Tele-evangelism and Billy Graham

In 1958 there was no television in South Africa, while in the USA, tele-evangelism had just got off the ground. The Billy Graham film that I was watching (see  previous post) was one of the films made between 1950 and 1954 of one of his crusades. In the early 1980s, when I was a French teacher at Mmabatho High School, I was caught up in the “Word of Faith” movement where Jimmy Swaggert and Kenneth Copeland were among the foremost leaders. I collected many of their television programmes. A few days, ago, I received an email from an ex-teacher of Mmabatho High School –  I hadn’t had any contact with him for 23 years since leaving the School in 1987 – who thanked me for the invites to my house to watch these videos. I no longer believe in much taught by the “Word of Faith” movement nor in the merit of  tele-evangelism. This does not mean that God cannot stretch His arm through the TV screen and pluck out the viewer’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh[1], which on the face of it, appears to be through the evangelist’s mediation; it could very well be in spite of the evangelist’s face – and all the other stuff. Nobody will ever know, and that is good. Nobody cares? That’s not good.

Most tele-evangelism is entertainment. Lots of fishing, but no fish. The people who have a real Christian conversion on TV are minimal. Billy Graham, in contrast, might be a different kettle of fish. I, for one, was very moved by him. But being moved is not the same as having the ground ripped from under you and undergoing a permanent change where Christ remains all in all – where Christ drew me, I came, I made Him and continued to live His life in the assurance that He will never let me out of His hand; that I had eternal life; that I obeyed His commands and produced the fruit of the Spirit, and continued to do so, persevering and preserved to the end.

There is something about Billy Graham, though, that is different to all the other tele-evangelists. “…there is a consensus (says Tony Campolo[2]) among most evangelicals that Billy Graham is in a class by himself, and that what is true for him is not true for the rest of us…A majority of those who have been converted because of television sermons cite Billy Graham’s as the ones that reached them.” Campolo, however, adds the caveat that even where people say that they have been converted by Billy Graham, he was not the main factor in their conversion. “In most instances, peole who were led to Christ be television sermons were watching the show with Christians, who, prior to and following the show, expressed love and gave backup explanations of the meaning of slavation. Consequently it is uncertain whether the sermons or the Christian friends were what was crucial.” I’d like to go further and suggest that it is not even sure whether the Christian friends were crucial for God’s purposes will be fulfilled – to save those He gave His Son before the world began:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:6-9).

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he  predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will Ephesians (1:4 – 5).

“The electronic church (concludes William Fore) is great show business, a powerful audience grabber, and very much in tune with the times. But its popularity is more indicative that it has become just a part of TV`s entertainment package with a religious gloss than that it is the good news of the Christian faith.”

God will find a way for his sheep to hear or read the message of salvation; sometimes, even through TV.

[1] I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

[2] Tony Campolo, “20 hot potatoes Christians are afraid to touch,”  pp. 73-74, Word Publishers.

The rabbi, the evangelist and coming “home”

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.

TV Bar

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.

Pass 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“).

The evangelist

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).

Of bullies, bicycles, thieves, and that old school tie

Wynberg High School and home life in Claremont (1954 – 1955).

The following year I moved to the High School on the other side of the Junior School fence. I was the only boy in the class without a senior boy’s tie. The junior tie was a droopy strip of blue and white horizontal stripes. The senior tie had the “modern style”, all silky with slanting silvery and blue stripes. One day I went into the changing rooms. Some of the boys were doing sports and one of them had left his tie hanging on one of the hooks. Is it possible? Could I be a real Senior! The blood was throbbing so much I couldn’t breathe. I was no longer in a changing room. Silvery music invaded my soul.

Like a holy priest after mass removing his golden stole in reverence and awe, I removed my tie, lifted the silver tie from the hook and replaced it with my own. (Of course, I didn’t, at the time, know what “holy” or “priest” was). The next few hours, were like days, waiting for school to end. Will anybody notice my sudden new status? The end-of-school bell rang. I stole out of the school – more than just myself. On the bus home, I was torn between hiding and displaying my new lease on life. Deep down, though, I had the premonition that this lease was to become a leash around my neck. At home, I took a ballpoint and scratched a few pathetic stripes of blue  through the black indelible name embedded in the cool smooth silk. The next day I came to school in my new senior tie. The same day, the Principal, Mr. Bowden, called me to his office. He always wore a black academic gown and a blacker scowl. He asked me about the tie I was wearing. I confessed. The next day I was once again a junior senior.

A few weeks later, the Principal calls me to his office again. He says that before he calls the police I must own up. I was already a thief in everyone’s averted eyes. Own up to what – again? He doesn’t say. All I hear is “police, police”. Confess to what? “Police, Police. The perturbation I felt when I had stolen the tie in the changing rooms was nothing compared to what I felt roiling in me now. The Principal would not cease snapping. On and on, Police, Police. I seized up like a terrified Nero unable to plunge the knife into his heart, which was the only way to save him from the raging crowd banging down his door (I did know something about Nero then). The Principal was speaking; purse – stolen – changing room. I thought about the tie I had stolen a few weeks earlier. So, that is why I’m in Bowden’s office again. I thought of my brother Gerry. Wasn’t it only  Gerry who got into such trouble? I didn’t know how to confess to something I hadn’t done; even if such a confession –  the Principal promised – could keep me out of “jail” – perhaps the most frightening word to a 12-year-old boy. Where can I run to? The Principal let me go. They never found the real thief. So, in everyone’s eyes, I was the real thief.

I was good at rugby and athletics; I excelled at the  100-yards dash. There was another boy, Hilliard, who was also very fast. They expected him to win the 100-yards race on sports day. I’m on is heels all the way; I flashed past him at break the tape. He was mad and blamed his sore toe. It was wrapped in a band-aid. I won the under-12 short distance runner’s trophy. It had a lid on it, which made it fancy. The lid didn’t fit properly, so I had to cup my other hand over it. In the bus home, I sat upstairs. I held the cup in my one hand, and when the bus jolted, I clasped the lid to the trophy with the other hand. The cup stood on the shelf in the family lounge in Claremont for many years. Then it vanished.

I was chosen to represent Wynberg School in the under-13 100-yards race at the Western Province athletics day in Paarl, about 60 kms from Cape Town, a two-hour train journey. I had to get up early to take the train at Cape Town station. I also had to take two buses between home and Cape Town station. To ensure I didn’t oversleep, I set the alarm on our family alarm clock and put it next to my bed. I thought I’d set the alarm for 5 am, but it went off at 1 am. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I got dressed, packed my kit, went to the kitchen and boiled some eggs. I forgot about them, so when I dug the teaspoon into the top of one of the eggs, it got stuck like the fork my sister Minnie once through at my head that got embedded in my scalp. There’s not much worse than cloggy bits of  rubbery egg  on an empty stomach four hours before dawn.  I couldn’t leave home before 5 am because the buses only started then. I dozed off a few times. By the time I Ieft home, I could hardly keep my eyes open. I slept a bit on the train, but had to keep a lookout for my train stop in Paarl. Otherwise I would have ended up in Wellington. (I returned to the Homestead in Wellington the following year (1956).

Before the race, I was very cold. The weather was cool and so there was no reason to feel so cold. I put my hairy brown pull over on top of my vest. I think it was the lack of sleep, overboiled eggs, and long journey that had reduced my resistance and sapped my energy. I yawned on to the track. The official raised his gun. What did I do now! On your marks, get set – whazzzat? – BANG. Like an lead spring, I sproinged out of the blocks. I was running. I forgot to remove my hairy pullover. I saw nobody in front of me. I saw nothing. Nobody passed me. Did I come first?  No, last. Nobody passed me because they were all already yards in front of me before I had left the blocks. I was torn between shame at letting my team down and wanting to fall asleep forever. It was a long journey home into night. I nver thought about this at the time but one might be wondering why I was left to arrange the whole trip by myself – waking up on time long before dawn, and making all the other preparations for the trip. Why didn’t Izzy or Fanny not help me? I never held this against my parents, and never will. That was the way things were in our house.

There was the bully, Stadler. He was a squat snorting bullneck. I was long and scrawny. I couldn’t take it any more, so one day I brought a knife to school and showed him. He laughed. In those days, bringing a knife to school didn’t get you into big trouble.

A little while later, at break time I found myself on the rugby field facing him. It seemed as if the the whole school had formed a ring around the two of us. I have no idea how I had got into this situation. Somehow I had agreed to fight him. What madness. I think I challenged him. Why I did so went – I would like to believe and could be true – beyond myself. There were so many other boys whose life he made a misery.

We stared at each other. He didn’t look as if he was keen to fight.  I stood at the edge of the raucous circle.  Was he doubting himself? Nope. He charged. Stunned, my arm mecanoed outward, the elbow locking into position. Stadler rammed into a bony fist. He staggered back. The boys shoved at me, clapping and shouting; they were as confounded as I. Stadler came at me again. Sproiing. Lock elbow. Bam. Stadler’s face was changing hue. I don’t remember how many times he lumbered into my fists. His face began to bloat. The bell rang. Saved by the bell. It was the end of break. A few years ago, I received an email from one of the old Wynberg boys, Ralph Shlomowitz, who witnessed the fight. (His uncle married my sister, Sonia). He said in his email: “you were a great hero playing on the wing in the rugger (rugby) and taking on that bully Stadler and getting the better of the fight.” It was not I who said I was a hero, but I suppose I was; everyone seemed to think so. It wasn’t me, then, who was saved by the bell. Stadler never bothered me again. He didn’t bother anybody again. But then he might have gone back to his old ways the following year after the hero left the school. I wonder whether his wounds every healed. I suppose not; it’s a male thing.

We had a tiny room off the dining room in our house in Claremont. We used to keep little yellow chickens in it. It was then converted into the radio room. There was only enough space for one bed and the table for the radio. The room was about 21/2 long and 11/2 metres wide. The most popular radio station was “Springbok Radio”. It was marvelous. My mother used to listen to about 4 -5 serials during the morning. Our favourite programmes were “Pick a box”, “Take it from here”, “The creaking door”, “Snoektown calling”, and “No place to hide.” But best of all was the weekly “Lux Radio theatre”, which had wonderful plays. When the play was announced, I would ask Fanny: “Drama or comedy?” If she said drama, I lay next to her on the bed, and spent the happiest hour of the week. I sometimes listened to comedies as well, even though they weren’t so “deep”. “How can laughter be deep?” to a 12-year-old boy? After Lux Radio, “Superman” was next favourite. Whenever Clark Kent  was about to change into superman, his voice would take on a deep timbre, which was superman’s voice. I stopped breathing for a bit.

We had a boarder in the room next to the lounge at the front of the house: Miss Honey. She was fleshy and old and couldn’t lift her feet when she walked. We always heard her shuffling down the passage in the morning, carrying her pail of pee to the bathroom. I hardly went into her room. She kept a budgie. One day, she left. Issy’s business was doing better and we needed the space. I heard that she was very upset to leave. A little later she was knocked down by a car. She survived. That, in one paragraph, was Miss Honey. How paltry are our perceptions, how shallow our judgments.

Every Saturday afternoon, we’d wait for Izzy, my father, to come home from work. It was pocket money day: One shilling and thrippence (three pence), which was enough for a return bus ticket from our house to Claremont station, for bioscope (movies) at the Scala, for two chappies bubble gum and for two Norman toffies. Issy made us squirm every time. We mooched around him at the dining table while he ate his lunch. If he doesn’t give us our pocket money soon, we’ll be too late for the bioscope. Issy never disappointed. But how could we be sure?

We saw lots of cowboy movies. I liked Charles Starett, who was the “Durango Kid.” Gene Autry was a sissy: he used to sing in his films, he hardly ever got into a fight, and never  jumped on his horse from a roof – perhaps he was worried about crushing his precious jewels.  He was too mediocre to be bad. I discovered later that Starrett didn’t do any of his stunts.

One Saturday, we got our pocket money earlier than usual, so we decided to save our bus fare; we walked to the bioscope: a 20-minute walk. On our way back home, we were walking fast over the bridge – me hugging Sammy’s shoulder – in a hurry to get home in time to listen to one of our favourites on Springbok Radio. I said to Sammy: “Hope we’re not too late for Superman.” At that moment, two girls sauntered past; and tittered. Sammy was very cross with me.

I asked Izzy to buy me a bicycle. I made a deal with him: if he bought me a bicycle, I wouldn’t ask him for pocket money anymore. The bicycle for the Durango kid – and for Chappies and Normans. Issy didn’t say anything. I told Sammy that daddy was going to buy me a bicycle. He laughed. A little while later I told Sammy that I would have a bicycle by 12 noon Saturday the following week. He laughed. I asked Issy if he could get me “the” bicycle by 12 noon next Saturday. At that stage, he hadn’t even told me that he would buy me “a” bicycle. When the Saturday morning came, Issy asked me to come with him in his green chev bakkie (van) to town. I said nothing. Was he going to buy me a bicycle? We drove to Cape Town. We stopped outside the Raleigh bicycle shop. Issy bought me a brand new black bicycle with chunky black tyres. I can still smell the sweet rubber. I asked Issy if we could try and get home before 12 o’clock. We put the bicycle at the back of the bakkie. I got in the back with the bicycle. We just made it. We turned into Selous Road. The bakkie began to slow down. I stood up, clasping the bike close to my hip, trying to keep my balance at such a heady moment. Sammy was there. The bakkie turned into the driveway. It had just turned 12 o’clock: High Noon.

The following Saturday at lunchtime, I was mooching around my Dad at the table. I wanted to go to bioscope.  He made me squirm a little more than usual, and kept me guessing.  He gave me “my” one and thrippence.

When my bike broke, Sammy fixed it. He took the bicycle over. Sammy’s motto: I fix, I own. How to get away as far as possible? I couldn’t ride away anymore – I no longer had any transport.

If you want a bully bicycle, you can find one at “Bully Bicycle.”

Mind your marbles

The wandering Jew by definition rambles. In the previous few posts I strayed off the path of my biography proper into the lives of the Herzls. But this Herzl interlude was more than a ramble; it is a preramble to the rest of my life story. All the main themes of my bography are sewn into the hem of those frayed lives. This will become clearer when I return to Hans Herzl later on.

In an earlier post, I described my early school years after leaving the Cape Jewish Orphanage. At the end of that post, I mentioned that after two years (1951-1952) at the Homestead in Wellington, I returned to my Claremont home where I lived for the next three years (Jan 1953 to Dec 1955). I attended Wynberg Junior and High Schools. I now describe the year I spent at Wynberg Junior School.

Wynberg is a suburb of the city Cape Town, about 10 kilometres from the centre of the city. The suburb has a rich architectural and cultural heritage. Its beginnings are owed to the freshwater stream that wandered down to the Diep River. The surrounds of this stream developed into fertile farmlands where a village was established along the banks of the stream. Wynberg means Wine Mountain. It has preserved a lot of architecture from the 1800’s, which can be seen in the churches, schools, stately homes, and cottages. Many of these cottages are now shops, art galleries, picture framers and antique shops. Other cottages are tucked away in quiet little streets.

The picture, however, is not so rosy today, but you wouldn’t think so if you were to believe this description of Wynberg from a tourist blurb:

“Drive around the village of Wynberg, and the little streets delight with quaint cottages, tangled trees and bushes that create wonderful little havens away from the bustle of the city.” Today, many of those little havens are far from heavenly. Those tangled trees and bushes are now the criminal’s hiding place. Burglaries are common in the suburb.  A year ago, my daughter Natasha, husband and children were living in one of those quaint cottages in one of those delightful little streets. They were burgled twice.  The tourist blurb is not talking about the real suburb, but a figment; a sublurb. Natasha and family emigrated.

Before the forced removable of residents during the Apartheid era, Wynberg was a mix of cultures and ethnic groups. Since 1994, this vibrant mix has been partly restored. Wynberg is green with several parks. In the middle of Wynberg is Maynardville Park, which is a famous  venue for its Shakesperean productions. I saw several of these while at the University of Cape Town in the 1960s.

Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established in 1841, and is the second oldest boys’ school in the South Africa: South African College Schools (SACS), also in Cape Town, is the oldest.  I played rugby against SACS when I was at Wynberg High. Wynberg Boys’ Junior and Wynberg Boys’ High operated as one school for over a century. In 1943, a separate Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established. The Junior School was situated right next to the High School. In 1953, I entered the Junior School into Grade 5.

Hendrik Verwoerd, a former Prime Minister of South Africa attended Wynberg Boys High. I mentioned Dr Verwoerd in the “Cape Jewish Orphanage days”. So far I have two things in common with Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid: the Orphanage and Wynberg School. But there’s actually a third thing I have in common with Dr Verwoerd. It is this: I never protested against apartheid – mea bulka. (mea culpa – Latin for “my fault;” bulka is a Jewish egg bun). In the “new” South Africa (since 1994 when a black government came into power)  it is almost impossible to find a South African – Afrikaner or English  – who had promoted or (tacitly) approved of apartheid before 1994.

Why some events stick in the mind and others melt away remains a mystery. Yet because I live in a mindful universe, there is good reason why I remember the marbles so vividly – and why I take such care to do them proud.

My happiest memories at Wynberg Junior were the marble tournaments during break time. You didn’t just “play” marbles; the Marble Games took on Olympian proportions. The inner braiding of each marble was consummate art, meticulous science, deep mathematics, ardent poetry – a release from the tedium of the classroom, a fair attitude, a renewal, a Te Deum[1] to truth and beauty; Keats[2] come alive.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede (braiding)

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It was not just the quantity, nor the size of the marbles, but also their chromatic variety. They were not merely objects of play. Every facet – size, sparkle, and sphericity – was exquisite. The slightest flaw diminished their value. And yet, how could you win more marbles unless you were prepared to abuse your own.

At break time, the wandering Jew rambles the schoolyard rattling his marbles, like Izzy, my father, jingling his invigorating pocketful of loose change. The dull thuds of marble against marble bear witness to this onedaringjew’s singleminded intention. When predictable dull thuds fall on deaf ears, he warbles “Plaaaay me maaarbles.” They come. We play. Draw a chalk ring on the tarmac. Spread a few of your marbles in the middle of the ring. Your partner squats on the perimeter. He bends the thumb of his right hand and curls his forefinger over the tip of the thumb. With the left hand, he places a marble in a flicking position behind the thumbnail of the right hand. He squats and places his left hand, extended fingers in a parachute position, firmly down on the ground. Locking the marble firmly in position twixt bent thumb and curled forefinger, he swivels his wrist inward and rests the knuckles of his upturned right hand on the roof of the parachute. He squats lower, knees digging into his horizontal rib cage, neck cranked upward. He aims, shoots his thumb outward, propelling his missile at the nonchalant marbles lazing on the tarmac. As I am not only a onedaringjew, but also a left-handed onedaringjew, the whole process would have to work in reverse: I bend the thumb of my left hand…

The marbles that I knock out of the ring, I keep. If my marble doesn’t flick any out of the ring or I miss the marbles altogether, I lose my marble. After an agreed time or number of flicks, we exchange roles. Each has a turn to win or lose his marbles.

The best game was “marble pyramids”. No one’s countenance shone more than he with the hefty bag of marbles, for he was the only geezer who had the resources to build a Khufu Pyramid. The bigger the pyramid, the more visible and inviting it appeared. If your marble managed to collapse the pyramid – a tall order – the pyramid was yours. You could build any size pyramid depending on how many marbles you had or were willing to use. The smallest pyramid requires five marbles – four on the ground and one on top. A bigger pyramid requires more support around its base. The rough surface of the tarmac could support a pyramid of about 12 marbles without any danger that the base would give way. But what if the pyramid is much bigger? Some pyramids had a hundred marbles or more. If you try and build it up too high on the tarmac, it could collapse, scattering your marbles across the free-for-all schoolyard. To prevent this catastrophe, the bigger marbles formed the base. You then hem the base with sand. To increase the odds for such a huge pile, the thrower had to stand almost at the other end of the playground. The boy with the pyramid usually came off best; he was a statistician.  Because of the great distance between thrower and pyramid, it rarely toppled. But if you did manage it, there would be one very delighted and highly winner and one very crestfallen pyramid builder, who had – unstatistically – lost all his marbles.

Marbles are like facts. Take a handful of marbles; throw them on the ground, Repeat the procedure as many times as you like, you won’t repeat the pattern. In fact, you’ll have no pattern at all because a pattern is, by definition, repeatable. We can know about natural laws because our minds are in sync with the world outside our minds. But postmodernists, of course, would disagree. If I’m modern, my brain perceives what is really out there; if I’m one step ahead of modern – if I’m “post” modern– my brain would be out of sync with the world out there; in fact, my brain would not be in sync with my brain; indeed, my brain would not be in sync with any of the fortuitous words I speak. I’d have lost my m#$%^&bles – plain and pimple.

[1] A hymn of praise composed in the 6th century. Te Deum laudamus “To God we give praise” are the first words of the hymn. A Te Deum may also be a short ceremony of blessing.

[2] His “Ode to a Grecian urn.”

When is an “ex-Jew” not a Jew? Once (your mother’s) a Jew Oiveys a Jew

The following letter appeared in the South African Sunday Times (October 11, 2009) in favour of the Goldstone Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict

Stop turning a blind eye

It came as no surprise that the Jewish community has its knives out for Justice Richard Goldstone, accusing him of betraying his people and his homeland. This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks. How can a people who have been persecuted for centuries possibly turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed on both sides of this bloody conflict? The Jewish community needs to accept responsibility for the atrocities that it has committed against Palestinian civilians, as do Palestinians need to accept responsibility for Israeli civilian deaths.

Loren Ogin, ex-Jew, Edenglen

My interest in this letter – as well as in this bography – does not lie in Israeli politics. In my Prologue, my main interest for writing is clear: First, The sovereignty of God in all things, specifically His sovereignty in salvation, and second, God has not finished with the Jew – God forbid – for the Jew will be at the centre of history when Yeshua returns.”

Here is my reply to Loren Ogin, the ex-Jew.

