Milla’s Story

“Disability is not contagious; ignorance is – In a brave new world, brave young girls

By David E. Kaplan

When USA Baltimore native Becca Meyers, a three-time Paralympic gold medallist swimmer – eight Paralympic medallists in total – withdrew from the Tokyo games after being told she couldn’t bring to the competition her Personal Care Assistant  (PCA)  – “my own mother” – she was angry and understandably disappointed.

She took a stand – to withdraw!

Troubled Waters. The withdraw on principle from the Tokyo Paralympics of three-time gold Paralympic swimmer medalist Becca Meyers of the US (above) inspired teenager Milla Wolman to write and recite a poem that is proving inspirational on YouTube.

With only one PCA unreasonably tasked with serving all 34 Paralympic swimmers, nine who were visually impaired, Becca, who has been deaf since birth due to Usher syndrome and has been gradually losing her vision, said her “gut-wrenching decision” to withdraw was necessary to advocate “for future generations of Paralympic athletes.”

Although approved in having “my trusted PCA – my mom – at all international meets since 2017,” at the Tokyo Paralympics, due to Covid, new safety measures were introduced limiting “non-essential staff”.

For Becca however, her trusted PCA mother was definitely not  “non-essential staff”.

Her defiance found traction.

Bold, Strong, Beautiful. Deaf-blind Becca Meyers (second left) poses in 2020 for ‘Happy Women’s International Day’. (photo cred: Richard Phibbs)

Individuals who experience disabilities should not be forced to navigate the Tokyo Paralympics without the support that they need,” expressed Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, who called Becca’s position a “preventable situation.”

The U.S. lawmaker was not a lone voice.

At the other end of the world in Australia, support for the deaf-blind Becca came from a young kindred spirit, a Jewish girl with cerebral palsy born in South Africa. Her name is Milla Wolman, who was inspired by Becca to compose an ode that she aired on YouTube.

Mazeltov Milla. Milla (centre) with her parents Jonathan and Romy and her younger siblings, Lola and Judah at her Bat Mitzvah in Sydney, Australia.

Every now and again, poets emerge that capture the mood of an era and the crying issue of their time. They call out and talk back to injustices and unfair treatment and crystallize a collective conscience towards a cause. Young Milla Wolman has joined this elite cadre of revolutionary poets with her poem DIFability, reaching a global audience with her message:

We are not disabled, we are different”.

When she repeats the word “tremor” over and over between stanzas, she is shaking  an indifferent world to wake up from a selfish slumber.

So who is Milla Wolman?

Milla was born at the Linksfield Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the pediatrician had said she would neither be able to walk or talk. When Milla was nine months old, the Wolman family, Jonathan, Romy and Milla, left for Sydney and a shortly after a year, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Fast forward to the present and “You should see and hear her now!”  and “Unbelievable and unforgettable!” are some of  the comments on social media to this extraordinary girl.

Watch Milla here:

Through her powerful poetry, Milla asks:

“Why was Becca Meyers forced to withdraw?

It should be against the law,

For someone we adore to leave,

solely because of her disability.”

“An ironic sick joke

Which makes me want to choke

For a swimmer with a masterstroke

Becca Meyers is blind but we are the ones who cannot see.”

Describing the attitudes of the Paralympic authorities as:

This humungous assault to our own humanity

What a calamity to not get to see her victory!”

And then poses the further question:

It is your choice

Do you see Becca Meyers, the deaf-blind disabled person?

Or do you see Becca Meyers, the courageous and strong Paralympian?”

It is your choice.”

What is so captivating is Milla’s inspirational leadership:

Our revolution has just begun, we will not stop

Until we have won,

We have voices,

So why do you disable our voice?

We are not disabled, we are different,

It is not a disability

It is a DIFability.

And whoever said it is wrong to be different

That person is insignificant.

Disability is not contagious; ignorance is

Preferring to characterise herself as DIFabled rather than disabled, her grandfather, Allan Wolman, today a resident of Tel Aviv, and a contributor to Lay of the land, describes the day Milla was born in Johannesburg, on 26 August 2007:

 “It’s a day I will never forget. As you can imagine the anticipation of awaiting our first grandchild’s birth with much excitement and joy. 

Super Siblings. Lola, Milla (centre) and Judah with grandparents Allan and Jocelyn Wolman in Sydney, Australia.
 

That joy quickly turned into awful anxiety with doctors and nurses frantically running in and out of the delivery room and seeing little Milla being carried into the neo-natal care unit looking very blue! A heart stopping moment. After her birth, she had oxygen deprivation for eight minutes! There was no diagnosis at birth other than brain damage, and not knowing how severe at the time.

Lying in a little incubator with tubes protruding and monitors beeping was traumatic for her parents and grandparents. She lay in the unit for two weeks without uttering a cry – which was more than concerning as the specialist pediatrician had advised that she would neither walk nor talk again. After an agonizing number of days, she eventually let out a little cry, which was cause for such relief and happiness – can you imagine that a faint cry can give so much joy and hope.”

That baby cry from the past is today a megaphone as teenager Milla cries out to a global audience.

Allan recounts Milla’s ‘journey’ as seen through their own journeys as grandparents “visiting the kids” in Sydney.   

When Milla was a few months older, we remember her just starting to sit up on her own, which again was cause for much celebration, and on subsequent visits celebrated her development albeit later than most children, but began walking with the help of a ‘walker’ and also her talking was difficult to understand due to her weak muscles and drooling. But naturally her mom and dad could understand everything – words just cannot describe those two incredible people – who created an atmosphere of normality.”

Milla attended a mainstream nursery school and “on our visits to Sydney, we – my wife Jocelyn and I – derived so much pleasure in taking and fetching her from school.”

Proud Grandparents. Allan and Jocelyn Wolman with Milla at her Bat Mitzvah in Sydney, Australia.

At some stage, Allan recalls:

 “Milla began to have epileptic seizures which were terribly traumatic and started to increase in frequency over a period of time. Naturally, the doctors gave her medication which was a worry because while calming it also had a slowdown effect. After struggling with the seizures for some time, her parents put her on cannabis oil – a wonder drug – and from having multiple seizures a day, the cannabis virtually stopped the seizures, and Milla has hardly suffered a seizure these past few years.”

Milla attended a mainstream primary and is presently at a regular high school and “Three years ago, participated in a six week programme at the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem. It was immensely beneficial to her learning as well as her confidence.”

From Sydney to Jerusalem. The Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem, which Milla attended on a six month programme which improved her learning and confidence.

Attesting to this confidence was “a terrific speech she made at her Bat Mitzvah,”  affirms the proud grandfather followed by last month addressing the world on YouTube in her support for Paralympian Becca Meyers.

If once little Milla had no voice, today there is no silencing her as her message resonates beyond Australia to the world.

She ends her poem:

Tremor, tremor, tremor,

Here they come again,

But this time

They won’t stop me…

I will never give up.”

We believe you Milla and we believe in you.






Meet Milla who was born with no heartbeat. She was resuscitated back to life for 10 minutes and as a result lives with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Milla’s mum Romy hopes to change the perception of ‘disability’ to ‘difability’ meaning that we all have different






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

On the Right Track

Building the Burma Road to Jerusalem in 1948 for a united Israel

By David E. Kaplan

September 14, 2021.

We were about to the exit Mahane Yeduda or in common parlance “The Shuk” at its  southern end onto Jerusalem’s Agripas Street, when there was sudden pandemonium. It began with a policeman running into the market, immediately followed by armed reinforcements. “There is someone armed,” we hear a shout followed by shoppers screaming “Mehabel “(terrorist). This fueled panic leading to people scurrying towards the exits. Police cars and motorbikes blocked off the streets and medics too; entered the market. Carrying our parcels, we stopped at a nearby corner with many other Jerusalemites and watched the drama play out.

Mayhem at the Market. Agripas Street outside the Mahanei Yehuda market in Jerusalem following a terror alert on the 14 September 2021. (Photo D.E. kaplan)
 

While people stood, stared and shouted adding to an animated soundtrack punctuated by sirens, there was too a mood of familiarity as a woman raising her eyebrows lamented publicly:

 “Ma Chadash (what’s new)!”

It wasn’t a question; it was a statement.

Only the day before, two ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students were stabbed  nearby inside the  Central Bus Station.

The most resonant observation came from my wife Hilary, who remarked:

 “It may be easier getting to Jerusalem these days, but nothing has changed within!”

Maybe cryptic to a stranger, her meaning was perfectly clear to me!

Only the day before, as a surprise for my 70th birthday, Hilary had organised a visit to Israel’s “Burma Road”. 

