilege to witness the team making history,” said Elijah Kochin, the team’s coach who accompanied them to Stuttgart.
“This generation of debaters is very talented,” said Miriam Kalman, a coach assisting the team leading up to the world championships in Sri Lanka. “We are looking forward to more success at the World Schools Debating Championships in 2019.”
Retired senior examiner for the English matriculation in Israel and who co-authored two English school textbooks, Stephen Schulman, expressed “hats off to our debaters” on hearing the results of the debating teams from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University at his alma mater – UCT. Shulmann felt a particular pride that Israel debaters made their mark in Cape Town where he grew up and was a member of his school’s debating society. “A true debater needs to be imbued with powers of eloquence, be a good listener, be sensitive to his or her audience and have a quick and ready wit to win over others. Our university teams showed that they possessed all these qualities to an outstanding degree and I feel a great pride by their showing South Africa and the world the fine intellectual standards of our students.”
This all augurs well for Israel spokespeople for the future.
The northern Israeli city of Haifa is a model of integration and tolerance. Every year, thousands of revelers descend on the city to celebrate the highly anticipated, Festival of Festivals. This 25-year old festivals takes place every December and is a celebration of the country’s three main religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Haifa is festooned with twinkling Christmas lights, chanukiot for Chanukah and Islamic symbols. It is a rare opportunity to be exposed to and enjoy the timeless traditions of these three religions. Rolene Marks filed this report for Channel News Asia:
As Beth Protea Retirement Home Celebrates 26 years it’s a story not about bricks and mortar but about people.
“What are you guys planning to serve for lunch?”
“Can you believe it? That was the first question asked by a bunch of South Africans at our first fundraising campaign in Haifa in 1985. We had no land to build on; we hadn’t raised a dime, and people wanted to know what we would serve for lunch,” relates Walter Robinson the founding chairman of Beth Protea, a retirement home in Herzliya primarily for the Southern African community in Israel. Dublin-born Robinson was quick off the mark.
“Well, if you don’t start donating, there will be no dining room in which to serve lunch!” replied the masterful fundraiser.
Nearly three decades later, and today himself a resident at Beth Protea, it is now Walter who asks:
“What’s for lunch?”
In October 2018, Beth Protea celebrates its 26th year.
South Africans in Israel have every reason to be proud. For a community that was the first to establish an immigrant organization (Telfed); pioneered the concepts of Absorption Centers and acquiring property to rent to their new Southern African immigrants at below market rentals, as well as initiating and promoting housing projects from the city of Ashkelon in the 1950s to the town of Kochav Yair and the community village (Moshav) of Manof in the 1980s, it was only natural, that at the dawn of the 1980s, serious thought was given to leaders in the community for the wellbeing of their seniors.
At that time there was a group who were “toying with the idea” – mainly to cater for parents who were left behind in South Africa. The concept found little traction until Robinson made Aliyah (immigrated) from Cape Town in 1981. Well known and respected for his communal work back in his adopted South Africa, the ad hoc group roped him in and within a few months of his arrival in Israel, he was chairman of a steering committee. “They allowed me to unpack my suitcases first,” he bellows with a boisterous Dublin guffaw.
Right Man For The Job
Walter once nearly ended up in jail and was rightly proud of it!
The year was 1944 and Walter and his Zionist chums at the university in Dublin started a newspaper called the Dublin Jewish Youth Magazine. One day, Walter opens the evening paper, and “I see this MP, Oliver Flanagan, questioning whether the directors of the DJYM have a license to publish and whether our articles had been submitted for censorship as required by wartime regulations. Both were serious offences, carrying prison sentences. Of course the answer to both was – NO,” says Walter, delighting in his mischievous past. Flanagan was a notorious anti-Semite who in his maiden speech in the Irish Lower House the previous year, had urged the government “to rout the Jews out of the country.”
Well Flanagan was not about to “rout” Robinson. “The owner of the paper’s printers was a great friend of Prime Minister Eamon de Valera and so if the printer could not go to prison, neither could we.” Walter’s Zionism continued to soar, culminating nearly fifty years later in his finest communal achievement – the opening of Beth Protea in 1992.
