Huguenot High School, Wellington – Second Period
Coming “home” (1) – Wellington
At the end of Grade 9 (Dec 1955) at Wynberg High School, I asked my parents to send me back to the Homestead in Wellington. Such feelings of wanting to get as far as possible away from home were in total contrast to how I felt when I was sent to the Homestead three years earlier. The main reason was I couldn’t take Sammy’s bullying. In retrospect, the bullying masked the smaller brother’s feeling of rejection of his hero, the elder brother. Sammy didn’t lay a finger on me. The persecution was not physical. Whenever I tried to speak in company, he would glare at me. I never got a kind word from him. It was so cold. He was only three years older than me, and was also an ignorant kid like me. But it still hurts a bit to this day. Don’t ever wish to be an elder brother; you’ll find it hard to be kind to your younger siblings. I wonder what is worse for you: to be a bullied or to be a bully. I think in the long run, it’s worse to be a bully. A few years later, Sammy was kinder to me. He took me to a few movies, but it was always very formal; we hardly said a word. We also played “cowboys and crooks” with his friends – his friends were my “friends” – especially after cowboy movies like the Durango Kid. We would jump on one another from my low house windows. I often fell down dead when Sammy or his friends shot me, but I don’t think my frequent dying helped to kindle any friendship.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore. (Psalm 133)
As the car came closer to Wellington, my heart began to race. All the trees seemed so perky, the hills so green. What a contrast of feelings to three years previously, when, after only one year living at home since entering the Cape Jewish Orphanage at three years old – I was now 12 – I was packed off to the Homestead. This time, I was coming home. Was it just Sammy? What a burden to put on anybody.
The Homestead Jews
Few Jews came to the Homestead. There were two other Jews: the Levitt brothers. Their father had a big second-hand car dealership in Maitland, where my family used to live before they moved to Claremont in 1950. The brothers were both fat. They were in the same dormitory as I and ran a shop from a locker in the dormitory. There never was a shop before inside the Homestead. They sold all kinds of sweets like chappies bubble gum, Norman’s toffees, Wilson’s toffees, and marshmallow fish. Once the teeth clamped down on the giant black Norman toffees, it was lock jaw. It was impossible to enunciate through all the drool. If you wanted to socialise and still have your toffees, you could opt for the more modest softer Wilson’s. Some green-eyed goy broke the lock on the Levitts’ shop and stole a lot of the stock. The Levitts closed shop. They left the Homestead at the end of the year to move to safer and more profitable pastures: they joined their father’s business and became famous car dealers in Maitland.
I played rugby and was a good long distance runner; the skinny wing could also fly around the race track. After school, I would go to the Wellington sports fields for rugby and athletics. After practice we walked home to the Homestead. We stopped at a shop on the way and bought our favourite: a pint of creamy milk and a TV chocolate bar, the best chocolate bar in the world. You can still buy TV bars today. We often arrived late for afternoon studies, but this was allowed for those doing sports.
After studies, the first bell would ring for supper. We kept an eye on our watches waiting for the bell. If you were lucky or stronger, you appropriated the door handle of the room/dormitary so that you could dash off first down the stairs.
The bell rings: this time I was first out of the door, taking the stairs in fours, arriving second at the door of the dining room. Others arrive seconds later. I am caught in the crush. The second bell. Someone inside the dining room flicks back the bolt of the door. We’re not allowed to run. So we try our best to keep at least the one toe on the floor while the other stabs forward. The boy in front does not belong to my table. There are about eight to a table. I come up to my table. I grab the white porcelain bowl of butter balls. I’m safe. I am sure of getting one. But for “King”. Keith Russell had curly back hair, big teeth. When he spoke, he coated his words in a lather of spit.