“Stop turning a blind eye” by ex-Jew Loren Ogin (Sunday Times, October 11), which supports Judge Goldstone’s Gaza Report, says the following:

“This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks.” In my understanding,  By “Orthodox Jewish sect” Ogin seems to refer to Jewish Zionists. There are at least three kinds of Jews: there are secular Jews, who don’t believe in the God of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh); there are Jews who believe some parts of the Tanakh; and there are Jews who believe all of the Tanakh. This last group also believes in the oral traditions (Talmud and Midrash) and are referred to as “Orthodox” Jews. The majority of Orthodox Jews do not observe all 613 core practices (mitzvoth). This group is referred to as “modern” Orthodox..The minority of orthodox jews is referred to as “traditional” or “ultra”-orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Jews should have no political control in “Zion” (modern Israel) or in any other part of the world, at least not until Moshiach (Messiah) comes. “The State of Israel, qua state,  (says Chaim Waxman in his “Dilemmas of modern orthodoxy”, p. 5) is a modern, essentially secular, political entity, and its only significance to the traditionalist as conceived herein lies in the fact that so many Jews live there. The modernist, on the other hand, ascribes religious significance to the State specifically as a political entity, and the modernist perceives the State of Israel as an inherent part of Messianic redemption.”

Ogin is right; ultra-Orthodox Jews do indeed have a “laager mentality”, they do “close ranks”; not against anti-Zionists, but against Zionists. The ultra-Orthodox Jew and the Zionist strongly disagree, and often, despise each other. Ultra-Orthodox or ultra-any belief evokes it’s sister concept – fundamentalism. Isms often carry a negative connotation.  Two examples: scientism is a thought system that reduces everything to the material world of science, and legalism is to make the law more than it was meant to be. In Judaism and other religions, one of the main issues is the degree of importance of the Law. For ultra-Orthodox Jews, all 613 laws (mitzvoth) are essential. In contrast, Conservative and Reform Jews are selective. Then there is a vast swathe of Jews who don’t believe in the Torah at all. The irony is that modern Conservative and Reform Jews, and Jews who don’t believe in the God of Israel at all are Zionists, whereas the Ultra-Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists. The latter  say they are anti-Zionist because “Zionism” is a human, not a divine, creation, because Zionism gainsays the Word of God; Zionism is not built on Torah. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe with Rambam that every word of the Tanakh is breathed out by God.

“I believe in the words of the prophets. They are the truth.
I believe that the Bible was given to Moses.
I believe that the Bible cannot be changed.”

(Rambam – Moses Maimonides)

Loren Ogin identifies all Jews with the “Orthodox Jewish sect”, but Orthodox Jews are a minoirity within the large Jewish population. Though American Jews (says tend to define “Jew” as a religious term, they still – oddly, I would think – consider it as “an ethnic identity — a tribal matter of shared ancestry, inflections, foods, and fears.”   How do Orthodox Jews regard the Goldstone Report? They’re not directly concerned with the military conflicts in the Middle East, because these conflicts are only symptoms of an unacknowledged disease, namely, the rejection of God’s command that Jews should not be in political control of Israel in the first place. Of course, God’s prohibition of political control over the Holy land doesn’t mean that Jews should not live in Israel. What it does mean is that that God’s Word has forbidden them to “occupy” Israel – until Messiah comes. Reform rabbis thought likewise – until 1940. In 1897, a year after the publication of Herzl’s The Jewish State, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis stated their vehement rejection of Zionism. They did so year after year until the Holocaust that began in 1940. The reason why Reform rabbis rejected Zionism for all those years had nothing to do with the will of God. Reform Jews did not believe in any kind of return to Zion. They were citizens of the world. There was no thought of  exile (galut) as the Orthodox Jews believed. Reform Jews believed – and many still do – that they were sent into the world to be a light to the nations. Why did these Reform Jews reject Herzl’s notion of a “Jewish State”? Herzl’s son, Hans explains why:

My father was a great man, whom I loved… But I’ve come to see that he made a great historical error in his attempt to rebuild the Jewish State…. My father did not realize the true mission of the Jewish people, which has proven that the living and fertilizing spirit does not need territorial boundaries, and that a people can live and exist even when fortifications and borders have disappeared. I would ask them not to attempt to add to the decadent civilizations but to remember their true identity and work for the cultural reconstruction of their homeland – and this homeland is the entire world. (Hans Herzl to Marcel Steinberger – 1929 – Princes Without A Home).

These Reform Jews were products of the Enlightenment that swept Europe, taking root in France and blossoming in Germany. For a Jew, to be a Jew was something special, but to be a German Jew was superlative. The enlightenment critically questioned tradition: traditional institutions, traditional customs and traditional morals. The Jewish enlightenment was called Haskalah ( השכלה‎; from sekhel “intellect”, “mind”).  In Jewish families,  the word sekhel is almost as commonplace as the word tsorres (troubles, sorrow). In Jewish families there’s no dearth of tsorres and always a shortage of sekhel: a maskil (an enlightened one) can never be enlightened enough.

Why did the Holocaust change the Reform rabbis’ negative attitude to Zionism? Because it offered the Jews a country of their own in which they would ensure that a Holocaust would never happen again. “Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts” (Harold M. Schulweis).

Most Orthodox Jews, in contrast, bow to the mystery of God’s – often painful – will, as did the Jews at the time of the first total destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586 BC), where parents ate their children, and a second total destruction by Titus of Rome (70 AD). The underlying problem for the Orthodox Jew is not political, not social, not biological, not economic, but covenantal –  the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made at Sinai (the sinaitic/mosaic covenant), and the God’s promise of a new covenant where the law will no longer be written on stone but written on hearts – of flesh, not of stone:


“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

And Ezekiel (StrengthOfGod):

‘For I will take you out from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take out the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you shall keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I will be your God.’ (Ezekiel 36.24-28).

This description of a restored Israel is far removed from the gay parades of Jerusalem, the Holy City of Hashem (the Name).

So, for the Orthodox Jew, the problem is not with God, but with His people. How many of the “nation” of Israel (that is, Jews all around the world) believe that  “I will be their God”. Try getting that across to most Jews, especially the successful lawyer, businessman, physicist, journalist, musician, philanthropist. Tell them that the Land issue is mainly a God issue. They’ll laugh in your face: “you’ve lost the plot, and your marbles.” And if you persist, they’ll have you for breakfast.

Moses Hess in his “Rome and Jerusalem” (1862) is adamant that once a Jew always a Jew:

“Judaism as a nationality has a natural basis which cannot be set aside by mere conversion to another faith, as is the case in other religions. A Jew belongs to his race and consequently also to Judaism, in spite of the fact that he or his ancestors have become apostates. It may appear paradoxical, according to our modern religious opinions, but in life, at least, I have observed
this view to be true. The converted Jew remains a Jew no matter how much he objects to it. At present, there is but little difference between the enlightened and the converted Jew.”

Herzl was an “enlightened” Jew, as were Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786, father of the Jewish Enlightenment haskalah). There is also, among many others,  Felix Mendelsohn, the great music composer, who was the grandson of Moses Mendelsohn. Felix was brought up without religion, and later became a Lutheran. Luther was one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, hence the term “Reformed” church. I, like Felix (I like Felix), am also a Jewish “Reformed” Christian. Felix and Raphy – two happy peas in an aposotate pod. But then, is there no difference between Felix Mendelsohn and Moses Hess, as Moses Hess claims in the previous paragraph? There is indeed a difference – a vast difference. Having said that, are the apostates, Felix and Raphy, still Jews. Heavens, yes!

John Derbyshire in his article “DNA, Schmee-NA! The Genetic History Of The Jews” provides some biographical information on Jon Entine, the author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen people:

The author is of East-European Jewish ancestry, and was raised as a Reform Jew. He seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity. (“I’m an atheist,” pleads the Ulsterman under questioning by a terrorist gun squad. “All right,” snarl the gunmen, “but are ye a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

Now, if Derbyshire had to ask me whether I was a Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew, I would answer, and truthfully: “I am a Protestant Jew.” But hang on a bit – I am a Protestant Jew now but two decades ago I used to be a Catholic Jew. The Catholics will tell me that if I had become a Buddhist like Thomas Merton (according to, Buddhists are atheists1), that’s ok; but, if I turn Protestant, that deserves a papal anathema. Both Jews and Catholics will tell me: “Raphy, you may have turned Protestant, but you can never become a Protestant. Why, I ask? Because, they will reply, you can never stop being a Jew (says the Jew) or a Catholic (says the Catholic).

I have one more confession: I also used to be a Buddhist – who hasn’t? That, however, doesn’t matter to Jews and Catholics: Jews or Catholics can remain or unbe a Buddhist, if that is what they really want. What in Jewish, Catholic and Buddhist eyes – am I then? Not this, not that? I am a Jewish Catholic Protestant who used to be a Buddhist, I suppose.

Three paragraphs earlier, Derbyshire said that “Jon Entine seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity.” Entine, in his “Abraham’s children, explains the reason why only a mere few inches away from his Jewish identity. It’s because Jon Entine has got what it really takes to be Jewish – Jewish DNA. But be careful: most Jews (observant or atheist or Protestant) will just scoff “DNA Shmee-NA” or may even express shock – DNA OivaVey.

Loren Ogin says he’s an ex-Jew. Jews are Buddhists, Jews are Christians (the early Church, for example- et moi), Jews believe in UFOs; there’s an embarrassment of Jewish choices. Yet, none of these Jews would call themselves an ex-Jew. There’s no getting away from it, Loren, you’re a Jewish ex-Jew.

1 “There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly Judgement Day. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.” Tan Swee Eng, “A Basic Buddhism Guide.” (2004).

Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts.

When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?

I thought I’d write something about Benny’s latest comment on the correct literal translation of takhshit (jewel):

Benny said:

“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.” (My emphasis).

The Yiddish word for a “youngster” (youth) is bokher בחור, which is also one of the Hebrew words for “youngster” bakhur. There is a perfect one to one semantic correspondence (of meaning) between the Hebrew bakhur בחור and the Yiddish bokher בחור, . There are two other Hebrew words for “youngster”: tza-ir and na-ar/no-ayr. It’s the Yiddish naar/nar that we are directly concerned with.

As far as I can gather from Yiddish-English dictionaries and other sources such as Rosten’s “The joys of Yiddish”, the Yiddish nar/naar means “fool”, and never “youngster” or “youth”. Yiddish borrowed the Hebrew word na-ar “youngster” and changed its meaning to “fool”. Na(a)rishkeit is Yiddish for “foolishness.”

One of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis). A word in the target language (Yiddish) may look like the word of the source (original) language (Hebrew), or it may have derived from the source language  – as Yiddish naar/nar is derived from Hebrew na-ar. Sometimes the target language may change the meaning of the word it borrowed from the source  language. When Yiddish borrows from Hebrew, it usually changes only the pronunciation, and not the Hebrew meaning. Naar is a rare occurrence of a change in meaning; which is enough to make an Afrikaner Jew naar (Afrikaans for “nauseous”). (See my piece on the Afrikaner Jew and the origin of Yiddish).

In my French teaching, I often had to deal with these faux amis. Here are some examples:
Joli (French) means pretty or attractive.
Jolly (English ) means joyeux, jovial, or amusant.

Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical or mental pain, but not necessarily just this side of death: angoisse, supplice.

Here is a Judisch/Jewish false friend:  the German word Judisch -“Yiddish” (language) is often translated (badly) into English as Jewish (language). There is no such language as “Jewish”, but there are languages that originated from the Jews; Hebrew and Yiddish, for example.

Here is my reply to Benny’s comment, which I quoted at the beginning:

“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 glad you’re on my bog to correct me when  I (predictably) tokhshit.”

Cape Jewish Orphanage (8): And then there were fifteen

In the previous post, My Brother Gerry: The Dust of History, I mentioned that Gerry was removed to “Tenderden (Tender Den!), Place of Safety” Wynberg. What were his siblings doing in 1951  when Gerry came home after running away from Tenderden? These details were part of Gerry’s Probation Officer ‘s Report (6/7/51).

(Ages appear in brackets. The ages do not include months, so if, for example, Edie’s age is given as 26, she might have been close to 27).

1. Rachel (1945), age 5 years, admitted for the first time to the Cape Jewish Orphanage. (Rachel was 5 years 11 months old).

2. Benny (1943), age 8 years, admitted to the Cape Jewish Orphanage (for a second time); in Grade 4.

3. Raphael  (1941), age 9 years, at boarding school in Wellington (8 miles from Paarl), in Std 3 (Grade 5). I (I was 8 years 11 months old).

4. Jerry (1940),  age 10 years, in Place of Safety, Tenderden.

5. Sammy (1938), age 12 years, staying with parents, and  at Claremont public school in Standard 4 (Grade 6).

6. Minnie (1934), 16 years old, staying with parents.

7.  Leslie  (1933), age 17 years, died in 1949 in Groote Schuur Hospital, Observatory, Cape Town.

6.  Joe (1931), 19 years old, working in a shoe store in Maitland, staying with his parents.

9. Sonia (1927),  23 years old, married to Israel Hurwitz, living in Camps Bay.

10. Edie (1926), 24 years old, married to Aaron Hayman, living in Maitland.

Sammy at 12 years of age was only in Grade 6. I was in Grade 5 at 9 years old. He must have started school later than I did at the Orphanage. He stayed at home, and failed a grade (in those days, there wasn’t automatic promotion). Sammy never went to the Orphanage. He went to Claremont Junior School. When Sammy was 13 he went to Wynberg Boys High school. He was there until Grade 9. After spending two years at boarding school in Wellington, I came home for three years. I entered Wynberg Junior School in Grade 7 (1953). Sammy left school in Grade 9 and joined my father’s bottle-bag-bone-scrap metal business. The final straw for Sammy was when “Bob”, his bookkeeping teacher  gave him a couple of hundred lines as punishment. My father now had a son to work in “the business”. The “business” is another chapter.

Here is the Probation Officer’s evaluation of my father and mother in his 1951 Report:

The father:

“Issie Gamaroff, aged 49 years. He is employed as a storeman at Wingfield Airport at a salary of ₤60 per month. He maintains a good standard of living and is very strict in his attitude towards his children. Mr Gamaroff is a man of temperate habits and regular worker.

The mother:

Fanny Gamaroff (nee Gilinsky) is 44 years old and attends to the household. She is a cripple. The mother creates a very favourable impression and shows a keen interest in her children’s well-being. She is very concerned about Gerry and has expressed with tears her disappointment in his conduct.

Compare the Probation Officer’s judgment of my parents in his report with the report of someone in authority at the Cape Jewish Orphanage. Both reports were written within months of each other in 1951. The Orphanage official who wrote it is now  dead. Nothing good can come out of revealing his name. Far be it from me to judge his state of mind at the moment of writing it, or afterwards. It does hurt though.

Orphanage description of Izzy and Fanny on the Occasion of Rachel’s Admission to the Orphanage 20 April 1951

The Orphanage official said that Rachel was very weedy and ill-nourished. My parents were described as people who have had 14 or 15 children, and  are so brutish and self-centred that they are totally unable to care for their numerous progeny. The principal went on to say that the Orphanage had five of the Gamaroff offspring until 1949. The committee has definitely decided that the parents only may visit Rachel and Benny on Sundays but may not take them out to their home.

Izzy and Fanny didn’t have 15, neither 14, neither 13, neither 12, neither 11 but 10 children. The official couldn’t suppress his contempt for the “brutish” nature of my parents unbridled lust for life. Many in the Western world would sympathise with the Orphanage official’s comments, especially if they are not Jews, especially not Torah Jews, that is,  Jews who believe that the Bible comes from Ruach HaKodesh (The Holy Spirit of God). But then my parents weren’t Torah Jews. But I am:  in the way that Yeshua was. But, there is more to it, of course. I wince because it is my parents who were the brunt of these brutish comments. The Orphanage official was living under a cloud of ignorance, of unknowing. I am reading the “Cloud of unknowing” (author unknown, which is not the reason for the title), where “unknowing” means something very different to ignorance. “The cloud of unknowing” is a book of contemplation about that cloud within which unites one to God. The main reason I mention the book is what I read about lust in Chapter 10, “How a man shall know when his thoughts are sinful; of the difference between mortal and venial sins.” Lust is the last (but not least) mortal sin mentioned on the author’s list. The author defines lust as “the desire for carnal indulgence or for the favour and flattery of others.”  What is interesting about this definition of lust is that it is not only defined in the expected way of unbridled sexual appetite, but also includes the desire for favour and flattery. Izzy seemed to be a self-made man – at least from the time he allegedly stole the bottle business from his stepmother when his father died. My view of Izzy was that he didn’t “lust” for favour, but rather dished it out. With regard to flattery, he loved to be appreciated for his violin playing. As his business began to prosper – after many years of financial tsorres – he became a self-sufficient man. As for confessed carnal lusts? He did enjoy a movie with – as he described (confessed?) to me –  “dancing girls.”

The Pastor, the Penseur and the Infidel

  In School years after the Orphanage: Wellington. I mentioned the influence of Andrew Murray. Here is Murray in front of the Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington (South Africa).

andrew murray closeup

Andrey Murray – Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington           

  The next photo is Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur, The Thinker.  

rodinRodin’s Le Penseur

What a strange connection to make! –  a brooding naked Penseur and a soul-searching man of the cloth. If you strip away the form from the substance, not strange at all. They both had an obsession: Rodin’s obsession was to transfigure stone into flesh; Murray’s obsession was to exchange stone for flesh: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). For Rodin, the heart of stone must come alive; for Murray, it must be replaced. Le Penseur was originally attached to Rodin’s larger work, the Gates of Hell. Perhaps Murray, sitting on his chair in front of the church,  is studying the busy faces of people wandering by, wondering how many were on their merry way to Hell. Very unJewish! How was a sensitive Jewish non-intellectual to have any inkling that half a century later Murray’s statue would spring to life and feed my hungry soul?  There is more: it was Andrew Murray’s grandson, Professor Andrew Murray, of the University of Cape , who, less than a decade later, was to become my professor of political philosophy. Murray’s explanation of Plato’s levels of reality, between rancid puffs of pipe, remains etched forever in the minds of his students: “There’s the real (shadows, images, things), the really real  (understanding) and the really really real (intuition) – and so forth.”  (My brackets). The reals and really reals were spoken in a thick Afrikaans accent, but the “and so forth” was plum “Oxford.” Professor Murray studied for his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Oxford. Let me say something more about Auguste Rodin: When I was in Paris in the 1960s, I visited an artist. Finished and half-finished paintings covered the walls. Easels, brushes and twisted tubes of paint were scattered everywhere. A scruffy sofa and other soft furnishings hinted that the room was once a lounge. The artist had a son called Jean-Baptiste. He was about 14 years old. Jean-Baptiste and I went to visit the Rodin Museum. When we came upon “The Thinker”, Jean-Baptiste stood very still in front of the marvelous sculpture. I asked him what he was thinking. What else would you ask somebody gazing in rapture at “The Thinker”? Jean-Baptiste replied in a quivering voice: Ça me donne le cafard “It gives me the blues.” I was surprised that such a young person could be so affected by this kind of art. But I was forgetting that Jean-Baptiste was from an artist family. We walked around the museum and looked at other Rodin sculptures.  Jean-Baptiste limbered along. I tried to cheer him up, but it was no use.  He had, it seemed, lost all hope, all belief; in retrospect, he had – already at 14 years of age -lost the desire to live. I was also quite down in the dumps. Years later, I heard that he had killed himself. He was in his early twenties. I thought back to the cluttered “salon” that was his home. Did it have any connection to Jean-Baptiste’s turbulent soul? I often think of Jean-Baptiste, looking so limp and sad. Ça me donne le cafard. Expressions are always interesting, whether of faces or words. The French word “cafard” is of particular interest. It derives from the Arabic word kafir “miscreant, unbeliever, infidel.” “Infidel” is the figurative meaning of kafir. The literalmeaning is “cockroach.” A Muslim calls an unbeliever a cockroach. When, however, Jean-Baptiste said Ça me donne le cafard, he didn’t mean that he felt as depressed as a squashed cockroach. Cockroaches just don’t get depressed, and seldom squashed. No nuclear bomb under his butt can rattle a cockroach’s peace of mind. So then, what is the connection between cafard and cockroach? Le cafard has its origin in the French colonies of Algeria and Morocco, where soldiers of the French Foreign Legion suffered acute boredom stuck in their stockades. For entertainment, they took pot shots at the enemy within – cockroaches, les cafards. In the old South Africa, kaffir was a term used by whites to describe black people. When I was at the Orphanage and in Wellington, I hardly saw any black people. Most of the non-whites in Wellington were mixed raced “coloureds” (black-white progeny). The only black man I knew was the one I used to visit at the back of the Homestead in Wellington. I knew that “kaffir” was a derogatory term, but I would never think of my black friend as a “kaffir.” Of course, no white person – unless he was an etymologist – had any idea that the root idea of “kaffir” was cockroach. Most people know more about cockroaches than about the origin of words; they know more about entomology than about etymology. For this reason, during the Apartheid era, South African whites, in general, would’ve had no idea that kaffir meant not only an infidel but also a cockroach. But, even if they had known the dual meaning, that would not have stopped them from using the term; rather, it would have added a laugh.

My Brother Gerry: The Dust of History

Here is Gerry’s personal history as it appears in the Probation Officer’s report:

Scholastic performance

Gerry commenced his scholastic career in the Cape Jewish Orphanage, Cape Town. Gerry was there four years and he passed Std 1 (Grade 3). He was discharged from there at the end of 1949 because by then the father had done well in business and was able financially to undertake the care of the child. His parents then came to Claremont and he subsequenty atttended the Landsdowne Primary School for six months and passed Std II (Grade 4) at the school. He then atttended the Newlands Primary School.

(They must have kept Gerry back a year, because I also was in Grade 3. So already at that age, he was having learning difficulties. I recall that he was expelled during the middle of the year and then went to Newlands Primary School. Perhaps the Probation was ill-informed (by my parents?), or was just being nice).

As a result of truancy and general misconduct at the abovementioned school he was struck off the role in November 1950, while he was in Std III (Grade 5). At this stage the boy was brought to the attention of the Social Welfare Officer and the Secretary, Cape Jewish Board of Guardians.


From information received it would appear that Gerry has for many years been a difficult child. At school gerry’s behaviour was very bad. The only source of information here is the impressions of the Principal [of Tenderden] According to him the boy has a tendency to play truant. His schoolwork deteriorated during the last month or two of his school attendance. He also attended his classes without thorough preparation of his school work. The child attended the child guidance clinic, and in her report the Secretary states:The boy is quite normal mentally and seems in fair condition physically. This proves that Gerry can benefit by the ordinary school curriculum, but through his adverse behaviour, laziness and undisciplined conduct could not make any progress.