Yes, I had lazily observed those rusty old convoy trucks on the side of Highway 1 on the assent to Jerusalem – relics of the 1948 War of Independence –  and yes, I had seen back in the sixties, the Hollywood blockbuster “Cast a Giant Shadow” with Kirk Douglas on breaking through the siege of Jerusalem, but had to wait until my 70th to really get intimately close to this riveting saga.

Birth of a Nation. A poster of the 1966 blockbuster about the Burma Road with (right-left) Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner and which also stared Senta Berger and Chaim Topol.

It had been on my ‘bucket list’.

For those unfamiliar, Israel’s hurried Herculean road building up and through the high hills to Jerusalem was named after the Burma Road linking Burma with southwest China built to convey supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Israel’s Burma Road proved no less existential – providing a lifeline that secured Jerusalem as part of the nascent Jewish state.  Approximately 100,000 Jews – around one-fifth of the Jewish population of the Yishuv at the time – lived in the besieged city of Jerusalem and its environs and they were all totally dependent on life-sustaining supplies being brought in from the coastal plain, as all other access roads to the city were under the control of Arab forces. Most significantly, the fort at Latrun which from mid-May 1948, was held by the British-trained Arab Legion from Transjordan, cutting off the main access route to Jerusalem. Unable to capture the fort – losing many soldiers in two major attempts – the only alternative to end the siege of Jerusalem was to bypass Latrun by a longer but safer detour route.

Despite advice from his military strategists to focus on the war elsewhere as the new state was attacked on multiple fronts by five Arab armies and forget besieged Jerusalem as “a lost cause”, David Ben Gurion was defiant, asserting:

Without Jerusalem, there is no Israel.”

Ben Gurion had the pulse of his people. Every year in the Diaspora, the final words at each year’s Passover is “Next year in Jerusalem” reinforcing the eternal connection of Jerusalem to the Jewish People. However, were it not for the Burma Road, “Jerusalem might have remained an allusive, unattainable dream,” says our good friend and licensed tour guide, Danny Gelley.

Saving Jerusalem. Tour guide Danny Gelley shows on the model the conveys taking the makeshift bypass road , known as the Burma Road, between kibbutz Hulda and Jerusalem  built in 1948 during the siege of Jerusalem. 

Reminding us of the cost in Israeli lives – many Holocaust survivors who only days before got off the ships  – in trying unsuccessfully to take Latrun which Israel only took back in 1967, Danny takes us  to a high point where we look down at Highway 1 with cars speeding in either direction between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “The road was impassable back then being too narrow and with Arabs on either side shooting at any attempts at convoys trying to take supplies to Jerusalem.” He points to Sha’ar Hagai, “then a bottleneck and the weak point on the road. They were like sitting ducks.” Danny reads from the French explorer Victor Guérin, who described Sha’ar Hagai in 1868:

“…the track winds between walls of rocks, overgrown with brush and thickets….the passage is too narrow that a determined band of men could stop an army in it with little difficulty.”

Monumental Museum. The new heritage center at Sha’ar Hagai reveals the legacy of the battles and the story of the Palmach fighters who with the participants on the convoys broke through to besieged Jerusalem during the War of Independence. (photo by D.E. Kaplan)

Eight decades later, these words proved prophetically true.

The future of Jerusalem as part of the new Jewish State was literally and figuratively hanging at the edge of a precipice. The entrance to this menacing gorge was called Bab el-Wad by the Arabs. By the Jews it was known by several names, all frighteningly intimidating:

The Gate of Terror”, “Hell, the Gate of Blood”, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” and more.

How well I understood the significance of these disturbing  epithets when later in the day, I would see the final resting place of the warriors who fell in the battles of the roads to Jerusalem who are  buried in the cemetery at kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. Over an eleven month period, 138 fighters were buried here. Walking down the rows of orderly graves meticulously maintained, under the long shadow cast by a tall obelisk-shaped monument built in coloured limestone rising to the heavens, I was reminded again by the NAME of the memorable movie: “Cast a Giant Shadow”. What struck me most was the ages of the soldiers – so young.  I gasped when I read on the tombstones 18, 17, 16 and even 15! I stared mesmerised at the grave of Yaacov Levy, aged 15 and wondered what thoughts were going through this teenager’s mind as he willingly sacrificed his life to open the road to Jerusalem.

Honouring our Heroes. Dedicated to the fallen soldiers from the Harel Brigade that opened the road to Jerusalem, the monument at the cemetery at Kiryat Anavim was designed by Menachem Shemi Schmidt whose son is buried here with his comrades at arms

A little higher from young Levy’s grave,  we stop at the grave of Aharon Jimmy Schmidt, a 22 year-old Palmach company commander who died toward the end of the war on a hilly ridge, near modern day Beit Shemesh. Danny explains that when “his Russian born father, Menachem Shemi Schmidt, who was an artist and sculptor heard from a close friend and fellow soldier of his fallen son that, when they had been at the Kiryat Anavim cemetery that Jimmy had commented that after the war he would ask his father to design a memorial to the fallen comrades, he acted upon his son’s wishes.”

Could Jimmy have foreseen he too would soon be one of whom his father would honour?

When he died in 1951, Menachem Shemi Schmidt, was buried in the same cemetery as his beloved son Jimmy which we later passed and noted how father and son both rested beneath the “giant shadow” cast by the father’s memorial on the hill.

Action Stations

The most momentous ‘milestone’ for this writer along the Burma Road was visiting the new heritage center called Khan Sha’ar HaGai.  Opened earlier this year before Passover, the museum is proving popular with schoolkids, as evident on the day we were there. It is easy to understand why. It’s an experiential museum ideal for all ages, drawing the visitors in to participate in a way that you feel you are “part of the action”.

Rabin brings Relief. Two days after being established in April  1948 and placed under the command of twenty-four-year-old Yitzhak Rabin, the Harel Brigade organised a convoy of supplies to be brought to Jerusalem under fire from Arab irregulars. The relief convoy led by Rabin himself, came four days after an Arab ambush of a medical convoy on its way to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in which eighty Jews, mostly nurses and doctors, were ambushed and killed. 

Passing through five stations, the tour begins with recorded live testimonies by those who participated in those dangerous convoys describing how under fire they bulldozed and dug with spades and shovels in constructing the road; how bullets ripped through the lorries and fortified ambulances during the convoys and how at times in the mud and on steep assents, they had to get out the trucks under fire and PUSH. These were heroes – ordinary young people who were called upon to act quite extraordinary. One begins to understand how the country was built on the sheer WILL of its determined and defiant people. This struck home when one notices on some of their arms, the tattooed numbers – a reminder of their not too distant hellish residency at Nazi concentration camps. They needed little further motivation to fight – they knew the alternative.

Breakout Pass. Jubilation as a convoy with lifesaving supplies arrives in Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

At the next few stations, visitors participate with the use of a disc received on entry. From here on visitors face simulated life or death situations as a commander and have to make decisions by placing their disc at the small windows of their choice. So at a Road Station, your convoy comes under heavy fire and one of the trucks gets stuck. You have 30 seconds as a commander to decide – order the convoy to continue away from enemy fire or to delay and try save the troubled truck. These were real life situations and you then learn what decisions were actually made at the time and the consequences of those decisions.

At the Supply Station,  you are briefed of the dire situation in Jerusalem of Jews starving, dying from a lack of medicine and running low on ammunition. Faced with a reduced number of trucks having been destroyed by enemy fire, you, as a commander, have to make the decision to use the limited space left to pack in mostly  food, medical supplies or ammunition. What will you choose? Whatever you decide – it will result in life for some and death for others. Not knowing the “right” choice – I opted for ammunition!

At another station, you sit in an armoured truck being pierced by bullets as it struggles in a high gear up a long winding high hill, hearing the sound of gunfire, and looking out the  small windows seeing the raging battle outside.

Wayside Inn. The site of the museum today, the Khan ( a hostel for convoys of merchants traveling the roads to stop for the night without fear of bandits) at Sha’ar Hagai in 1910.

Determining Values

This is no ordinary museum for the passive observer. You see, feel and ask – what would I have done in such a situation?

As you exit, you are called upon to not simply return your disc but to hang your disc at a Value Board, where  you select the value that you consider to have been most important to those who endured this experience. Your choices range between camaraderie, just cause, unity, love of country, mutual responsibility, determination, faith, Jerusalem and more.

What to Do? On route from Hulda to Jerusalem when the convey faces a life-threatening crisis.

Still wondering if you made the most appropriate choice – it’s all very personal – you walk out the museum onto a stretch of the old Burma Road where you can climb aboard some of the original supply trucks and ambulances as they line up in a convoy. Cramped inside with all the supplies and only slits to see out and fire at the enemy, one’s mind travels faster than the speed these trucks ever travelled.