We’re all standing erect in front of our chairs at the dining tables. At the front, the main table, one of the Homestead teachers says prayers. Amen. That’s “King’s” cue. Before our bums hit our seats, “King” is already slavering orders to one of his serfs – me – to flick the bowl of golden butter balls across to him. I obey. He grabs the bowl with his left hand, picks up the knife, and slices through the middle of the platoon of golden heads, slicing through those in the middle, leaving intact the others huddling at the outer edge of the bowl. He ladles the booty onto his side plate. Then it is the turn of his second in command, who mashes through the remainder of the bowl, and so on down the ranks. I am at the end of the line. I take my knife, and with an artist’s touch, brush it round the rim of the empty bowl.
King loved butter, but he loved pudding more, lots of puddings. On Wednesdays and Sundays we got pudding. Amen. We sit down. King is not happy with just my pudding, but several of the other boys as well.
I once plucked up the courage to go and see the principal, Piet Pauw, in his office in the wing of the Homestead that he and his family occupied. It was the first and last time I got a peek at his copious peaceful lodgings. Nothing came of my pleas. So King was not dethroned – at all. Henceforth, he was not only king but king of kings. I told him that I had a big brother (Sammy), who was coming to visit, and he would sort him out. I made that up. Sammy never came. King did go through a cooling off period. In my old age, I’ve gone mad on the butter. King, eat your heart out.
During studies we played a game called “pass out”. Somebody stands behind you and holds his arms round your lower abdomen in the Heimlich position. You then hyperventilate through your mouth five or six times, then quickly stick your thumb in your mouth, shut it tight and try to force your breath out of your blocked-up mouth. At the same time, the person behind locks his arms tight up into your abdomen. You pass out. The person behind gently lowers you to the floor. A minute later you wake up, a bit groggy.
Effluent in Afrikaans
I then began to improve. Huguenot High School had been a co-ed school for a a few years; it catered for boys and girls. It was also a dual-medium school; English and Afrikaans were used as a medium of instruction. English speakers were in the minority and consisted of boys and girls from their respective boarding schools in Wellingnton. English and Afrikaans speakers were taught together in all (“content”) subjects except English. In the content subjects, the teacher would switch languages whenever the fancy took him. I got to understand Afrikaans so well that after a while I didn’t notice that the teacher had changed languages.
I did poorly at school. I started to improve in the middle of Grade 10, six months after I had returned to Wellington for the second time. But I remained poor at English literature. Wuthering Heights was spooky, especially Cathy’s ghost and the coffin. My antidote was Biggles. I’ve been taking up space, consuming calories, and using up forests of toilet paper for all of 15 years (subtract the nappy years for the latter), and all I had to show for it was Biggles – but not to forget Farnol and Sabatini (my periodic holiday reading at home). I also had love in my life.
Hormonal angst about ultimate questions
Linda Du Plessis sat next to me in English class. She was Afrikaans but was taking English as First Language, and so was in our small class of English speakers. She wore an excuse for a skirt. In restrospect, it is strange that a conservative Dutch Reformed School in Wagonmakersvalei permitted such delectable uncoverage. Linda had nothing on the girls’ gym teacher. If Linda rattled my brain stem, the gym teacher dislodged it. How could a 15-year-old Jewish boy in such a state of hormonal angst hope to improve his grades. How could I ever marvel at the wonder of the heavens or have any inclination to peak into the wonders under the microscope. Or begin to, like so many incipient “dokteirim” (great scholars), ask ultimate questions: questions such as, “why is there something rather than nothing?”; the most ultimate philosophical question of all; the question that birthed the discipline of philospophy. It wasn’t long, when, unaccountably, I did begin to improve my grades. My geography teacher was surprised. I began to rise two hours before the wakeup bell with some of the other boys. We wrapped ourselves in our blankets and went downstairs to the chilly study/dining hall.
Thanks for the Moonshine
Before bedtime, I began to kneel down at the bed with some of the other boys. We squeezed against eachother, one row on one side, another row on the other side of the bed. We were having our “bidhuur” (prayertime). One of the boys was an example to us all. He was so thankful to God that he not only thanked Him for he sunshine; he thanked him for the moonshine as well – “Dankie Here vir die sonsskyn en die maanskyn” (Thank you Lord for the sunshine and the moonshine). That was the first and last time I burst out laughing during prayers.