Gerry’s behaviour at home lately became of such a nature that his parents could not cope with it. Both parents state that he has become uncontrollable, disobedient and that he insults them whenever they try to reprimand him. Gerry hates to be reprimanded and is opposed to all authority.

According to his parents, he keeps bad company and spends most of his time on the streets coming home very late. He refuses to  do any work at the house and is usually idle.On several occasions it was proved that he stole money in the house.

Both parents admit that they find it impossible to exercise the necessary control over Gerry.


From the above it is clear that:

1. Gerry has no respect for or fear of his parents and acts as he pleases.

2. Gerry has without a doubt taken advantage of his parent’s inability to control him.

3. He has grown accustomed to this mode of life, and will persist in hurting his parent’s feelings unless drastic changes are made.

4. Gerry is determined not  to return to school.


In view of the above facts it is recommended that an Enquiry in terms of Section 1 of the Children’s Act No. 31 of 1937 be held, and if it is found that Gerry Gamaroff is a child that is in need of care, he be dealt with in terms of Section 29 of the same act and committed to a suitable institution.

This report was written a week after Gerry’s 11th birthday. This 11-year-old boy “has become accustomed to this mode of life” (no. 3) and “is determined not to return to school” (no. 4). At the time this report was written, only Sammy (14 years old), Minnie (Minnie (16 years old)  and Joe (19 years old; who was working) were at home. Rachel and Benny were at the Orphanage, and I was at boarding school in Wellington.

A month later, Izzy read the Probation Officer’s report (above) and wrote this letter, which was appended to the other reports about Gerry: (Original punctuation; I have added the words in brackets).

I am the father of Gerald Gamaroff he was born 30.6.40. His birth has been registered. I have read the probation officer’s report it is correct. I cannot control the child. It could be in his interest to send him to an institution. My wife is not well and cannot attend court, but she agrees with me that the child should receive institutional treatment.

My total salary is 60 per month but I have to pay ₤8 p.m. for one child at boarding school, Wellington (Raphael) and for the children at the orphanage (Benny and Rachel). I have to pay ₤5 p.m. I am obliged to keep a car to reach my place of employment my transport amounts to about ₤10 p.m. My rent is ₤14.15.6 (14 pounds 15 shillings and sixpence).

I am prepared to contribute ₤1 p.m. and should my financial circumstances improve I will increase the amount.

Six months later (5 March 1952), approval was given by the Secretary of Education for Gerry to be admitted to the  Industrial School in Queenstown.

The School posted a  train ticket to Izzy, because he couldn’t afford the train fare, and Gerry arrived at the Industrial School on 19 April 1952. Three months later he wrote the June exams. He did well in English (83%) and Afrikaans (77%). This is the only school report I have of Gerry. His high language marks are a portent of his later language ability, which he was to use to great effect later on in life. His best was firing salvos of big words such as;  “Phantasmogorical innuendos rattling across the fragilistic perspicacity.” He must have taken his cue from Mary Poppins: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. When  I think about it now, the above sentence, is only gibberish to the ignorant. Let me try it in English for dummies: “Shifting allusions rattling across my spongy fragile brain.” Now, I’ve gone and ruined it!

In the many documents on Gerry,  there’s  no inkling of Gerry’s incipient humour. For the people who had to care for Gerry, humour is not a trait that  they would have noticed, or cared about mentioning. They had enough on their plate. His humour only became evident later in life; born out of the turmoil of his early youth, perhaps. Once it was out, it was irrepressible.

Why is there so much about Gerry in the Orphanage archives and so little about all his other siblings? Because, no bad news is no news. Orphanages, schools and social workers don’t hold special meetings to discuss what to do about good children.

I was very happy to find so much information on Gerry, because he was always this mysterious brother that did all those naughty things, often on the run from government agents searching for him. I remember on one occasion when he had arrived home at our house in Claremont when he was about 16 years old – I was on school holidays from boarding school – a car stopped outside our house with GG number plates. He was always on the lookout for GG cars (Government Garage), because there was often someone looking for him.  As far as I was aware, these people were Probation Officers or Social Services people. GG pursued by GG; Gerry, his own worst enemy. Gerry holding up a mirror to us all.

Gerry came home for the school holidays from Queenstown.d. Izzy couldn’t afford his train fair. Izzy, in his application form for Gerry’s holiday to the School (13 August 1952), had pledged to “forward the trainfare as soon as I am notified by the principal to do so.” Ten days later he wrote to the principal: “I cannot afford to provide Gerald with his train fare, as I am out of a job jut now, and have a large family to support.” The School provided the 3. 10 shillings train fare.

The Principal of Gerry’s school assured my parents that the school catered for all religions. In spite of the Principal’s assurance, my parents wanted him to be in Jewish environment. As a result, Izzy approached the Jewish Board of Guardians and requested that Gerry be readmitted to the Cape Jewish Orphanage.

In November 1952, before Gerry came home on holiday, the secretary of Cape Jewish Board of Guardians wrote a letter to the principal of Gerry’s school in Queenstown.

“You may be aware that prior to Gerald’s admission to your institution, attempts were made by the superintendent of the Tenderden Place of Safety, Wynberg, Cape (where Gerry had been in 1951) to have Gerry admitted to the Cape Jewish Orphanage. As the Cape Jewish Orphanage was without a superintendent   they did not deem it wise to admit him.”

The secretary of the Cape Jewish Board of Guardians informed the principal of Gerry’s school that the Orphanage had found a suitable superintendent, and requested a report of Gerry’s progress at the school. Arrangements would then be made to transfer Gerry to the Orphanage; backto the Orphanage – he was at the Orphanage with me and his other siblings from 1945 to 1949.

According to the acting principal of Gerry’s school in Queenstown (in a letter to the Social Welfare Officer in Cape Town, 29 December 1952) “we sincerely hope that the lad, who behaved really well while he was here, will cause no trouble at the Orphanage.” (My emphasis).

Before I learnt so much about Gerry’s life from the Orphanage archives, I always saw him as a constant rebel at school. This last comment (in bold above) shows that this was not so.

Here is an extract of a description of Gerry’s conduct from the report of the principal of the Queenstown School of Industries. I quote the original Afrikaans and provide an English translation:

“Die vorige geskiedenis van Gamaroff is uiters moeilik om te verstaan as ‘n mens sy gedrag en vorderings hier in die skool nagaan. Al wat hy skynbaar nodig gehad het was net ‘n bietjie strenger toesig.

Translation: The previous history of Gamaroff is extremely difficult to understand when one takes into account his behaviour and progress here in the school.

The report goes on to say that Gerry was well-behaved, did his work, was progressing well in general subjects at the school, but was not doing well in his main subject  (metalwork). His attitude to boarding school staff is very good, and to teachers and instructors is good.

I ponder (the pondering Jew) on the acres of files on lives like Gerry’s collecting dust in archives and storage facilities throughout the world, relegated to the dustbin of history, yet never erased from the database of eternity, where no thief comes near or moth can destroy (Luke 12:33).

Gerry was readmitted to the Orphanage on 24 February 1953. Where was I in 1953? At the end of 1952,  I returned home from  two years at boarding school in Wellington. In January 1953, I entered Wynberg Junior School in Grade 7 (Standard 5). I spent a further two years at Wynberg High School (Grades 8 and 9). In 1956, I went back to boarding school in Wellington. I describe these boarding school years in the next chapter.

Gerry came back home some time during my three-year “sojourn”  of home life.

School years after the Orphanage: Wellington

In 1950, after five years in the Cape Jewish Orphanage and one year at Landsdowne Primary School, I went to boarding school at the “Homestead” Wellington. I was 10 ½ years old. Wellington is about 75 km from Cape Town.



I spent two periods in Wellington; the first, 2 years, the second, 2½ years. After the first period, I came home for three years and went to Wynberg Boys Junior School for one year (Grade 7) and Wynberg Boys High School for two years (Grades 8 and 9). I then returned to Wellington for Grades 10, 11 and half of 12 (Second Period). I came home in the middle of my matric year, and entered Herzlia High School in Gardens, Cape Town. So my first and last school was Herzlia: Herzlia Junior School in Cape Town (while at the Orphanage) and then Herzlia High School in Cape Town. Between the ages of three and seventeen, I spent four and a half years at home.

Wellington – first period:

On the banks of the Kromme River in the heart of the Boland, a town huddles at the foot of the Groenberg mountains. The Dutch called the area Wagenmakersvallei (Wagonmaker’s Valley). The French Huguenots settled in the Boland in the 17th century and called the area Val Du Charron. In the 1800s, the British invaded and occupied the Cape Colony. In 1840, Wagonmakersvalei changed its name to Wellington in honour of the Duke of Wellington, who conquered Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Why did the Huguenots come to South Africa? ? Henry IV of France promulgated the Edict of Nantes on April 13, 1598. It gave the Huguenots (French Calvinists) significant rights in a nation that was mainly Catholic. In October 1685, however, Louis XIV (Louis Le Grand “the Great”) the grandson of Henry IV, revoked the Edict of Nantes and banned Protestantism. Many skilled individuals left France. Most settled in other countries such as Holland, England, and Switzerland. Others went to North America; and South Africa, mainly to the Cape of Good Hope. The majority of immigrants to the Cape settled in an area that came to be called Franschhoek (French corner), which is one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. Other Huguenots settled in the Boland, in towns such as Malmesbury and Wellington. Dutch was declared the only medium of instruction, and so the descendants of the Huguenots forgot their French. Many South Africans have French names, for example, F. W. De Klerk (Clerq), a former President of South Africa; Hansie Cronje, the cricketer, and Charlize Theron, pronounced in Afrikaans as Charlize Tron and in America as  Thé-rone.

Two hundred and fifty years after the Edict of Nantes of 1598, a grandson of a Jewish Latvian bootmaker (Mendel Gilinsky), comes to Wellington, whose only knowledge of French was wee. Fifteen years later, he treks up to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) on a 125cc Honda, and ends up as Senior French Master at a Jesuit college, St George’s College, Salisbury (Harare). The moral of the story: when you’ve got French and neighbours, the world is a happier place.

At the top of the main street of Wellington stands a commanding building: the Dutch Reformed Church.

Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington

Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington

Andrew Murray Jr. (1928 – 1917) was the South African born son of Andrew Murray who was a Dutch Reformed missionary from Scotland. Andrew Jr also became a missionary and moved to Wellington in 1871.

Andrew Murray Jr.

Here is a picture of the Homestead Wellington.

Homestead Wellington in the Boland

Homestead Wellington in the Boland

MacCrone Homestead was built as a hostel for the Boys’ High School in 1904 and called the “Homestead” (“Te Huis” in Afrikaans). It was used later, first by the amalgamated Huguenot High School and then by the Teachers’ Training College. Downstairs left was the dining room. Upstairs left was my dormitory. The downstairs middle portion was the long study room. The Homestead master, Piet Paauw, and his family occupied the lower right side of the building. The Junior school was on an adjacent property on the Homestead’s right side. It was accessible through a rickety rusty turnstile like the one in the picture.

Turnstile between Homestead "Koshuis" and Junior School

Turnstile between Homestead “Koshuis” and Junior School

At the back of the school was a big vineyard. We slipped out at night and stole into the vineyard. We cut off heavy bunches of big purple grapes, and then made a dash for it, dropping, squashing and squirting bits of juicy purple flesh all over clothes and bodies. When we sneaked back into the Koshuis, we had to hide more than the grapes; we also had to hide our purple “bruises”.

Owing to the fact that I spent two periods at the Homestead – 1951 to 1952 and 1956 to 1958 – I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish which events belong to which period. There are a few clear memories of my first period of 1951 – 1952, which I relate now.

It was sad to leave home after spending only one year at home after the Orphanage, and a few weeks of the mid-year school holidays of that same year in the McGregor Home in Wynberg (with Gerry). I described the McGregor Home earlier in the chapter on Gerry “A sojourner there”. Three things stick in my mind: the cow, the sweets, and the nice black man and his warm fire. On the Homestead’s right side in front of the school was a field with a few cows. At the other side of the field was a fence bordering a road. Across the road was a little “Babie”, a nickname we gave to the Indian shops in South Africa that specialized in everything.

The bigger boys sent me on errands to buy sweets for them. One of the boys was Roger, an English boy (in South Africa, white English-speakers were called “English” in contrast to white Afrikaans-speakers who were called Afrikaners). Roger played a lot of tennis on the Homestead tennis court. He was always immaculately kitted out in whites. He was also very handsome and tanned. He often sent me on shopping errands across the field through the fence to the “Babie”; I made a wide berth to avoid the cows. He always gave me a few sweets. My favourites were the marshmallow fish and other sweets in different shapes: white hearts and yellow stars with pink writing etched on one side. Up to then, this was the closest I’d come to the tablets of the Ten Commandments. One day some of the big boys dragged me into the field towards a cow. One of them lifted me up and held me in front of the cow’s muzzle. I split my lip and started to smear the tiny trickle across my face. One of the boys wasn’t fooled and laughed in mock agony.

At the back of the Homestead lived a black man who was in charge of the boilers and did other jobs around the Homestead. Sometimes, on cold nights, after supper and before evening study time, I would visit him in a shed where he warmed himself  next to a large paraffin tin pierced with holes and full of hot coals. We didn’t say much to each other. I felt so happy. Here was someone who was just happy to be with me. He didn’t speak much. We took turns to poke the fire, but not to smoke his pipe.  After I left him, I smelled of smoke. None of the other boys cared, because the time before evening study was normal smoke time for many of them anyhow.

I was in the under-12 rugby team where I played wing. I was a fast runner, and scored lots of tries. I once scored six tries. Other than that, I was too skinny for rugby, even if only as a wing (See my knobby knees in the Orphanage and family photos). I seldom got tackled. I was too fast. I don’t remember tackling much either. We had a number of away-from-home matches at different schools in the Boland. For our away games, we traveled in the school bus. On one of these occasions, it was pouring and very cold. I didn’t have a rugby jersey; instead I wore a hairy sleeveless pullover that itched all over. The field was soaked. You had to lift your legs high to make any headway. The centre passed the ball to me. I loped for the try line. I was running forever. Surely the try line can’t be far now. Ah, at last. Better jot the ball down before the dead ball line or I’m dead. I plonked the ball down inches “before” the  “try line”. The referee blew his whistle and everybody started running back. Hey why is the other team running back; they’re meant to stand behind the posts and wait for our kicker to kick the conversion? What I took for the dead ball line was really the try line. I had jotted the ball down inches from the try line. I don’t remember whether we won that sodden match. Neither do I remember that no one spoke to me on the bus.

I used to visit a school friend’s farm, Sidney Stigant, on the outskirts of Wellington. We shot at birds with our catties (catapults). I once shot a dove. It fell from the tree. I ran up to it. It was on its back blinking up at me. Murderer! I never picked up a cattie again. Sidney Stigant, my Wellington friend, became a fisherman. He drowned in a fishing boat about 15 years later.

At another friend’s farm, I saw a naked woman. We were walking past the little round brick houses of the “coloured” farm labourers. On the rough cement yard in front of one of the houses, a naked woman lay stretched out on her back in the hot sun, legs akimbo, dripping soft parts, softly moaning. That was the first time I had seen a naked woman. So that was what the boys at the Homestead were so obsessed with.  She smelled of vaaljapie. She would have done Rodin proud. (Vaaljapie is a South African raw young wine containing sediment, very popular among the farm workers. Vaaljapie derives from Dutch vaal “muddy” and japie “Jack or Jim”).

I carried on to the farmhouse; a tumbledown structure with cement floors. The farmer, my friend’s father, was in a sweaty vest and sweaty hat, sitting on a rickety chair in the kitchen. He was stirring  a tin bath full of fizzing ginger beer with a long crooked branch.  A dog lay laughing happily next to the farmer’s chair. Bobs of ginger swirled around the basin. Flies were doing dambuster passes low across the hot froth. The farmer removes his dog-eared hat to administer a limp sweep across the spumescent brew. He ladles some into a tin mug and thrusts it into my wavering hands. I bring the brew to close to my lips. I hazard a sip. What is more execrable than warm ginger beer? Hot ginger beer – laced with dambuster flyshot?

Some Saturday afternoons I would walk the 3 kms to the railway station, stand on the platform and imagine catching the train home. The Cape Town- Wellington railway line was the Cape Province’s first railway line, completed in the earl 1860s. During the day, there were very few trains to Cape Town, and so whenever I visited the station, I sat and stared at the empty tracks.  What does an 11-year old know about train timetables? And even if I did know, did I have the leisure to fit my rare visits to the station when it suited me? I did sometimes see trains going in the opposite direction – to mysterious places north. I sat on the bench next to the entrance to the station restaurant and watched people with their lucky children darting off the train and into the restaurant, emerging with handfuls of hot dogs and coffee.  The train hissed with steam. A little while later, the train pulls out of the station on its way to the unknown. Through the train windows, no one is worried about entering the vast unknown.  They’re talking and smiling and eating and drinking.   The train disappears down the tracks. It’s all quiet again.  I get off the bench, climb the steps on to the bridge, and walk back to the Homestead.

On the way to the station from the Homestead, there is an Apostolic church. One of the boarders at the Homestead told me that apostolics make a lot of noise; then they suddenly jump up and run round in the church looking for the Holy Ghost. That is what “apostolic” meant to me for many years and what it still means for many.

After two years at the Homestead in 1951 and 1952, I returned to my Claremont home where I lived for the next three years (Jan 1953 to Dec 1955). I attended Wynberg Junior and High Schools.

Gershom the Sojourner – the Sound of One Monkey Chewing

When I went to study French in France in 1962, I had to obtain a “carte de séjour”, which was a document indicating I was a foreigner (étranger) permitted  to stay in France for a fixed period of time. The English word for séjour is “sojourn.” In the Bible there are at least two people who are called “A Sojourner There,” which is English for the Hebrew name Gershon, or Gershom: alternate spellings of the same name. There was Gershon,  the eldest son of Levi, who was the founder of the Gershonites, and there was Gershom, the first son of Moses.

The name Gershom consists of Ger and shom. Ger means alien, exile, stranger, sojourner;  shom could  mean either “there” (sham) or “name” (shem). So, Gershom could mean either  “ a sojourner/alien there”; or “a sojourner/alien is his name”. I like Rabbi Tani Burton’s comment on the dual meaning of shom:

What is a name?

“There are many views on this topic. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.”

Perhaps one could add that “shem” does not only indicate content and purpose but the totality of sham “thereness” as well. Also, the “purpose” of Hashem “the Name” is another word for His will, which is an attribute of the content of Hashem where “content” is synonymous with who God is. Perhaps Gershom refers not only to alienation (ger) from a place (sham) but also alienation from the Name (shem).

Why did Moses call his first son Gershom? The Book of Exodus explains:

“Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land’ ” (Exodus, 2:16-22).

(Moses was initially taken for an Egyptian in his new land – as indicated in the passage. He had just fled from Egypt where he lived and dressed as an Egyptian).

Moses,  the wandering Jew? No fixed home; a stranger sojourning in a strange land. Shem and sham are all of a piece in (Ger)shom. No matter how close Moses came to Hashem, he remained alienated, like most of us. The question ix can this alienation be overcome, and if so, how?

In my family we all had Hebrew names, but the English equivalent was used more often in the home, and always outside the home. This chapter is about another Gershom, my brother Gerry, whose life is recorded here.

Here is Gerry Gamaroff at 6 years old (cut-out from family photo in the “Gamarophans”). I don’t have any other photos of him. My parents didn’t take photos.



Gerry grew into that endearing grin as other children’s bodies grow into their heads.One of his favourites was laughing with a straight serious face. Gerry, as an adult, was the family entertainer. I never saw Izzy and Fanny  laugh so much than when Gerry was around.

How does someone turn out to be the focal point of family mirth, who at 11 years old was already wandering the streets late at night hanging around with the wrong crowd, whose despairing parents appealed to the state for help. How did it come to this?

We both left the Orphanage at the end of 1949. At the beginning of 1950, Gerry (9 years old)  and I (8 years old) became day scholars at Landsdowne High School, about 5 km from home. Landsdowne High catered for Grades 3 to Grade 12. Landsdowne High included the junior grades.

At break, the juniors jostled against one another in the queue, the bigger juniors leading from the front. Some days we got thick sweet custard; other days, a handful of giant red roasted peanuts and unseeded raisins. Gerry called peanuts and raisins “apies and mongories”. “Apies” in Afrikaans means “little monkeys”; and mongories”? Is it some kind of crunching pips-‘n-all sound ? Mongories mongories mongories.

“Mongories” has the stress on the second syllable, mongories, not on the first syllable as in ironmongery.  I think what Gerry wanted  his “mongories” to convey was the sound a monkey makes when chewing, when mangling its gories (food). Now it just so happens that “mangle” derives from “(iron)mongery”. Both “mangle” and “mongery” derive from the Greek word manganon “a deceptive device”, which the Greeks called their war machines. Gerry was a master of deception, of mangling, of mongreling the mongories of truth.

Everyone presses against one another in the queue. The two teachers don’t know which hand is Arthur’s which Martha’s. They dig tin mugs into the sack of the mix of apies and mongories,  then tip the mouth-watering contents into the craze of upturned hands. Gerry employs his contortionist skills (which he later used to good effect as a champion high jumper). He pushes against the person in front; others push from behind. He stretches out his cupped right hand, swivels his left arm behind his back,  twists his body slightly sideways, and brings his left cupped hand around to his right side to meet his right cupped hand.  The teachers sees the “extra” hand. Mission accomplished: two handfuls of apies and mongories. He showed me how to do it. I tried next time. No luck  I wasn’t blessed with his flexible talents.

One day, a few months into the year,  Gerry and I were called to the principal’s office. Gerry was expelled and I was suspended for a week. I don’t remember why. I can surmise why Gerry was sent home; it was more than for jumping once out the classroom windows; and more than for one sleight of hand in the apies-and-mongories queue. One swallow doesn’t make summer, but lots of swallows – of illicit apies and mongories – perhaps do; as well as lots of  jumping in and out of  classroom windows. Perhaps it was the sound of one monkey chewing one mongory too many that broke the camels back?