A Question of Values. School children at the Khan Sha’ar HaGai ,Bab el-Wad,  National Memorial Site placing their discs at the Value Board. (photo by D.E. Kaplan)
 

How did they do it?

Today, cars speed up and down between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in record time and in complete safety. In Jerusalem however, the danger remains with terror a constant menace.

Hence my wife’s observation outside a turbulent Mahanei Yehuda:

It may be easier getting to Jerusalem these days, but nothing has changed within!”




Israeli Private Tour Guide. Looking for an excellent Israeli tour guide schooled in history? Danny Gelley is certified in English, Hebrew and German. Contact danielgelley@gmail.com Cell: 054-4499227




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

The Best of Humanity

The Paralympics showcases the best of the human spirit, resilience, triumph and sporting excellence

By Rolene Marks

I am completely devoid of sporting ability. The only thing I have been able to run for successfully is a shoe sale; I can swim in a pool of emotions and if it requires a bat, stick, racket, hoop and a ball, count me out. It is for this and so many reasons that I love watching the Olympic Games. I marvel at the magnificent sporting prowess of the athletes, celebrating and competing at the pinnacle of their careers. The spirit of sportsmanship evident in the competition transcending politics. I have a healthy appreciation for the sheer tenacity, talent and sportsmanship.

I love the Paralympics even more.

The Paralympics are the embodiment of the triumph of the human spirit and the best of humanity, a sentiment echoed by Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee when he opened the latest games in Tokyo, Japan.

Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee

The Paralympics brings together the best international athletes with disabilities and takes place after both the summer and winter games.  

This year, the games are taking place against the backdrop of the omnipresent Corona virus pandemic which means that these amazing sportsmen and women have competed with virtually no spectators but this has not diminished their spirit.

Israel had the best Olympics in its history. Known more for being more of a start-up than sporting nation, we surpassed our expectations with a 4 medal haul – two gold and two bronze. Our Paralympians have even surpassed that! At the time of writing this, our medal tally stands at 4 gold 2 silver and a bronze.

Monumental Medalists. Medal-winning Paralympic swimmers back in Israel on August 20, 2018, from left (seated), Ami Dadon, Iyad Shalabi and Inbal Pezaro; (standing) Mark Malyar, Erel Halevi and Yoav Valinsky. (Photo courtesy of Israel Paralympics Committee)
 

The story behind how the Paralympics started is quite extraordinary.

The games were the brainchild (quite literally!) of Sir Ludwig Guttman CBE FRS, a German-British neurologist. Born on the 3rd of July 1899 in the town of Tost, Upper Silesia, Guttmann always had an affinity with medicine. In 1917, while volunteering at an accident hospital in Königshütte, he encountered his first paraplegic patient, a coal miner with a spinal fracture who later died of sepsis. That same year, Guttmann passed his Abitur at the humanistic grammar school in Königshütte before being called up for military service. Guttmann started studying medicine in April 1918 at the University of Breslau. He transferred to the University of Freiburg in 1919 and received his Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1924 and by 1933, Guttmann was working in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) as a neurosurgeon and lecturing at the university.

Founding Father. Portrait of Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann the father of the Paralympic movement.

The world would soon dramatically change with the Nazi rise to power and so to for the Guttmann family.

The Nazis assumed power in 1933 and immediately began to target Germany’s Jews. The antisemitic Nuremberg Laws were introduced and as part of these discriminatory measures, Jews were banned from practicing medicine professionally. Guttmann was assigned to work at the Breslau Jewish Hospital, where he became Medical Director in 1937. After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 when synagogues, Jewish property and individuals were violently attacked, Guttmann ordered his staff to admit any patients without question. The following day, he justified his decision on a case-by-case basis with the Gestapo. Out of 64 admissions, 60 patients were saved from arrest and deportation to concentration camps.

Man of Vision. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the Jewish doctor who escaped the Nazis and founded the Paralympics.

In early 1939, Guttmann and his family left Germany, fleeing Nazi persecution of the Jews. An opportunity for escape had come when the Nazis provided him with a visa; and ordered him to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Guttmann was scheduled to return to Germany via London when the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) arranged for him to remain in the United Kingdom. He arrived in Oxford, England, on 14 March 1939 with his wife, Else Samuel Guttmann, and their two children: a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Eva, aged six. CARA negotiated with the British Home Office on their behalf, and gave Guttmann and his family £250 (equivalent to £16,000 in 2019) to help them settle in Oxford.

Guttmann continued his spinal injury research at the Nuffield Department of Neurosurgery in the Radcliffe Infirmary. The family became members of the Oxford Jewish community, and Eva remembers becoming friendly with Miriam Margolyes, an actress famous for her role in Harry Potter as Professor Pomona Sprout.  The Jewish community in Oxford grew rapidly as a result of the influx of displaced academic Jews from Europe.

Actress Miriam Margolyes

Guttmann’s skill and reputation in the medical field began to grow.

In September 1943, the British government approached Guttmann with an idea to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. The initiative came from the Royal Air Force to make sure that the treatment and rehabilitation of pilots with spinal injuries, “who often crashed on approach with their bombers damaged”. The centre opened on 1 February 1944, and was the United Kingdom’s first specialist unit for treating spinal injuries. Guttmann was appointed its director, a position he held until 1966. He believed that sport was an important method of therapy for the rehabilitation of injured military personnel, helping them build up physical strength and self-respect.

History of the Paralympic Games

Guttmann became a naturalised British citizen in 1945 and organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans, which was held at the hospital on 29 July 1948, the same day as the opening of the London Olympics. All participants had spinal cord injuries and competed in wheelchairs. In an effort to encourage his patients to take part in national events, Guttmann used the term Paraplegic Games. These came to be known as the “Paralympic Games“, which later became the “Parallel Games” and grew to include other disabilities.

Early Days. Javelin throw with Ludwig Guttmann watching.

Guttmann was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1950 King’s Birthday Honours, as “Neurological Surgeon in charge of the Spinal Injuries Centre at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital, Stoke Mandeville”. His other investiture honours include being made an Associate Officer of the Venerable Order of Saint John on 28 June 1957, promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1960, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966, becoming Sir Ludwig Guttmann!

Right Royal. Her Majesty the Queen congratulating an Israeli participant at the 1969 Stoke Mandeville Games with Ludwig Guttmann looking on. (left)

In 1961, Guttmann founded the International Medical Society of Paraplegia, now the International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) and was the inaugural president, a position that he held until 1970. He also became the first editor of the journal, Paraplegia (now named Spinal Cord) and retired from clinical work in 1966; but continued his involvement with sport, seeing the incredible healing effect it had on participants.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann suffered a heart attack in October 1979, and died on 18 March 1980 at the age of 80.

His lasting legacy is the Paralympic Games.

The Paralympic games now include sports as diverse as fencing, basketball, swimming, table-tennis, football, cycling, equestrian events and so many, many more and have inspired other such events such as the hugely popular Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry for disabled war veterans from different armies from around the world.

Enter Israel. Athletes from Israel enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
 

Today’s Paralympic athletes are a reflection of their great founder, Sir Ludwig Guttmann. The athletes that compete are the embodiment of the human spirit, of tenacity, endurance, courage, perseverance and fortitude. I cannot help but think that Sir Ludwig Guttmann (MD) would be so proud of how the games have grown and the joy they inspire.

This is the human spirit at its best!

The Right Moves

A dance instructor’s  recollections of  defying Apartheid in South Africa

By David E. Kaplan

A marine biologist and tour guide friend of Fonda Dubb in Eilat had a bad fall and was rushed to Emergency at Israel’s southern coastal city hospital – Yoseftal Medical Center. After being patched-up, Colin Porter, said the stitching done by the Arab doctor on duty was so well done  that he characterised it as a “tapestry” and wanting to show his appreciation, offered to teach him snorkeling.

Touched by this gesture, the Arab doctor agreed and said it was the first time he would be socialising with a Jew!

What this story or extended “tapestry” of life unveils is that too few people from worlds culturally separate, fail to meaningfully engage beyond the workplace. “This happens across the globe,” says Fonda. “We leave it to the politicians who are generally lousy at this job instead of us ordinary people engaging on a grassroots person-to-person level.”

Fonda knows exactly what she is talking about from her experiences in South Africa during the darkest days of Apartheid when she went out of her way to bring people who would not otherwise connect – together!

She made every effort, frequently putting herself in danger in crossing boundaries – geographic as well as personal.

What her story reveals is that while we  are more familiar with the high-profile opponents of Apartheid, we are less so of the ordinary people who in their own ordinary way achieved extraordinary results. Such was the case of Fonda Dubb of Eilat.