“We quickly changed the focus – not a retirement home for prospective immigrants but for the community in Israel. People, who had quite literally rolled up their sleeves and helped build this country.”
Now it was time to build a home for them. However not just a home, “but one that’s DNA was South African,’ said Robinson, “a home that felt like home.”
Benchmark of Excellence
Robinson quickly roped in a younger feller “who had a knack of asking the most intelligent questions.” And so began the partnership between Walter Robinson and Joel Katz that would steer the Beth Protea project in its formative years.
Bricks and motor ‘sprouted’, and like the ‘protea’, started to grow. The architect was another South African, Gert Gutman and while still under construction, South Africa’s State President, F.W. de Klerk visited where he was wined and dined in a ‘dining room’ on a floor of cardboard over sand and mud and between mounds of rubble.
While in the throws himself in transforming South Africa, de Klerk predicted amongst the rubble “this South African community is transforming the landscape of Israel.”
How right he was.
Beth Protea in Herzliya became the benchmark of excellence in caring for seniors, and in a few years the name ‘protea’ resonated across the land as its ‘seeds’ sprouted with other retirement complexes carrying the brand name – such as Protea Village further north and Protea Hills near Jerusalem.
The Magnificent Many
Joel Katz would become the first chairman of the Management Board and at the official opening in 1992, the guest of honor was the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog who expressed:
“One is never surprised at the admirable level of volunteering and performance on the part of South Africans in Israel. You have done it again by establishing Beth Protea, a golden retirement home for those in their golden years.” Paying tribute to the volunteers over the years, Katz spoke of the “lonely few” that grew to become “the magnificent many.” This 1992 observation holds even more so today as “volunteers from all walks of life continue to give freely of their time, energy, expertise and of course, their generosity, to upholding Beth Protea as a glowing example of retirement living and private initiative,” says current chairman Michael Silver.
Sensitive to the initial apprehension that the project would become elitist and only available to the wealthy – a feature of most new retirements homes in Israel today – the founders were determined that Beth Protea would be a non-profit association and established a fund, Keren Beth Protea to assist those in financial need. This is what distinguishes a community project such as Beth Protea from commercial, profit-motivated senior citizen facilities. The total financial assistance given by Keren Beth Protea over the last 26 years, is in itself a revelation of beauty.
Out of Africa
Wanting to learn firsthand about Israel’s specialized health care of its seniors, Dr. Harriet Chapasuka, a doctor from a clinic in South Africa’s northernmost province Limpopo, visited Beth Protea. Her husband Pastor Reuben Chapasuka, is President of the Cape to Cairo Israel Mission with churches across Africa that welcomes the Blue & White flag of Israeli innovation and ingenuity flying in the African breeze. “When I visit Israel,” says Pastor Reuben, “I always return to South Africa not with Israel’s ‘holy water’ but Israel’s ‘holy ingenuity’.”
Harriet, who shares her husband’s desire of tapping into Israel’s expertise “for our people”, visited Israel to explore its best practices of health care that could be replicated in rural South Africa.
With so many of the residents and staff at Beth Protea being former South Africans, Dr. Chapasuka felt, “quite at home.” Taken on a tour by the Director Lynn Lochoff, she visited the three sections: independent, the assisted living, and frail care unit. She met doctors and nurses and learnt about Israel’s unique health system where everyone is covered.
She visited the art studio and was amazed to see many of the paintings and sculpture reflecting the memories of the artist’s South Africa. “We remain so connected,’ she remarked and hoped the connection will be strengthened, particularly in the field of medical health.”
And the best answer to the first question asked way back in 1985, Dr. Harriette Chapasuka answered it after a desert, “the lunch – WOW! I loved it.”