After my one week suspension, I returned to Landsdowne School and finished the year (1950, Grade 4). The following year I went to boarding school  –koshuis (“food house” in Afrikaans) in Wellington and attended Huguenot Junior School.  Wellington is about 20kms from Paarl in the Boland, Western Province. The school was about 80kms from home. I describe these “koshuis” years later.

After Gerry was expelled from Landsdowne High Shool, he went to Newlands Primary School, about 4km from home. After one year at Newlands Primary, he was expelled (“struck off the role” as described in his school report). He was then placed in Tenderden Place of Safety in Wynberg, 10 kms from Cape Town. After one year, he ran away. A Probation Officer wrote a report on Gerry and made recommendations. Here are the details:

The following is a record of Gerry’s conduct that appears on an Investigation Report of the State Probation Officer, dated 6 July 1951 Gerry came to the notice of the Probation Officer for the first time in November 1950, after he had been six months at Newlands Primary School after the Principal of the school had made a report to the Probation Officer about Gerry’s “unsatisfactory school attendance of this juvenile.” Since then he was kept under observation. In Februrary 1951, Gerry’s case was reported to the Secretary of the Jewish Board of Guardians, which is the main Jewish charitable organization in South Africa. Meanwhile Gerry continued playing truant and doing other wayward things.

In May 1951, the Jewish Board of Guardians referred the case back to the Probation Officer with the recommendation that Gerry be committed to a suitable institution. As a result, Gerry was removed to “Tenderden (Tender Den!), Place of Safety” Wynberg, which still exists today. Gerry’s Medical Certificate for entry into Tenterden stated that he was physically and mentally in good health.

(Continued in next post).

Of buses, boots and laughing hearts

During one of the school holidays, while I was at home for three years (Jan 1953 – Dec 1955), Gerry and I were placed in the McGregor home in the Wynberg area for a few weeks. I don’t have any unhappy memories of the Orphanage except feeling homesick, but the Mcgregor home, in contrast,  was a heartless place.  I also felt very betrayed that I was put into that ghastly place  during my school holidays! – after so many years away from home: five years in the Orphanage and two years at boarding school in Wellington. It was the unhappiest  time of all my school years, perhaps because I felt that all meaning had been drained out of me.

The family home moved from Maitland to Selous Road, Claremont in 1950, close to Landsdowne Road, which is a main artery connecting Landsdowne to Claremont. A corner plot separated our house from the road. When Gerry was home during his long spells in different institutions, he would sit on the right front corner of  the wall of our house where he had a good view of the double-decker buses passing by. He had a note book, and wrote down the numbers of the buses, the adverts and other details.

Double Decker Daimler Benz

Double Decker Daimler Benz

Here is a typical double decker bus that we had in Cape Town during the 1950s and 1960s. The photo is of an English double decker, which was  exactly the same as the ones in Cape Town. As shown in the photo, the number on the front of the bus (number 129) is visible from a distance.

Gerry and I enjoyed “jumping”  the buses.  We stand a little distance from the people waiting for the bus so that the “conductor” (ticket inspector) of the bus gets the clear message that we are not waiting to get on the bus. The bus arrives. The people climb onto the small platform situated at the back left corner of the bus. There is a horizontal bar for hoisting yourself onto the bus.

Alighting platform of bus

One morning, I got up, bent down to retrieve my precious veldskoens from under the bed. They were gone. So was Gerry. I knew where he might have gone – to one of his friends, who lived in upper Claremont, whom I had seen a few times. I walked up Landsdowne Road, over the railway bridge, across Main Road, Claremont and into upper Claremont. I had a rough idea where his friend lived, I knocked at the door. It was the right house. His friend came to the door. It was about 10 in the morning. I asked him whether Gerry was there. He said yes, but that he was still asleep. I told his friend to take me through to him. Gerry was breathing heavily under the covers. I’m not sure whether he had heard me and was pretending to be asleep. Under Gerry’s bed were my veldskoens. I swore at Gerry and roughed him up a bit. He let out a bewildered grunt.  I grabbed my shoes and made for the front door. As I left the house, I turned round and met the baffled stare of his friend. I remember that incident with shame.

Gerry had rubber legs, which he did not only use to good effect in conversation – he talked with his legs – and escaping from “government” people, but also in sport. In his late teens-early 20s he took up  the high jump and walking races. In those days, high jumpers used the scissors technique, where the jumper kept the body upright, then threw first the inside leg and then the other over the bar in a scissoring motion. You couldn’t jump very high using this technique, but Gerry’s rubber legs did help raise the bar of the game.

For many years I hardly saw Gerry. I saw him in the 1960s at the bris (circumcision ceremony)  of  my brother, Sammy’s son, Moshe, which took place in the lounge of Sammy’s flat in Kenilworth. There was a reproduction of Tretchikoff’s Blue Asian Lady on the wall. Gerry fixed is dark brown eyes on the painting and communicated in gyrations of pollysyllabic rapture  the finer features of the painting, which defied all rules of syntax, and which had nothing to do with the painting at all.

I saw him a few times  at my parent’s next home – a flat in Sea Point.  He became a travelling salesman. In 1971, I went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and taught at St George’s College in Salisbury (now Harare). One day, one of the Jesuit priests came to me and said my brother wants to see me. Brother, brother? What brother? There must be a mistake. Gerry appeared; with a wife that I’d never seen before. She was much older than him. He was on one of his travelling trips, which I never thought would take him so far away from Cape Town.

There was I, a  light-complexioned, pony-tailed  “Senior French Master” of a Jesuit  college, one of the most prestigious private schools in Rhodesia,  squirming next to Gerry, my rough weather-beaten brother, with black hair and dark brown eyes, who spoke – like most South African Jews –  in a strong South African accent.  Jews are loud and intense. Gerry and I were no exception. Jews don’t speak; they declame. But Gerry did more: he was an Othello, without an axe to grind.  (I describe later  my years at St George’s College).

A little while later, I heard that Gerry had been arrested at the Beit Bridge Border crossing from Rhodesia into South Africa. Izzy had to pay Gerry’s huge fine to keep him out of jail. He must have been smuggling something. During  that time, Rhodesia, under the Smith government, was undergoing international sanctions. I don’t know the details of Gerry’s arrest. It would be nice to think that he wasn’t doing anything worse than breaking sanctions. But this is unlikely, because, South Africa practically ignored the sanctions rules, which meant that trade to and from Beit Bridge was not seriously affected.

The next time I saw Gerry was in 1978, two years after I had returned to South Africa from Rhodesia with my newly-wed wife, Cathy. We were living in Observatory, below Groote Schuur Hospital, the hospital where Chris Barnard did the world’s first heart transplant 11 years before (1967), and where my brother Leslie had died of rheumamtic fever in 1949. Gerry came to visit us. He had no money. He had previously won about 20 000 Rands on the horses, which didn’t last long. He was hungry, and wanted to borrow R20.  He told me that he had been to another family member who had  said to him: “What are you doing here?”, and slammed the door in his face. Gerrry had sold most of his furniture.

Not long after, I visited Gerry in Groote Schuur hospital. He had had a heart operation. He spent much of the time describing a horse race  that he had been listening to on the radio,  in which the horse he had bet on had been pipped at the post. His eyes were flashing with excitement. A lot of excitement for someone who had just had a heart operation.

About a week later, Gerry died. I only found out the cause 20 years later (1997) from my brother Joe in Tel Aviv, whom I was visiting. Joe said that Gerry died laughing. He laughed so hard that he split the wounds of his recent heart operation. I didn’t go to see him in the hospital. I was too frightened to see him in death. I hang my head.

What I remember most about Gerry is his deep brown eyes glistening with ecstacy in his hospital bed after listening to the radio broadcast of the horse race – that he had  lost. Why would he be ecstatic about losing the race? It wasn’t about losing, it was about racing- the racing sojourner.

Labela Leslie died of a broken heart; Gershon Gerry – the sojourner – of a laughing heart.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (7): How deep was the valley?

The following comment appears in the Orphanage principal’s notes at the bottom of Rachel’s 1951 school report (from the Orphanage archives).  Rachel was admitted  to the Orphanage in April 1951, together with Benny, who was readmitted for the second time:

“Very weedy and ill-nourished. People who are totally unable to care for their numerous progeny. We had five of their offspring until 1949. The committee have definitely decided that the parents only may visit on Sundays but may not take them out to their home.”

The principal’s thoughts about Rachel and benny are clear. I am not sure what the principal thought about the home visits of the five of us who were there from 1945 to 1949 (Benny, myself, Gerry, Leslie and Minnie), but his notes above about Benny and Rachel are a clear indication. We might have made a few periodical home visits while at the Orphanage. I have no memory of these except the one visit for the family photo shoot. The most memorable and happiest day of my young life. Here are the Principal’s notes on Benny, when he was readmitted for the second time in 1951:

“Rough and uncouth. Needs steady discipline. A lot of good in him if he is carefully watched.”

A typical boy – noise with dirt on.

I found  one document about me: my medical record for admission dated 22 March 45. (I left the orphanage for good at the end of 1949): Physical condition: normal. Mental condition: normal. Condition of skin: verminous. Comment: “This child has lice in the hair and should be isolated.” I wonder what is worse for Jew? A verminous Jew or a Jew who believes in Yeshua HaMashiach.

The Jewish community did indeed “lavish” us with “loving care” (Rabbi Abrahams earlier). What would have happened if we had remained in our “broken” home. The Orphanage started out as a home for orphans, but ended up as a refuge for children from broken homes. Here is Fanny Lockitch again (whom I quoted earlier):

“Well we were orphans who had an early foundation of love. But I must say today it’s mostly from broken homes. I mean we are told inaccurately that nothing can replace parental love. It is true, nothing can replace parental love that is best, but there are many broken homes where children are neglected, overlooked, unwanted and these children find in Oranjia the love and understanding they have never known.”

How broken was my home? Here are two letters (from the Orphanage archives) writtten to the Orphanage by the  family doctor, Dr A. J. Gans. The first letter is an application for admission to the Orphanage of five of the Gamaroffs: Benny Raphael, Gerry, Minnie and Leslie.

7 March 1945

This is to certify that Mrs Gamaroff is expecting her tenth child and she is in bad health and is also suffering from a nervous breakdown. She is unable to attend to her children.

The second letter is six years later as is regard to an application for admission to Orphanage of Rachel (for the first time, and Benny and Gerry (for the second time).

5 April 1951

This is to certify that Mrs Gamaroff is in very bad health and finds it impossible to look after her home and the childlren.

When mother breaks, the home breaks. But the mezuzah was in the slanting position!

Here is another excerpt from Professor Chief Rabbi Abrahams’ message (quoted earlier  The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple): “it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray” (my emphasis).

If Professor Abrahams  believed the Jewish Bible, he would have known that “all of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).” “Children gone astray” for Professor Abrahams – and most people – means children who have “gone off the rails”; who have become a burden or a threat to society. My elder brother (by 11 months) Gerry was judged to be one of these strays. He deserves a chapter of his own.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (6): Let the festivities begin.

I entered the orphanage at the age of 31/2 and left at the age of 81/2. I don’t remember the “loving care”. I don’t remember food. I do remember being very homesick. Here is the weekly menu of the Orphanage  I obtained from the Cape Jewish Orphanage archives.

– Breakfast –  Porridge, bread and jam, cocoa
– School sandwiches – scrambled eggs on bread and butter, fruit
– Lunch – soup, bread

– Breakfast – mealie meal, bread and syrup, cocoa
– School sandwiches – veg, fruit
– Lunch – soup and bread
– Supper fried or gefilte  fish.

(Gefilte fish is  chopped fish formed into balls and cooked in fish stock)

My birthday parties at the Orphanage were the few times that I recall sitting with other children outside the dining room. A few of us sat round a small square table in a large room that we shared; I think there were four to a room. We were each given a Marie (rich tea) biscuit, a fruit cordial sweet and a glass of Oros (orange squash). My siblings and I never went home for birthdays. The only time I am sure that we visited home was the weekend of the 0nce-for-all-time family photo shoot.

The grounds around the Orphanage had lots of tall pine trees. There was a merry-go-round which gave new direction to our lives. Here is a photo from Eric Rosenthal’s book  of some of the Orphanage children on the merry-go-round. As Maurice Chevalier would have said: “I ree-memberr eet well.”



Succoth was a happy time. Succoth (pronounced sukkot) is a seven-day Jewish Harvest Festival, held in September-October. I call it the festival of the “Festival of the Wandering Jew.” It commemorates the wanderings of the Hebrews in the wilderness on their winding  way to Canaan. During their wanderings, they lived in temporary booths (sukkot,  singular sukah).  Succoth is also called the Feast of Tabernacles because people also gathered in sukkot to worship and share meals. During harvest time, farmers also lived in sukkot in the fields. During Succoth, farmers thank God for the harvest.

Today, modern Jewish communities continue the tradition.  On the right side of the Orphanage was a lean-to of wooden beams, which served as the frame for the sukkah.  Branches, broken off from the pine trees on the property, were woven between the wooden beams of the roof and the beams on the long side supporting the roof. All three sides were covered with branches. A space for a door was left on one of the two short sides. The branches were decorated with all kinds of flowers and fruits: lemons, bananas, and whatever fruits were in season.  The three sides were covered in different kinds of sparkly material and lights. When everything was lit up, it was so snug and swarm. We ate our meals in the sukkah during the seven-day holiday.

Then there was Chanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which lasted for eight nights, and is held between late November and late December.  Chanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of  Maccabean revolt  of the 2nd century BC. The First Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Judas Maccabee revolted again the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, a hellenized Jew, who had repudiated his Hebrew traditions and desecrated the Temple.

At Channuka we played with our dreydls; not the ones we were born with, but little dented silver ones.A dreydel (Yiddish dreydl “turn”) is a four-sided top that children play with during  Hanukkah.  It is used in a gambling game. Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for  (Nes Gadol Haya Sham – “a great miracle happened there”). These letters also form a Yiddish mnemonic for the rules of the game. Nun (N) stands for the word nite (pronounced nee-te “nothing”), Hei (H) stands for halb (“half”), Gimel (G) for gants (“all”), and Shin for shteln (“put”). In Israel, the fourth side of most dreydels bears the letter Pei (P), giving the acronym, Nes Gadol Haya Po—”A great miracle happened here“, which refers to the dedication of the restored temple.Here is a dreydl – silver on enamel. Our dreydls were more tinny, and no posh enamel.



We gambled our nuts on the dreydl. Each of us was given a little bag of unshelled mixed nuts: giant yellow almonds, mammoth brazils, and red hazels. The almonds rattled a little, the hazels a lottle, , and the unbudgeable brazils – tight in their shells – a nottle.

In the December holidays we spent a few weeks at a Jewish camp for underprivileged children. It was a 15-minute walk to the “Christian” beach. I mentioned earlier that the Christian beach was a windy beach three kilometers away from the nice Muizenberg beach, which we called “Jewzenberg”, because during the summer it was packed with Joburg (Johannesburg) Jews.

A short flashback: when Lorien was a toddler and Rushka a new baby (1977), Cathy, my wife,  and I went to the “Christian” beach in our VW Luxbug. When we got out of the car, we slammed into a hail of sand. After 20 metres, we had to throw in the towel. We turned back, bundled Lorien and Rushka in the car and went home. We hardly went out with the two babies, and we had no one to babysit for us; my parents lived in their own world.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple.

There are two Preface messages in Rosenthal’s book on the Cape Jewish Orphanage: the first written by Dr Hendrik. F. Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. He was the principal architect of Apartheid in South Africa; the second, written my Professor Israel Abrahams, the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town (from 1937 to 1968). Here were two people, so different in some ways, yet so alike in others. Rabbi Abraham’s Bible says that the Jews are God’s chosen people out of all the nations of the world; Dr Verwoerd’s Bible said that the white race was the chosen people out of all the nations in South Africa. Both of them have a message for the dispossessed.

Here is an excerpt from Dr Verwoerd message:

“It is well known that the Jewish community is outstanding in its attention to the needs of these from its ranks who need a helping hand. This feeling of mutual obligation between members of the same religion should not only be admired, but also encouraged. The best people to lift up the fallen or help the needy – whether they are the aged, or orphans, or unprotected children – are always those of  the same nation and those with a spiritual affinity. Salvation comes best from those who are the nearest in blood and religion, since they find it the easiest to give love and devotion and since it is received from them with the least feeling of humiliation.”


Jewish care for its own is unique. Dr Verwoerd says that the “salvation” of the Jew comes best from a Jew, not only because of ties of blood and religion, but because salvation by one’s own people is less humiliating than salvation from outside the fold.

When I recently told someone I was a Jew, she ooed and ahhhhed about how God had blessed the Jews with so many gifts, which has put them at the top of every field: the sciences, music, and business. It’s not only the Jew that glories in his achievements and his possessions’ it’s the rare soul that loves nothing less.  But the Jew does it on much grander scale. Many false Christians despise the Jew, not for killing Christ, but for the Jew’s remarkable talents: everything he touches turns to gold. (But hang on, I know of at least one – boggy – exception!). No orphanage can keep a Jew down; most past residents of the Cape Jewish Orphanage (and the Arcadia Jewish Home in Johannesburg) – broken homes and all – became  doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen,  giving such naches (blessings) to a Yiddishe mama’s heart. Your Tsorres (sorrows) will turn to simche (joy).

But what do these achievements achieve? How does blood and religion figure in the Jew? Does the salvation of the Jew come from the Jews alone? Can the love and devotion of a Jew save another Jew? Save him from what? Do not the proud achievements and the love of money disqualify the Jew from finding God, disqualify us all from finding God. One of the reasons given by defenders of the Pogroms is  that the Jew’s love of money destroyed his humanity. Last night (12 January 2009) I watched a documentary on the “Ochberg Orphans” (which I mentioned earlier). One Polish Jew explained it this way: “The Jew is eager to lend you money. He lends you 100 slotis and writes down 300. Then he hounds you until you pay up.”

I mentioned Professor Israel Abrahams.  He was born in Vilna, Lithuania in 1903 (a year after Izzy) and the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town and also Head of the Hebrew Department at the University of Cape Town from 1938 to 1968. I studied Hebrew in his Department in 1961. He a was rotund, diminutive Toulouse Lautrec figure in goatee and spectacles. But more than that, whenever I saw him, I felt a longing and peace. In his daughter’s words: “Searching for ways to describe my father, the words that first come to mind are kind and gentle, fatherly, wise, sincere, generous, tolerant (of others), self controlled and hard working.”[4] . Upon retirement, he went to live in Israel where he died in Jerusalem in October 1973. He translated “The Documentary Hypothesis: And the Composition of the Pentateuch” by Umberto Cassuto.

Here is an excerpt from Professor Abrahams message in Rosenthal’s book: (I highlight a few phrases for comment):

“Jewish standards of philanthropic endeavour generally and the loving care lavished on orphans in particular are proverbially praiseworthy. Of Oranjia it can be said that it has maintained that tradition at the highest level.  The very name is characteristic: we do not speak of the “Orphanage,” with all the unhappy Dickensian nuances attaching to such a name. We call it “Our Children’s Home” or simply Oranjia (the name of the original house); because the little inmates are our children and their dwelling-place a home in the noblest sense of the term….it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray.


“Orphanage”, as Abrahams says, does evoke the image of tormented starving Oliver Twists. Not so in Oranjia, where “inmates” are “lavished with loving care.” If “orphanage” is an unhappy term,  “inmates” is bleak: a prisoner, a hospital patient –  a concentration camp! Professor Abrahams was a mother tongue English speaker who grew up and studied in Britain. His English was perfect, if, in this case, inept.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (4) – Theodor Herzl, God’s Deer Gift & Leslie, the Little Lion

Note: In the title of this post, Herzl means “deer”.

I attended Herzlia Preparatory School – a Jewish school – close to the Gardens in Cape Town. “Herzlia” is named after the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl..  His photo occupied a prominent setting at the School.

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl

Theodor’s parents –  unlike his paternal and maternal grandfathers – were not closely attached to traditional Judaism; they were even estranged from it, which was also the case with two of his paternal grandfather’s brothers and his maternal grandmother’s brother. “Theodor(e)” is a Greek name meaning “God’s gift”, and “Herzl” is a variant of “Herschel”, Yiddish for “deer” – God’s deer gift to Zionism. “Herzl” is also Austrian German for the dimunitive of “heart.”Devout Jews gave their children Hebrew names, not Greek names. That probably explains the name “Theodor” – his parents were not observant Jews.

Theodor’s  estrangement from religious Judaism went hand in glove with a fervent loyalty to the land of Israel – and to non-religious Judaism. For many orthodox Jews, in contrast, God promised the Holy Land to the Jewish people on condition that they observed the Torah. They failed to do so, and consequently, God took away their sovereignty over the land and scattered them among the nations. Many Torah Jews believe that the Torah strictly forbids a godly Jew to set up a Jewish State in the Holy Land, or anywhere else. Instead, Jews should be loyal to the nations under whose protection they live. How radically contrary is the majority Jewish view:

“Love of the Land has certainly become an integral part of the Jewish personality ever since then. Jews who demonstrate that love through settling in Israel or supporting it are the ones who guarantee the success of Israel forever.”

One of the most ubiquitous objects in Jewish schools and on mantelpieces of many homes is the blue box of  the Jewish National Fund, in Hebrew “Keren Kayemet LeYisrael”, which is the English transliteration of the Hebrew written on the box (in the photo below). To Jewish toddlers this object is like the blankie to  non-Jewish toddlers. It was so for me. Whenever I saw the blue box, I knew that things were going to be alright. It took me a long time to toggle out of my toddlerhood.

Keren Keyemet LeYisrael

Keren Kayemet LeYisrael

What is the Jewish National Fund?  The Zionists  wanted to buy land in Palestine, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  In 1901, such a fund was proposed at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel. Theodor Herzl, the leading spokesman for Zionism, was a  key figure in the establishment of this fund.

The blue box, after the Israeli flag, is the most eminent symbol of Zionism. It was very much later in my life that I was to learn that many Jews are not Zionists; many are agnostics, some are atheists, some are Buddhists, a few are Muslims, the majority have an embarrassment of other beliefs, some are “Messianic” Jews, some are Torah Jews, and others, like me, are just followers of Yeshua. In a later chapter, I’ll explain the difference between “Messianic Jews”, Torah Jews and “simple” – but not simple-minded – followers of Yeshua.