As a dance teacher in the late sixties in Port Elizabeth, Fonda lead a kind of double life. While in the city she taught kids at a dance studio exclusively for whites, she also immersed herself in teaching boys and girls at the Gelvandale Toynbee Ballet School in the coloured district of Port Elizabeth.

Not Dancing to the Tune of Apartheid. Fonda Dubb’s students at Gelvandale Ballet School.

At the city studio “coloureds” were excluded because of the ugly Group Areas Act, which assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas in a system of urban apartheid. So I used to drive backwards and forwards to the township, a one hour drive away. I was totally unperturbed visiting an area where very few Whites ever went, although I was under surveillance and at times stopped by the police enquiring where I was going and what I was doing.” When there were clashes with the police in  Gelvandale or on the route, “someone would phone and warn me not to come. ”

There was no stopping Fonda. If whites were blocked from being culturally exposed to the coloured community, Fonda ‘pirouetted’ devising a reverse step. “I was determined that my students performed in front of white audiences and so, I would apply for permits to the Administration of coloured Affairs for every such performance.”

Testing Times. Through Fonda Dubb’s perseverance, these coloured students would perform in White areas of Port Elizabeth.

Knowing the moves on the dance floor were not enough; Fonda had to ‘choreograph’ a path through Apartheid’s labyrinthian bureaucracy!

From a file, Fonda takes out a humiliating relic of the Apartheid era, the permit which imposed the following conditions:

“…that no social mixing with the audience occurs, that the coloured do not make use of any of the  change-rooms or any other facilities provided for Whites and that they leave the premises immediately after their performance.” And if they needed to use the toilets, “who knows what they were expected to do,” sighs Fonda, shaking her head.

A Good Mix. Fonda Dubb and her committee receiving a grant for the Gelvandale Toynbee Ballet School. Besides the Treasurer Colin Melmed (left), the only other white on the Committee, Fonda says “This to my knowledge was the only mixed committee during the Apartheid era.”

Fonda relates how they overcame problems that today, 26 years after the fall of Apartheid, appear strangely surreal:

If I received a permit, which only allowed for the exact number of my dances, then that would exclude the coloured staff, particularly their drivers. To surmount this problem, because we had to strictly comply with the conditions, of the permit, my late husband Mark and I would drive backwards and forwards in our own cars, taking and fetching the students.”

Aspiring Dancers. Fonda Dubb’s young students receiving awards in 1974.

Her coloured students frequently received the highest marks in Port Elizabeth. Following their progress, Fonda always felt proud to see how they overcame the many Apartheid-related obstacles. “Some would go on to UCT’s ballet School, others would become teachers, while a few went on to perform overseas.”

Following Dulcie Howes – considered the prima ballerina assoluta of South African ballet  – introducing Ballet as a matric subject in South African schools, two of the first graduates in the progamme “were  my coloured students who would go on to receive bursaries to study at UCT, where after they returned to teach at Coloured schools in Gelvendale. I think this was one on my proudest moments!”

Going Great. On a visit to the Toynbee Ballet School, the former principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, London Johaar Mosaval, says he was most impressed with the caliber of the students who Fonda Dubb had been entering for R.A.D Ballet exams since 1970.

What’s Cooking?

Leaving Port Elizabeth in the mid-1970s, Fonda and her family moved to the small country town of her youth,  Pietersburg, today Polokwane, capital of the Limpopo Province. There she switched from dancing to her other great love – cuisine! Boasting a strong Jewish community of some 200 families, Fonda was kept very busy catering for barmitzvahs, batmitzvahas, britot mila and weddings.

Recipe for Success. Following Fonda Dubb’s  cooking course in Pietersburg for blacks making the national media, she was inundated with enquiries across South Africa.

In time she was soon approached by an organization called “Woman Power” to provide cooking lessons to blacks, where they would receive certificates enabling domestics workers to command higher salaries. They were “earning at the time a paltry – in today’s Israeli currency –  NIS28 per month,” recalls Fonda. Approximately 80% of my students could neither read nor write but they were determined to improve their lives.”

Pathway to Progress. Tasty delights of Fonda Dubb’s students that paved their way for higher salaries.

The graduation ceremonies regularly appeared on national television, where after “we would receive calls from other organisations throughout the country for the guidelines to our courses.”

White by Night

As a child growing up in Pietersburg, Fonda’s young eyes were witness to the horrors of Apartheid. She recalls the vivid images of “blacks being randomly picked up in the streets by roving police vans and tossed in brutally like sacks of potatoes. I can still hear the sounds of the siren that used to sound every night at 9.00pm, whereafter no blacks were free to roam the streets of Pietersburg.”

She recalls her late cousin, Dr. John Gluckman, a pathologist, “who had the courage of his convictions to expose the horrible tortures inflicted upon the black school children held in police custody during the 1976 riots. Years earlier, he had represented the Timol family, whose son Ahmed, was one of the first detainees to die at the notorious John Vorster Square by allegedly jumping out a window. He later represented the Biko family,” following the black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s death in police custody.

She recalls being at the police station in Pietersburg a few years before immigrating to Israel and hearing the screaming coming from the cells. “I asked one of the policemen what was happening. With a whip of a hand, he bellowed, “We’re going to donner (beat) them”. Such was South Africa.”

Wonder Woman. Fonda Dubb (left)  with the “Woman Power” group providing cooking lessons to blacks, where they would receive certificates enabling domestics to command higher salaries.

Making a Difference

While Fonda is quick to minimize her contribution during the dark days of Apartheid, she recognised the injustice around her and through her routine activities made a difference. In Eilat, she again used her passions for dance and food “to make a difference”. Apart from assisting the blind and visiting the sick, she over the years,  would through organisations like ESRA and WIZO instruct dance to children with disabilities, teach English to Ethiopian children through cooking and would fundraise for causes by conducting food demonstrations.

What’s Cooking? Fonda teaching English to Ethiopean children in Eilat through the meduim of cooking.

It is little wonder that Fonda is a recipient of Eilat’s prestigious Miller Award, presented personally by former Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi for:

 “diverse volunteer work conducted with dedication and sensitivity in guiding and supporting the needy in all sectors of the population and for the empowerment of women.” 

If bad laws kept people apart in South Africa, Fonda Dubb found good ways to bring them together.


Ruth’s Roots Revealed

By Adv. Craig Snoyman

In September 2016 a solitary, single, slightly tired woman arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. She did  not find the streets  paved with gold, nor were the people particularly friendly. With no family or friends, or even acquaintances, she has arrived in xenophobic South Africa with little fanfare and no more than a suitcase, a small amount of money and bucket-loads of grit and determination.

She made her way to the room that she had found on the internet and rented.  This too, did not match what had been advertised. The room formed part of a larger house that was sub-let to  other tenants as well.  A small , grubby dingy room with a communal toilet and kitchen, substantially misrepresented by the photos that appeared on the website, was to be her new home for the  immediate future. Not even having unpacked, she took a walk to the corner cafe,  bought some cleaning detergent and got down to work, scrubbing down her room and the toilet. She was determined to make the best of whatever hurdles confronted her.

She was different from the other Zimbabweans. She was not an economic migrant. She was here for a higher purpose. She was here to convert to Judaism. For someone who knew nothing about Johannesburg, the area  in which she had  selected to live was slightly out of the more heavily populated Jewish suburbs, but it was within easy  walking distance of  an orthodox shul. This had been her priority.

 Ruth (not her real name) had been in contact with the Union of Orthodox Synagogues  of South Africa. She had been told that there were inadequate facilities in Zimbabwe for her to convert. If she wanted to convert, she would have to do this in South Africa. So she gave up her comfortable life in an affluent area of Harare  and came to stay in the heart  of  the unknown, dangerous Johannesburg.

It was about two weeks after she arrived that I first met Ruth. It was on a Friday night, when walking back from shul. By coincidence, I had gone to that shul to make a minyon (required quorum of ten Jewish male adults). She was a new face in the congregation.  The congregation is small and even with a mechitzah (participation separating men and women), you couldn’t really miss her.  It is a very small congregation, usually all male,  Ashkenazi and (to be politically incorrect) all white.

Ruth, the only woman present, was none of the above.

After the service, she was walking home with the head of security and headed in the same direction as me. The Security head asked me to walk her home as she lived only a few houses away from me, in the same street. With little further ado, she came to our Shabbas table and revealed to us the amazing story behind her desire to convert. 

Ruth had grown up in one of the leafy green suburbs in Harare,  part of a close-knit family. She had cared for her grandmother during her illness, but it was only on her deathbed, that her mother told Ruth that her grandfather was Jewish. Ruth was stunned!

