Siblings – The Unsentimental Education

Gustave Flaubert’s last novel published during his lifetime was L’Éducation Sentimentale. Of the book he wrote, “I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation– or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. The French title is predictably and unably translated as “Sentimental Education.” The pair sentimental (French) – sentimental (English) is one of the common false friends faux amis of translation. In my post “When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?” , I mentioned that one of the dangers of translation is “false friends” (faux amis). I gave two examples:

French Joli translates as pretty or attractive in English.
English Jolly translates as joyeux, jovial, or amusant in French

French Agonie refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
English Agony refers to severe physical or mental pain: angoisse, supplice.

“Sentimental” in English has the negative meaning of inanely (innately? insanely?) gushy. The French “sentimental” does not have this meaning at all. In French, it means “feelings” – often positive feelings like love and joy – in contrast to “pure reason”. GK Chesterton said that the insane are not those who have lost their mind, but those who have lost everything but their mind – their feelings.

The term sibling is the generic term for brother and sister. There is something very impersonal and unhappy about this generic term sibling. In some families, there is much joy between brothers and sisters. In other families, there is very little love, compassion and joy shared between siblings. Hence my title: “Siblings: “Unsentimental Eduction.” I am using unsentimental in the French sense of the term – no (positive) feeling. What I mean by unsentimental – which is noticeable throughout my relationship with several of my siblings – is the poverty of love, joy and compassiont between us.

My eldest sister, Edie, was 15 years older than I. By the time my siblings (Bennie, Gerry and Minnie) and I had left the Orphanage in 1951, Edie (24 years old) was married to Aaron Hayman, and was living in Maitland. She had four children: Manuel, Michael, Selwyn and Jennifer. The three boys now live in Cape Town. Manual and Michael are well-to-do horse racing bookies. I lost track of Selwyn. Jennifer lives in Canada. All Edie’s children are less than 10 years older than I.

When Edie’s children were very young (Jennifer was then a baby),  Aaron, her husband, was involved in a head-on car crash. He suffered severe brain damage. After a long convalescence, he came home. Soon after, I was in a car with Aaron and Edie. Edie was driving. Aaron was in the front passenger seat. Edie was trying to negotiate through the heavy traffic but got stuck. Suddenly, Aaron exploded; his face blood red. “Fort Fort”(Yiddish for “go on”) he yelled. Edie was crying and all of us in the car were shaking. Aaron had not only lost his mind, but also control of his emotions. He was no longer able to live a normal life. He was admitted to Highlands house, Cape Town, the Jewish Home for the elderly.

A few years later, Edie divorced Aaron and married a Polish non-Jew, Michael Kay. Mike slotted well into our family. It wasso good between Mike and Izzy that Izzy spoke Yiddish to Mike; and Mike nodded in Yiddish –  with a Polish accent. For Rachel, my youngest sister, there was something deep and spiritual about Mike: she once commented to me while Mike was involved in a card game with Izzy (I think it was Rummy)  that Mike doesn’t just play cards for the sake of it – for him it was something spiritual. For the life of me, I couldn’t see more than an avuncular urbanity, unless she was referring to his opalescent orbs. But wasn’t that just the whiskey shining through?

Aaron’s mental condition deteriorated over the years. Whenever Edie’s children celebrated a big function such as a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding, Aaron was brought out of the Highlands House woodwork to attend the function. I attended Manuel’s Bar Mitzvah (in the early 1960s) and Jennifer’s wedding about ten years later. At these functions, Aaron (as father of the children) sat next to Edie. Mike (Michael Kay), Edie’s second husband, who had also brought up Aaron’s children, didn’t get a place at the main table. At Jennifer’s wedding reception, Michael Kay was standing close to me at the opposite end of the hall from the main table, both of us entranced if not transfixed as various toasts were given at the main table. He had a smile on his face, but there was also pain. I thought: what a gracious man, and wondered how many knew that it was Michael who had been Jennifer’s father for all but a year of her just-married life. So, perhaps, Rachel was right after all. Mike had something deep about him.

Edie was always very moody. In the 1970s, I was on holiday from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), visiting  my parent’s flat in Sea Point. Edie, who was also living in Sea Point, came to visit and was trying to park in the road outside. I had gone to meet her outside. I stood on the pavement  while she tried to park between two cars. The gap between the two cars left little room for manoeuvre. She twisted every which way, but  nothing worked. In the end, she jerked on the steering wheel and sped off. I went back upstairs. Edie phoned a little later to say that she couldn’t visit because there was nowhere to park. I could hear her yelling over the phone.