My hairrrrr must go cutting
Once, I got into a tangle with Jan Malan, a long gangly bullet head. I told him to back off because I knew Karate, which for me meant Italian for carrot. He laughed and gave me a shove, put his foot behind my ankle and tripped me up. Nothing more than a humiliating scuffle. His English was rotten. Many of the Afrikaans boys, who were in vast majority at the Homestead, spoke bad English. Jan once tried to tell me that he needed a haircut. When his hair got longer than an inch from his scalp, he felt he needed a haircut. He’d say to me: “My hair must go cutting.” One new Afrikaans boy with the very English surname of Thompson asked me my name. I said “Gamaroff”. Tormsin said: “Hello, Jamrrrrrrrole” (the French Huguenot uvular “r”; “brei” in Afrikaans). Say “Gamaroff” quickly, and taper off before you get to the “ff”: gamaro – jamaro – jamro – jamrole – jamrrrrrrole. Six centuries of phonetic evolution in a flash. That was Tormsin’s only claim to fame; his grasp of English philology put the rest of his brain to shame.
Synagogue and chips
I used to go to the synagogue (“shul”) every Friday night. There were only about a dozen people there. Three people that were always there were Ralph Gafen, Gerald and Michael Sarembock, the two sons of Philip Sarembock, a prominet lawyer, who was also the Mayor of Wellington. Sometimes, after “shul”, Ralph would invite me to his house for supper. He lived in the posh Jewish “quarter” in upper Wellington. His mother made delicious crunchy chips. It was so wonderful to sit down in their brightly-lit dining room with crisp white table cloth, dishes of hot food smiling up at me, no fear in their warm friendly faces of being ravaged or disembowled; and no one’s voice yelling in my ear to pass the butter bowl. I was King. Fifty years later, I wondered what had happened to Ralph. I discovered that he runs a company called “Contractokil” – it despatches undersirable creepy crawlies. Ralph is now older than his father was when I knew the family in Wellington. “You have made my days a handsbreadth” (Psalm 39:5).
That old black magic
I sometimes went to the girls’ hostel and hung around outside. They came to the upstairs window of their dorms. I sang serenades to them. My repertoire included Mario Lanza’s “Beloved”, Sammy Davis Junior’s “That Old Black Magic” and Nat King Cole’s “Love is a Many Splendoured Thing.” But then one day I went and spoiled it all: I was playing in a tennis tournament at the girl’s hostel. The day before, one of the boys at the hostel had told me that he could cut my hair. Afterwards, my head ressembled a rock garden. I went to play a tennis match against another school. The tennis courts were in the gorunds of the Girl’s boarding house. I was wearing a cap to keep the strong sun off my newly planted aloes. I wasn’t very good at serving but I could run and stretch all over the court. I was playing doubles. It was my turn to serve. As I raised the racket and tilted my head, my cap fell off. Titters, if not romance, filled the air.
Whether Christianity is imposed or voluntary, few – as the Bible teaches – come to an authentique faith in Christ. In South African schools of the 1950s, Christianity played a central role in school life. At the Homestead, prayers were said in the dining room before and after every meal. I was particularly struck by the prayers of one of the teachers; he seemed to “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” During the year, Christian missionaries and evangelists would spend a few days at the Homestead and we would attend their talks. I never had a Bible nor opened one. The closest I came to a Bible was the Siddur (prayer book) of the synagogue and the Haggadah (The liturgy of the passover seder).
In the third year at the Homestead, I entered my matric year. One evening we went to a hall in town to see a Billy Graham film. At the end of the movie, a cowboy was turning over his sausage on the end of his barbecue spit, while singing that now that he knows Jesus all his cares and worries are no more. At the time, I didn’t think that this was mawkish at all. Also, I was too overcome by the powerful message. I “made a decision” for Christ. On my walk back to the Homestead, I thought of my black narrow-pipe trousers hanging in my cupboard. Does God approve of them? But I do like them. No, you’ve made a fundamental(ist?) decision for Christ, now ditch ‘em. I did so. Ditching stove pipes are one of the many “excesses” that many lable as “Fundamentalism”: the length of your hair, music styles, the trousers you wear. Phil Johnson describes a sermon he heard where the preacher ranted for fifteen minutes about culottes – women’s culottes. They are sinful, he said, because they’re nothing but baggy pants; therefore, Christian women who wear them are sinning because they are compromised. The moral of the story: culottes are not cul. Most people, including Christians, are painfully ignorant of what Christian “fundamentalism” is about. Phil Johnson gives one of the best accounts of what it really is; listen to “The failure of fundamentalism”).