And so began the investigation. Ruth’s aunt (her mother’s sister) had also been aware of the secret but had been sworn to secrecy. She told Ruth what she knew. Her grandfather was a well-known Jewish merchant who lived in a small town in the southern part  of Rhodesia. She knew his name and she knew the name of the shop that he owned. Ruth went to  the town to see what she could find out.  However, this small outpost no longer had a Jewish community,  and the trail ran cold.  She had made various inquiries over the past ten years, including approaching Africa’s travelling rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silverhaft, but had come no closer to discovering the truth.

Rabbi Moshe Silverhaft

What remained unsaid, but what all of us realised, was that we were talking about colonial Rhodesia and love across the colour line was absolutely taboo at the time. Had anyone been aware of what had happened it would have resulted in a scandal that might well have ruined this man’s  reputation and certainly his livelihood.

Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe in the early 1900s.

Her interest in Judaism had been sparked  and she embarked on a course of discovery to learn more about Judaism and to discover more about her Jewish roots. The course of this road led to a trip to Israel, accompanied by her daughter.  She had done some studying in Israel but wasn’t really ready to proceed further. She returned to Zimbabwe and resumed her life. Her daughter remained in Israel, converted, married, and is living in Israel.

Some years had passed, she was now more settled and had decided to  proceed on her journey. It was now time for her to convert.

It was a  coincidence that she had chosen to come to South Africa to convert. It was a coincidence that she had chosen to rent accommodation in the same street in which we live. It was a coincidence  that I had gone to that shul that night. It was a coincidence that Ruth had accepted our Shabbas meal invitation. By a further  coincidence,  the only Zimbabwean that we knew, just happened to be Jewish. Coincidently, he also just happened to have grown up in that very town where her grandfather had lived. He  just happened to be the son of the reverend who conducted the religious services in the small town, where everybody knew everybody. As the son of the “makulu-baas” (the big boss) of the Jewish community in the town, if anybody had any information about that time, it would be him.  Further coincidently, he and his family just happened to be living around the corner from us. Again, just by coincidence, he had not severed his relationship with Zimbabwe when he emigrated, regularly returning  to Zimbabwe  on business.

And so Ruth was introduced to Boaz, who after hearing two sentences from Ruth, completed the description of the shop, the shops next to her grandfather’s shop as well as a general description of the town. He also  knew who presently owned  the shop.  More importantly, he remembered  her grandfather!

Opening a book entitled “Famous Jews of Rhodesia”, Boaz directed Ruth’s attention to a potted biography of her grandfather, together with  a picture of him.  After ten years of dead-ends, it took only  two weeks in South Africa for her grandfather to be revealed to her.

Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi) – Jewish Community exploring project

A few weeks after Ruth’s initial shock, Boaz  went on a business trip to Zimbabwe and took Ruth to visit the gravesite of her grandfather.

Arriving as a stranger in a strange land, Ruth has now learned of her past, formed a durable support base and having spent five tough years following the long, winding, and difficult road to an Orthodox conversion. This morning she went  to the mikveh  and participated in small socially distanced  se’udah (festive meal). In a touching gesture, when she announced her new Hebrew name, she had also adopted her grandfather’s surname. Her long  road continues to wind its way, leading to Jerusalem.

In her process of conversion, Ruth would follow in a 3,500 year tradition of observant Jewish women immersing themselves in a ritual purification bath (mikveh).

The unspoken,  but  equally incredible part of the story is about her grandfather. He was by all accounts a very prominent member of the Jewish community. He held national congregational  office and was married to his wife for many years. He and his wife never had children. In Ruth’s own small way, the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone. She is now a proud Jewess; she has a son that has converted recently at his yeshiva in Israel and soon to be married. She also has a wonderful Kibutznik daughter and son-in-law with two beautiful grandchildren. Her family is  a shoot that   has  grown  from the stump of Zimbabwean Jewry, it is  a branch that has borne new fruit.    

 “Isn’t it wonderful,” says Ruth, “how Hashem reveals the jigsaw pieces and lets us put them together, for us to create our own puzzle.”



About the writer:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

It’s Time to End Cancel Culture

By Gabi Crouse

I grew up in a traditional Jewish South African home. Our family was not religious at all albeit loving and close. My social environment was not affiliated with Judaism at all. Friday nights I went out and Saturday mornings was shopping / movies / coffee with friends. I remember seeing religious Jews on the street and feeling sorry for them – all in their sleeves on a hot day –  and thinking, “what a bunch of nerds!”

To cut a long story short. I now live in Israel as an observant Jew and I am now the nerd.

The fact that I was able to turn my life in a different direction was based on the ability to ask hard questions and face the answers I didn’t like. I am part of millions of Jews who now call themselves Baale Teshuva. A group of people I am proud to be a part of. The turning points in a change of way of life requires sacrifice – and that is never painless.

I feel there is a serious pandemic in the world today and I am NOT talking about Covid. I am talking about intolerance – real intolerance.

I write this with a heavy heart – and it’s the weight of what I saw that drives me to put a message out, even if it’s a whisper.

Intolerance - Home | Facebook

Intolerance – Home | Facebook

I am part of a neighborhood group on Facebook and one morning I read a post put on there by a community member who had serious questions about vaccinating children under the age of 12. Before I say another word, I need to make abundantly clear that my opinions on the vaccine are irrelevant here and I beg you to not presume to know my position. I am not interested in the vaccine here at all.  I am interested in Jewish behaviour based on the comments on this particular post.

To my horror I saw fellow Jews bashing this man. Comments like:

 “Anti vaxxers aren’t welcome here

This comment has no place on this neighborhood group

You (not the post) should be permanently removed from the group

These comments were condoned by another demanding a public apology.

I could not believe how this seemingly innocent post was met. It affected me so badly that later in the day, I went back to check if there were further comments but the post had been removed.

Whether or not that post had a place on that particular group is completely irrelevant. If I see a post I don’t agree with or think is stupid, I simply keep scrolling. But to take the time to comment means people obviously feel strongly about their opposing positions.

At what point did Jews forget how to be a Jew?!

The entire premise of Judaism is to question, challenge and ASK! Ask and ask until what you think you know becomes something you KNOW you know. And even after that you still question. Is it not the trait of a Jew to disagree?

The man who commented on the vaccine obviously has not accepted entirely nor is he convinced of what he has been told about the vaccine and still has reservations about giving it to his children. Perhaps he has been exposed to scary data that isn’t trending on twitter or headlines on mainstream news. It is not farfetched to question the good intentions of a government. Last I checked, he not only has a God given right to ask and check, but he has a responsibility to his family to be sure about something like a vaccine before he goes ahead with it. He may eventually arrive at the point where he feels confident in the vaccine for his children. But the bottom line is, the man wants to protect his family and who am I to assume anything else of him. Unfortunately, now he is no clearer on his position on the vaccine but he now knows exactly where he stands with his community – charem. It’s disgraceful.

It’s completely unrealistic to expect all people to agree on everything. We are allowed to argue, we are allowed to ask. We are allowed to think and have different opinions but we should never be allowed to be disrespectful.

This disrespectful nature and ‘cancel culture’ mentality is deeply disturbing. Popular opinion is not always noble. As Jews, we should know better. Never throughout history has there been a time where any government has been completely uncorrupted and transparent with its constituents. Propaganda is a reality that should never be ignored – perhaps if German society didn’t swallow up the garbage they were fed on their national media, fewer of them would have stood idly by while six million of our people were murdered. To quote Albert Einstein:

 “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth”.

Poisonous Prose. German children in 1938 read an anti-Jewish propaganda book for children titled Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom).

We say never again to our enemies but sadly our enemies have emerged within the community! What is going on when we oust a Jew for thinking differently to the ‘majority’? Maybe he is wrong, but then is it not our responsibility to educate him in a reverent manner?

Why does this seem to be too much to ask?

The beauty about the Jewish faith is that we are encouraged to question. The more we ask, the more we uncover layers of God’s glorious truths. Anyone who has struggled and questioned their way through a concept in the Torah knows the beauty of that.

This is a skill that is applied to in all areas of life.

Careful consideration goes into what we chose to study, who we marry, which school we send our children and so on. Having an open mind does not mean you have to commit to any idea that seems right, nor do we need to be precious over it and protect it – because let’s face it, sometimes we are wrong, and that’s okay!

People are afraid to voice their opinions today even if they are slightly outside the “accepted opinion”. People are being bullied into obedient agreeable thoughtless slaves; too quick to jump to conclusions and too slow to make genuine assessments. “When the arguments is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser” – a quote found all over the internet. I think the next time you find yourself resorting to slander, you might want to ask yourself:

 How far you have come from knowing what you know.

It has no place in a civilized community.

I am a Jew; I am a descendant of Avraham. Avraham challenged all the ideas of authorities, including those of his parents. Avraham asked; Avraham challenged his own beliefs; Avraham changed his ways.