Edie was a champion bowls player. She looked very elegant and svelte in her bowls outfit. She won many tournaments.  A few years later, she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. When I heard the news, I thought back to the time she tried to park her car outside our parents’ flat, eating herself up with frustration. Was she literally churning up and contracting her bowels all those years, which brought on the cancer? Joe’s wife, Miriam, who had a miserable married life, and was perhaps more distraught and emotionally disturbed than Edie, also died of bowel cancer in her early 40s.

I went to visit Edie in hospital in Pinelands. She was in intensive care. I wasn’t allowed near her bedside but had to stand in the doorway of the ward, which she shared with several other critically ill patients. She was semiconscious, probably heavily drugged, and lying in a foetal position. She had little flesh. There was a full glass of orange juice on her side table. I said to the nurse that Edie was dying. Like most nurses, she rebuked me for thinking such a bizarre thing. Which reminds me of a nurse at a frail care centre that I visit in the suburb where I live (Lorraine Frail Care Centre). One of the residents was James Stander, who was 92 years old and very unhappy and often had choking fits. I told the nurse that he was at death’s door. I got that familiar puky positive-thinking rebuke: “What makes you think that!” A few weeks later he was dead. A few months after I had returned to St George’s College in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Edie died.

Minnie was the most highly strung of all the sisters. In 1949, when she was 15, she came home from the Orphanage (with Benny, Gerry and myself) to our “new” house in Claremont. The family had recently moved from Maitland. We used to call her “malla” (the first “a” pronounced as in cup), which means “mad” in Afrikaans. She never went to school after returning from the Orphanage. She was mentally “challenged”. Really so.  When we were young, we  thought that Sonia and Gerry were also mad.

Minnie could never look after herself, but Gerry and Sonia were very independent.  They were unusual, perhaps even a bit wacky, but not mad. If they were wacky then so am I,  a Ph.D.  wacky. Once at Cape Town University, my French lecturer Marie Whittaker suggested I seek psychological advice. How many since her, I wonder, have thought the same but not had the chutzpah (or lurv) to speak out. That reminds me of the time I was working at the University of Fort Hare when one of my colleagues told the Dean that I was insane. As evidence,  he showed the Dean my article on Derrida’s deconstruction entitled “Can the tour (unsurprisingly) lead us anywhere,”  later published in the Journal of Literary Studies. Now, when I read that article, I wonder whether I was sane. But then, that is what this bography is about – The wondering onedaring Jew.

Minnie would repeat whatever you said, especially if you were saying nice things about her. Here is one of my favourites, a recurrent “dialogue” between Minnie and myself.  Minnie’s words are in italics.

I got nice clothes.

I got nice clothes.

I go out

I go out.

Go to lovely restaurants

Go to lovely restaurants

Got lots of friends

Got lots of friends

Not lonely any more

Not Lonely any more.

Don’t need anybody

Don’t need anybody.

They can all voetsak (Afrikaans for “get lost”)

They can all Voetsek

Minnie quickly got the rhythm and enjoyed it as much as I.

Minnie suffered from deep depression for many years and was on sedation until the end of her life. She got very fat. Here she is in her early 50s with Sammy. The photo on the right is Minny in the Orphanage at 14 years of age (cut-out from the Orphanage photo in Eric Rosenthal’s book on the Cape Jewish Orphanage). On the left, Minnie is with Sammy my elder brother. The photo was taken about 15 ago.

Minnie lived at home for a few more years and then moved to a house under the auspices of the the Jewish centre of Sheltered Employment in upper Cape Town. In 1956, it moved from its old site in the Security Building in Exchange Place, Cape Town to its present house in the Gardens, Cape Town. The house was formerly used as a hostel for young Jewish women who came from the rural areas of South Africa and from Germany during the 1939 – 1945 war.

The criteria for admission to the residence were that all residents had to work, have a high level of independence, and require minimal supervision. A house-parent was responsible for overseeing the house and its residents. The residents each had their own room and shared the communal area. The house was situated close to the Sheltered Employment Centre. Here is a picture of the Centre:

The Jewish Sheltered Employment Centre gives employment to Jewish men and women who are unable to work in the open labour market. It provides employment for 60 people. They are taught how to make a large range of high quality craft goods. As is always the aim of such institutions, the focus is on ability rather than on disability. I visited Minnie there a few times. I never saw any of the things she made at the Centre.