Since the foundation of the fund in 1901, the Jewish National Fund has played a leading role in Zionist history. It has planted more than 240 million trees, built more than 200 dams and reservoirs, developed more than a quarter of a million acres of land, and created more than 1,000 parks. Large tracts of the Negev desert (three quarters of the land mass of the State of Israel) have been developed. It takes the breath away. Yet, it was King Solomon, who had done even greater things in the Holy Land, making it the most splendid and safest place on earth, who warned (Psalm 127:1):

Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labour in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.

As the Bible records, Solomon didn’t carry through with his own sound advice. He did indeed build a splendid temple – in obedience to God’s command – and many more great edifices. But like all edifices, they are more about edifaces than about godly edification. Solomon didn’t do much to promote the religious life of the Jewish nation. The King- turned preacher – was spared to reflect on the vanity of his own life:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
.Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

(Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)

Leslie the Little Lion

I want to say more about Leslie, my 14-year-old brother. His Yiddish name is Lev (lion), which probably was the name on his birth certificate. We called him “Labela” Little lion. Diminutives, as is well known, are terms of endearment.

Leslie "Labela" (little lion)

Leslie "Labela" (little lion)

I remember Leslie standing in the entrance of  the Orphanage (see photo of entrance in previous post), watching us longingly while we played in the rain. He was sick at the time and couldn’t play outside. I remember going to the hospital to visit him. I was about seven at the time. Protective guardrails surrounded his bed.  Leslie died a few months after the family photo (his picture above  is a cut-out from the family photo). A few years ago, I read on his medical record  – in the Orphanage archives at the Kaplan centre of the University of Cape Town – that he already had rheumatic fever in 1943, two years before he entered the Orphanage. The question is: why was he sent to the Orphanage with such a condition rather than stay at home. The answer will become clear later on when I describe conditions at home.

Rheumatism in the joints is very painful. But rheumatism of the heart!  The heart literally aches. Leslie never recovered.  He died in Groote Schuur Hospital in May 1949. He was 14. “My heart is blighted and withered like grass” (Psalm 102). We drove home from the hospital in our squashed blue 40s Plymouth, and someone telling me that Labela (Yiddish for Leslie) had “passed away”. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know that I didn’t. My sister Rachel told me she remembers seeing our mother, Fanny, and Edie, our eldest sister – Edie was married and living in Maitland – sitting on a green sofa crying. Rachel said to Fanny and Edie:  (Rachel’s words)  “I was rolling bollamakiesies” (turning topsy-turvy), and saying over and over: “Lellie dead, Lellie dead.” An article about Leslie appeared in the “Cape Times” with a picture of him in his hospital bed at Groote Schuur Hospital. I remember the picture well. The article was about Little lion making little dolls for charity.

Our car looked like the one in the photo, but a shabby lighter blue version, without those stylish white-rimmed tyres. I always felt cramped in the car; it wasn’t the size of the car: it was the size of the family – and of my tight shoes.


The year that Leslie died (1949), Minnie, Gerry and I left the Orphanage. Benny stayed on to be joined by Rachel a few years later.

Why did I write about Theodor and Leslie in the same breath? Because of the close connection between Theodor – the “gift of God”; Labela (Leslie) the gift of the “little lion.” When the Books are opened,  it will be the Son of David, the Lion of Judah who will ultimately decide who was the genuine or greater gift of God.

My niece, my brother Sammy’s daughter, was named after my brother, Leslie. She later changed her name because she didn’t want to have the name of a dead relative. The profound fact is every human being, while physically alive, is also dead – spiritually dead unless God raises you to life – spiritual life. The spiritual life of which the Bible speaks is not simply awareness and interest in spiritual things; it is what Yeshua calls “born again”. This term “born again” has been so abused – especially by professing Christians – that it has lost its true meaning. Perhaps my niece believed that replacing a “dead” name with a “live” name would bring about some kind of rebirth, some kind of revival. Names are important, so it is understandable that she was disturbed by her previous name – Leslie. My name also belonged to a dead relative – my mother’s uncle Raphail, who, naturellement, is dead. Most people are named after dead relatives. So, I wonder whether there was more to Leslie, my niece’s distaste for her name other than it’s connection to the dead. If she reads this one day – and responds – she might shed more light on the matter.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (3) – the Gamarorphans

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.

Standing, left to right: Sonia, Izzy, Fanny, Joe, Leslie. Seated, left to right: Minnie, Raphael, Rachel, Gerry, Bennie, Sammy.

Standing, left to right: Sonia, Izzy, Fanny, Joe, Leslie. Seated, left to right: Minnie, Raphael, Rachel, Gerry, Bennie, Sammy.


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:

  1. An Alphabet – an  agreed set of symbols such as letters or sounds.
  2. Grammar – the forms of words and how they are arranged in sentences and larger chunks of language.
  3. Meaning.
  4. Intention.

(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.

orphanage entrance

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.

orphanage drAWING entrance

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.

Minniw, Raphael with "(in)mates"

Minnie, Raphael with “(in)mates”

Cape Jewish Orphanage (2)

Much anti-Jewish feeling was aroused by the “Protocols of Zion”, which also perpetuates the blood-in-the matzah fable. The “Protocols” is one of the best examples of literary forgery. It was initated by Czarist secret police who sought to besmirch the revolutionaries as Jewish puppets. But it went much further than that. It was later pounced on with glee by the Nazis and many Muslims. It is quoted in Palestinian school text-books. It is mentioned in the Hamas Charter: “The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.”

The Torah mentions that God promised the Jews the territory mentioned by Hamas, “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18). The zionists appeal to these promises. Yet the majority of zionists are atheists (like Weizmann and other founders of Zionism). So, one wonders why they appeal to a book they don’t believe in. The Jewish antizionist believes the Jewish people will only be a nation again and have a country of their own again when the Messiah comes. I believe the Messiah who comes will be Yeshua, who will be coming again.

In the pre-Russian revolution years (late 1900s up to 1917) many Jews sided with the revolutionary forces (the Reds) against the Czarist regime (the Whites). This was one of the reasons why the Pale of Settlement became the favourite hunting ground of Jew-haters. Jews smuggled despairing letters, informing Jews in South Africa and other countries of their desolation, pleading for help. The South African Jewish community devised a plan to rescue as many orphans as they could. Donations were generous. Many Jews were involved. but there is one man’s zeal that knew no bounds: Isaac (Yizchak) Ochberg.

Ochberg was an immigrant from Russia. Before the plan could go ahead, there were two questions: How to rescue the orphans from a war-torn region, and whether the South African government would admit? Ochberg met with the Jan Smuts, the prime minister (1919 – 1924) who gave permission, but stipulated that the children to be saved had to be in peak physical condition – the children chosen to pass over from death to life must be lambs without blemish or defect. About 400,000 Jewish orphans were left destitute in Eastern Europe. The South African Jews were determined to save as many as they could. Someone was needed to travel to Eastern Europe to make the necessary arrangements. Isaac Ochberg offered to go. Fanny Frier, who was one of the Ochberg orphans, recalls those days: “He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world.” Although they were excited about “going to a beautiful new country, we also heard stories of robbers and wild animals and we feared we might be eaten by lions or cannibals or sold off as slaves. However, when he appeared with his reddish hair and cheery smile, we all took a great liking to him and called him ‘Daddy.’ He would spend hours talking to us, making jokes and cheering us up.”

Ochberg’s most harrowing predicament was that he only had funds to take 200 of the 400 000 orphans. Who to take and who to let leave behind? He decided to choose eight children from 25 institutions, who had lost both parents and were in good physical and mental shape. I wonder what medical advice he received in the selection. Ochberg must have suffered terrible anguish over the process. What a portent of the twisted things to come 20 years later in the medical “observatories” of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

After three months of hardships and personal sickness, Ochberg and the children arrived in London. A short while later they embarked on the Edinburgh Castle for South Africa. Fanny Lockitch (one of the orphans saved by “Daddy” Ochberg) describes some of Ochberg’s sufferings in her endearing – yet typically Jewish – use of English (a transcription of a conversation with Noreen Alexander, which I obtained from the Orphanage archives): “Daddy Ochberg set up on this grave but by no means unhazardous journey. He arrived there and believe me what confronted him – how the man came through I don’t know, because really he was so ill after a time and it was only our prayer that brought him back to life. He had to go through forests infested with bandits. He was strange in the country and of course there was a civil war raging in this country still.”

Ochberg could only take 200 children. Fanny Lokitch continues: “He would have saved more and I wish to God he would have because the rest must have perished twenty years later under the Hitler regimem no doubt. He really snatched us from thee jaws of death you can say because if we hadn’t died then out of famine and disease, we would have perished twenty years later in the gas chambers…Disease broke out amongst the children (the 200) they got a very terrible eye disease called trachoma and it delayed the actions, and Daddy Ochberg became very ill and that delayed things too…We went down from Warsaw to Dansig. In Dansig we boarded a little steamer which brought us to England.”

Ochberg relates: “I have been through almost every village in the Polish Ukraine and Galicia and am now well acquainted with the places where there is at present extreme suffering. I have succeeded in collecting the necessary number of children, and I can safely say that the generosity displayed by South African Jewry in making this mission possible means nothing less than saving their lives. They would surely have died of starvation, disease, or been lost to our nation for other reasons.I am now in London with the object of arranging transport and I hope to be able to advise telegraphically soon of my departure for South Africa with the children.”

Fanny Frier, whom we met earlier, relates: “Never, to my dying day, shall I ever forget our first sight of the lights of Cape Town and then the tremendous reception when we came ashore with half the city apparently waiting on the quay for us.”

When Yizchak (Isaac) Ochberg died in Cape Town, he left the largest single bequest ever made up to then to the Jewish National Fund. “[The Jewish National Fund] used it to redeem a piece of land in Israel called Nahalat Yitzhak Ochberg – which included the kibbutzim of Dalia and Ein Hashofet. In the course of years, the name Ochberg dropped off the signs and it’s now known as Nahalat Yitzhak. [bography’s note: Nahala” in Hebrew means inheritance, and by extension, the inherited land – Israel]. –  I am certain there is hardly anyone in Israel today who would know which Yitzhak it was.”

The inhabitants of Ein Hashofet probably remain happy in their ignorance of the man behind their good prosperity. ”Dropping names” has been literally restored. In 1962, I spent five months on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet (The Judge’s Spring), but I keep that for a later part of the story.

In my previous post, I mentioned that a documentary, the “Ochberg Orphans” was made in 2008. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Our knowledge of history is often lazily shaped by Oscar-winning movies. How many people gained their understanding of Jewish life under the Romans from the 1960s blockbuster Ben Hur, or the rebirth of modern Israel from Otto Preminger’s Exodus? Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Ochberg moved from town to town, visiting cities – Minsk, Pinsk, and Stanislav – as well as villages, collecting orphans. But what about the movies that don’t quite cut it at the Oscars? Have significant chunks of the past been relegated to the abyss of the unknown? Such may be the case of a recent documentary by director and producer John Blair, who won the Best Documentary Feature statuette for his 1995 Anna Frank Remembered.”

“Blair’s recent entry, The Ochberg Orphans, which deals with the rescue of Jewish children in 1921 from the war-torn Pale of Settlement and their resettlement in South Africa, failed to make the final five nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, and an inspiring chapter of Jewish history may now never reach a wider audience.”

Academies don’t give prizes to movies about the fatherless, the orphanos (from orphe “darkness”).

The Holocaust in Latvia

In the Moral Dust,  there was a photo of rabbis who had died in the Holocaust.  Many books have been written about the Holocaust. Some try to explain why it occurred, others say  there is no way to explain it. In this section, I provide some details about the events themselves, as they occurred in Latvia.

In the early 1920s, the German National Socialist Party planned to expel all Jews from Germany and to destroy European Jewry. The Nazis considered Jews to be barbarians, democrats,  liberals, capitalists AND  communists – qualities considered alien to the Aryan ideal of a salubrious Ger­many and Europe

On March 1941 Hitler – preparing to attack the USSR – appointed Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer (Chief) of the SS, and Rein­hard Heydrich, head of the German Security Service, to organise the total and swift annihilation of  Jews living  in the Ger­man-occupied territory of the USSR. By July, 1941, the whole of Latvia was under German occupation. Of the 90 000 Latvian Jews, only about 15 000 managed to escape to unoccupied Russia – where they were not treated much better.

The Nazis appointed local anti-Semites in the in­vaded territories to assist in the annihilation. The Latvian Holocaust began on June 23, 1941. Jews were killed in different towns such as Durbe, Priekule, Jelgava and Zemgale. The main synagogue of Jelgava was burnt down.

The Latvians were generally pro-German:  they had had close ties with Germany for many centuries. As I mentioned earlier, the names of the streets and other places had German names. For example, in Libau,  the Latvian army was stationed at  “Kreigshafen”. Kornstrasse and Grosse Strasse were among the main streets, with the many smart shops and cafes, which were very much like Allenby street and Dizengoff street in Tel Aviv. (As of this date, Sept 2009, my brother Joe lives in Dizengoff Street).

In the capital, Riga, Viktors Arājs, a student, aged 31, was in charge of the mayhem. He is described as an “eternal student supported by his wife, a rich shop owner, who was ten years older than him. Arājs had worked in the police for a certain period of time. He stood out with his power-hungry and extreme thinking. The man was well fed, well dressed, and with his student’s hat proudly cocked on one ear.”

Under Viktors Arājs, the Riga Jews were arrested, beaten,  robbed, their synagogues were burnt down, and thousands  were killed. Individual Latvian self-defense units were also involved in the exter­mination of Jews. All killings were supervised by German officers.  In July 1941, about 4000 Riga Jews were transported to the Biķernieku Forest, where they were shot and buried in mass graves.

In the Dvinsk area (today’s Daugavpils) – where Mendel Gilinsky and his family lived until they moved to Libau, where Fanny was born) – about 15000 Jews were moved to the Grīva ghetto. Most of them were transported to surrounding fields and shot and buried in mass graves the size of houses. One German commandant of the Daugavpils Ghetto, Zaube, took offenders – espe­cially those who had smuggled in food to the inner square of the ghetto  – and shot them in front of the other inmates. Here is a photo of inmates of the Dvinsk ghetto awaiting transport to take them to the killing fields.

libau ghetto

The situation was similar in all the ghettos of Latvia. The Riga ghetto was set up in the  Latgale Suburbs, which was mainly a poor area inhabited by Jews, Rus­sians and Belarussians – all enemies of the Germans.  About 23,000 Riga Jews were moved to the ghetto, which already had 6000 inmates, and heavily overcrowded

Zaube, the German commandant of the Daugavpils Ghetto, stood out for his extreme cruelty. He killed offenders –  espe­cially those who had brought in food. They would be executed on the inner square of the ghetto in front of all inmates to frighten and to humiliate them. It was in Dau­gavpils that the liquidation of ghetto inmates started. On November 810, 1941, 3000 people were killed in Mežciems. The operation was headed by Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Günter Tabbert, who was then 25.

Let’s now go East to Libau (Liepaja circled in red on the map of Latvia below); my mother’s birth place.

libau map

Libau was invaded by the Germans  in June 29, 1941. I was born on 7 June of the same year very far from the Holocaust – in Cape Town, South Africa. The Jewish population of Libau counted 9,000, and straight away the systematic extermination started.

The first victims were 33 Jewish workers. Then all Jewish males between 16-65 had to come every morning to the “Hauptwachplatz”, where they were escorted to work in various work stations, accompanied by beatings. Many did not return home at night. They were ordered to dismantle the Great Synagogue,  the “Chor-Schul”, brick by brick,  and to destroy the Torah scrolls.Here is a picture of the Great Synagogue of Libau.

After the destruction of the Great Synagogue, the Latvian Press stated that the Synagogue cellars contained hidden weapons and stolen Latvian property.

In these first weeks about 2000 Jews were killed. On the 24 July, 3000 more Jewish men were assembled on the “Hauptwachplatz”. After they had been relieved of their papers and valuables,  they were taken to a lighthouse near a small fishing port where they were killed on the spot. Most of the smaller villages suffered a similar end. The executioners got a big kick out of killing 50 old men and women on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. When Latvians living in the vicinity of the Lighthouse complained about the noise, the killings were suspended.

Not long after, Jews were ordered to remain at home on the 15 and 16 December. Their non-Jewish Latvian compatriots told them to dress warmly because they were to be sent to work far from home. They did not go far, a mere seven kilometers, to Shkeden, where 3000 were killed on the beach. Some of the killers were so overwhelmed by their own evil that they went insane. The German Commissar, Laze, complained to the German High Command that he needed the Jews for his labour force, and the killings were upsetting his plans. Berlin’s pithy reply: “Economic considerations are not to be taken into account in solving that problem.”

After several more exterminations, until January 1942, the Ghetto of Libau was established. In early July there were 816 people including 175 males in the Ghetto. There was a small synagogue, a library and a small mobile clinic. Life was relatively good in the Ghetto. The German Commander, Kretscher, a rare exception, treated the Jews humanely. After 18 months, on 18 October 1943, all  the Ghetto inmates were jam-packed into railway cattle cars and taken to the “Kaiserwald” Camp near Riga; 360 of these were sent to the Auschwitz Crematorium, and many were sent to other camps around Riga. As the Russians approached Riga, most of the Jews in Libau were railed to Germany through Danzig and Stutthof, and were dispersed into camps in Germany. Non-Jewish Latvians – many of them with Jewish blood on their hands – also beat a hasty retreat into Germany to avoid falling into Russian hands.

When Libau was liberated, 40 living Jews were found out of the 9000 who had lived there until 1941. If my family had remained in Libau, I  would have been  three weeks old. My family and I would have been killed very soon after.

By October 1941, about 35,000 Latvian Jews had been killed.  The Jews that survived a while longer were put under house arrest and could only leave the homes for brief periods of the day. Besides having to wear the predictable yellow star, they got lower food rations, and only at special shops. They couldn’t attend any public places such as cinemas parks, libraries, museums, bath-houses. They also had to hand in their radios and  bicycles, jewelery and any other precious items. They were then moved to ghettos were they could be organized as a source of cheap labour.

Here is an account, among many, from by Jack Glocer, an Auschwitz survivor, who says: “‘I had a cousin who had a 3-month-old daughter on the train we took to Auschwitz,’ Glocer remembers ‘When we arrived at Auschwitz the child was grabbed by a Nazi soldier and thrown on top of a pile of burning babies.'”

Besides the killings there were the cursings and  brutal beatings. The worst for the majority of the inmates of the camps was not the ovens, for by the time they were thrown into the ovens, they were already dead;  it was the appalling suffering in the camps. And most terrible of all, the final never-ending moments in the gas chambers.

Here’s the irony: the Jews of Latvia were very proud of their German culture; German culture had become the greatest culture in Europe. Who was there to compare with Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, and Mozart? The irony is that at the time that Hitler began his assault and extermination of the Jews in Europe, the greatest honour for a Jew was to be a German Jew; Polish Jews were at the bottom of the pecking order. In many cases, it was difficult to state whether a German Jew was more proud of being German or of being Jewish.  This was particularly so for “progressive” Jews, where progress meant shucking off the shackles of religious “superstition”. We might say the same for many modern Jews. What if we asked Steven Spielberg, or many of the other Jews of New York (over two million) – the proudest, because the most successful, group on the planet – what  they were more proud of: being American or Jewish? And they had to choose.

As a result of the holocaust, the faith of many Jews flickered, and  died. My days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. Because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones. All day long my enemies taunt me; those who rail against me use my name as a curse. For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass (Psalm 102).

But for others, the flames and the ashes and the smoke may temporarily blot out faith, only to flicker into life again. BUT you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations (end of Psalm 102).

How could anyone praise God after that. That is the mystery of Israel. And the mystery of all humanity, and most of all the secret of God. No Jewish biography can ignore it, because every Jew, even those Jews who despise or are indifferent to Biblical Judaism – the Jewish majority – cannot tear up the covenant that God made with His people.

Let me say something more about the word “Holocaust”, and see how this relates to the desire to “go up to” the Land of Israel. Holocaust comes from Greek holokauston (“that which is completely burnt”), which was a translation of Hebrew ‘hola (literally “that which goes up,” in this case, in smoke). In Hebrew, an immigrant  is “Oleh (someone who goes up) Chadash (new). In the holocaust, an ‘olah’ goes up in smoke. Both ‘olah’ and ‘oleh’ are from the same verb root ‘to ascend’. The State of Israel is determined that the olah will never ever happen again.

One of the ways to strengthen this resolve is through immigration (aliyah – same Hebrew verb root as olah and oleh ‘to go up’).  The Bible – Newer Testament as well as the Older Testament  – prophesies much worse things to come, where many of the  immigrants (olim – plural of ‘oleh’) and/or their descendants will also experience an olah, a going up in smoke, which will be far more devastating than the Nazi Holocaust.

The Bible teaches that only a remnant of Jews will remain when the Messiah comes – for the first time, according to Orthodox Judaism; for the second time, according to orthodox Christianity. So, Jews who are presently preparing to go to Israel are oblivious that they are leaping into the heart of the flames. It reminds me of the abortion clinic. The womb used to be the safest place for a baby; today it is the most treacherous. There is coming a time when Jews, like the unborn baby, will be screaming again to escape the fire and the smoke: “Never Again?” The Bible says, yes, again, and much worse.

Although, the Jews were the main group of victims of the Holocaust – about 6 000 000 across Europe – there were many other victims of the Nazi genocide: one-half million Gypsies, about 250,000 mentally or physically disabled, and more than three million Soviet prisoners of  war. Other victims were Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, social democrats, communists, partisans, trade unionists, Polish intelligentsia and other undesirables. Here are three names of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children killed by the Nazis. These three, from the same family, are from Osvei (Osveya), Belarus, My father, Izzy’s birth place:

Naum Gutkin 15  1942

Roza Gutkin 13 1942

Leib Gutkin 17 1942

In the Northern Libau port district of Karosta stands  the stunningly beautiful Babylonian-style Cathedral of St Nicholas.