The best present
Soon after, I joined the Presbyterian church in town. The wife of the minister, an ample woman in grey dress, black bun and specs, gave me my first Bible – a brand new Scofield Reference Bible. It was medium-size with small print and the words of Jesus were writtten in red. I opened it and whiffed the new inky smell. No book smelled so good. Over the next few days I read the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was God, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “Father, I don’t pray for the world, but for those you gave me before the creation of the world.”
Many decades later, after studying Christian Reformed theology and Dispensationalism, I discovered that most Presbyterians (Reformed theology) were not Dispensationalists, and many of them execrated Scofield. Unlike most Presbyterians, all Dispensationaliasts are premillenialists, who also believe in a future for ethnic Israel (See my “The Jew’s role in salvation and the future of ethnic Israel“).
A few weeks later, I was preaching to the boys at the Homestead. We used one of the dormitaries. No standing room. They were standing in rows on the beds, supporting themselves against the dormitory walls. They were sitting on the floor between the beds. On one occasion, Jan Malan, lumbered willy-nilly into the hushed dorm with his owl in a cage, tight shorts hugging his khaki crack. This photo captures the feathery camouflage, eyes lost in shadow of Jan’s owl.
The grey of the owl’s feathers matched the dim-wit glaze in Jan eyes. The focus shifted from spiritual things to the owl, from one spiritual thing to another spiritual thing, from the revealed Word of God to omens. It’s very important, for what is to follow – to know whether the omen was Greek or Roman. For the Greek, the owl augurs good fortune – the “wise old owl”, the messenger of Athene, the goddess of wisdom. If an owl flew over the Greek army before a battle, it foretold victory. The Romans borrowed the owl –as they did most things – from the Greeks. The Romans were not sure whether the owl was Arthur or Martha. On the one hand, they made the owl the companion of their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva. On the other hand, the hoot of an owl meant imminent disaster. The hoot of an owl predicted the murder of Julius Ceasar. The only way to thwart the owl was to kill it.
Grey owl down
I told everyone to close their eyes – “not one eye open” was one of the phrases I picked up somewhere. If I had known the whole altar call speech it would have gone like this:
“At this time, I’m going to ask those of you who have a need in your life for God’s touch to slip up your hand, with every head bowed and every eye closed. No one will see you. We’re not here to embarrass you in any way. If you’d like us to pray with
you, I’d like you to slip out of your seats while every head is bowed and come to the front, where our team of counselors will meet with you. This is YOUR special time, it’s just between you and God. No one is peeking. As the choir very softly sings “Just
As I AM”, I’d like you to search your heart. If you feel God calling you, get up out of your seats right now and come to this altar, and our specially trained counselors will be happy to pray with you and give you some helpful literature to guide you in your
new Christian walk.”
I couldn’t see the owl, because of the press. I bet that the owl in the room had at least one eye closed. But I also bet not because he was moved by the “altar call”. I was too young and ignorant to understand that this type of altar call – perhaps any kind of altar call – is not the way to evangelise. Many much older and “wiser” evangelists and preachers use this instant coffee approach. They think that saying a simple prayer will save you.
In the dormitory, there was standing room only – including on the beds. You could have heard an owl’s feather drop. How was anyone to know that it was not only the owl’s feather that would drop. It happened so suddenly . Where a moment before, everything was rapturous attention, suddenly there was a flurry of feathers and a wild surge of screaming and shouting boys jumping over one another making for the dormitory door. Jan’s owl had fled the cage. The terrified owl was trying to find its way between the forest of stampeding legs. It disappeared in the crush of the fleeing congregation. The dorm was now empty. Except for Jan, the feathers and me; and the poor owl dead on the floor.
