The Oxford Maternity Fraternity

A loving tribute to South African filmmaker Laurence Dworkin

South African filmmaker Laurence Dworkin, who died of COVID-19 at a Cape Town hospital on May 17 at the age of 65, walking his dogs at a park near his home in Oranjezicht (photo credit: Courtesy)
South African filmmaker Laurence Dworkin, who died of COVID-19 at a Cape Town hospital on May 17 at the age of 65, walking his dogs at a park near his home in Oranjezicht
(photo credit: Courtesy)

 From the beginning, it was all Herbie Jackson’s idea, but he just couldn’t have known or imagined how it was all going to turn out. All Herbie really wanted to do was to have a reunion of his close childhood friends with whom he had grown up in Emmarentia and Greenside, suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa.  
In 2020, he and many of those friends would be turning 65 and it seemed like the appropriate age for them to gather, spend a few days together after having not all been in the same place for the past 40 years. Even though they had all mostly kept in close contact, they were now scattered all over the world, and getting them all together in one place was at best an impractical dream, but Herbie put the idea out there and then slowly it all came together. 
It started back in November 2015, when he established the “Memories Of Emmarentia” Facebook group for anyone who had grown up in Emmarentia and Greenside, and it soon had plenty of members happy to be back in touch with their old friends. As with many other areas in Johannesburg, but even more so with these two suburbs, the people who had grown up together in Emmarentia and Greenside had always shared a special closeness. 
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the two suburbs were settled by mainly young Jewish families, which is why a block of land was purchased to build a complex that included the Emmarentia Synagogue, a Hebrew school and a nursery school. The Oxford Maternity Home was built next door to the shul complex in Komatie Road, and the Emmarentia Primary School was built nearby on another large piece of land in Hill Road. With all these buildings completed, this period saw a lot of new families getting down to the business of building and raising families in the era after World War II that was known around the world as the “baby boom.” In Emmarentia and Greenside there were a lot of “baby boomers,” with many of our peer group being born in 1954 and 1955. 
Most of this group – which included Harold “Herbie” Jackson, Mark Levin, Brian Saitowitz, Maurice “Maish” Clein, Laurence Dworkin, Hillel Weintraub, Jeff Bernstein, Bruce Cohen, Arnold Hurwitz, Leonard Cohen, Chaim Davidowitz and I – were born in The Oxford Maternity Home. In fact, Brian and Maish were born there a few days apart in 1955, and found themselves as week-old babies in the wrong homes after they were inadvertently switched and sent home to each other’s parents, an error that was quickly discovered and reversed. 
Wherever we were all born, we soon made each other’s acquaintance at the Mina Lopato Nursery School, and then after three years there, we moved to the Emmarentia Primary School and then on to the Greenside High School. 
We all lived in close proximity to each other. During those formative years we hung out together, rode our bikes to school, played in each other’s gardens and on the primary school fields and the Marks Park sports fields.
After finishing high school, our group of friends began to fragment, with some going to different universities, some going off to travel the world and some going to live in other countries. This was mostly in the 1970s and 1980s when many Jews, being pessimistic about South Africa’s future after the apartheid era, began to emigrate to countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
WE LOST close contact with our gang and found new friends, and eventually wives, and began settling down to start raising families of our own. And although we always kept contact via the phone and mail, it wasn’t that easy to do as it was a while before the Internet era when keeping contact became much easier in the late 1990s and into the new century.Which is why, in 2015, Herbie decided to set up the “Memories Of Emmarentia” Facebook group, and when he saw how popular that had become, he began to consider the idea of having a reunion of all his friends from Emmarentia, most of whom would be turning 65 in 2020. But even though many of the gang expressed their interest, it was no small undertaking and Herbie wasn’t sure how to go about arranging it.
So Herbie contacted Maish in California and asked him to get involved. Soon after that, utilizing his legendary organizational skills, Maish used the Facebook group to canvass all the possible participants, and what was supposed to be just a reunion of our small group of friends suddenly evolved into a full Emmarentia and Greenside reunion, with anyone who had grown up in that era invited.
Then the more eager participants were canvassed to find out where in the world this reunion should be held. It seemed obvious to hold it in South Africa, and some mooted holding it in Emmarentia, but eventually it was agreed that if all the overseas folk were going to lay out huge sums to schlep to South Africa for a reunion, it may as well be held in Cape Town, believed by some to be the most beautiful city in the country, possibly in the world, and the perfect place for a summer holiday!
It was agreed that the reunion would be in Cape Town and Laurence and I (who both lived in the city) were enlisted to find a place where it could be held. It was Laurence who suggested Monkey Valley, a resort on the coast in Noordhoek, a suburb near Cape Town just on the other side of Chapman’s Peak from Hout Bay.
Then a date was set – February 24-26, 2020 – and plans made to get everyone to Cape Town for that period, and when the dust had settled, there were going to be around 40 people attending the reunion, and as Herbie had originally envisaged, most of The Oxford Maternity Fraternity, as our peer group had been dubbed, were coming.