But it was never Jews who threw him into the furnace.



About the writer:

Gabi Crouse1.JPG

Gabi Crouse – Based in Israel, Gabi writes opinions in fields of politics, Judaism, life issues, current social observations as well as creative fiction writing. Having contributed to educational set works and examinations, as well as interviews, Gabi will usually add in a splash of humour.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

On High Ground

The Hills of Yodfat are Alive with the Sound of Hebrew

By David E. Kaplan

It is a Kaplan family Bar Mitzvah in the quant intimate shul (synagogue) at Yodfat, a moshav in northern Israel in the picturesque high mountains of the Lower Galilee. The shul is packed – mostly with animated children of all ages. Following my brother Sidney  as both a Cohen and grandfather to the Barmitzvah boy Yoav being called up first for an Aliyah  – I followed.

The Children are our Future. The children of Yodfat singing a song to the Bar Mitzvah boy – Yoav Kaplan. His grandsfather, Sidney Kaplan (right) was a founding member of the nearby South African moshav – Manof.

I made my way, maneuvering the short joyful journey between children sitting on bunk benches in the isle, I ascend the Bimah and before reciting the blessing for the reading of the Torah, I look up and to the right of the ark out a wide window and saw the green valley leading to the mountain-top fortresses of Yodfat.

It is no ordinary vista that this shul looks out on!

Embedded into the physical landscape of modern Israel, it is in the psychological landscape that this ancient Jewish fortress  stands as a stark and dark reminder of those enemies that may come to try erase Jewish life from this land. It happened 2000 years ago and began the process of exile until 1948, but the same battle persists. “Rome” has other names today.

I recite the prayer; the Barmitzvah boy reads from the Torah and I smile as I look at all the children who are armed to their teeth with sweets to later throw at Yoav when he has completed his Haftarah, to wish him a “sweet” life as he makes the transition to adulthood. I then momentarily reflect on who was armed to the teeth at this very same spot 2000 years earlier – ROMANS – and not with sweets!

War and Peace. Looking out from where the Roman legions were positioned 2000 years ago to modern day moshav Yodfat in the background where the synagogue is perched on the crest of the hill.

What bloodily played out on these ochre hilltops created a narrative that continues to caution and inspire ensuing generations of Israelis.

Walking to the shul earlier, I breathed in the fresh country air and feasted my eyes on the valley with its vineyards and orchards, olive trees, and goats roaming in the distance tended by a young shepherd. The scene was pastoral and peaceful – a far cry from the cataclysmic clash of arms that occurred at this exact spot in 67 CE when heroic Jewish fighters took on the might of the Roman Empire.

Time to Rejoice. Grandfather Sydney Kaplan speaking in Hebrew to his grandson Yoav at the Bar Mizvah reception in a garden overlooking the site of the tragic Roman siege 2000 years earlier.

In early June of that year, a force of 1,000 Roman cavalrymen arrived at Yodfat to seal off the town, defended by Jewish forces commanded by Yosef Ben Matityahu (the future Flavius Josephus). Prior to the Roman assault, Ben Matityahu had fortified nineteen of the most important towns of the region, including Yodfat.After a failed attempt to confront the Roman army at Tzipori, he retired to Tiberias, but soon thereafter established himself at Yodfat, drawing the Roman legions to the town. A day later at the foothills not far from the shul where we were proudly celebrating Yoav’s Barmitzvah, stood the amassed Roman legions of the Fifth, Tenth and Fifteenth as well as auxiliaries consisting of Arabian archers and Syrian slingers led by General Vespasian and supported by his son Titus, who would both emerge as future emperors of Rome.

These Roman “occupiers” meant business. Literally ‘Dressed to kill’, they aspired to crush an uprising that would become known in history as “The Great Jewish revolt” or “The Jewish War”. This was 2000 years ago and long before anyone ever heard of Palestinians!

Hill of Hereos. The ancient town of Yodfat was positioned on this isolated hill hidden between high peaks, surrounded on three sides by steep ravines.  During the “Great Revolt” in year 67 CE – Yodfat, the last stronghold of Jewish resistance after the fall of Zippori – was besieged by three Roman legions and resisted for 47 days before the city fell.  

I return from the Bimah to take my seat next to my brother. We exchange comments about the lively atmosphere with loving parents battling to keep some decorum amongst their animated kids – mostly friends of the Barmitzvah boy. It’s a sheer Shabbos delight. And then I contrast this image of an imagined one of Jewish kids 2000 years earlier looking down at the Roman legions with their frightening coloured attire and menacing siege machines. It was laughter today; it was fear then. It should never again be the other way around – ever!

Romans came Prepared. A typical Roman siege machine that the defenders at Yodfat would have faced.

Vespasian had pitched his own camp north of the town, facing  the only accessible side, while his forces surrounded the city. An assault against the wall on the second day of the siege failed, and after several days in which the Jewish defenders made a number of successful sorties against his forces, Vespasian changed tactics.  He instructed for the building of a siege ramp against the city walls, and when these works were disrupted by the Jews, Vespasian set 160 engines, catapults and ballistas  – backed by lightly armed troops, slingers and archers – to dislodge the defiant defenders from the walls. These were in turn met with repeated sallies by the besieged, but work on the ramp continued, raising it to the height of the battlements and forcing Ben Matityahu to have the walls themselves raised.  Roman measure was met with Jewish countermeasure and the battle ebbed and flowed…..

Peace and Tranquility. The only connection today of Yodfat to the times of conquering Rome is that its pastoral beauty is often described as “Shades of Tuscany”.

As always with such sieges, water was an issue for the defenders on top of a high hill so Ben Matityahu had Yodfat’s limited supply of water rationed before the siege began. The Romans had heard of this and began to use their artillery to target any efforts to draw water, hoping to exacerbate an already difficult situation and bring a swift end to the siege. The defenders, in a far-in-the-future future Mossad type of maneuver, cunningly confounded the Romans by wringing out their clothes over the battlements until the walls were running with water, leading the Romans to believe the Jews had some hidden supply of water.

According to Ben Matityahu, later writing as Josephus, this taunting had a twin effect – one negative and one positive. It strengthened Roman resolve but it also steeled the mettle of the defenders to fight, preferring to die by the sword than from thirst or starvation.

Man with Menace. A statue of Emperor Vespasian who in 66 AD was appointed to suppress the Jewish revolt underway in Judea.

There was of course an atmosphere of inevitability where this was ultimately heading. “Proportionality” was never a consideration in Vespasian’s battle plans to expunge a Jewish presence at Yodfat.

With the completion of the assault ramp, Vespasian ordered a battering ram  brought up against the wall. The defenders responded with ingenuity.  They lowered sacks filled with chaff to absorb the blows, they set fire to the ram and as chronicled by Josephus, one of the defenders, renowned for his strength, cast a huge stone on the ram from above, breaking off its head.

This infuriated the Romans. A physical act but it was also symbolic – decapitating the “head” of a war machine. This shortly took on a new meaning when the “head” – the future Emperor Vespasian himself was wounded by a defender’s dart. The Romans were so incensed driving their assault to a fever pitch but still were beaten back.

Eventually, on July 20, 67, a band of Romans reportedly led by Titus himself, stealthily scaled the walls, cut the throats of the watch and opened the gates, letting in the entire Roman army.

What followed was a slaughter. While the descendants today of some of Rome’s conquered like in modern day Britton may cherish the famed Roman baths, Yodfat records only a Roman blood bath!

According to Josephus, 40,000 were slain or committed suicide and 1,200 women and infants were taken into slavery. Vespasian ordered the town demolished and its walls torn down and prohibited burial of the fallen. It was only a year or more later when Jews were allowed to return to bury the remains in caves and cisterns.

Yodfat Today.  Enjoy the fun of Yodfat today by visiting “Boacha Yodfat” (literally, “As you approach Yodfat”) – a recreation and shopping center, located in a grove of oaks, providing stunning views. Here you will find stores, a gallery, a jewelry studio, a delicatessen, a dairy café, a bakery and a nearby “Monkey Forest”.

So even on this day 2000 years later, the sound of innocent chatter and laughter soliciting reprimands from the rabbi, were to me like music to the ears.

If the few surviving children of ancient Yodfat were cruelly sold off into slavery never to return, Jews did RETURN and today’s young children in the shul of modern Yodfat on this Shabbat were sending a strong message – this was our home 2000 years ago and is our home today.

Nothing more audibly conveys this message than that Latin  – the language of Rome –  is today a dead language while the hills of Yodfat are alive with the sound of Hebrew!


