In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks Golde, his wife: “Do you love me?”
She is evasive. “I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children,” she responds. Finally, after the sixth time Tevye asks “Do you love me?” she says grudgingly, “I suppose I do.”
During these dark days, Israel is silently asking its citizens, “Do you love me?” Some are saying, “I suppose I do.” But more than a few are saying, “No, I’m leaving.” Such as Tom Livne, founder of the $2 billion unicorn start-up Verbit, which provides accurate transcriptions using automatic speech recognition. He is moving his family, his company, and his money abroad and calls for other hi-tech stalwarts to follow suit.
Livne asserts he is doing this out of love for his country and the desire to brake a disastrous attack on democracy by the radical-right government. I believe him.
That is why in this column I chose to recount the story of my friend Zvi Pantanowitz. Zvi, who is 88, made aliyah from South Africa in 1960. For many years, he served as a reporter, editor and director of Kol Yisrael’s English News. Now retired, he is a fellow member of the Masorti synagogue in our home city of Zichron Ya’acov.
I know no one who loves Israel more. Even now. Especially now. Some may disagree, but I believe that we olim (immigrants) – Zvi, myself and since 1948 some 3.4 million others, a third of the current population – tend to love Israel as deeply or perhaps more so than native-born Sabras. Why? Because we have lived elsewhere and have benchmarks. We know firsthand there is no place in the world where our lives as Jews are more fulfilling, eventful, interesting, productive, and, yes, enjoyable.
South African aliyah
First, some background. According to Rabbi Stewart Weiss, writing in The Jerusalem Post and head of an aliyah outreach effort, by World War I some 40,000 Jews had emigrated from Europe to South Africa, mainly from Lithuania. By 1970, the Jewish population of South Africa reached 120,000.
Weiss observes that “There is something truly unique about South African Jewry. Rarely have I encountered a people anywhere in the world with such warmth, grace and civility.”
“There is something truly unique about South African Jewry. Rarely have I encountered a people anywhere in the world with such warmth, grace and civility.”Rabbi Stewart Weiss
An estimated 25,000 South African Jews have made aliyah. They served Israel well and include Israel’s greatest diplomat, Abba Eban; Morris Kahn, founder of Amdocs; Ian Froman, who built Israel’s tennis centers; and some 800 Machal soldiers and pilots such as the legendary Smoky Simon, who fought in the War of Independence.
Alas, notes Weiss, the South African government, once one of Israel’s closest friends, has today become anti-Zionist in the extreme. He calls for a massive effort to bring South African Jewry “home” to Israel.
Zvi Pantanowitz was born and raised in Klerksdorp, a city in Northwest South Africa, famous for the 1885 gold rush nearby. “My strongest memory of my mother, when I was eight, was [seeing her] staring out of the front room window and crying,” he recounts.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’ve just had word from Europe that the entire family has been killed by the Germans,” she said.
“Never a word about it to me again afterwards,” he recalls. “As always, almost everything remained bottled up inside.
“She came to South Africa in 1933 [from Lithuania] to join my father, crossing Europe to get a ship to the South and having to pass through the newly formed Nazi Germany, in constant tension. My father loved my mother – a tender passion from early on. You can see [in a photograph]… as a boy of about nine, he has a hand on her shoulder as she, four years younger, looks sweetly at the camera. She was 18 when she arrived in South Africa. Under the newly introduced immigration laws, they had to wed offshore before she could land.
“In Klerksdorp of those times, there were family and friends galore and a sense of community, culminating each year in the Yom Kippur dance. Everyone brought their left-over delicacies, and we all danced in an emotional state.
“I went to Israel when Israel was only four years old, in 1952. It gave all of us [in the group from Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group] a unique view of the newly born state, an independent Jewish state that would be based on a Jewish sense of fairness and care for the other.”
Dorothy: “I met Dorothy Segal in 1958,” Zvi says. “A dark-haired girl with a smile that lit up everything around her.” They were married at the Wolmarans Synagogue in Johannesburg, where Dorothy – or Dot, as he calls her – taught Hebrew.
“In August 1959, we said goodbye with almost total insouciance to our families and sailed from Durban to Southampton. We were leaving for ideological and emotional reasons: the pull of a fledgling, 12-year-old Jewish state and the push of an increasingly amoral South Africa. We stayed in England for almost a year, on our way to join the garin (group) at the kibbutz [Yizre’el]. We landed in Israel with ten pounds sterling in our pockets, filled with dreams and no doubt a little apprehension. We were home.”
“We were at Kibbutz Yizre’el [in the Jezreel Valley] for fewer than three years – yet for me, it seems a lifetime,” he says. On kibbutz, Zvi tended a flock of sheep. “I did learn to milk,” he recalls. “First on the machines, and then under pressure, how to do it by hand. You had to be fast enough to keep up with the two machine milk hands. When I did so, I let out a shout of sheer pleasure and triumph. No similar academic or professional test ever gave me that feeling again.