For this writer, it’s the residents that makes Beth Protea special. Having interviewed many of them over the years, they all represent a microcosm of the history of modern Israel. There was the late Julie Slonim ( née Levinson) who arrived in 1946 from Johannesburg and recalls the day Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, declared Israel’s independence in Tel Aviv. Newly married to a lawyer, “we joined in the festive mood that had gripped the city and on Allenby Street’s Moghrabi Square, masses of people were dancing and shouting. Later we went to the fashionable Café Pilz overlooking the sea where we danced on the tables and our partners lifted us into the air.”
Reality set in on the drive back home to Haifa “where we were shot at by Arab snipers. Luckily we escaped harm. The coastal road between Tel Aviv and Haifa was no longer safe, and motorists were suddenly running the gauntlet. There we were earlier dancing with joy and now we were now officially at war.”
When Beth Protea opened its doors in 1992, one of its first residents was Rona Baram ( née Moss-Morris), a law student and trained nurse, who arrived in Palestine from South Africa in the mid-forties. A member of the Habonim youth movement, she joined Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the northern Galilee. During 1948, settlements in “our area were like fortresses, surrounded by trenches and barbed wire,” says Baram. “The Arabs ran a water canal across the only approach road to our kibbutz cutting us off entirely from the outside world. Post, food and medicine were dropped from a single engine plane that flew in low. Aside from having to deliver babies and care for the sick and wounded, it was a cold winter and we didn’t have enough food or fuel.” Baram recalls the letter from her parents in Durban, with the memorable line “We hope you’ve dug yourself in Rona and have enough ammo to last out the siege.” Baram would go on to establish Tipat Chalav, the first child-care clinic in Kiryat Shmona.
On the 6th June 1948, the late Maurice Ostroff, and fellow ‘Machalniks’ from South Africa, all volunteers responding to the call to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, were flying into Israel in a P.A.A.C. Dakota. Not sure of his position, the pilot radioed in that he was coming in on an emergency landing. Of all the places to land, he brought the plane down at the last remaining British-controlled enclave of Haifa. “The British officer on duty was baffled by the arrival of these “tourists” and asked Ostroff:
“Whatever makes you want to come to Palestine at this time. Are you crazy!”
“Just passing through,” replied Ostroff.
“We are pulling out of here,” the officer shouted, “but it won’t be more than two weeks before the bloody Jews will be yelling at us to come back.” While the British officer soon left never to return, Ostroff would serve out the war as a signaler, commanding a radio station near the Weizmann Institute. Nearly six decades later, Ostroff still had his antennae out and still locking horns with Israel’s enemies. From his fifth floor apartment in Beth Protea he daily monitored the world media on its coverage on Israel, responding to unfair bias by writing to newspapers, TV networks and political leaders around the world.
The late Sam Solomon was another first resident to Beth Protea. He had little interest in Zionism, but “I did have an interest in girls.” In the late 1930’s he was a young man living in Bloemfontein in South Africa. “I asked a pretty girl out on a date, but she told me she would only go out with me if I picked her up after a meeting at the Zionist Hall where an important leader from Palestine was talking. I was not keen to attend thinking it would be boring, but I arrived early and so with nothing to do, I sat in and was so taken up with what I heard about the Halutzchik (pioneering) way of life that three weeks later I was on a plane to Palestine.”
“Whatever happened to the girl?” I asked.
“Who knows”” replied Solomon. “After that night, I never saw her again and my first job in arriving in Palestine was building the road from Tel Aviv to Haifa.”
At a special Beth Protea event some years ago, the late Herman Musikanth, a “financial whiz” who worked very closely with Walter to get Beth Protea literally “off the ground”, quoted the words of Albert Price written in the early 1800s:
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and this world is – and remains – immortal.”
He concluded with, “I believe that Beth Protea is probably as immortal as one can get.”
Evangelical Christians make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the US; and support for Israel is stronger among American evangelicals than it is even among American Jews.
Nevertheless, maמy Jews, following millennia of persecution, inevitably view the present through the lens of the traumatic past.
Evangelism refers to “the preaching of the Gospel. It comes from the same Greek word for gospel (euangelion) and means, literally, ‘gospeling’ or spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is also referred to as “a spiritual journey of formation and transformation”; “telling the good news, being the good news, and doing the good news”; and “sharing Christian hope and hospitality.”