On a visit to her at the Centre, Minnie pulled an old black comb from her bag and asked me to take it as a present. I said: “Are you sure, you want to give it to me.? Maybe later on you’ll be sorry you gave it to me because you’ll really need it.” Minnie’s eyes were racing. Will she or won’t she give me that comb that I need more than anything in the world? – and then said: “Ok”, and put the comb back in her bag.

Minnie married Max Poslinsky from Johannesburg. She went to Johannesburg with her new husband, but returned a year or two later, divorced. She had a baby that was put up for adoption. No one ever talked about it. But I remember her telling me much later in her life that she had had a baby that had been adopted. It was a very brief mention.

Minnie spent the last ten years or so of her life at Highlands House. My mother, Fanny, was there for a brief period after a stroke and died in 1979. Sonia lived with my father for a year after Fanny’s death. Izzy then died in 1980. Sonia then went to stay at Highlands House (“Old Age Home”). I think Sonia and Minnie entered Highlands House together. After more than 10 years at the Highlands House, Minnie started to  lose weight. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer. There was a giant tumour on her colon. The doctor said that unless the tumour was removed, Minnie would die. My sister, Rachel, who had the final say in this matter, thought that the operation would be too much for Minnie; and would probably only extend her life a little while longer. Minnie died peacefully in her sleep about a year later.

Sonia, who was a year younger than Edie, was also married and was living in Camps Bay with her husband Israel Hurwitz, who was about 20 years older than Sonia. Camps Bay has one of the most beautiful settings in the world, if not the best. Here is a photo.

Sonia lived in one of the apartment blocks close to the “Twelve Apostles”. The mountains behind her apartment consisted of 12 outcrops called “apostles”.  Sonia singled me out from her other young siblings. She took me under her wing, and was like a mother to me. When I visit her now, I sometimes remind her of this to her great delight.

When I was at the Orphanage, she came a few times to visit us. She came by bus. Once, she took me from the Orphanage to Cape Town on the bus. On the way back  to the Orphanage, I wanted to express myself very badly, and tried very hard to keep it in. The bus stopped at the bus stop at the back of the Orphanage. We got out, walked to the little back gate of the Orphanage, opened it. I was running a little ahead of Sonia, clasping and sweet-talking my “dardel”[1] (a dreydel is something different, of course) cajoling, bargaining, beseeching it not to tsunami the nice suit I was wearing. But a dardel’s got to do what a dardel’s got to do, and no plea bargaining is going to veer it off its implacable course. Halfway down the cement path at the back of the Orphanage, I froze. My body acquiesced  to the warm aqueous relief that slowly began to seep through my clothes, up my clothes, down my clothes, and expire in a trickle down my knobbly legs into my socks.

When I was about 11 years old, I was with Sonia in Camps Bay walking along the beach front. I got cross with her for some reason and sneaked off. And disappeared. I caught the bus and went home to Claremont. She found out that evening that I was at home. I anguished over this terrible deed for years afterwards. My anguish, of course, was nothing compared to the agony she must have gone through on that day. And loss of trust in me, which probably hurt the most. Since that day, it was never the same between us. Something in Sonia had broken. For many years, I resisted asking her for forgiveness. I wanted it to go away. To this day, I don’t remember whether I ever talked to her about it. I still carry the shame.

Not long after, Sonia and Israel moved to a flat in Kenilworth. These were the years that I was living at home and going to Wynberg Boys School (1953 – 1955). I often spend weekends at her flat. In the mornings, I’d see her husband, Israel, a hairy man, traipsing around in his floppy sandals and floppier underpants. He was a sportsman and loved horse-riding and motor bikes. He swam a lot and was very fit and solid. He owned a record and bric-a-brac shop in Station Road Salt River.

Before he left for work every morning, he would pull out a ten-shilling note and slap it on Sonia’s dressing table – her allowance for the day. You could do a lot with ten bob: return bus fare for two from Kenilworth to Cape Town. Lunch at Hildebrands: crayfish for two with lots of salads and thick creamy yoghurt. And change. The second unforgettable meal  was during the Van Riebeeck Festival[2] in Cape Town, in1952. Armed with her ten-bob note, Sonia took me for lunch at the railway café in the Victorian railway building.  Unlike the shabby dens that peppered Cape Town, the Railway café was was one of the smartest restaurants in town. The full menu cost three shillings and sixpence per person. That left Sonia with three bob over for the day.