One would not normally associate such grandiose imperial architecture with a synagogue. The contrast between the Great Synagogue of Libau and St Nicholas Cathedral is evident. Yet one does find synagogues that try to emulate the Russian Othodox Church; for example,  the very Babylonian-looking synagogue below. It’s not in Latvia, or anywhere in the Russian Empire, or anywhere in Europe. It’s in South Africa, in Pretoria. It, of course, is little competition for St Nicholas Cathedral. The Pretoria synagogue was inaugurated in 1898. De Vries, a Lithuanian Jew, who was the first Jewish settler in Pretoria and a prominent figure in South African life, was involved in the establishment of the synagogue.

De Vries became the state prosecutor, a member of the Volksraad and a pioneer of the Afrikaans language. His English was probably very poor, as was the case with many immigrant Jews who settled in Afrikaans communities in South Africa. “De Vries” is now a common Afrikaans name in South Africa.  Many of the Jewish settlers in the Wellington-Malmesbury area spoke with a a “brei” (the french gargly “r” ). I went to boarding school in Wellington, but more of that later. What happened to the Old Synagogue in Pretoria? How does it relate to the final end of the Libau Synagogue.  The Pretoria  Synagogue became the new Supreme Court and was used for security-related cases such as the treason trial in 1962 of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 others . The inquest into the death of Steve Biko was also held in the Old Synagogue.

Pretoria synagogue

What, or who, is that staring at me through the the entrance of the shul. I see, good grief, the visage  – prominent forehead, deep set eyes and whimsical little smile – of a Russian Orthodox saint! St Nicholas?

The Jewish Community of Dvinsk (Daugavpils)

Below is a map of Latvia. Riga, the capital, was the main port of the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and was the main port of embarcation for transmigrants from the Russian Empire (which comprised the Baltic States, Russia, and Belarus – Izzy’s country of origin. Mendel Gilinsky was born in Dvinsk, now called Daugavpils (bottom left corner of the map). It is the second largest city in Latvia.


Jews occupied Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) since at least the 17th century. It became one of the foremost Jewish cities of the Russian Empire and a centre of Jewish culture and commercial activity. It was part of the Russian region of Vitebsk Gubernia. Osvei, (now in Belorus), Izzy Gamaroff’s (born Gamerov) birthplace, was also situated in Vitebsk Gubernia. In the 18th and first half of the 19th  centuries, the countries of Latvia and Belarus did not exist. There was only Russia (the “Russsian Empire”).

In 1910, Dvinsk  numbered 111,000 of which 50,000 were Jews. It was within the Pale of Settlement. It derived its influence more from Russian, Lithuanian and Polish influence than from German influence as was  the case of Libau (my mother’s birth place). Libau was German in character as a result of nearly 700 years of domination by the Baltic Germans. That is why Libau had German street and landmark names.

Commerce and manufacturing in Dvinsk were largely in Jewish hands. The most important Jewish trades were tailoring (1,210) and shoemaking(Mendel Gilinsky, my mother’s father). There were button and match factories, and a tannery, and so forth under jewish ownership. Dvinsk was one of the chief artillery depots of the Russian Empire and large garrisons of troops were stationed there.

There were many poor Jews in Dvinsk who had to rely on state aid. There were also Jewish charitable institutions that provided soup kitchens, a dining hall, a “bikkur holim” (visiting the sick), a dispensary and a hospital.  All these were organised and run by the Jewish community.

Dvinsk was a key centre of Jewish thought and culture and produced a number of rabbis respected throughout the Jewish world, for example,  Chief Rabbi Kuk [Kook] (1865 – 1935), the first “Ashkenazi” chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine. “Ashkenazi” refers to Yiddish speakers, who were European Jews. Sarah Feige Foner who lived in Dvinsk as a young girl gives an evocative account of Dvinsk Jewish life in the early 20th century.

19th Century Dvinsk

19th Century Libau, my mother’s birth place

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (1)


Origin of the Cape Jewish Orphanage


I spent my very early years at the Cape Jewish Orphanage (three to nine years of age; 1944 to 1949). In 1994, I visited the Kaplan Jewish Archives at the University of Cape Town, where there are dozens of boxes of files on the Cape Jewish Orphanage. The Orphanage was situated in Montrose Avenue, Oranjezicht.

Events often appear to happen by chance. The origin of the Cape Jewish Orphanage was one of these seemingly chance events. The need for such an institution had been suggested in 1907. What got things moving in 1909 was the plight of three Jewish orphans who were living in squalor in the small village of Piketberg. They were found working at the back of an hotel. The Jewish community realised  that there were probably other neglected Jewish orphans in South Africa, and therefore decided that a home was need to house them. Three people who played a prominent role in the planning were Joseph Kadish (in English, Joseph Holy), Reverend  A.P. Bender and Isaac Ochberg. Ochberg, at the age of 15, came from Kiev  in the Ukraine,  which at that time was the heart of the Russian Empire. He prospered as a timber merchant, and took a great interest in helping the underprivileged.

The Orphanage committee rented a cottage in Mill street, Cape Town at £4 rent a month. By 1914, the house became too small to accommodate the demand. In that ominous year, before the outbreak of war, it was decided to expand. A new site was bought in Montrose Avenue, Oranjezicht for £1,125.  In 1915, the foundation stone was laid – by  the Governor General of the Union of South Africa, Lord Buxton. In 1918, the end of the WWI was overshadowed by the outbreak of Spanish Flu. which claimed more victims that the 1914-1918 slaughter. In “Black October”, Cape Town lost 10% of its inhabitants. There were also a few deaths at the Cape Jewish Orphanage. The death toll for the Union of South Africa was over 120 000.

In the early 1920s, the Jews in Ukraine were suffering terrible pogroms. “Pogrom” is the Russian word for “destruction” derived from the Russian verb “to destroy, wreak havoc, demolish violently.” Uri Avnery defines pogroms as “riots by an armed mob intoxicated with hatred against helpless people, while the police and the army look on. The Pogromchiks destroy, injure and kill.” The irony is that Avnery, a Jew, is writing about “fascist” Settlers who “riot in Palestinian villages whose lands they covet, or for revenge.” In January, 2009, the Israeli army was at war with Hamas in the Gaza strip. Three years earlier, Israel forcibly removed the Jewish settlers from Gaza.  Israel’s reason for the January 2009 bombing and invasion of Gaza was the incessant firing of rockets  by Hamas into Israel. Hamas responded that they were justified in their actions as long as Israel continued to blockade Gaza and occupy the West Bank. It is highly unlikely that there can ever be peace between Ishmael and Isaac. The Bible speaks of a perpetual enmity between the half-brothers.

To return to the history of the Orphanage, Jews were caught in the middle of devastating forces that were rocking the Russian Empire. After the Czarist system collapsed in 1917, culminating in the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family, opposing armies, –  the Reds and the Whites – were fighting each other for control. As a result, the already very opppresive condition of the Jews  became far worse. Out of the famines and typhoid epidemics,  anti-Semitism became more virulent than in past centuries.

The Ukrainian and Polish peasants joined forces with the Red Army to massacre Jews wherever they were to be found. Pogroms were reported every day. Although details of the scale of the destruction remain unknown, it is known that between 1919 and 1921, 70 000 Jews were murdered and a similar number wounded in 1400 pogroms under the Ukrainian leader Simon Petlura. One of the reasons given by supporters of the Pogroms is that the Jew’s love of money destroyed his humanity.

On 12 January 2009, I watched a documentary on the “Ochberg Orphans”. In the 1920s  Isaac Ochberg brought out hundreds of Jewish orphans from Eastern Europe during the Jewish persecutions. Many of  these orphans were housed at the Cape Jewish Orphanage in Cape Town. In the documentary, one Polish Jew explained: “The Jew is eager to lend you money. He lends you 100 slotis and writes down 300. Then he hounds you until you pay up.”  If only it had stopped at the Jewish monopoly of money lending. One of the anti-Jews in the documentary trotted out the medieval legend of the “matzo of blood” that Jews prepare from the blood of Gentile children. He said that the Jews put gentile children into a drum spiked with nails, drain the blood and use it to prepare the matzoth. The Nazis had a similar view. here is a piece from Der Stürmer, May, 1934, originally published in German: ”They (the Jews) are charged with enticing Gentile children and Gentile adults, butchering them, and draining their blood,” which is a bizarre twist to the medieval practice of thrusting a frail naked Jew in a nail-spiked barrel and rolling it down a hill while fellow Jews were forced to watch. On the other hand, the Jewish Talmud does say awful things about the Gentiles. The Talmud is a written record of the so-called Jewish oral tradition: “ each journey through it can have a different final meaning and significance for individual readers” (Jonathan Grall). I wonder how many different final meanings can be culled from the following Talmudic quotation: “Every Jew, who spills the blood of the godless (non-Jews) is doing the same as making a sacrifice to God.” (Talmud: Bammidber raba c 21 & Jalkut 772). The Nazis quote many such passages from the Talmud. Sadly, much of the Talmud is a blight on the Torah and a swallowing of camels and a straining at gnats – and where did Mohammed pick up much his knowledge of “Torah”? From Jews who thought more – and arguably knew more – of the Talmud than the Torah:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. (But) these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrite” (Matthew,23:23-25).

Kaddish and Purgatory

In the previous post “Kaddish,” I mentioned that Kaddish prayers are also offered for the purging of the sins of the departed. I’d like say more about this matter and also relate it to the Roman Catholic docrine of purgatory.

Where do orthodox Jews believe their deceased loved ones are now?  When the Jewish soul separates at death, it enters the eternal realm of many possible worlds. In this life, you can gain merit through fulfilling the 613 commandments (Mitzvot) of the Torah and doing good deeds. The level of your commitment will determine which spiritual level the soul will live on.  There is no limit to the number of levels because God is infinite.

When Kaddish is recited for the departed, it helps the soul ascend to the next level.  There is more that can be done: good deeds done in memory of the departed soul will be credited to him or her as righteousness. The traditional deeds are the study of Torah and deeds of charity.

The Judaic view of “hell” – Gehenna in the Hebrew Bible – is much milder than most Christian views.  Although Gehenna is a terrible place, it is not hell.   The majority rabbinic view is that people are not tortured for an eternity; far from it; 12 months at the most. Some rabbis describe Gehenna as a fire of spiritual purification after which the soul ascends to a specific level of the “Garden of Eden” (heaven). As I mentioned earlier, there is no limit to the number of levels because God is infinite.

I am reminded of the Roman Catholic view of purgatory. A few weeks ago, I finished reading Pope John XXIII’s diary.  Here is the entry of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (his original name) of 22 Sept 1898, when he was 18 years old and studying at the Seminary of Bergamo.

“This evening, when I thought about it seriously, the tears came to my eyes. (John was anxious about the health of a fellow seminarian that was very ill). I imagined myself on that sick bed and I wondered how it would go with me if I were to be judged in this very moment. I should deserve to go to hell, but I hope I shall not be sent there. In any case I am sure I ought to be sent to purgatory. Yet the mere thought of purgatory makes me shudder. What then will become of me? Oh poor me, how wretched I am!”

Poor, wretched fallen Angelo. He probably knew all about John Vianney’s : “It is definite that only a few chosen ones do not go to Purgatory and the suffering there that one must endure, exceeds our imagination” (La Doctrine, pp.22f), and Therese of Lisieux’s “the mystics unanimously say that the least suffering in Purgatory is much greater than the greatest suffering here on earth.”

Compare Pope John with the founder of rabbinic Judaism’s  view:

” I’m about to meet Ha Shem, God , Blessed be his name, and before me there are two roads, one leading to Paradise and one leading to Gehenna; one leading to Heaven and one leading to Hell, and I do not know to what road Ha Shem will sentence me” (Rabbi Ben Zakkai). This view is also that of the Qur’an.

Jews and Roman Catholics believe that their good deeds can earn merit for themselves and for the departed soul, which will shorten the time spent in purgatory (the Roman Catholic view) or the time spent in Gehenna or at a lower level of heaven (the Jewish view). They can, however  never be sure, because they feel that it would be pride to presume on God’s mercy. Unblessed assurance. How different is the Christian biblical view! – “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:7).

Last Will and Testament

Mendel Gilinsky, Fanny’s father, died in 1947; two years after my four siblings and I had entered the Cape Jewish Orphanage, Cape Town, in 1945, and one year before the establishment of the State of Israel.

Mendel’s will and testament reveals interesting details about 19th century “Palestine”.

Here are details of Mendel’s “Final Liquidation and Distribution Account” (Archive depot Family History Center of the Mormon Church in Parktown, Johannesburg):

Immovable property – Nil

Movable property (Personal belongings and clothes) – ₤20

Cash found in Estate – Nil.

Claims in favour of Estate (South African Permanent Building Society and Investment Society Johannesburg) – ₤253.12.6.

Liabilities Administrative Expenses – ₤21.10.3

Fees Payable to the Master of the Supreme Court (Estate fee, Taxing fee, Binding fee) – ₤2.3.0.

Extracts from Mendel’s Will:

“I do hereby direct my Executor to set aside, before paying any of the special bequests and legacies hereinafter set forth, the sum of ₤75, of which the sum of ₤25 should go for the purpose of paying my funeral expenses, and the balance of ₤50 for the buying and erecting of a suitable tomb stone for me.”

Mendel bequeathed the following legacies to:

(a) The Jewish Old Age Home, Jerusalem – ₤25. “And I do hereby direct my Executor, when paying the said sum of ₤25 to the said Jewish Old Age Home Jerusalem to notify the Home that the said sum of ₤25 is bequeathed to them with the express wish and desire that a suitable inmate of the said Home should say Kadish (Mourner’s prayers) after me.”

Mendel doesn’t seem to realize that Kaddish/Kadish requires a Minyan (a quorum of ten adult male Jews). So, he really needed 10 “suitable inmates”, not only one.

(b) The Jewish Orphanage in Jerusalem, Palestine – ₤25.

The Official name of this Orphanage was the “Great Palestine Orphan Asylum Diskin”. One of the documents I have in my possession is a copy of the receipt from the Orphanage in “Great Palestine” for the ₤25 received from Mendel’s Estate. On the receipt is a picture of the founder of the Orphanage, Rabbi Yehoshua Yehudah Leib Diskin (1818-1898).

rabbi diskin

Rabbi Yehoshua Yehudah Leib Diskin (1818-1898)

Rabbi Diskin was a Rabbi in Belarus (my father’s country of birth) before he moved to Jerusalem in 1878. He became the leader of Hayishuv Hayashan (Old Community), which refers to the Jewish community that lived in the land of Israel from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to the First Aliyah “going up” – homecoming) in 1881, prior to the beginning of Zionist immigration. Here is an account of the importance Rabbi Diskin attached to the Mezuzah, which is  piece of parchment on which is written the scripture verses, Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21. The parchment is rolled  up in a container inscribed with the word “Shaddai” (Almighty). The mezuzah is affixed to the right side of the doorpost. An observant Jew touches it on entering and leaving the house.

From Tales of Tzaddikim [ Sages], Mesorah

The Protection of Mezuzah

R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin, the famous Maharil, who settled in Jerusalem and founded that landmark, the Diskin Orphanage, would have people go from house to house to examine the mezuzos to see if they were in order. He paid them from the coffers of the orphanage.

When R’ Yehoshua Leib was asked why he did this, he would reply, “You might think that this was an unnecessary, irrelevant expense for the institution. Actually the opposite is true; it is income. The Torah guarantees, ‘So that your days will increase.’ If kosher mezuzos [pural of mezuza)  protect the people of Jerusalem and increase the days of its inhabitants, then there will be fewer orphans and the orphanage will have less expenses. Is this, then, not a form of income?”

Here is a giant Mezuzah. The Hebrew letter on it is the “sh” (shin), the first letter of the word “shma” (hear) of the verse:  “Hear, O Israel:The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Jews don’t touch this Mezuza, because only a complete meshuganna (crazy) would stop his car, jump out and jimp up to try touch it: the Jaffa gate has the most vehicle traffic of all the gates of Jerusalem.

Mezuza Jaffa Gate Jerusalem

Mezuza Jaffa Gate Jerusalem

The mezuzah is horizontal, but the most common placement is at a slant. Rashi (Moses Maimonides) says the Mezuzah should be horizontal so that one can read the words inscribed on the outside. Rabbenu Tam says that such a position is neither here nor there (Yiddish – nit tut, nit tam) and is therefore disrepectful, comparable to burying a person in an uprught position. The mezuzah should be rather placed like the Tablets in the Holy Ark — horizontally. But vertical won the day because the Shulchan Aruch (literal Hebrew “Set Table) – the manual of Halacha (Jewish law) – ruled in favour of Rashi’s position.

I read the following explanation why the mezuzah is placed at a slant. The house is the home of a husband and wife. The slanting mezuzah teaches (Torah means “teach”) every couple how to create a happy peaceful home, shalom bayit. Each spouse  should be prepared to bend towards the other in helping to lead a harmonious family life. That is why the mezuzah should be placed at a slant. That’s fine, as long as they don’t bend over backwards for each other, as that would put the mezuzah out of kilter. Reminds me of the interpretive – often sentimental – excesses of  human nature.

Rabbi Diskin was an antizionist like most of the Torah Jews of his generation. Late in my life – these past few years (2003 – 2009) – I have taken a great interest in the divergent views between Zionism and Torah Judaism. Many Jews, of course, would reject the view that Zionism is the antonym of Torah. One of the most distinguishing features of the Diskin movement is the view that Hebrew is a holy language (Loshon Hakodesh) and thus should not be used as a means of social communication; so modern Hebrew as the language of the State of israel was rejected.

‘According to tradition, writes Rudolph Klein, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818-1898) refused to speak to a certain Torah Scholar in Jerusalem because that scholar spoke Loshon HaQodesh. One time, the latter entered Rabbi Diskin’s house and began to pose a question to Rabbi Diskin in Loshon HaQodesh. At that point, Rabbi Diskin reprimanded the scholar and exclaimed “Leave my house! Throughout our exile we will only speak Yiddish! ” Thus, Rabbi Diskin opposed the usage of Loshon HaQodesh even without the secular implications of its usage. Some believe that Loshon HaQodesh will be the universal language of the Messianic Era. This belief is based on the prohecy of Zephaniah (Zephaniah 3:9) who foretells that in the future the entire world will call out the name of HaShem in a “Safa Berura” (lit. clear language). The phrase “Safa Berura” is equal in numerical value to “in Loshon HaQodesh.”’

I would have been more – not much more – convinced of this numerical argument if “Safa Berura” was equal in value to “Loshon Hakodesh,” without the addition of “in” (the Hebrew Beth).

When  Rabbi Diskin died in 1898,  his son, Rabbib Yitzchok Yerucham Diskin, took over the reins of the Orphanage, and in 1900  initiated the construction of  the Diskin Orphanage at the entrance to Jerusalem, which has seen continual improvements, to produce an architectural splendour. While the Cape Jewish Orphanage (where i was an “inmate” was demolished decades ago to make way for upmarket Jewish residences, the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem, in contrast, is today one of the the ten most beautiful buildings in Jerusalem.

My daughter Natasha, who is half Jewish (her father’s side, of course, married a Miskin.There are two sources of the name “Miskin”. The first is from the Jewish Belarussian patronymic derived from the male personal name Miske, a pet form of Michael. The second source is from the Russian Myshkin (Мы́шкин – Mishkin), more commonly Miskin. This name is derived from the Hebrew “mishkan”, the ancient Jewish temple in  Jerusalem. But the Russian “myshkin”  also means the possessive case of the diminutive “mouse”. Prince Myshkin is a famous literary character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Who wouldn’t love to be that kind of idiot? Natasha’s husband doesn’t know whether he is of Jewish ancestry, but if not, there still remains possessive, dimunitive mouse to fall back on.

I wonder why Mendel didn’t send his  ₤25 bequest to the Orphanage where his grandchildren  were rather than to Jerusalem. There could be so many reasons why he didn’t. For one thing, we were sent to the Cape Jewish Orphanage two years before his death and he might not have known (or been informed) that we were in an Orphanage in Cape Town. Or he might have written his will before 1945 and did not  think he should change his commitment to the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. Or Mendel might have thought that if there was someone in Jerusalem saying Kaddish prayers for him  (a condition of his bequest), these prayers might carry more weight than if Kadish was said for him outside Israel.

The Gilinskys (My mother’s branch)

I made enquiries at the Latvian Archives (dated 27 Jan 2005). Here is an excerpt from their reply to my email:

“We would like to explain you that Latvia was a part of Russian Empire till 1918 and all citizens were Citizens of the Russian Empire. Mendel and Golda also were Citizens of the Russian Empire when they left for South Africa in 1913.”

The date mentioned in the letter of Mendel, my mother’s father’s departure from Latvia is 1913, whereas the ship’s list in the library of the Jewish Board of Deputies recorded the date as 1912 (see beginning of Chapter 1: Russia and the Jew). I opt for the date on the ship’s list. Why? Because I have this thing that arrivals are more memorable that departures.

Here is more from letter  I received from the Latvian Archives:

We have found information about only one Mendel Gilinsky:Mendel, son of Leiser Gilinsky was born in ca 1867 (he was registered as aged 22 in 1889). His occupation – shoemaker. On August 24 of 1889 (Julian calendar) in Dvinsk Mendel, son of Leiser Gilinsky from Griva married Genya-Golda, daughter of Raphail-Josel[1] (maiden name is not stated), aged 20 (so born in ca 1869) (entry No.178 in the marriage records of the Jewish community in Dvinsk for 1889). The birth records of the Jewish communities in Griva and Dvinsk for 1867, 1869 do not contain information on the birth of Mendel Gilinsky and Genya-Golda. The birth records of the Jewish community in Griva contain information about one child of Mendel and Genya-Golda:

–    son Benzion Gilinsky, born on February 25 of 1892 in Griva (his birth was registered in the birth records of the Jewish community in Griva, entry No.9 ).