Today the global evangelical population numbers somewhere around 300 million people scattered across every continent. While many live in developing countries, the United States remains the movement’s traditional centre where it is particularly strong and powerful and has been responsible over the years for policy changes and new directions implemented and taken by the various governments. Numerous polls conducted, including one by the very influential Pew Research Centre, confirm that 82% of white evangelicals, as opposed to the less than half as many Jewish or Catholic Americans holding the same view, think God gave Israel to the Jewish people. Evangelical Christians make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the US; and support for Israel is stronger among American evangelicals than it is even among American Jews.
Professor David Gushee, lecturer in Christian ethics at Atlanta’s Mercer University, has commented frequently on how remarkably pro-Israel evangelicals have been, both theologically and in terms of the modern State of Israel. He has also pointed out the commitment to Israel among evangelicals, which he said is evident in the growing number of evangelical leaders who lead trips to Israel, as well as by the attention being given to Jewish history in evangelical circles.
Pastor John Hagee, founder and national chairman of Christians United for Israel, heads the massive Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and founded Christians United for Israel a decade ago. It steadily became one of the strongest pro-Israel evangelical groups in the country, and the most recent census showed that it had more than three million members and 14 regional directors to help steer its operations across the USA.
Much of the basis of the evangelical perspective is theological, rooted in the belief that “God makes good on His promises … It looks back to the idea that God has made certain commitments to His people — to the people through whom the gospel originally came — and He’s not abandoning them, ultimately. And so there’s a hope that drives this belief that Israel deserves to be supported.”
A Pew study carried out in 2013 found that 29% of Christians, 46% of white evangelicals, and 19% of black Protestants thought that America was not supportive enough of Israel; while 41% of Christians, 31% of white evangelicals, and 48% of black Protestants felt the level of support was just right. Two years later, in 2015, another Pew poll was carried out with quite different results. They showed that while 6 percent of white American evangelicals thought the US was too supportive of Israel, 55 percent decried what they called the inadequate level of support given to Israel by their country as against the 36 percent who felt it was sufficient. At the same time, more than 80 percent of evangelical pastors overwhelmingly agree that Christians should support Israel.
“Jesus Was Jewish”
The World Council of Independent Christian Churches, one of the larger evangelical movements in the USA, with 15 direct and 8 indirect ministries situated around the world, has produced a series of television programs called Focus on Israel, dedicated to “educating Christians about their Biblical responsibility to the Jewish people.” Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a deacon in the WCICC, emphasises how important a special bond with Jews is for theological and even scriptural reasons. “God had a plan for mankind, and Israel was to be that example of how to live,” she says. “And that’s why the Torah was given to them. And unfortunately, Christianity has moved away from that Hebraic understanding, that Hebraic teaching …The Jewish people are our brethren in the faith. And Jesus, of course, was Jewish.”
Ron Csillag, writing on the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) website, asked in his article if evangelical support for Israel had a dark side. He wrote, “Christians who love Israel: is it good for the Jews? While many Jews whole-heartedly embrace Christian Zionism – after all, Israel needs friends – others suspect that behind it lurks a theology that loves Jews but hates Judaism. Millions of evangelical Christians – often referred to as “born again” and who believe the Bible is inerrant – have reasons for supporting Israel, whether because it’s biblically mandated or because they, like Israel’s current leadership, are conservative and feel a political kinship. Or, because they see it as a way of atoning for past mistreatment of Jews. Perhaps it’s for all of those reasons.”
While Christian Zionism, he added, has helped to shape the strong support for Israel emanating from the USA, he ascribed to other Christian Zionists what might be called a darker agenda: their belief that universal redemption and the return of the Christian messiah can happen only when all the Jews have been gathered in their homeland, “where they will finally give up their obsolete and erroneous beliefs and accept Jesus Christ as their saviour.”
