The files at the Kaplan Jewish Archives contain details of the Gamaroff children who stayed at the Cape Jewish Orphanage between 1945 and 1955. One of the documents contained my father’s (Izzy) application form containing details such as the date of Fanny and Izzy’s wedding (15.5.1923), Izzy’s occupation (vegetable farmer), his monthly salary (£40), and the age of entry of five of their children to the Orphanage. The wedding date enables me to calculate how the ages that they got married: Izzy – 21, Fanny – 17. There were 10 children. Five went to the Orphanage in 1944:
Benny – 2 years old
Raphael – 3 years old (bogRaphy)
Gerry – 4 years old
Leslie – 9 years old
Minnie – 10 years old
In 1949, Gerry, Minnie and I returned home from the Orphanage. Benny remained at the Orphanage. In 1952, Rachel, who was born in 1945, joined Benny at the Orphanage. Rachel stayed 6 years, until she was 12 (1958). They were joined by Gerry in 1952, for his second spell at the Orphanage. During the Orphange years, the Gamarorphans seldom came home. Here they are on one of their treasured home “visits”. In the photo are nine of the ten children, with Izzy and Fanny. The photo was taken in the lounge of our house at 24 Selous Road, Claremont, Cape Town (1946). Edie couldn’t make it that day possibly because she was a young wife with two toddlers living in Maitland and had no transport to come to our house in Claremont. It’s the only family photo that was ever taken – incomplete, because Edie is absent.
To have five daughters is to have glick (Yiddish for “good fortune”, “luck”; glück in German, geluk in Afrikaans and Dutch). My mother had a paltry four daughters. The question is: would one more daughter have soothed the tsorres brought on by the other four?
There was a lot of fretting to get all the kids ready for the photo shoot. So many takhshitim (brats) to rein in. When Benny read this post, he posted the following comment:
“Raphael, you have translated the word takshitim incorrectly. It does not mean brats but rather what we really were to mommy and daddy – jewels. I too, for many years, misunderstood daddy when he used to say to me -” du bist a naar”. For years I thought he was calling me a fool and for years I felt hurt by this. It was only after I came to Israel, and learnt Hebrew, that I understood that he was calling me a youth who didn’t yet understand. To this day I regret not having being able to sit down and talk to mommy and daddy.”
I posted the following reply:
“Bennie, you are right about takhshit(im). Thanks for pointing that out. There is this thing about words, especially spoken words. Behind a word – the dictionary meaning of the word (the semantic meaning) – is a speaking body: body “language”. For example, a person can say the word “treasure” to you, but the tone of voice, look and gesture of the person who is saying “treasure” could mean the sarcastic opposite. I never ever got the impression that I was anybody’s treasure at home. It seemed to me that some of my other brothers and sisters felt the same. I’m talking about feelings, not facts. Having said that, the fact of family life is very much about feelings.”
A frequent word Izzyy and Fanny used was bulvan a “clod”, a “boor”. Another one was “chochem/chokhem, which derives from the Hebrew word for wisdom and means “wise guy!” There were many chochems in our house. (“kh” and “ch” are different spellings of the same Hebrew guttural consonant, as in loch (Scottish) and lachen (Dutch).
Language contains the following four levels, or layers:
- An Alphabet – an agreed set of symbols such as letters or sounds.
- Grammar – the forms of words and how they are arranged in sentences and larger chunks of language.
(DNA is also a language and thus also contains these four levels. Another name for this broader definition of language is “code”. So, computer languages, morse code and secret codes would fall under this broader definition of “language”, where “code” and “language are synonymous terms. Because of level 4, Darwinism, which believes in random mutation – that is, an absence of intent – can’t be right; but try telling that to Richard Dawkins)
Level 3 is the “semantic” or “lexical” meaning of words ( words in a dictionary) and level 4 is the “pragmatic” meaning, which refers to how we use language, what we “read” into language. In short, there is the meaning of a word and there is what a person means by the word – the intention behind the word. Most misunderstandings arise either because we “misread” a person’s intention or because we want to misread it.
