The earliest awareness of my Jewish identity occurred in the early ’50s, when I was barely four years old while on vacation with my family in the coastal city of Durban. My African nanny Elizabeth had taken my sister and me for a walk.
It was Christmas time, and I vividly remember walking across the green opposite the Pavilion Hotel where we stayed. Three white women approached us. Despite Elizabeth’s remonstrations, we were ushered into a small stone building where I was lifted onto a table. Then quite unceremoniously the misguided individuals took down my short pants. I remember being confused and quite traumatized. I could not figure out what was going on other than the fact that Lizzie kept using the words “Jewish” and “Jews.”
The women were part of some Christian missionary organization and were trying to determine whether I was indeed Jewish. Today they would probably have been arrested for child abuse.
During the same vacation I recall eating breakfast in the children’s dining room. Again we were with our nanny Lizzie when suddenly my mom walked in and discovered that we were being served bacon and eggs. Once again I heard the words “Jewish” being uttered by my mom, who spoke in a very loud voice causing the offending food to be instantly whisked away.
The next rude awakening occurred a few years later when we were visiting my grandparents in the country. I remember asking my mom why her parents spoke with funny accents. It was then that I was told about our Lithuanian roots, and even though my grandparents were not Holocaust survivors, my mom decided to tell me what had happened to the Jews of Europe and Lithuania during World War II.
I was shocked and deeply affected for several days afterward. The brutal history lesson shattered my illusions of Jewish life in the Diaspora. My parents had sent me to a Jewish kindergarten with a particularly Zionist slant. We were not an observant family, nevertheless my parents wanted me to imbibe the spirit of the new State in all its youthful Jewish glory.
I very quickly began to replace my fear of being Jewish with a zealous passion for the Jewish Homeland. After kindergarten I went to a state primary school, where I learned to get on with non-Jewish as well as Jewish children. Both my parents had been brought up that way. There was no Jewish day school nearby, and so my folks decided that we would experience the same kind of broader education.
“You have to learn to live in the big wide world,” my dad would say. As I grew older I did what most South African Jewish kids did at my age: I joined a Zionist Youth movement. The best part of attending the Habonim meetings was listening to stories about Israel and dreaming of visiting that far away Promised Land. I remember my first serious Hebrew language book Ivrit Chaya (Living Hebrew), where the frontispiece displayed a black and white photograph of Dizengoff Circle in Tel Aviv.
I had heard about Dizengoff Street from my parents who visited Israel in 1964. It was their first visit, and they described the excitement of walking along the crowded sidewalks on a Saturday night where hundreds of Tel Aviv residents and tourists mingled in the cafés and restaurants. My folks had been to London and Paris, but Tel Aviv was different they told me.
“Almost everyone is Jewish, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be amongst your own.”
They also brought back dozens of color slides of the places they had visited from the Negev to the Galil, from Jerusalem to Beersheba and the Dead Sea.
I badgered the daylights out of my parents to allow me to accompany my aunt and uncle and their kids on an overseas trip. The final leg of the journey was a 10-day stopover in Israel to celebrate my cousin’s bat mitzvah. It was unheard of for a boy of 16 to travel overseas in those days. My parents finally succumbed to the nagging, and I was allowed to go with them.
The memory of traveling to Israel for the first time is something I will always cherish. From the moment I boarded the El Al aircraft, I knew that I was going ‘home.’ I remember the thrill of landing at Lod Airport and the ensuing adventure of discovering the land and the people that thus far only existed in my imagination.
I returned to Johannesburg determined to emigrate as soon as I could. By then my fervor for the Jewish homeland had taken on a new guise. Much to my parents’ consternation, I became a religious Zionist. A cousin of mine persuaded me to accompany him to a Bnei Akiva meeting one Sunday afternoon in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg. The Israeli emissary was announcing the formation of a garin (unit), and I signed up even before I was a member of the movement. I started observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher.
I drove my parents crazy. They thought it was a phase that I was going through. “It’ll pass,” I heard my mom reassuring my dad. But it never did.
At the age of 16 during my last year at high school, I received my call up papers to the South African Defense Force – another very rude awakening! It was early January in 1967, the year of the Six Day War. Within the first three weeks of basic training, I collapsed on the parade ground. The kosher food that had been promised never materialized. I ended up in No. 1 Military Hospital, where my regimental sgt. major wanted to charge me with “damaging government property” because I would not eat the army food. Fortunately the commandant stepped in and kosher food was brought in from Pretoria.
But then I wanted to exercise my right to have a weekend pass for Shabbat from sunset to sunset, to which all observant Jewish soldiers were entitled by law. Friday morning arrived and my pass was not issued. I stood on orders and was summoned to the same commandant, who then called the rabbi in Pretoria. The Orthodox rabbi enjoyed the rank of brigadier and was proud of his army chaplain status.
“Hersowitz, don’t rock the boat,” he told me. “There is no need to draw attention to yourself in this way. You’re making it harder for your fellow Jewish soldiers.”
“But rabbi I have no food,” I had the audacity to say. “All the other Jewish soldiers will be driven to the synagogue and invited to Jewish homes in Pretoria for Friday night dinner. I am a Sabbath observer and I keep kosher.”
The rabbi would not be persuaded, and kept insisting that we Jews needed to keep a low profile. I spent one of the most miserable Sabbaths of my life alone in a darkened tent reciting Kiddush over a glass of Coke. In the mornings during the week I had to get up extra early to don my phylacteries and prayer shawl while my roommates took their showers. On one occasion I was late. I looked up from my prayers to find myself surrounded by a bunch of goggle-eyed soldiers who wanted to know why I was taking my blood pressure.
Despite being almost 6 feet 2 inches, I was called Joodtjie, little Jew. I was never attacked or physically abused, but had to get used to the whispers and snide comments about my ethnic origins. Things began to change for the better after the Six Day War. Even the Boers in the South African Army looked on us with new respect.
In the early 1970s I left South Africa and moved to the UK, where the struggle began anew. I was now both a registered alien and an Orthodox Jew. I needed a work permit. I managed to find work with Jewish organizations where it was not difficult to be Sabbath observant. In winter this meant leaving very early on Friday afternoons, as Shabbat started at 3:30 p.m. when the clocks changed. But then I entered the mainstream job-seeking market and began to look for employment with better prospects.
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