This apart, there is a whole host of reasons, far too many to detail here, for why Christians support Israel. Politics is one of them. Evangelicals “tend to be conservative politically,” says Rabbi Michael Skobac, director of education and counselling for Jews for Judaism Canada, observed. “They see Israel as [being] at the front lines of fighting terrorism.” For other Christians, support for Israel “is an expression of remorse for past anti-Semitism and what they see as the failure of churches to stand up for Jews during the Holocaust.” And for almost 73% of world evangelical leaders, the real basis for most Christian Zionism, put simply, is the belief in the truth of God’s eternal covenant with the nation of Israel.
The Grand Plan?
But not all evangelicals do, in fact, support Israel. Robert Nicholson, himself a staunch Christian but with strong ties to various Jewish communities, writes, “A growing minority inside the evangelical world views the Jewish state as at best tolerable and at worst positively immoral, a country that, instead of being supported on biblical grounds, should be opposed on those same grounds.”
Discussing the many different evangelical ‘sects’ and their pro- or anti-Israel stances, Nicholson notes that evangelicals believe God chose the biblical people of Israel “as His vehicle for world redemption, an earthly agent through whom He would accomplish his grand plan for history. Why did God choose Israel? Not because of any innate virtue or genius they may have possessed, but because He had made a covenant with their patriarch, Abraham, based on the latter’s demonstrated faith and devotion.”
Most evangelicals, he continued, “also believe that the ingathering of the Jews is the first stage in the second coming: the moment when Jesus will return to earth not as a humble servant but as a conquering king to establish his righteous rule in Jerusalem and restore the nation of Israel to its favoured place for a millennium.”
The growth and spread of evangelism, even considering their donation of millions of much-appreciated dollars to worthy causes in Israel, has given rise to numerous questions about its authenticity vis-à-vis the Jewish people. Questions asked include, “Can evangelicals be trusted? Are they not on a mission to convert Jews to Christianity? Is their professed love for and dedication to Israel not merely a cover for their ultimate goal, that of turning Jews into disciples of Jesus Christ?”
The suspicion about evangelical motives for loving Israel has many of its roots in the fact that people bearing the name of Christ had spent centuries demonizing the Jewish people and shedding Jewish blood. Memories of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the innumerable pogroms and persecutions have not dimmed in the Jewish world; and thousands still view the present through the lens of the traumatic past. Jewish concerns also focus on evangelical proselytizing or adherence to the belief that the Christian faith should replace Judaism; and there are those who see evangelicals as fundamentalist and right-wing. According to Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of the group Jews for Judaism, the ‘hidden agenda’ of the Christian Zionists is proselytising. In one of his articles, he wrote, “There is irrefutable evidence that many evangelicals who support Israel have implemented and new ‘soft-sell’ approach to proselytising Jews for conversion.”
Yet Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi at Yeshiva High School for Boys in Beverly Hills, California, sees it differently. Accompanying a delegation of 30 young pastors to Israel on their first visit, he said, “The overwhelming miracle of Christian-Jewish brotherhood in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel is something that is under-recognized and under-appreciated, particularly of evangelicals, whose love for Israel is breath-taking and illuminating.”
So, there we have it – a conundrum, a dilemma on whose horns sit the various Jewish groups, those in and outside of Israel, the orthodox and the secular, the young and the older, who see the evangelicals from different perspectives. Their remarkable generosity to Israel is well documented, and those I am privileged to know personally here in South Africa are wonderful and genuine people who love Israel unconditionally. Perhaps that’s the attitude everyone should adopt – after all, Israel needs all the friends she can get, and who else gives so much with no expectation of reward?
Bev worked for many years in education and journalism, and she holds a master’s degree in Feminist Literature. Prior to joining the SA Zionist Federation where she dealt with media and education for 12 years, she was the editor of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Southern Africa; a member of WordWize which taught English language skills to Russian and Polish immigrants in South Africa; an occasional lecturer in English at RAU (now the University of Johannesburg); and Director of Educational Programmes at Allenby In-Home Studies. Currently she runs the Media Team Israel for the SA Zionist Federation; she sits on the Board of Governors of the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre (RCHCC); she is the National Vice-President of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa; she is an executive member of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW); and she edits and proofs Masters and PhD dissertations.