At the time I never asked God why this happened. The whole episode was strange to me. I can’t understand to this day, what I was doing in that dormitory. I had “given my heart” to Jesus only a few weeks before.
The rabbi, the mayor, and the repentant apostate
One day, the Rabbi of our shul ask me to come and see him at his house next to the shul. Philip Sarembock, Wellington’s Jewish mayor was also there. Rabbi asked me: “Do you know what you are doing to your mother? It ripped my heart. The seed had been scattered in the shallow soil. It had started to take root and grow. When the sun came up, the plant was scorched and dried up; it didn’t take deep root. You are doing the right thing, said the Rabbi and Jewish Mayor. What would Andrew Murray have made of this?
“Can I now phone your mother?” asks the Rabbi. I say yes. He phones home: “Helloi, is det Missis Gamarrrroff?” A few seconds later: “Missis Gamarrrroff, you’ve got your shun bek.” The Rabbi gives me the phone.” Mommy, mommy,” I wept.
A day or two later, I packed up and left for home, a shlock deserting his flock. My brother Joe came to visit. He said: “I will help, we all will help you.” He gave me a bob (a shilling). I never did receive any more shiilings from Joe. I hardly ever saw him. Joe did his money where his mouth was – well some of it.
In the heading of this section, I placed a question mark after Conversion. I also placed inverted commas on either side of “made a decision” for Christ. A popular conception of conversion is that it mainly involves “making a decision”. I have learnt that this is not what conversion means. Christian Conversion is not something you do; it is something that Christ does. If this is true, what must I do and not do to be saved? Such a question has landed greater minds than mine in the doodoo. Inverted commas are sometimes used to indicate cynicism. For example, if, in the title of this section, I had placed “Conversion” in inverted commas, I would have probably created the impression that I didn’t believe my conversion to be genuine. The question mark, in contrast, indicates that I was not sure. Here is a problem. At the time of my conversion (?) I felt that I had been radically changed by Christ. It is often said that if Christ enters your life, you will not only know it, but you will never be the same again; you will never be such a fool as to return to your vomit: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs, 26:11). I, however, did not only return to my folly but multiplied it a hundredfold. Perhaps another Christian convert’s experience can help me understand.
Sunil Shivdasani relates: “My parents came from a Hindu background….I did a search for God when I was a young teenager. It wasn’t really a search, it was more of an experiment with God really. I was in a church building and I prayed to the God of the Bible: “I’ll follow your ten commandments if you will look after me. Very simple sort of childish prayer but for the next few days I really sensed a peace I never had before. And then that peace left me. I was very superstitious at the time; I didn’t really explore it further. I’m not surprised that the peace left me. I did nothing to encourage or nurture it, you could say. And then I became angry with God that he had let me down.” (This is a transcript 20 minutes into an Mp3 discussion on the radio programme “Unbelievable”.
There are two things Sunil and I share, and I would think many share who have some sort of experience of God: the first is the initial flood of unworldly peace over a certain period – some longer than others; the second is that the intensity of this peace wanes and often dissipates completely. Where I differ from Sunil (I am not suggesting that this difference makes my experience more authentic than Sunil’s) is that I didn’t make any deals with God. The second difference is that this peace only left me in the rabbi’s office . I was trapped in a room between a cigar-smelling – and cigar-looking – Jewish mayor of a Calvinist town and a “look what you are doing to your mother” rabbi. Then the two-timing phone call. I folded. The lost sheep was back in the fold: “Mrs Gamaroff, you’ve got your son back.” Was I initally saved – and did I then lose it? There is an inconsistency here that has to be resolved, and only a deep study of the Bible can do so. There are many sink holes along the way.
Coming home (2) – Herzlia School
It was May 1958, the middle of my final school year (Grade 12). I entered Herzlia High School in Highlands, below Table Mountain, which was close to Highlands House, where my mother, Fannie, stayed for a short while before she died there, and where my sisters Minnie and Sonia stayed for at least a decade. Minnie also died there four years ago. Sonia is still living there. Back to Herzlia High.