L’Chaim – “to Life”. Two thousand years later, there is much to toast about at Yodfaf as seen by these visitors enjoying the good life at “Boacha Yodfat”






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Victor in Name and in Life

Remembering Victor Gordon, an award-winning playwright, artist, musician, community leader and strong literary advocate for Israel

By David E. Kaplan

It came as little surprise to hear on Sunday 11 July at the opening of the Zoom memorial service to Victor Gordon of Pretoria, South Africa, to hear his widow, Shirley reveal that she had been phoned that morning by Jonathan Pollard, today a free citizen of the State of Israel.

It had been an emotional yet profound conversation – about ones man’s too soon passing and another’s belated freedom. Their disparate lives were eternally linked by Victor’s  poignant prose.

My Word. Victor Gordon, whose words in the media and on stage,  enthralled , entertained  and challenged. (Photo: Diane Wolfson)

Jonathan Jay Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the United States government, pleaded guilty in 1987, as part of a plea agreement, to spying for and providing top-secret classified information to Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison making him the ONLY American to receive a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the U.S.

Believing that Pollard was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice, Victor wrote the play titled “Pollards’ Trial” which was translated into Hebrew opening shortly thereafter in 2011 at the famed Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. Not only did it receive a five-star rating from the critics,  but became the only play in the history of Israel to receive an invitation to mount a private performance at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) before an invited audience of 350, hosted by the former President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who was then Speaker of the Knesset. “Since Pollard’s conviction, the Berlin Wall came down but he is still surrounded by the walls of the federal prison,” Rivlin had said. “At first, we thought that if we could act behind the scenes, we could restore trust with the US and bring about a breakthrough that could bring about Pollard’s release. Too slow, we learned that acting quietly wouldn’t help and we needed to act openly to help him become free.”

Victor’s play did just that and ran on-and-off throughout Israel for over two years having a huge impact in galvanizing support for his eventual release.

The issues that Victor drew attention to in his play were troubling.

Set in Pollard’s jail cell, the accused presents his imagined case to the judge – something he was never actually permitted to do when he was sentenced to life. Exposing the American judicial process as ‘twisted’ and ‘double-dealing’ when it came to its treatment of the Jew – Pollard –  it reveals how this accused was deprived of his most basic rights.

Monumental Man. Playwright, artist, activist and communal leader, South African Victor Gordon and wife Shirley. (Photo: Diane Wolfson)

It was hard to believe that anyone at the time who saw this play could remain indifferent to Pollard.  

One man who assuredly was not indifferent was Victor Gordon!

Neither was he on the many fundamental issues effecting the Jewish state. As a member of the South African Zionist Federation Media Team Israel committed to monitoring media bias against Israel and antisemitism, Victor’s articles – well researched and balanced, were a regular feature in the press both in South Africa and abroad. Speaking from Israel at the memorial service on Zoom,  Lay of the Land’s Rolene Marks, who had worked closely with Victor as colleagues on the Media Team Israel since it had been formed 20 years earlier as well as representing Israel’s Truth be Told (TbT) committee, said:

If you are lucky in life, you have the blessing and benefits of truly remarkable mentors. I have been doubly blessed to be able to count Victor as one of mine – both as a friend and as a mentor.”

Words were Victor’s stock-in-trade and Rabbi Gidon Fox, who moderated the Zoom memorial service tearfully wrestled with a conundrum :

 “What words can one say about one of the world’s finest wordsmiths?”

Victor’s passion on spotlighting milestone events impacting the Jewish people  – some forgotten as minor but in truth were monumental –  was the plot of his 2009 play Harry and Ed.

So ordinary sounding – Harry and Ed – yet they were extraordinary men who pulled off the extraordinary.

This play reveals how a hometown friendship between a Jewish boy, Edward “Eddie” Jacobson born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1891 to impoverished Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and  the future US President Harry Truman would shape the destiny of the Jewish People. Following their childhood friendship, they would go into business together – not terribly successfully – from running a canteen to opening a haberdashery but it was the “business” of creating the Jewish State that history would record as a resounding success!

A Friend in Deed. The unique friendship of Harry S. Truman (right) and business partner Edward Jacobson (left) that together influenced the establishment of the Jewish State, captured on stage in Victor Gordon’s illuminating play, “Harry and Ed”.

Irritated by incessant Jewish lobbying for statehood, Truman had issued instructions that he did not want to meet any more intermediaries and so it was left to Ed – the most unlikely of diplomats – to urge the reluctant president to meet one more  –  Chaim Weizmann

As a friend the President could not ignore, and with the weight of a future Jewish state on his aging, tired and stooped shoulders, Ed skillfully beseeched the President:

Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles to see you. And now you’re putting him off. This isn’t like you, Harry.”

Truman agreed to meet with Weizmann and the rest is history.

The United States became the first nation to grant diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel on May 14, 1948.

Although Victor did not live in Israel, he  was finely tuned to its peculiar nuances which he explored in his play “You Will Not Play Wagner”. The play examines Israel’s unofficial ban on performing works by “Hitler’s favourite composer” and charts the fictional conflict between a young Israeli composer, Ya’akov, who wants to perform Wagner in the final concert of a prestigious musical competition in Tel Aviv, and an elderly Holocaust survivor, who is the event’s patron.

Sounds of Silence. Poster for Victor Gordon’s thought-provoking play “You Will Not Play Wagner”  that questions the dividing line between politics and art that sets Israeli society on edge.

Set against a backdrop of impassioned protests over the years in Israel to attempts by musicians and composers to defy cultural mores and Shoah sensitivities, Victor expressed in deference to survivors, “I appreciate the fact that there is a place in the world where you won’t hear Wagner.”

Himself an accomplished clarinet and saxophone player, the playwright in Victor struggles to separate the man from his music through his character Ya’akov, who asks:

How can music be antisemitic?”

Victor’s answer was:

You have got one of the greatest composers that ever lived and one of the greatest antisemites that ever lived, and the two meet at the Third Reich. You can’t get worse than that.”

No you can’t.

While I corresponded with Victor on media and Israel related issues, I had never personally met him until 2016 when I was invited as an overseas speaker to the Limmud Conference in Johannesburg.  How fascinating that when I sat down for lunch at the conference,  on my right sat the late anti-Apartheid activist Denis Goldberg, hardly favourably disposed to Israel, although it was to Israel that he left for after his release from prison, and on my left, Victor Gordon, a strong advocate for the Jewish State.  If the next day I was to moderate a debate with four fiery panelists on the then upcoming 2016 US election, this lunch provided some entertaining preparation as I had to deftly ‘moderate’ a riveting discussion on Israel and its policies between these two verbal pugilists holding diametrically opposing views.

It was a lunch that we all left the table with more than the food to chew on.

And in truth, although Victor has left the proverbial ‘table’, he  leaves a lasting legacy and hence shall remain active by inspiring others.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Surfside Strong

By Ruthy Benoliel

It is hard to put into words the anguish that so many people in Miami and all over the world have suffered over the last two weeks since the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24, 2021. In seconds, our whole community was put to the most dreadful test ever imagined. The pain we feel is a surreal and an overwhelming sense of loss. As we watched the news over and over again, nothing made sense. Within hours our community came together to help support and comfort the bereaved families and pray for miracles.

People embrace at a makeshift memorial outside St. Joseph Catholic Church in Surfside on Monday, June 28. (The Associated Press)

Immediately, organizations and thousands of volunteers came together to collect, pack, deliver, feed, find accommodation, lend a helping hand, or be there to give a hug. People put a pause on their lives to be on call for whatever need arose. Teams of first responders from the USA and other countries, including police, firefighters, engineers, governmental authorities, mental health professionals, and our dear IDF rescue soldiers, became our hope. The search and rescue mission became the priority for all those heroes that not only had to deal with the consequences of the collapse, but with several fires, rain, hurricane winds, the shifting of the remaining structure, the controlled demolition of the left-over structure, and exasperation of not finding people alive. Each corner of our streets was filled with police, checkpoints, and access by car was almost impossible.

It felt like a war zone!

Soriya Cohen shows a picture of her husband, Brad Cohen, who she said was missing after the partial collapse of the 12-story condo tower that he was in on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida.

     The human touch and sensitivity towards each other were always present. We witnessed IDF soldiers break down and cry; the sergeant who gave us the daily reports kept trying to control his tears, and rescue teams needing emotional help as this tragedy consumed their lives. Grieving families, rescue teams, volunteers, people from different faiths and religions became one.

Champlain Towers was extremely special for my family. It was my home for many years. It was the place where my husband picked me up on our first date, where we got engaged, where three of my four children were born, where beautiful memories were made and will never be erased. Many of my old neighbours, friends, and acquaintances were there the night of the collapse; some were spending only one night in the building.

Col. Golan Vach receives the honour of being called to the Torah.