Sonia’s purse was always chock full of silver coins.  When she came to visit the family home in Claremont, she left her handbag on the bed in our parents’ bedroom. I sneaked into the room, unfastened the clasp of her bag, and pinched a bob or two. If was feeling very bold, I’d also take a big coin: a two-and-sixpence.  We got one shilling and threepence pocket money a week. That was enough for bus fare from home and back ( fourpence), movies, which we used to call “bioscope” (ninepence), and tuppence left for two chappies bubble gums and two giant Norman’s toffees.

Once, I was almost caught with my hand in the till. I had just unclasped the handbag. I heard Sonia approaching my parents’ bedroom door. I had to flee and clamber up a a tree at the back of the house, leaving Sonia’s handbag gaping in confusion. Sonia came to the back veranda of the house and shouted to me in the tree: “I know what you have been doing.” Gerry was not the only thief in the family.[3]

When I lived at home for a continuous three-year period (January 1953- December 1955), Sonia would take me to the wholesalers in Adderley Street to buy me some new clothes. Izzy had an account  there. We took the lift to the men’s section. The shelves were arranged in rows of tiered pigeon holes, with clothes folded in cellophane packets inside the pigeon holes as well as displayed on the accessible flats tops. The assistant opens one of the packets and slides a yellow shirt with white buttons on to the palm of his hand. The musty air of the warehouse is lost, for a moment, in the fresh smell of new apparel. The assistant does the same with a few other shirts. A while later, Sonia gives the nod. That’s the shirt under our belt, now for the “sporting” jackets; a big item. Fanny called sports jackets, “sporting” jackets. When it came to clothes, the operative question was “Is it serviceable?” My wants had to play second piddle. The warehouse that day reverberated with “serviceable, serviceable, serviceable.” I ended up with a jacket bedecked in speckly squares of brown and cream. I loved the smell, and it was new. The sleeves drowned my fingers – there were the next few years of growing that had to be economically considered.

These clothes-buying episodes remind me of my brother, Joe. When Joe left school, Izzy set him up in a string of ventures. There was a shoe shop near the Bijou bioscope in Salt River. Later – I was about 15 years old – there was a clothes shop, an “outfitters” at the top of Junction Road Salt River, which was situated a few shops up from Israel’s (Sonia’s husband) record and bric-a-brac shop.  Plunked opposite Joe’s shop was one of the biggest clothing retailers, not only in Salt River, but in the whole of the Cape Peninsula: “Marx Brothers”, Jewish boys, naturally.  If you wanted a bargain, you went there. This big shop was always full of people.  Sometimes I would go and “help” Joe in his shop.

Look. There is someone stopping at our shop window. He’s not moving. His eyes are in slit mode. Could it be? Could he be the One. Joe, moves forward, and boldly goes where no one’s gone before. He steps out of the shop, and invites the man to enter. The man smiles. He stares. He sways. Joe beckons to me. He points to the shirt section. I open a draw and bring the shirt in its see-through wrap to Joe and the man. I hand Joe the shirt and pick up the whiff of plonk. That Saturday was arguably the closest Joe came to the smell of money. There the three of us were: Groucho, Harpo and Chico, namesakes of the rivals across the way. Another Saturday of human comedy goofs by.

In 1997, I was visiting Israel to do some research in the Tel Aviv University library. The last time I was in Israel was 25 years previously. On this latest visit in 1997, I stayed at Joe’s flat on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. We were sitting in the lounge. I suggested we visit Haifa the following day. He nodded obliquely. Was that a yes or a no; or a yo? He said nothing and went to his bedroom. Were we going or were we not going to Haifa tomorrow? A few minutes later, I went to Joe’s room to clear up the matter. He was sitting on his bed wrapped in a large silky blue and white talit (prayer shawl).  It was Friday evening Shabbat (Sabbath). I asked Joe: “What do you think of it? I was referring to my suggestion to Joe of visiting Haifa the following day.  He didn’t answer. I returned to the lounge and sank back into my book. A page or two later,  Joe struts into the lounge sans talit. He explodes: “What do you mean ‘make the best of it’. I’m making the best of YOU here.” He turns on his heel and tears back to his room. Nonplussed, I follow, beseeching: “I didn’t say ‘make the best of it.’” I said “What do you think of it?” (See more on “make the best of it here). Joe on his bed, a rigid Jewish Buddha . A non-Jewish Buddhist might have shown me the futility of trying to get through to Joe.