There was no record of any of Mendel’s and Genya-Golda’s other four children (one of whom was Feiga/Fanny, my mother), who were also born in Latvia. The reason, perhaps, for this absence of any record of the births of Mendel’s other four children is because after Benzion was born, the family moved from Dvinsk (Daugavpils) to Libau, where the other children were born. So, perhaps only the records in Dvinsk have survived, or the records of the birth of the other children are not kept in the Latvian Archives that I consulted. My mother’s death certificate says that she was born in Libau; she did mention Libau to me but I wasn’t aware that it was her birthplace. My mother was born in 1907, five years before Mendel arrived in South Africa. The names of the four other children were Ben Zion (see the letter from Latvia above), Max, Edie, and Olga. Here is a photo of Benzion (left), Olga (middle), Max (right) and Edie (front).

four gilinskys

I never met  Olga (who looks a lot like my mother, Fanny), and only found out about her existence a few years ago (in 2004). My parents were very mum about their past. Max’s daughters told me (in 2004) that BenZion was killed in the war (WW1)[2]. He was born in 1892 (see letter from Latvia above), so he was in his early 20s when WW1 broke out. He remains a mystery. Benzion looks about 12-13. So, the photo must have been taken in Latvia in 1904 – 1905 (Benzion was born in 1892, according to the Latvian records above). Fanny (my mother), who is not in the photo was born 2-3 years later. In the next photo, Benzion is absent, and Fanny is present.

[1] My name is Raphael. and Josel (Jossel – Joe) is the name of my eldest brother.

[2] The Jewish immigrants to South Africa played their part in the war. Some of these were products of the Cape Jewish Orphanage, where I spent five years of my early childhood. I tell the story of the Orphanage years a little later on.

In the next photo, Benzion is absent, and Fanny is present. Max, Olga, Fanny (right to left). Edie (front).

fanny, max, olga and edie

My mother looks about 14 years old; so the photo was probably taken about 1921. The reason why Benzion is not in the picture might be because he went to war (WW1). He would have been 22 years old. Here is a photo of Mendel Gilinsky and part of the  family in South Africa. My mother is about 12 years old, so the photo must have been taken in 1919. Max was born in Dvinsk in 1900; so, the family must have moved to Libau after that date, where Fanny was born in 1907.

Here is a photo of Mendel Gilinsky and part of the  family in South Africa, Golda, his wife, on the right, Fanny, centre, and her sister Ita (Edie) on the left. My mother is about 12 years old, so the photo must have been taken in 1919.

fanny 12 years old

Golda, Mendel’s wife died, and he remarried to Eva. She died in 1961. Mendel died in 1947. Mendel was a self-employed second-hand dealer. He died six hours after being transferred to ”Johannesburg Hospital” of a “cerebral haemorrhage, hypertensive muscular disease and senility.” He is buried in West Park Cemetery, Johahannesburg. (I obtained these details and other details about Mendel from his death certificate and will at the Family Tree Centre housed at the headquarters of the Mormon Church of South Africa ).

Here is Fanny  about 16 years old.

fanny 16

Here is Fanny and Izzy’s photo. I’m not sure whether it is a wedding photo, but it must have been thereabouts.

fanny and issy

Belaroots (3)

The map on the left is a map of Belarus (Byelorussia, Belorussia). See the district of Vitsyebsk (Vitebsk) in the top right section of Belarus. The map that appears on the next page provides detail on this section and shows clearly the town of Osvei (Osveya).

map belarus

Detailed map of Vitebsk District with Osvei (Asveja) Indicated by a Star

map asveja (Osvei)

Lake Osveya is the biggest one among 25 lakes of the region. It is the second biggest lake of Belarus. Its total area is 5.3 thousand hectares. The biggest swamps are at Osveya, Krupets, Tyatno and Krevniki. Lake Osveya is near the border between Byelorussia and Latvia.

There were 28 towns (shtetls) in Vitebsk Gubernia,some very large. For example, the population of Vitebsk is about 66 000,which is as large as a city. Here is a selection of a few of the shtetls. Osvei (Asveya) is the last one on the list.

census banner osvei Jewish population of Vitebsk gubernia according to the 1897 census

population table osvei

My father’s (Izzy) first name was Izroel (Yiddish for Israel), which is the patronymic of the Gamerovs (see voters role below).

voters role israelov

The patronymic of a person is based on the first name of his or her father and is written in all documents. If it is mentioned, it always follows the first name. A suffix (meaning either “son of” or “daughter of”) is added to the father’s given name—in modern times, males use -ович -ovich, while females use -овна -ovna.

Historically, the -ovich (-ovna) form was reserved for the Russian aristocracy, while commoners had to use -in, -yn, -ov, -ev, etc. (for a son; e.g., Boris Alekseev, Dmitri Kuzmin) and -eva, -ova, -ina, etc. (for a daughter; e.g., Sofiya Alekseeva, Anastasiya Kuzmina). Over time, the -ovich (-ovna) form spread to commoners favored by the tsar, high-ranking bureaucrats, and during the 19th century, to all segments of Russian society. So, if you were iching to get into the Czar’s good books, it could’ve been your lucky day; if you sandwiched a few strategic rubles between the pages.

Here is a photo of Izzy (about 20 years old) and his two sisters, Shifra (left) and Goldie (right).

photo izzy


All Population

Jewish population

% of jews

























Belaroots (2)

Here is another email from Danny Maryam (Gameroff), 20 July 2005:

Hello Raphael I am sending you a photo when my grand-father Salomon Gameroff 1877-1955 (or Hamerow) was soldier in the Tsar’s Army,(he his the little one).The other soldier would be a cousin! I have been told that a grand father’s cousin moved to South Africa when my grandfather left Lithuania for France in 1904. As your father and my grandfather was born in Osveya! It’s quite sure we have some family ties! Are you a brother of Joe I met in Tel Aviv?

Sincerely Danie.

Here is the photo.

the cousins gamerov

The soldier on the left looks a lot like my brother Joe in Israel.

How do I know that this isn’t an official army photo?  Because they’re not holding rifles; but fags. They look so short; two sawn-off smoking shotguns.  Or is that pillar in the middle more than two feet long? I emailed Danny and asked him if he knew anything about the stone. He had no idea. The mystery of the black stone.

Salomon Gameroff on the right doesn’t look more than 15 years old. Perhaps as young as 12 years old. Salomon’s cousin on the left, my brother Joe’s lookalike, looks older with the moustache. But who’s to tell that it’s not made of chocolate; or spit and meteor polish. If these soldiers in the photo are so young, what were they doing in the Tzar’s army? Although the legal conscription age was between 18 and 35, Jewish conscription was between the ages of 12 and 25. The Russian administration wanted to catch the Jews while young and make them more productive. This could be best achieved by reducing the influence of the Jewish family.

The Jewish conscripts  of Poland had a much better deal. If they proved their patriotism, they could achieve full emancipation. In Russia, in contrast, the Jewish elders in  the  Pale of Settlement doubted the good intentions of the Russian authorities. Before the publication of the statute of Jewish conscription, Jews suspected that conscription would jeopardise their traditions. They flocked to tsadikim (holy men) like Avraham Yehoshu‘a Heshel (circa 1825) to seek intercession with  Hashem (literally, THE NAME of the Almighty). With the support of Chasidim (Charedi[1] Jews), of affluent Jews and community leaders, they bribed state officials in a futile attempt to circumvent Jewish conscription. The irony is that these same affluent Jews and community leaders ended up being conscripted to draw up the conscription lists of the same people they had been helping to dodge the draft.

Email to Daniel, 20 July, 2005:

Hello Daniel
Thank you for the photo.
Yes. Joe is my brother. I also have another brother in Tel Aviv (didn’t Joe tell you?) whose name is Benny. If your grandfather was born in Osveya, then it is almost certain that we are closely related,. I sent you a file containing the names of two Gamerovs listed as property owners in Osveya. One of these men must have been closely related to them. My grandfather’s name was Saul (Shaul). It seems he had another name as well – Joseph.  See Drissa Uezd, Vitebsk Gubernia, Duma Voter Lists.[2]

Best regards, Raphael

[1] Charedi/Haredi (חֲרֵדִי) is derived from charada, “fear or anxiety”. A Chasid/Hasid, is one  “one who trembles in awe of God” (Isaiah 66:2-5). The Hebrew is pronounced “chasid”. “Hasid” is used in English because English speakers have difficulty pronouncing the guttural “ch” (as in the “loch”).  I shudder when I hear English speaking Jews say “Hannukah” instead of “Chanukah”. They sound so goyish.


[2] I discuss these lists shortly.

Here is the Russian voter’s list, I mentioned earlier, in which two Gamerovs appear.The table below contains a few voters from the original list of 599 Jewish voters from Drissa Uezd – the district in which Osvei/Osveya is found. The voters were registered to vote in the first or second electoral congresses (assemblies) of city voters for the 3rd Duma in 1907. This list contains the full name, place of residence, nationality/religion, and the reason the voter qualified to vote. The source of this list is Vitebskie Gubernskie Vedomosti (Vitebsk Gubernia Record), the provincial newspaper of Vitebsk Gubernia, which had this logologo voters rollWhich translates: Drissa Uezd, Vitebsk Gubernia, Duma Voter Lists, 3rd Duma 1907

voters roll

Drissa was one of the eleven uezds (districts) of Vitebsk Gubernia from 1866 to 1917. The city of Drissa, now known as Verkhnedvinsk, Belarus, was the principal town in the district.

Because nationality/religion is indicated for each voter, Jews are explicitly identified as such. Other nationalities on the lists were Russian Orthodox, Belarussian Catholic, Lutheran, Old Believers, Poles, and Germans. Jews accounted for 113 of 158 voters (72%) in the first congress and 486 of 638 voters (76%) in the second congress. The reason why Jews are in the majority on these voters’ lists – considering that they lived under repressive and discriminatory laws – was because these particular lists were of those shtetls containing a majority of Jews. There are other 3rd Duma voter lists for the Drissa Uezd region, containing landowners, nobility, clergy, pensioners, and so forth. which have few or no Jews. The votes of these latter voters carried far more weight than the Jewish vote in the overall voting scheme.

The following table gives dates of political control of Osvei/Osveya from 1900 – 2000 and the size of the Jewish population in 1900, which was the era when Izzy’s father left Osvei.

osvei belarus historical geography

There were only 1660 Jews in Osvei, so everybody must have known everybody (‘s business).

Belaroots (1)

I found the name for this post  here.

My father’s roots are in the part of the Russian Empire called Belarus (Byelarus) today. I know very little about my father’s family. He had two sisters and one half-brother, David. My father’s mother died, and my paternal grandfather, Shaul (pronounced sha –ool) – married a second time to Bertha. David was one of the offspring of this union. As far as I know David was the only child from this union. David is 78 (as of 2009), and lives in Sea Point , Cape Town. I met him once four years ago(2004). I didn’t know he existed before 2004.

In July, 2004, during my university vacation from the Arabian Gulf (where I was teaching at Abu Dhabi University in Al Ain, I visited David, his wife and son Howard. Izzy died in 1980 at the age of 78, so I was very surprised to see that his half-brother, David, was in his sprightly seventies, in 2004. So, in 1980, David was 53 years old, while my father was 78. Here is a photo of David as a baby with his (and Izzy’s) father, and his mother, Bertha who was Izzy’s stepmother. Izzy’s mother (my grandmother) died in 1917. Her name was Ita, the same name as my sister Edie (Ita). This is the only photo he has of his (and Izzy’s) father, Shaul. It’s tiny but I can’t enlarge it without losing the little clarity there is.

Shaul, wife and David

Shaul, wife and David


I don’t know the name of Shaul’s wife. The background gives a good idea of how they lived. Shaul had a rag, bone and bottle business. David and his wife told me that that when Shaul died, Izzy, “stole” (David’s word) Shaul’s business; Izzy moved in and took the business over rag, bone and bottle. Here is some information in the form of emails about other ancestors of my father, Izzy’s.

Here is an email from Daniel Maryam (born Gameroff) in France, dated 8 July 2005:

“Hello, My name is Daniel Gameroff, I live outside of Paris and I am 64 years old. I have been doing research through the Internet on my family background. So far I have found that there are other Gameroff’s, Hameroff’s,Hamerow’s,Gamaroff’s,or Gamerow’s living in the U.S.A., Canada, Israel, South Africa, Argentina. During my “investigations”, I went to Israel and there I met Joe Gamaroff in Tel Aviv. I think he is your brother you are looking for? [Daniel thought I was looking for Joe. But I wasn’t. I visited Joe in Israel in 1997]. My great -grand-father’s name was Hamerow Teivel and lived near Vilna (Lithuania).With his first wife, Haya Dorn, they had two children: Hivé and Salomon my grandfather who came to France in 1905. I think we have family ties but I have not found our “common roots”, howeverit is nice to find other members of the Hamerow clan. Sincerely DANIEL.”

My reply to Daniel, 17 July, 2005:

“Hello Daniel Sorry I took so long to answer your letter. I am sending you some files I found on the internet. My father was from Osveya (Osvei) in Belarus. The Gamarov’s voter’s list has two Gamerovs on it. The father of these two people was called Israel (Patronymic name “Israelov”). My father’s name was Israel and his father’s name was Shaul. It is possible that one of the Gamerovs on the voter’s role was my father’s grandfather, because I don’t think that there was more than one Gamerov family in Osvei, and if there was, they would have been related.I am sending you by separate email an email I received from Jonathon Gordon in the UK that gives more background to the South African branch of the Gamerovs.(The email from Jonathan Gordon is given shortly). By the way, I have just turned 64 myself (June). And I speak French: I majored in French at university and taught it for 17 years. I studied French at the University of Strasbourg in 1962. It was really great to hear from you.”

Emigration from the Russian Empire

When the Jews arrived in England – many through the port of Hull  – they were housed at the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter or in approved lodgings linked to the Shelter. The Shelter was built in 1906 to house Russian Jewish emigrants. Some stayed in England but the majority transmigrated to other countries such as America, Canada, France, Australia and South Africa.

Most of the Jews arriving in England were aiming to go to America, and did so. The Union Castle line paid for the accommodation at the Shelter, which was included in the price of the ticket. The price of a ticket was 10 guineas (10 pounds 10 shillings). The South African Jewish immigrants were mostly Lithuanian and Latvian; the Lithuanians were the larger group. My mother’s parents came from Libau (it’s German name) in Latvia, and my father’s parents came from Vitebsk, a Bela-Russsian province on the border with Latvia. Libau (today’s Liepaja), on the Baltic, was the main port serving Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire.

All passenger ships from Great Britain, which were mainly those of the Union Castle Line, docked in Cape Town. At the time of my parents arrival, there were about 48 000 Jews in South Africa. More than half of these followed the gold to Johannesburg and the diamonds to Kimberley; a quarter stayed in Cape Town, and the other quarter spread out all over the other cities and towns and villages of South Africa. Oudshoorn became home to the Jewish Ostrich feather barons. Cape Town has the oldest Jewish community in South Africa: the Cape Hebrew Congregation dates back to 1841.

At various times in South African history, attempts were made to limit the entry of Jews; for example, in 1903, they weere classified as Asiatics on the grounds that Yiddish was not a European language. Nothing came of that. In the 1930s, Jews didn’t get off that easily. Many of those that were refused entry to South Africa – where there were many Nazi sympathizers – perished in the death camps in Europe. Fanny, my mother, born 1906, and Izzy, my father, born 1902, arrived in South Africa with their respective families. My mother’s Yiddish name was Feiga (Feigele), which means “little bird” in Yiddish. This was the name my father mostly used to address my mother. We know that Fanny’s parents arrived in South Africa in 1912, which makes her six years old when she arrived in South Africa. Izzy must have left for South Africa quite soon after arriving at the Poor Jew’s Temporary Shelter, because the shtetlers at the Shelter were only allowed to stay 14 days.

My father told me that he left Russia with his family during the first world war on a ship to England. I drooled over the mug of sweet cocoa he received on arrival in England. Izzy told me very little about his childhood in Russia. Besides the cocoa, the only other thing – food again – he mentioned was the big juicy Russian apples. When I went to Russia much later in life, the apples there were not big and juicy at all. They were stunted bruised little things. The harsh Russian climate is not kind to fruit and vegetables. But what is stunted and bruised for a well-fed South African may very well be a juicy windfall for a serf or a fallen child of Abraham. That makes me a child of a fallen child of Abraham, and thus fallen too.

In my teens, I never thought about my extended family. My parents never mentioned any of their family. I never thought it odd at the time. Besides, my immediate family was enough. I saw my mother’s sister, Auntie Edie (not to be confused with my sister Edie, whom I talk about later) a few times when she came on holiday to Cape Town from Johannesburg. She stayed with us in our house in Claremont to be near Muizenberg, which we called “Jewzenberg”, because during the summer it was chock with Joburg (Johannesburg) Jews . Three kilometers away was the windy beach in Strandfontein, which Jews called the “Christian” beach. My siblings and I used to resent Aunt Edie because when she came for her annual visit of two weeks or more, she took over one of the bedrooms, which involved a cosmic reshuffle. I also saw Aunt Edie’s husband, Sydney, at our our house in Claremont. He had a very red bluish face. He smoked nonstop and gulped large glasses of whiskey. He died a few years later. These years were the early 1950s ( when I was 10 -12 years old). Why did the genealogy of my family interest me so late in life (2003, aged 61)? Some deep reason of the heart? What got me started was investigating whether I could claim Latvian citizenship. Latvia had recently joined the European Union, and I wanted to try and get EU entry for my two daughters, Rebecca and Talitha. Love has its reasons.

Russia and the Jew – Inside the Pale

Most of the Jews who arrived in England were like those in “Fiddler on the Roof”.  They lived in little villages called shtetls (little towns). Some of these shtetls were big towns, which strictly speaking should have been called Shtods (shtetl is the dimunitive of shtod). Owing to the fact that European Jews were not allowed to belong to the professions, and were restricted both geographically and economically by the Russian government, they became tanners, millers, shoemakers (like Mendel), rag and bone and empty bottle merchants (to become my father’s rags to almost-riches story), and any other kind of job too coarse for a goy. The shtetls were situated in the “Pale (Border) of Settlement”, which was the area within which Jews were allowed to live – the Pale of “Shtetlment.”

Pale of Settlement "Shtetlment"

Pale of Settlement "Shtetlment"

(The hands on the map refer to specific cities mentioned in a genealogy of the Jewish “Turkel” family, on whose website I found this map and the map of pogroms in the Pale).

The “Pale” stretched from the Baltic down to the Black Sea, which, at the time was a part of Western Russia that included the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Byelo-Russia and Russian Poland. The Russian Jews were expelled from Moscow and St. Petersburg and had to live in the Pale. Later, they had to vacate  the rural areas within the Pale and were sent to the shtetls. All non-Jews had the “privilege” denied to Jews; the privilege of living “beyond the pale”

About four million European Jews left the “Pale of settlement”. Many Jews wanted to leave but it was difficult to do so, because, after 1882, they were subjected to an increasingly harsh level of official persecution. Between 1871 and 1906, there were many pogroms and acts of anti-Jewish violence.

Areas of pogroms and violence against Jews

Areas of pogroms and violence against Jews

In theory, the Russian government was prepared to let them go, but in practice made it very difficult for them to do so. It was often much easier  for Jews to arrange to have themselves smuggled over the border. No one trusted the government anyhow, so even if you managed to get official permission to leave, the smuggler’s route was the safer option. The Pale was dismantled in 1917, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Russia and the Jew

The Jewish Board of Deputies

When Cathy, my wife, and I were on holiday in South Africa (July 2004) from Oman where I was teaching at the University of Muscat, we went to stay in Rivonia, Johannesburg with Lorien, our eldest son, and Lindi, his wife. I wanted to find out more about the origins of my parents, who were Jewish immigrants from Europe. I went to visit the Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) in Houghton, Johannesburg. Owing to the tight security in Jewish establishments all over the world, I knew  I couldn’t just arrive unannounced. I phoned the secretary of the Jewish Board of Deputies and told her that I was looking for information on the arrival of Jews in South Africa after 1900: my parents had arrived as children in South Africa between 1910 and 1920. I drove to Houghton in the old light blue rambling Chev station wagon I had given to Lorien.

I arrived at the gate of the Jewish Board of Deputies . As expected, tight security. I gave the security guard the name of my contact in the JBD. He checked this out, and then let me in. As I entered the building, I felt a mélange of nostalgia, guilt and detachment; memories of my Jewish youth, guilt for pretending to be a “real” Jew (was ist das?), and distance because I had moved far away – another Jew would say – from my “Jewish” roots. I climbed the stairs to the JBD library. At the entrance a few monographs on a shelf caught my eye. They were on early Jewish settlements in South Africa; heroic titles like “Into Kokerboom Country: Namaqualand’s Jewish Pioneers”. Many of these settlers became fully bilingual: in Yiddish and Afrikaans. I call them Yode; A hybrid of Yid (Yiddish for Jew) and Jode (Afrikaans for Jews). In the library I asked the librarian if she had any information on early Jewish migrations to South Africa. She disappeared between the shelves, and a few minute da later gave me a volume containing the names of Jewish arrivals on ships from Europe. The names were not in alphabetical order, so I had to plough through thousands of names. I was looking for Mendel Gilinsky, my mother’s father’s name. There was no Mendel on the list. After a few hours, I was hot, tired, and thirsty. I’d hit a brick wall. I got up to leave the library. On my way out, I asked the librarian: “Are you sure this is all you have?” She thought for a moment. I’m wasting my time, I thought. “Oh, there is an old ship’s list written out in pencil,” she said. “Oh, is there!” What I wanted to say was: “Oh, is there now!” Off she disappeared again between the shelves. She brought me the ship’s list; a few flimsy pages. I sat down and scanned the pages. There was my grandfather: It said: “Mendel Gilinsky – shoemaker – arrived 1912, Cape Town – Galway castle.” I asked the librarian to make me a photocopy. She said that this couldn’t be done because the list was very worn, and the heat of the photocopier would fade the original. I wrote down the details in my notebook, “Mendel Gilinsky – shoemaker – arrived 1912, Cape Town – Galway castle”. I left the Jewish Board of Deputies and drove back to Lorien’s place.

galway castle

The Galway Castle had three passenger classes: 87 1st class, 130 2nd class, 195 3rd class. No prizes for guessing which class Mendel was in. The ship had a short life, but an exciting one. In September 1914, at the start of the German South West Africa campaign against the German army, she transported troops from Cape Town to South West Africa (now Namibia). In 1915 she was used on the Cape-England mail run . On 3 August 1916 while near the Thames estuary she was attacked by a German aircraft. She only suffered minor damage. In October the following year, she was not so lucky and ran aground on Orient Beach, East London (South Africa). I was to get to know East London very well. My family spent the period 1990 to 2003 in King William’s Town, 60 kilometres from East London. My children spent most of their school life in this part of the East Coast of South Africa. We went often to Orient beach. This beach, which was just outside outside the harbour breakwater, has been the graveyard of many ships. It wasn’t yet the Galway’s time, though; she was refloated and was able to sail on to England. She survived another two years. On 12 September 1918, two months (almost to the day) before the official end of World War 1 on 11 November 1918, she was attacked by U-boat U 82, 160 miles south-west of Fastnet Rock near Plymouth. She was at the start of her voyage to Port Natal (South Africa). She sank three days later. The Galway Castle was one of the ships of the Union Castle Line. It was built in 1911, and was thus a brand new ship when Mendel and his family, and other Jews embarked on it for Cape Town . The Galway Castle brought Jewish immigrants from Southampton to Cape Town over a period of six years. England was a half-way house for European Jews. Most of the passenger traffic between America and Europe was in British hands and so the bulk of this traffic went through Great Britain. Even when other routes were opened, it was often cheaper to travel through Britain than to sail directly from Europe, for example, from Latvia, Russsia and Germany, to other countries such as America and South Africa. It was sailing under the name “Rhodesia”. I met my wife, Cathy, in Rhodesia. More about Rhodesia in a later chapter. How remarkable the coming together of the Galway Castle, Orient beach, East London and Rhodesia.