And so it came to pass that on the morning of Monday the 24th of February, I went to the Cape Town airport to fetch Herbie, who had flown in from Israel, and Mark, who had just arrived from Johannesburg. I brought them back to my house in Oranjezicht where we met up with Brian, who had come from Germany, and Laurence, who lived around the corner from me. The five of us then loaded up Laurence’s bakkie (open pick-up truck) and we drove together to Monkey Valley to meet up with the rest of the 2020 reunion visitors.
Monkey Valley is a beautiful holiday resort that boasts a wide assortment of chalets and bungalows with a central entertainment and dining area. But Maish had arranged that the members of The OMF were all ensconced together in the resort in a larger house with many rooms and we were soon joined by Bruce from Johannesburg and Hillel from London.
It was the first time in over 40 years that The OMF were all together in one place. Many tears of joy flowed and there were hugs and reminiscing and an outpouring of joy. Herbie’s idea had come to fruition in a way he could never have envisioned. We soon went down to the entertainment area to join up with all the others who had come for the reunion. 
For the next three days, we enjoyed one of the best holidays of our lives. Maish had brought his two children, Galya and Hershie, and the three of them had made sure that every aspect of the reunion had been covered – the food, the schedule, the entertainment, the gifts and accommodation. We walked on the beach, listened to speeches, stories and discussions, danced to a DJ, ate heartily and spent a lot of time just catching up with our old friends. 
When it was time to go, everyone who had made the trip was reluctant to leave, and wished it could have continued for another week. But it had to end, and some of The OMF came back to Cape Town where we hung out together for another few days, attending the bar mitzvah of a relative of Laurence’s at the Marais Road Shul in Sea Point. That was another emotional experience as it was the first time Herbie, Brian, Laurence, and I had sat in a synagogue together since the old Emmarentia Shul days.
ALL IN all, it was a very emotional time of renewing longstanding friendships and we very reluctantly parted at the end of the week with our ties and friendships fully restored and strengthened. Within a few days, both a 2020 Reunion group and an OMF group were set up on WhatsApp and everyone continued to keep in touch, determined not to let the experiences, memories and bonds from the reunion fade.However, a few weeks later in May, tragedy struck when the COVID-19 virus arrived in South Africa, as it had all around the world, and everyone went into immediate lockdown and started taking all the necessary precautions to stay home and stay safe. Laurence contracted the virus after a trip to his local pharmacy and became very ill. Everyone in the OMF and Reunion groups, as well as his family and many friends around the world shared the anxiety of knowing someone near and very dear to us all who had been seriously affected by this virus, all of us hoping and praying that he would recover.
But, although Laurence’s condition did fluctuate and he was showing some positive progress at one stage, he was soon in the ICU on a ventilator in a nearby hospital. Then around two weeks after first falling ill, it was a Sunday evening – May 17 – when his wife, Louise, sent out the sad message we had all dreaded seeing: Laurence had passed away.
We all went into a state of shock and disbelief, having just spent time with Laurence, and having clear memories of him from the reunion a few weeks before. As well as being an integral member of The OMF, Laurence had forged his own path as a mensch of the highest order. After high school, he had gone to Rhodes University to study and soon after that had decided to find a way to help the anti-apartheid movement, which in those days was a very dangerous decision. 
Regardless, as a filmmaker, he was contracted by the ANC to use his skills to make films about the terrible situation in apartheid South Africa, and because of those activities, he was arrested and spent three months in solitary confinement in jail. When he was released, he went into exile in London. When apartheid eventually fell, Laurence returned to South Africa to teach young filmmakers and to continue making films. In 1992, he made an internationally acclaimed documentary about the ANC, and its history of struggle, called “Hold Up the Sun/Ulibambe Lingashoni.”
Laurence also bought a Rooibos tea farm in the northern Cederberg area, north of Cape Town, and helped the workers on the farm to form their own Heideveld co-op that allowed them to share and enjoy the fruits of their success as Rooibos became an internationally desired exported commodity.
For me, Laurence’s passing was a huge loss as he and I had moved to Cape Town around the same time, 25 years before, and lived almost as close to each other as we had in the old Emmarentia days. We had renewed our friendship over those years, regularly took our dogs to the same nearby park in Oranjezicht and had become very close. 
I was heartened to see the outpouring of love and respect that his family received, not just from his family and friends and The OMF, but also from so many people both in South Africa and around the world. This became clear to all of us when, because of the continued lockdown, we all had the surreal experience of observing his strictly controlled funeral at the Pinelands Cemetery, and the subsequent prayers, by way of Zoom.
In my closing speech at the 2020 Reunion, I had ironically compared our OMF reunion to the film, The Big Chill, where a group of university students comes together for a funeral and reunion following the death of a close friend. I had remarked in my speech that our reunion was similar, except for the happy difference that no one had died. 
Neither I nor anyone there could have known what was going to happen soon after the reunion, and as I mentioned earlier, Herbie could not have imagined how his idea of an Emmarentia reunion was going to turn out. In retrospect, we were all really pleased that his idea came to fruition so that The OMF could all get to see each other again, and give our dear friend Laurence the loving farewell he so deserved.