Over the last two weeks, we all have felt numb, waiting for the next briefing to give the latest answers, holding hands, crying collectively, and feeling the agony of the victim’s families. There is nothing to be said that can alleviate this grueling pain.

A few days ago, the search and rescue mission transitioned into recovery with a moment of silence. When the IDF colonel spoke, he said:

 “Look at me in my eyes. I promise we did everything possible to find your loved ones.”

Even though there was despair and agony in hearing those words, there was gratitude and love that filled the room. Many have started to mourn their loved ones, who unfortunately did not survive this catastrophe.

There are no answers, just tears.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar (right), of The Shul of Bal Harbour, prays during the search-and-rescue operation after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside on Thursday, June 24, 2021, with Rabbi Mendy Levy(left), and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. (ALEXIA FODERÉ FOR MIAMI HERALD)

Where do we go from here? It will take an exceptionally long time to process what has happened and to ease this ache. I know for sure that we will be there for each other every step of the way. We are blessed to live in this loving community. We will forever have in our hearts the beautiful children, and people who perished on the collapse of Champlain Towers South, and we will continue to pray for their Neshamas.  (“souls”)

Surfside strong!











About the writer:

Ruthy Benoliel is Vice-President of WIZO USA and is based in Miami.









While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

JUNETEENTH – What’s in a name?

Could the Americans have learned from the Jewish heritage?

(Author’s personal observation)

By Craig Snoyman

While South Africans were celebrating the heart-warming hoax of decuplets, the so-called “Tembisa 10”, the United States of America was midwifing its own birth.  With little advance notice, and starting labour on Tuesday 15 June, pushing through the birthing canals of the House and the Senate at great speed, the new-born was announced to the world on 17 June 2021.  President Biden, who confirmed the signs of life, signed it into law and held the birth-certificate up high for everybody to see. Although officially, its date of birth was declared as 19 June it was officially named “Juneteenth National Independence Day” and proudly touted to the nation. Joining a group of ten other siblings, it became America’s eleventh annual federal holiday. Named in honour of an event which happened on June 19, 1865 – or “Juneteenth” –  it recalls an incident where General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas and announced that President Lincoln had freed the slaves almost three years earlier.

Usually, the creation of a national holiday is no easy task. Only four federal holidays had been added to the American calendar in the last one hundred years before this one. There had previously been several attempts to introduce a “Native American Day”, all of them unsuccessful. As a kind of substitute, a cultural “Native American Week” was introduced. Proposals for the introduction of new holidays is all about politics – the politics of identity, the politics of voting, the politics of affiliation, the politics of ethnicity, the politics of patriotism, even the politics of sport.  Yet somewhere amongst all of this congested political melee, Juneteenth National Independence Day – the fastest tracked Federal holiday ever- became law. If you were outside the USA, you might have missed it. While it was happening, it didn’t gather too much attention in the States either.

Juneteenth was initially only a specifically Texan celebration. There were other Emancipation Day celebrations commemorating the freedom from slavery. African Americans in South Carolina and Georgia had also been holding their own Emancipation Day programs but chose the date of January 1. Both groups memorialised the struggles of their people and sought to inspire upliftment in honouring those emancipated slaves. Why did the Carolinians and Georgians celebrate on 1 January? Simple, they followed historical fact. It was on 1 January 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all persons held as slaves were immediately free.  The Texans were only apparently officially informed of the Emancipation when Granger finally reached Texas on 19 June 1865. Ironically, notwithstanding the announcement, most of the slaves were only freed after the cotton harvest was completed, some months later.    The event of the announcement was thereafter commemorated annually mostly by the former slave, who combined the words “June 19th” into “Juneteenth”. As the Civil War became more distant, Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations became less prominent, almost fading into obscurity until there was a cultural revival of Juneteenth, starting in Texas, in the 1970’s.

Jews also have also created their own holidays or “chags”.   When looking at the origins of these festivals, one can see the historic events which gave rise to the festivals. Each one of these Jewish holidays has a unified meaning for its followers. The aim of each holiday is to commemorate and remember the national, religious and world view identity of the Jews. The ideological connection between the Jewish holidays and with their national and cultural values is apparent. Jewish holidays, while established thousands of years ago, and grounded in the Torah, have not lost their relevance today. While the holidays may have been modified, they still continue to be celebrated with the same joy, unity, and cohesion as in ancient times.

It is not difficult to see how these Jewish holidays were created. It is, however, difficult to imagine that the crossing of the Red Sea could  have been celebrated  on the day when Jethro announced to Moses that  he and his kinsmen has  heard about the event and not on the date that the Children of Israel actually walked through the water on dry land. Similarly, that the “international day of independence” could fall on the day that Moses brought down the second set of tablets, rather than when Mount Sinai smoked and thundered and a Divine covenant was created, would seem absurd. Equally preposterous would have been for all the Children of Israel to be ordered to observe a second Pesach simply because some of them were impure for the first celebration and they could not participate.

Exodus from Egypt

But this is what has happened with Juneteenth!

It celebrates an announcement made to the slaves of Texas, telling them that they should have been freed about three years before they heard the announcement. However, the real problem is not the timing or to whom it was said, it’s that the nature of Juneteenth doesn’t support the ideals expected of a holiday.  It doesn’t support unity or nationalism or patriotism. There is also an existing division amongst the ethnic groups celebrating the liberation of the slaves about the date as to when emancipation should be commemorated. It is a very sectarian holiday. On the face of it, it should be a cultural event celebrated by Texans and enjoyed by anyone who wants to participate, much like Native American Week. Both the name and its significance had lost their relevance until its re-introduction about one hundred years after it had faded into virtual insignificance. Even then, it was re-introduced as a cultural event and not a political event! Historically, American slaves were emancipated when Lincoln’s Proclamation was issued, not when the slaves heard about it, or even when they were physically liberated. Emancipation took place on 1 January 1863, in the midst of a civil war. It was Winston Churchill who said that a nation that forgets its history has no future.  Can the rewriting of a nation’s past lead to different future?

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)AP

Maybe this is all hair-splitting. After all, 48 states recognised Juneteenth as a state holiday before it became a federal holiday. But they recognised “Juneteenth”; they did not recognise  “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. This federal holiday embodies neither Nation nor Independence.  A re-announcement of emancipation that has already been throughout the rest of the country to a territorial group of people who believed that they are slaves when they are not really slaves, is not  a national event. By legislating that Juneteenth is an Independence Day when it was not and when there is already a nationally celebrated Independence Day on 4 July is divisive and confusing. When an event commemorates an occasion affecting a small ethnic group is made a national occasion it is can only serve to  encourage  fragmentation  and factionalism instead of nationalism and patriotism. This application of a mixed ideological agenda at this time in America’s history does not advance its national aims. In the politically dismembering climate that exists today one must ask whether this was not just a short-term advancement of the non-inclusive political agenda of “Black Lives Matter”.

Another  Federal holiday, Christopher Columbus Day, may be the harbinger of the trouble that Juneteenth National Independence Day may bring. Christopher Columbus Day was recognised by 45 states  before it became a federal holiday in 1968. Congress said  that the nation was honouring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America.  South Dakota then objected to this view. It has called that holiday  “Native American Day” since 1990.  In 2014 , the Seattle City Council followed South Dakota’s lead and unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day”.

Will the issues about  Juneteenth National Independence Day be more pervasive and more damaging? There are already certain groups  which have stated that they will not recognise it. Other militant groups will no doubt ensure the holiday receives its due recognition (or notoriety). Recognising the holiday as a National Independence Day brings with it the underlying inference of  the currently trending “existing systemic racism” and all the baggage attached to it. Is it unrealistic  to expect the “colonial Independence” of 4 July comes under further attack, bearing in mind the inroads into education of the 1619 project?  Will one see  the Juneteenth flag  waving, contests pride of place with  the Stars and Stripes? It also becomes quite feasible that other  existing federal holidays will now be subjected to attack due to their historical, but colonial origins. There is already a struggle to claim the foundations of American democracy, this holiday is only going to add to that struggle.  And by calling it a National Independence Day, it opens the door for  claims of  for  reparations for slavery.   With the stoke of a pen, has the nation unwittingly placed itself  back  into a civil-war, even if this is not yet visible?

Perhaps, in the same way that there is precedent as to how the Sanhedrin interpreted Zechariah’s word to eliminate certain fast days, the US government will not feel constricted to re-examine certain Federal holidays and their names. While one must always remember  and celebrate the abolition of slavery (were we not once  slaves as well?), one wonders if a holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day  is the appropriate step in advancing an agenda of  national patriotism and common identity.

So while some South Africans celebrated hoax-babies on Saturday 19 June 2021, and some Americans celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, some of us  also celebrated Saturday 19 June 2021 as ….. Shabbat.



About the writer:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).