Zen Buddhism teaches that when I gain enlightenment about how my mind works, I will inevitably learn how Joe’s mind works. Why’s that?   Only a Jewish Zen Buddhist  can explain it: “A convenient analogy is to a computer operating system: to understand Windows in your own computer is to understand it in everyone’s computer” (Leon Rappoport).[4]

This means if Joe sees through a window darkly, and, wretched as he is, reaches enlightenment, and if I see through my window darkly, and also get enlightened – to the same degree, this would mean we must be looking  through the same dark window.  So, what matters is not how darkly we see, but that we both see through the same window. Then, and only then will Joe and I see eye to eye, because his eye is actually – bogglemindedly – my eye. My eye!

Until I understand my own mind, it’s futile  trying to read Joe’s. A Zen Master’s solution would be: hit  them both with a big stick;  “not merely [as] an expression of anger, but [also] to halt [their]  meaningless or deluded stream of consciousness.”  I prefer the Bible’s concept of the self, which is: until I understand the rotten intentions in my soul, it’s futile trying to judge the rotten ones in Joe’s.

I cut short my visit to Israel, and took an earlier flight home to South Africa. When I told Joe I was leaving, he said in deepish and sheepish regret: “I didn’t know you were staying so short a time.” I didn’t enlighten him that I’d intended staying longer, but that his caring demeanour had dashed that prospect. Instead, I lied and told him he’d got the wrong end of the stick.  Joe had indeed heard correctly. I’d previously told Joe that I would stay ten days. I stayed seven. He helped me find a taxi to the airport. Was that a tear in his eye!  I haven’t seen Joe since. And probably never will again. Unless I live another 25 years and decide to go in my 90s (with a lot of help) to Israel to confess to by then one of the oldest living people in the world that I’d cheated him out of three whole days of brotherly affection:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, upon Aaron’s beard, that ran down to the hem of his garments; As the dew of Hermon that descendeth on the mountains of Zion; for there hath Jehovah commanded the blessing, life for evermore (Psalm 133).

We all knew how to cry –  especially to music – in a sad minor key. For a Jew, suffering and  sad  music were a  match made in heaven. It ignited the soul. But soon the fire expired and tsorres (sorrow) flooded the soul once more – and beware the sibling who encroached on that sorrow and self-pity. This inner-focused sorrowful state does not build up; it worldly sorrow that leads to death. “In fact, to be distressed in a godly way causes people to change the way they think and act and leads them to be saved. No one can regret that. But the distress that the world causes brings only death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Life’s song is in a major key, but when we suffer the major switches down to a minor key. We must listen “not as those who are affronted or resentful, but as those who understand. All bitterness has gone” (Leslie, Weatherhead (1935), “Why do men suffer?”, p.11. Student Movement Christian Press, London). Bitterness convulses the soul.


[1] “Dardel” has its origins in the sound cooing parents make when flicking their baby boy’s winkie up and down: dardelardel lardel lardel dardel.

[2] The festival was celebrating 300 years since the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck – the forerunners of the Afrikaners – settled in Cape Town.

[3] I mentioned earlier the report of Gerry’s probation officer where he said “On several occasions it was proved that he stole money in the house.”

[4] Leon Rappoport’s “Constructivism, Zen Buddhism and the Individual Patterns of Communication Use in the Age of the Plural Self.” http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/papers/2002/pitasi-rappaport.pdf. Rappoport is Professor of Psychology at Kansas State University. He has also written with George Kren “The Holocaust and the crisis of human behavior.” http://www.amazon.com/Holocaust-Crisis-Human-Behavior/dp/0841913056

3 thoughts on “Siblings – The Unsentimental Education

  1. On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. – George Orwell

    • Orwell doesn’t spell out what he means by “good”. For me “good” is defined in terms of God and his commandments – as written in the Bible, where the standard of what is good is God. Jesus held “good” in such a high regard that he asked his listeners why they called him good because only God is good.

      As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone (Mark 10:17-18).

      Orwell was an atheist; thus he had no consciousness of sin and what it means to disobey a Holy God. As you know, his 1984 was all about the clash between individual needs and authority. Although, the authority in the context of the book is the State, I would think that what would have got Orwell’s goat more than the authoritarian State, would have been an authoritarian God. That is arguably one of the main reasons why people reject God – he’s too bossy. “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7)

  2. Good Good Day to you Raphael

    I was wondering if i might contact you directly via a dedicated email address? I have some information that i would like to discuss with you but thought perhaps it might not be the best to place it directly on a public forum.

    Many Thanks

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