A wandering, wondering, onedaringjew

(continued from previous post, Moral Dust.

Weizmann consigns the rabbis to the furnace. They are no use in a future Israeli state.  

Doré places a Jew, and obviously a devout Jew, in the same frame with  “that deceiver”, whose name a devout Jew finds difficult to utter. The Name that occasioned so much misery for Jews throughout the ages.

There are many who desire to live forever; they prefer a living death to the grave. “As long as there’s breath, I shall will to live. Don’t expect me to put my life on the line. Rather let me wander the earth forever, but just one  thing I ask: let me live.”

The Wandering Jew appears across classical literature. Besides medieval literature,  the Wandering Jew also appears in Percy Bysshe Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling and John Galsworthy. There is also a new European Opera called The Legend of the Wandering Jew. “Every fibre of my frame quivers, every drop of my blood curdles, as I still hear the echo of the anathema that sprang first from my furious lips on that night of woe, ” HIS BLOOD BE UPON US, AND UPON OUR CHILDREN ! “[1]

I have described the Wandering Jew. But what is a OneDaringJew the title of this book? I suppose chutzpa comes into it, but I think its more to do with Wondering. You can describe water as “drinking water” but then it is not the water that’s doing the the drinking. But when I describe a Jew as a “wondering Jew” it is the Jew doing the wondering. Wondering about what? Wondering what is true, whether I’m living my life the right way. Wondering about  when to take, when to give, when to  endure, when to rebuke, when to beg, when to believe a promise. There are many other ways of “wondering.” Here are some examples[2]:

I’m wondering whether readers will understand what I mean. I’m wondering whether I have gone about things in the right way. I’m wondering what people are going to think when I dare to tell them some of the bad things I have thought and done (usually saved for a novel than an autobiography).

I’m wondering why I was the only member of my family of ten children to finish school. I’m wondering what would have been if I had become a medical doctor ( a “real” doctor, which for many Jews means “well off”) instead of a tongue doctor; a linguistics doctor[3] If I had become a “real” doctor I would have probably sliced someone’s aorta and ended up in jail. That’s why I moved into cutting up tongues, especially my mother tongue. Words, for me,  are far more remarkable than the organs that generate them.

I’m wondering what it would’ve been like to be a cantor of a synagogue in Israel. I’d have certainly done a better job than the raspy cantor (chazan) of the Israeli army, said my brother Joe when I visited him in Israel.[4] Inwardly I agreed.  Which leads me awondering what I could have been if I’d stayed Jewish, what I could have had – in Joe’s eyes:  a big house, a nice car, respect and adulation. My phylacteries would be broader, the fringes on my talith longer. I’d have the place of honor at feasts and the best seat in the synagogue. I’d be greeted in the marketplaces and called Chazan by others (Matthew 23: 5-8).

For the majority of Jews, the chazan is a celebrated figure, but not as much as a doctor – a medical doctor: the medical doctor treats the body; the chazan the soul; the medical doctor relieves suffering and prolongs life; the chazan brings comfort to aching hearts. As I can never be a chazan in real life, and get the big house, nice car, respect and praise, I will dare to be a chazan in this b(i)ography.  This b(i)ography is not only about words, but also about the songs I love to sing and the music I love to play that bring peace to the soul. Words, music, nature, mind, spirit are all of a piece.

There remains another meaning of “wondering” as in “filled with wonder”. You don’t have to be a sensitive Jewish intellectual to have a sense of wonder; you just have to be sensitive;  sensitive not to how great you are, but how wonderful the world is, how wonderful God is. When something wonderful happens to you, there are two ways to look at it: you’re unsurprised because you deserve it; or, you’re surprised because you don’t deserve it. The first way is false.

Some wonder why bad things happen and others wonder why good  things happen. For much of my life, even after I became a follower of Jesus/Yeshua, I wondered why bad things happened. Christians who understand the Gospel shouldn’t ask why bad things happen, but why good things happen. St Paul (Rav Shaul)  saw himself as not only the least of all the apostles but as the least of all men. His wretched opinion of himself was not just “psychological”. It went much deeper. He had offended an infinite, holy, personal God and deserved infinite judgment. The only way Paul could be saved from the wrath of God was through the saving death of the Son of God, who suffered the punishment in Paul’s place. How many professing Christians feel differently?

Helmut Thielicke (and Philip Yancey, who quotes Thielicke approvingly in his “What is so amazing about Grace,” Zondervan, 1997, p. 175):

“When Jesus loved a guilt-laden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being whom his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath” (Helmut Thielicke, “Christ and the meaning of life,” Grand Rapids, Baker, 1975, p. 41).

Thielicke’s (and Yancey’s) Jesus and human being are not the Jesus  and human being described in the Bible. The Bible says the opposite: Jesus did not see “through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath,” because the real man underneath was not only superficially grimy, he was filthy. The “real man” of the Bible is depraved in his very nature. But for the restraining hand of God, man is not as depraved as he could be. Everything in the Bible glorifies God and abases man. God saves men and women not because deep down they are good, but in spite of the fact that deep down they are evil. He chooses to save them – for one reason only: because He wants to. The natural man despises such a God. Many professing Christians also do,  but that is the biblical truth. It’s all over the Bible for those whose eyes God opens. In his “Religious Affections,” Edwards says, “There are very many of the most important things declared in the gospel that are hid from the eyes of natural men.” …but…”as soon as ever the eyes are opened to behold the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things, a multitude of most important doctrines of the gospel, that depend on it (which all appear strange and dark to natural men), are at once seen to be true.” Edwards “Religious affections.”

I wonder why God singled me out for his mercy.  Why did I and not any of my siblings come to Christ? I told a friend of my youth, a theology professor and former Roman Catholic priest that I had become a Christian. Out of the abundance of his heart – before he could bite off his tongue – he shot: “YOU? But I was praying for Sammy.” (Sammy is my elder brother). Somebody else was praying for me. Why did God answer that person’s prayers for me and not the theology professor’s prayers for Sammy? “Because my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

There is one last reason why this bography is called the “OneDaringJew”: it’s a variation of the Wandering Jew and the Wondering Jew. If you suspect that this play on words is the main reason for the “OneDaringJew”, I will say this. It did start with play. Does it then follow that the bography of OneDaringJew should not be taken seriously? Only if you think that play –  and thus playing with words – is not a serious matter. Playing with words may be foolery, at worst, wit, at best. But it can also involve serious digging into the hidden sedimentations of language – and, by association, of thought. Consider this: playing is about enjoyment. Cut out joy and all you’re left with is a lifeless clutch of dangling particles. It’s  the play of joy and the joy of play that transforms the lifeless clutch into a living embrace.

[1] Salathiel: The Immortal by Rev George Croly LL.D. David Bryce. London  1856. (I acquired a yellowed copy of this book in a charity bookshop in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where I live. You can find an e-copy of the book on Googlebooks. It’s much nicer, though, to have the feel and smell of a ” real” book.

[2] The British National corpus of English usage is a 100 million collection of samples of English from a extensive range of sources. The corpus has more than 2300 samples with the word “wondering”.

[3] Latin lingua “tongue”.

[4] My last visit to Israel in 1997. We watched the cantor on Joe’s TV.

The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murmuring race

The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murmuring race,
As ever tried the extent and stretch of grace;
God’s pampered people whom, debauched with ease,
No king could govern, nor no God could please;
(Gods they had tried of every shape and size,
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)

John Dryden’s “Absalom and Achtophel”

And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it [is] a stiffnecked people (Exodus 32:19).

Understand therefore, that the LORD thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou [art] a stiffnecked people (Deut 9:6).

You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers [did], so [do] you (Stephen, before he was stoned; Acts 7:51).

“Stiffnecked – Hebrew qasheh קָשָׁה “hard” (hard-nosed, difficult)

The astounding fact remains: “a mystery so immense that I gave up trying to find an explanation because the whole mystery defied belief. The mystery was the survival of the Jews.”

Old Jews: “Economic and Moral Dust” (Chaim Weizmann)

“These are a rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!'” (Isaiah 30: 9-11).

The messengers were maltreated, mocked, flogged, stoned, sawn in two, killed by the sword. They wandered in deserts and mountains and hid in caves (Hebrews 11:36-38). These were the wandering Jews of faith who did not receive what was promised.

There is another kind of wandering Jew who witnessed – unknowingly – the fulfilment of the promise. There is a legend that  a Jew taunted Yeshua as he passed on his way to Golgotha. Some say his name was Shalatiel (in Hebrew Shealtiel “I asked God”); others say his name was Malchus. The Son of God cursed him to wander the earth alone until the end of time. Blessed and cursed. “Malchus” is the Greek for the Hebrew Melech/Malluch king/counsellor. The king taunts the Messiah King. The Messiah King curses the king; and blesses him: with a living death. This mortal immortal king is the Wandering Jew.

Gustave Doré - The Wandering Jew

Gustave Doré – The Wandering Jew

In the foreground of Doré’s woodcut wanders the  archetypal Jew of Jewish history and Christian imagination. Under the shield of sudden darkness, he steals away like a thief from the piercing gaze of the dying Christ. This day he will not be in paradise.

Doré would have had no difficulty in finding a model for his figure of the wandering Jew. Here is a photo of 15 World War II rabbis: antizionist rabbis.

Moral Dust

Moral Dust

Pathetic disfigurements of humanity. Dust.  Many of these rabbis died in the concentration camps.  Chaim Weizmann, one of the key founders of Zionism, was asked before WWII: “Can you bring six million Jews to Palestine?” I replied, “No.” … From the depths of the tragedy I want to save … young people [for Palestine] “The old ones will pass. They will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world … Only the branch of the young shall survive. They have to accept it.” (Chaim Weizmann reporting to the Zionist Congress in 1937 on his testimony before the Peel Commission in London).

There’s at least one other wondering Jew. This “rootless cosmopolitan” shares my cosmic anxiety over the “intractable historical fact” of Zionism.

The original photo was smaller and clearer.  In this blow-up, the figures evaporate into a puff of dust: moral – and economic – dust.

“You will arise and have mercy on Zion; for the time to favour her, yes, the set time, has come. For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and show pity to her dust” (Psalm 102:13-14).

Who or what is Zion? Is it the land, is it the people? Surely, in God’s eyes, it is the living stones of Israel. Not so for Weizmann:  “You are dust; the dust of the Land of Israel. (Chaim Weizmann reporting to the Zionist Congress in 1937 on his testimony before the Peel Commission in London).

OneDaringJew: An AutobiogRaphy

One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self more distant than any star.

(Chapter 4 of Orthodoxy, Gilbert K. Chesterton, 1908)

We all need to be valued and praised. There’s one problem, though. We also all have something to hide, something we want to keep secret. But most of the time, we want to be known, to be admired and loved.

Writing is one way for others to get to know who we are. There are different kinds of writing such as scholarly books and articles, journalistic writing, non-fiction writing such as history, travel, art, cooking, and then there’s imaginative writing such as  novels, poetry and plays. Imaginative literature is called “fiction” – fiction not in the sense that they don’t relate to reality. If a novel didn’t tie in with real feelings and experiences,  readers wouldn’t add them – as on Amazon – to their cart. In what sense then is a novel or a play a fiction? You can read the explanation on the inside flap of some novels. For example, here is the disclaimer from the novel “Radiant Fire” by Max Ibach:

“The author takes no responsibility for comparisons with the identities or names of real live individuals or situations. This is a fictional erotic romance novel. It contains adult situations, graphically described sexual acts, violence, death scenes, and abnormal views of real life situations. If any of these circumstances disturb you, or you are under the age of 21, do not read this novel. All the characters and names in this book are fictional and any resemblance to any person either living or dead is purely coincidental…Under no circumstances should the details of this novel be viewed as real life occurrences.”

If I wanted to gossip or write about my or someone else’s wanton life, I can reveal all except the names of the people involved. If I were callous, I could make it easy to identify the real person behind the character. Whereas a biography or autobiography is more restrained, a novel often throws all caution to the wind; it cuts, thrusts, stabs, ravages, shatters, wrecks, mutilates as much as someone over 21 can take.  Under no circumstances of course, “should any details of this novel be viewed as real life occurrences” (above quote).

Most of us either cannot write, are too lazy to write or don’t have the time to write, or all three. Some who can write, and have time to write and are energetic enough to write will do so but they will avoid writing about their own lives – an autobiography. The reason why some shy away from autobiography is that there are thoughts and actions in their lives that are either too painful or too shameful to disclose. Many – probably most – people, though, take a less dim view of their lives. Where some feel failure and shame, they see the “courage to be”. For “be” read spill the beans if not your seed.  Yet no matter how great the courage “to be”, there always remain things most prefer to hide – not because they are ashamed, but because they know that it would shatter their image. Secretly they are proud of the dirty linen they would be ashamed to hang out in public. They can’t resist keeping it to themselves; so, they reveal it vicariously; they write novels in which they create a surrogate through whom they can not only exhibit themselves with impunity, but also get paid to do it.

In an autobiography, there is a nobler reason for not revealing all – “all” invariably means “all the evil we do”. Often, the evil involves an accomplice. As long as the evil is not a “crime”, we have no right to make public the evil deeds of others. For example, if a couple decided to abort their child, and one of them wanted to write about this in an autobiography, it would be wrong to do so unless the other approved, for, not only would the other partner be adversely affected, his or her relatives and friends would also be affected. Some sins are between you and God alone; that is, if you believe in God or in sin more than being (in)famous at any cost.

Most people reject the concept of evil and sin; the Jew for example. According to Rabbi Hirsch ( his “Can a Reconstructionist Sin?”): “Open almost any “Introduction to Judaism” book, or consult almost any commentary to the High Holiday mahzor, and one inevitably finds the explanation that the Hebrew word het (sin) means something like “missing the mark” — as if life were no more than a game of darts.”

Hypocrite! blowing my own trumpet.I am not like other writers; I am not dishonest.”

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, butdo not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew, 7:3-5).

There are at least two meanings of the word “critical” when applied to making judgments: there is a “critical spirit” –  pointing fingers; and there is the “critical faculty” – trying to be objective. I find it hard to keep my fingers to myself, but I try to the best I can. What I am trying to do is, on the one hand, describe as faithfully as possible, who I am and what I have done, and those who have influenced me, and, on the other hand, avoid painting a false picture. It’s very hard to face who you are, and even harder to show your face to the world, which is not the most loving  planet in God’s universe.

An autobiography has three main ingredients: the “i”, the bog, and the graphy (writing). When i becomes the self-obsessed I, the biog turns to bog.

What is bography? Is it a panoply of graphic inanities decorating a toilet wall? Is it the obsession with not being obsessed about “I”. “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).” And Abraham, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).” Did Moses and Abraham have “plenty to be humble about?” (Winston churchill). I like what Rabbi Louis Jacobs said about humility:

“It is a paradox in the whole matter of humility that when a man knows his own worth he comes close to being a victim of pride and yet humility cannot mean that a man has to imagine that he is less worthy than he really is. Self-delusion is no virtue and is presumably to be as much avoided as any other delusion by the seeker after truth. ‘The last infirmity of great minds’ is not easily conquered.”

In a Yiddishe nutshell: “Too humble is half proud.”

My name is Raphael (Raph, Raphi). I’m a Jew, a wondering Jew,  and one daring Jew. And  there is, of course, the famous “Wandering Jew” Malchus; or was it Shealtiel? My user name is “bography”. How did this name come to be? Rapha-el in Hebrew means “doctor/healer of God.” But I am not literally the rapha of el; so I have opted for a more modest user name “bography” (Dr bog). What is the Russian for God? Bog. What is the Russian for doctor of God? Raphabog. In changing from Rapha-el to Rapha-bog, all I’ve done is change the Hebrew “El” to the Russian “Bog”.There’s no escape from my name – I’m spellbound by knowing who I am, as Alan Watts would say.  Watts speaks of the “taboo” of knowing who you are. Alan Watts was obviously not Jewish.

My father, Israel (Issy), was from Osvaya/Osvei in Vitebsk Gubernia, Belarus. He came to South Africa with his parents. He married my mother, Feiga, who was born in Libau, Latvia, and who also immigrated to South Africa with her parents. I was born in Cape Town.

I enjoy playing with language – with writing (g-raphy; Greek graphein “to write”), but I enjoy it more when it digs down – as Jacques DeRRida, another wanDeRRing Jew would have said – into the hidden sedimentations of history, of biog-Raphy (Raphy! get behind me);  of language. When words become blunt, civilisation becomes a grunt. But there is much more to digging into words than intellectual enlightenment. From the Christian perspective, Christians should be the guardians of words. No one in the world should be more careful with words than the Church, and for this reason, language has meant much more to me than the fact that it has been my field of study and the main part of my professional life. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I should stand guard over words and jealously  preserve their integrity, because it is through hearing or reading words that we come to know the truth, that we come to faith (Art Katz’s Adorned for the bride).

French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, said that we tell stories because human lives need and merit to be told. Writing stories is one of the noblest employments of the mind and soul. Most good stories aim at knowledge and wisdom. This aim is most evident in life stories – biographies. Yet, unless the main end of biography is wisdom and knowledge, it is no more than any kind of study: “a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is my story of the wondering onedaringjew.

The life of a Jew consists of WAndering and WOndering, and of the gods of every shape and size that happen in between. Between the Alpha and the Omega. When does the Wandering Jew become a Wondering Jew? When he searches the oracles of God entrusted to him:

“What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God (Romans 3:2).”

Where is He? What’s His story? We can only know the part of God’s story that He wants to unveil – the part that is our story, which is the story of the origin, fall and redemption, first of the Jew and then of all people. Most of the story – which is also my story – is about the fall – about rebellion and deceit. But it’s well worth the Rest that follows, “For we who have believed enter that Rest” (Hebrews 4.3).

What kind of Jew am I? A Pauline Jew (“Shaul” is the original Hebrew name of Paul the Apostle). I think I am right when I say that of all the Bible characters, Paul is the most disliked; not only among Jews but also among those without any religion; and among many professing Christians as well. When I say I am a Pauline Jew, I don’t mean that I “believe” (have faith) in Paul. Doesn’t Paul say?:

” For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:4-7).”

What then do I mean by a Pauline Jew? Peter the Apostle says of Paul’s letters:

“There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).”

Two things in Paul hard to understand are: first, the sovereignty of God in all things, specifically His sovereignty in salvation, and second, God has not finished with the Jew; God forbid. The Jew will be at the centre of history and Jerusalem will be at the centre of the world when Yeshua returns (Romans 9 – 11). But not before the Jew understands his own suffering and death, which is steeped in the suffering and death – and resurrection of Yeshua.

“The best preparation for prayer, I often feel, is the reading of history” (Martin Lloyd-Jones “True and false religion” in his Unity and Truth, ed. Hywel R. Jones (Darlington, Co. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1991), 161).

Without history (the past recorded in language) how will we ever know about eternity; the eternity that is in Christ? One of the greatest catastrophes  is the ignorance of history. How galling it is when you talk to people about eternal things and they don’t know any history. For that is how we learn about eternity – through history (the Word made flesh).

*The following is my transcript from an audio message from Albert Martin. The brackets are mine). He is talking about Paul the Apostle, who says:.

“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14). The cross which became the means of his acceptance with God, became the cross which meant his severance with the world. He said: what does the world’s favourt mean to me. It has as much attraction for me as a cadaver hanging on a cross and the buzzards picking the flesh from the bones. He says” that’s how much attraction the worls holds for me. By that crtoss the world is crucified to me. That is why this man went through the world ablaze with a holy passion for Christ, thrown in prisons, beaten in jails, shipwrecked, stoned, abused, kicked about, he almost seemed like a mad man possessed, yes he was possessed, possessed of the Spirit of Christ who had drawn him into such identification with the will of Christ that the …(not clear).world meant nothing to him.

Paul was a New Testament Jew, as was Yeshua (Jesus) and most of the Christians of the first few decades of the early Church. I don’t like the term “New” Testament or “Old” Testament, because it can imply that the new supplants the old. I prefer the terms “Older” and “Newer” Testaments, which implies that the latter does not replace the former, but rather completes it: anathema to a Jew, sadly.

“… every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, whobrings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Christ’s words in Matthew 13:52); what is older and what is newer.

When a Jew refers to Jesus, he seldom calls Him by His name “Jesus” – unless in a joke or expletive.  Many Jews  who become believers in Jesus Christ, “Messianic” Jews, for example, also don’t use the name “Jesus Christ” but prefer the Hebrew name, Yeshua HaMashiakh (Mashiach).

Jews generally feel awkward at the mention of the name of Jesus, or Yeshua. He is a thorn in their flesh.The Talmud says that Jesus  was an impostor:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!  — Ulla retorted: ‘Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?”

The Talmud says several negative things about Jesus, some too appalling to mention.The appalling bits have been censured for centuries but have since been restored.

And so to the story of the wandering, wondering, wan daring, onedaringjew.