The change from the Calvinist environment of Wellington to the Jewish environment of Herzlia was intimidating Not for religious reasons. I was at bottom – if not at the core – still a Jew. Had I ever really become a Christian! What alarmed me was that everbody in my class were so clever. Jews are famous for being clever – and verbal. I had been thrust into a seething cauldron of brainboxes. A few weeks later I wrote the June exam. I failed. I got 40% for history.
I did maths and science (chemistry and physics). Mr Sagov was our teacher. His teaching method was memory drills through turntakng. He would take an experiment, say, for producing carbon dioxide, and each pupil, in the sequence of where they sat, rattled off one step of the experiment. We never went to the laboratory, and I don’t recall Mr Sagov doing anything with test tubes or flasks in the front of the class. If someone was not fast enough or faulted ever so slightly, Mr Sagov would grunt and heave, and almost sob. I made sure I knew my stuff, and was ready on the button for my turn, because I hated to see him looking so down.
I continued my singing “career” at Herzlia. After school at the bus stop I would sing while waiting for the bus to take me to Cape Town city centre, where I would take another two buses to my home in Claremont. Jackie Schneider was a great fan of mine. He was mesmerised by my rendition of “The birth of the blues”. I sang it in the Sammy Davis Jr style.
Oh, they say some people long ago
Were searching for a different tune
One that they could croon
As only they can
They only had the rhythm
So they started swaying to and fro
They didnt know what to use
That is how the blues really began
They heard the breeze in the trees
Singing weird melodies
And they made that the start of the blues.
I did well in the September “mock” (rehearsal) matric exams. I passed matric with good enough grades to enter the medical faculty at the University of Cape Town. “Die greste dokteirim geit dottern.” (The greatest doctors go there).
The giftige gift
A few weeks later, the ample Presbyterian minister’s wife in grey dress, black bun and black-frame specs knocked at our door. She wanted the bible back that she had given me in Wellington. I hadn’t read the it since my return home. I hadn’t yet got over the fall from grace. With heavy heart I held the book out to her. She clamped it to her ample bosom, clambered on to her broomstick and flew away, her cackles reverberating across the forlorn sky.
Would it have been better for me if to have not known the way of righteousness, than having known it, turned away from the holy commandment handed on to me. Was the dog returning to his own vomit? (2 Peter 2:21-22). Had I really been once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and now fallen away? Had I again crucified the Son of God and put Him to open shame? (Hebrews 6:4-6)? Were these the thoughts that compelled the Presbyterian minister’s wife to take back her poisoned (Afrikaans giftige) gift?
The truth about feeling
In my previous post I wrote about the truth of feeling and the feeling for truth. When I “gave my heart” to Jesus a few months previously, I felt a reality that was unspeakably joyful. The red words of Jesus in John’s Gospel were on fire. I have never since felt such peace and joy. I am spending the rest of my life trying to recapture those feelings. Even now, I sit in church and get hints of it. The question is how “true” were these feelings. You might say, “They were true for you, that’s all that matters.” You might also quote Lucius Annaeus Seneca: “Let us say what we feel, and feel what we say.” I would respond, “No. When I examine the rest of life and my religious journey, “true for you” is not true – for me; not for anyone.” As far as Seneca is concerned, I don’t think it is wise to always say what you feel, because the feeling may not be based on (objective) truth. And to Seneca’s “feel what you say”, that is also not good advice. Sometimes, I don’t feel like praising God or saying a kind word, but I do it. The real issue is, what is true and what is not? Someone might exclaim: what is truth! They mean they don’t believe that there is an objective truth. Yet, no one can walk away from that exclamation without irreparable loss. Nowadays, when “truth” is mentioned, most people don’t ask “what is truth?”; they exclaim it,“what is truth!,” as Pontius Pilate probably did when Jesus said to him that he “came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37-38), and Jesus’s words on another occasion: “I am the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6).