Back to school (in sunny South Africa)

On the surface, things look the same, but peek a little closer and it’s all falling apart.

‘FOR THOSE of us lucky enough to be born in the Cape, nothing compares to the waves that crash on the Garden Route rocks...’  (photo credit: CHRISTOPHER GRINER/FLICKR)
‘FOR THOSE of us lucky enough to be born in the Cape, nothing compares to the waves that crash on the Garden Route rocks...’
My dad was a mellow kind of man; “Take it easy” was his mantra. So when he paced the floor in an agitated state, we knew it was serious. I only saw my father sunk in meditation once, when he chaired the Jewish day school in our small South African city. A son of a Jewish man had registered for primary school; the mother had converted in the Reform shul. Halachicly, the youngster wasn’t kosher; Theodor Herzl couldn’t accept him as a pupil. The rabbi ruled, my dad didn’t sleep, and the child matriculated from a different school.
What a difference five decades make. There are virtually no Jewish children in Port Elizabeth today; the thriving community of 3,000 souls has dwindled to a few hundred, mostly elderly, members. My (exclusively Jewish) class graduated when apartheid was raging; we wrote our last exam and scattered throughout the world: Australia, America, Israel. Recently, 45 years later, we regrouped in the new South Africa, in a swish Humewood hotel, for walks on Pollock Beach and to share memories in the fleeting moments before Alzheimer’s or cancer hit us, too.
It was an epic trip. Older now than our teachers were when we studied the Great Trek, we shared the joys and pain of our journeys since we took off our blue blazers for the last time. Could it be that life was just so simple then, or has time rewritten every line? What is for sure is that stuff, of course, has happened to us all. But despite the tears and unexpected revelations, we were instantly 15 again, 16, 17 – and so very happy to be together.
There are many gorgeous places on God’s earth; mountains and hilltops enough to climb. But for those of us lucky enough to be born in the Cape, nothing compares to the waves that crash on the Garden Route rocks, or the surf of the warm Indian Ocean shimmering on endless miles of clean, soft sand. It’s our beauty, it’s stunning; revisiting our well-loved haunts, we felt home again.
And then we went home: one of the well-planned activities included a nostalgic tour of our houses. The new South Africa is a more democratic place, but also a more dangerous one than that of our youth; high walls surround the open yards that we remember, topped by electrified barbed wire and heavy gates that guard against intruders. And, as we gazed through the bars into my garden, a youngish black woman crossed my lawn. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t say she was black; I’m not a racist – really, I’m not. You had to be there to understand the phenomenal changes.)
“Why are you all looking at my house?” she inquired, politely.
“It’s not your house,” I asserted, only half in jest. “My dad designed it, my parents gave it life. I was born here; here my family thrived. It’s my house.”
South Africans are so, so friendly: she invited us all in.
It’s bizarre: on the surface my happy home still looks exactly the same; the welcoming windows, the stonework, the lilting chimney on the roof. But the superficial similarities can’t hide the changed reality – some of which is good, some less so.
That iniquitous system of privilege born of race is over, happily. The servants’ quarters, where Agnes and Jane and Clifford lived (when they weren’t looking after us), have been converted into an Airbnb; guests milled about in the garden. But our pool, which always gleamed and glowed, seems shabbier; the diving board is gone. There’s mold on the slightly cracking walls.
I was sorry to have seen it, a symbol of what we repeatedly heard: On the surface the infrastructure looks the same, but peek a little closer and the country’s falling apart.
Except for Theodor Herzl.
THE STORY of our school has to be unique: a mixture of craziness and wonderment that can’t exist anywhere else on earth. Theodor, as it’s now affectionately called, has 520 pupils from preprimary until matriculation. Of those, 34 identify as Jews; 17 are halachicly of the fold. The rest are Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Muslims; all adoringly sing the school song in peace and harmony:
“May Torah and its wisdom, our ancient Hebrew tongue,
Be with us and our people, honored by old and young...”
You can’t make this up.
Pupils of all creeds and colors come dressed up to school on Purim, and sing “Hatikvah” on Israeli Independence Day. There are no lessons on the Jewish holidays. The tuck shop is kosher, the kindergarten distributes grape juice and kitke (challot) on Erev Shabbat. The non-Jewish teachers and headmaster don kippot; sports teams desist from competing on Saturdays.
Recently a preschool toddler, attending church with his parents, answered the priest’s exhortation to “Let us pray” by belting out “Baruch ata Adonai.”
Astonishingly, it works. I’ve been in education for half a century; never have I seen a school that garners so much love. Theodor is where it all happens; pupils and teachers alike go dreamy eyed talking about its warmth, high standards of excellence,
inclusiveness and caring. Members of the class of ’74, who remember being caned for untidy homework, and slapped into detention for talking in the corridor, looked on in awe as the accolades kept coming and coming and coming.
Unfortunately, not all of South African Jewry has nailed the magic formula for harmony, compromise and peace on earth. The weekend following our reunion saw some 600 of the faith gathered at the Waterfront in Cape Town for a weekend of learning, praying, feasting and fun. 50 speakers at 130 sessions discussed issues ranging from Israel’s control over the Palestinians to how millennials form religious identity. They debated what makes Jerusalem special and examined how mitzvot can be viewed as a technology of human flourishing. It was a fabulous event, filled with Shabbat songs and services and scrumptious kosher fare. But did the United Orthodox Synagogues embrace the moment, happy in the fact that hundreds of South African Jews were celebrating Shabbat in an atmosphere of sharing and caring?
Did they, heck.
The UOS, led by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, decreed that rabbis (and their wives) were banned from speaking at Limmud, or even attending sessions. The reason: the weekend was open to all Jews, including from Reform shuls.
My dad would have been pacing the floor again. Maybe, in a dwindling community that has seen its number shrink from 120,000 in the ’70s to less than half of that today, it’s time to adopt the Theodor method and open up our arms to everyone.
And from South Africa the word can go forth unto Zion. We can adopt it in the Holy Land, too. Maybe the Port Elizabeth community will donate some sand dunes to us in the package.
The writer lectures at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. [email protected]