“Nothing can take away from the kibbutz, its place in history as a fascinating experiment to change the age-old approach to life and living – to change the face of human society and the excesses and cruelty of capitalist laissez-faire. Yizre-el, in my mind, remains home to me.” From kibbutz, Zvi and Dorothy moved to Jerusalem.
“Almost all our 38 tumultuous years in Jerusalem were centered on the house at 3 Cremieux Street, in the German Colony,” he writes. “In that house, I learned to work at my desk in a tiny corner…[where] I got to understand what family was and what sharing really meant. It was there that friends came, lighting up those early years with their triumphs and losses, and at times their tragedies”.
Zvi was hired as a reporter for Kol Yisrael’s English News. “I loved my time at Kol Yisrael. After a bumpy start – when I grappled with the new need to write short, pithy sentences and considered several times the possibility of abandoning it all, I found my voice and the rhythm required, with the help of an old, idiosyncratic news editor, Eddie Ellison.”
Pantz, as his friends and colleagues call him, covered dramatic stories in the history of Israel and interviewed an array of personalities in the news, including Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, at his home in Sde Boker.
“Of all the stories I covered at Kol Yisrael, only one really stands out for me – the award of the Jerusalem Prize to the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges,” he says. “I met him a few hours before the prize was handed to him, at his room in the King David Hotel. Something mysterious and magical happened in that room. Throughout the interview Borges, who could no longer see, held my hand. I recall nothing of the questions and answers; the warmth of his gentle touch is still there.”
Yom Kippur War
On October 6, 1973, David Eppel, then the head of Kol Yisrael English News, asked Zvi to cover the fighting in the South. He joined Gideon Remez, the top Hebrew news reporter. At IDF Southern Command headquarters at Um-Hashiba, gouged out of the mountain, “Gideon and I stood at the door waiting to try to get in. A young captain came out. We asked him if we could enter. ‘You can if you want,’ he said, ‘but I wouldn’t. It’s terrible in there. No one really knows what’s going on.’”
“We accepted his plea,” Zvi recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure why. I think it was because we felt he was telling the truth, and going in would have been recognition of the sheer weight of the chaos. And in the end, it would have been cruel to all if these two reporters, there by chance, had the insensitive effrontery and sense of self-importance to think they had a right to be there. I might have missed a historic picture of the moment, but I would have had to live after that with a sense of shame.”
On May 15, 1974, three armed terrorists from Lebanon took 115 Israelis hostage, 105 of them children, at a school in Ma’alot in northern Israel. Special forces stormed the building; the hostage-takers killed children with grenades and automatic weapons. It ended in the murders of 25 hostages, including 22 children.
Sent to cover the attack by Kol Yisrael, Zvi arrived and discovered it was all over. It had been covered by hordes of media. So, what to report? He chose to tell his editors he had no story. Truth preempted all else. As a part-time journalist myself, and distressed at the biased, often false reporting in today’s media, I took to heart Zvi’s integrity – especially, how he returned empty-handed from Ma’alot. For Zvi, integrity came before scoops.
Zvi suffers from a progressive hereditary illness, CMT, which damages the peripheral nerves. As a result, at his army induction he was given a low “profile” score of 63. He appealed. A bored medical doctor gave him an 82 profile, and after basic training Zvi was called for reserve duty (miluim).
“Reserve duty can be a wonderful institution for men,” he observes. “I met people from all walks of life, in interesting and sometimes challenging situations.”
“That I failed to make Hebrew a real tongue for me,” Zvi says, even though he did broadcast in Hebrew for Reshet Bet in his latter years at the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
One of my jobs in my synagogue is to send monthly yahrzeit reminders by email. Once I sent one to Zvi. It was in English – my practice for English speakers. Zvi gently reprimanded me. He was “all in” for Hebrew.
Love of country
“There are so many things to be grateful for. I am grateful for the fact that I am here in this wonderful, tortured, beckoning land. Not perfect, cruel at times, exasperating and disappointing in the way it treats its own and others, arrogant, and unforgiving about the past. But, oh, how thankful I am that it was given to me to be part of the historic attempt to restore an ancient people to its land, the dream of two millennia. Now – at this time – given to me, too, to fulfill.”
Zvi Pantanowitz, Pantz – friend, reporter, mensch – I wholeheartedly agree!
Like Tevye in Fiddler, our little country is silently asking us if we love her, in this time of distress and rancor. Yes, we do! ■
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com. This column is based in part on Zvi’s 2015 self-published book, The Pantanowitz Family: A Story of Three Lands.