Consider the family situation, which is what occasioned this discussion in the first place. Why would children intentionally misread a parent’s intention? Because they want the parent to intend (mean) something different; especially if the comment is upsetting. Which raises another question: why would a son or daughter want a mother or father to mean something other than what we are sure or suspect they mean? For at least two reasons: first, we want to believe that they value us more than we think; second, we want to believe that they are not as uncaring as we think they are. What I have said applies more to past impressions than present ones. In the moment it happens and for a long while after, the hurt remains. Then Izzy or Fanny dies. We grow older and wiser. We think, we regret, we wish, we weep, we sigh. It eats away. Turmoil. No peace. It’s all about peace. Did daddy think that of me; or was he only joking? I didn’t realize it then, when it hurt. He had a lot of problems and frustrations. He was basically a good person. He was kind to me, even if he thought he was always right about everything. He never apologised about anything – in my hearing, at least. That’s how I think about it. Sonia my sister said this about Daddy (my conversation with her in 2006, when she was in her late seventies):
“I want to write a book about Daddy. Fantastic chef. He bought, he cooked, he presented.”
Then about life at home:
“Too full of sorrow. Daddy was not a thinker. Mommy was. He liked good food and getting his way. Gave her lots of babies.”
The lounge-diner in the house appeared smaller because of all the furniture such as a large dining table and the precious piano. The piano was the main source of pleasure. Music – making music – was our main recourse and source of joy. Izzy played the violin, Minnie, Sonia and Rachel played the piano, and Fanny and Sonia sang.Most of the songs were in a minor key, whether Opera “Your tiny hand is frozen” (La Boheme, Puccini) or “Mein Yiddishe Mama”. When the music was playing, everything was warm; when it stopped, it was mostly sad.
Rachel was only about two years old and was still living at home. She went to the Orphanage when she was about seven. Rachel transfigures a typical family photo into a celebration. She takes centre stage in more ways than one. Besides occupying the focal point of the photo – she couldn’t keep still – there is also the ecstatic glee and turn of the head towards her adored mother, infusing the picture with life and charm. I can taste the happiness; all snug and together. I think of the contrast between the joy of two-year-old Rachel happily couched in the family pouch and eight-year-old Rachel going off to the Orphanage in what must have been disarray.
Lorien, my son, bought me a copy of Eric Rosenthal’s out-of print ”The Story of the Cape Jewish Orphanage: Golden Jubilee 1910 – 1961”. The Orphanage was demolished two or three decades ago. Here is a photo of the entrance to the Orphanage from Rosenthal’s book. I remember the façade so well.
On Sunday afternoons, Bennie, Gerry and I used to gather around the white metal arch (to the left of the top boy on the step), and stare down the road (which was to the left of picture), waiting for mommy and daddy to come and visit us in the blue Plymouth. We were neve sure if they wee coming. Sometimes they didn’t come. I used to sit on the short pillar next to the white metal arch.
Here is a drawing of the Orphanage (from Rosenthal’s book). It is much better than a photo, because it doesn’t merely capture what the orphanage looks like, but what it feels like. Why is a drawing/painting often better than a photo? Because the life of the thing depicted does not lie in the external details, but in its innards. The artist pours himself through the pencil into the object, and,in so doing, reveals its inner life. I’m running round the right side. I’m chasing someone. I’m carrying a long floppy branch in my left hand, hoping to catch up and give that someone a good thwack. Oops, there’re lots of little square windows in front of me. I can’t turn in time. I hold up my left arm carrying the branch. The right arm smashes through one of the panes. There’s blood all over my arm. Someone is grabbing me. Someone else is wrapping roles of toilet paper, then rags round my arm. I’m being bundled into a car, arm wrapped up so thick, it can’t bend. For the last 61 years, I carry on my left arm a V for victory just 4 cm above my wrist, a horsehoe for luck, 5 cm above my elbow, and a walkingstick for old age on my wrist. The crook of the walking stick missed my main artery by a dash.
Here is another photo from Eric Rosenthal’s book. The quality of the photo is poor but clear enough to see Minnie, my sister (centre with a bow in her hair; Minnie in the family photo is seated on the left). The knobbly knees of the little boy on the right of Minnie belong to – me. I grew out of the knobblies but not out of the skinnies; they just grew and grew onto me. I still crave calves. In both the familly photo and the above photo, Minnie doesn’t smile. A portent of things to come.