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A brocha fit for a king

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Tributes

Former Johannesburg major, the late David Neppe, held an official dinner at the city council mayoral banquet hall to honour the late King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu.

As chaplain, I discussed the idea of making a brocha over a king. After all, this king had even more power over his people, than, say, the queen of England. I suggested to Neppe that when the king entered, I begin proceedings with a short explanation of sheva mitzvos bnei noach (the Torah laws that all nations of the world should observe) and recite the appropriate brocha.

The king entered with a lot of pomp and ceremony. His subjects all bowed, and some prostrated to the ground. I gave my little speech, and recited the appropriate blessing in Hebrew which I then translated: “Baruch ata Hashem elokeinu melech ha-olam shechalak meekvodo libassar vidam [Blessed are you, Lord, king of the universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood.]”

It made a favourable impression. During the banquet, the king approached me, saying, “This is the first time anyone has ever blessed me in the original language of the Bible, in Hebrew. I believe in the G-d-given Bible. I appreciate your blessing very much.”

So ended an evening which left a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) on all those who attended.

  • Rabbi Alex Carlebach is the rabbi at Chabad of Lyndhurst in Johannesburg.

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Tributes

A legacy of goodwill: farewell to the Zulu king

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My apartment in Ra’anana is dominated by beautiful woven baskets, gifts of his majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, the monarch of the Zulu nation, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, whose death was announced last Friday.

King Goodwill has been the constitutional monarch of the Zulu nation since 1968, and was the sole trustee of the Ingonyama Trust Board, safeguarding about 2.8 hectares of KwaZulu-Natal’s rural land on behalf of the Zulu nation.

In the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa, “His majesty will be remembered as a much loved visionary monarch who made an important contribution to cultural identity, national unity, and economic development in KwaZulu-Natal, and through this to the development of our country as a whole.”

To the Jewish community, he was a stalwart friend and an ardent Zionist. A delegation of the South African Zionist Federation was warmly received at his palace in early 2012 as the king’s guests at the Marula and dance ceremonies, where he expressed concern about the scourge of HIV and lack of food security.

A range of programmes initiated by the local Jewish community with the assistance of the Israeli embassy were discussed and welcomed. King Goodwill was touched that amongst his gifts was a JNF (Jewish National Fund) tree certificate that indicated that trees had been planted in his name in the South African Forest in Israel.

He was pleased to accept an invitation to visit Israel. It was the start of many meetings over the years. Some were small, intimate discussions, others part of large fora.

A few weeks later, our delegation, including Ya’acov Finkelstein, the then Israeli deputy ambassador, met the king again at Nongoma, who was in discussion with all his tribal leaders (about 300 people) about a growth plan under the auspices of the Ingonyama Trust.

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and KwaZulu-Natal Premier Dr Zweli Mkhize were also present. Proposals for the South African Jewish community to bring medical and environmental expertise were gratefully accepted.

These included the building of a clinic situated at the Africa Centre in Mtubatuba, which is involved in extensive research on HIV/AIDS. It was agreed that the Jewish community would assist with a male-circumcision clinic, with experts to be brought by the Operation Abraham Collaborative of Israel. The Israeli embassy also offered advice on agricultural projects.

The Jewish community with the Dis-Chem Foundation went on to create a Community Wellness Centre at Mtubatuba with Princess Mogay, the king’s daughter, who manages the royal household’s engagement with outreach. In addition, the Victor Daitz Foundation generously developed the medical-circumcision clinic in eMondlo in the Vryheid area.

King Goodwill also eagerly participated in Jewish communal events. He was guest of honour at the Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony at the Israeli embassy in 2013. In his speech, he praised the ability of the Jewish people to rise above challenges, stipulating that he believed Israel’s history was one filled with paradox and tragedy, but ultimately triumph.

He also expressed the desire to co-operate further with us in the arena of agriculture, and to promote a youth exchange between the two countries.

King Goodwill and his wife, Her Royal Highness Queen Kwalindizulu, were keynote speakers and guests of honour at one of the largest community events in Durban – A Night to Honour Jerusalem. More than 500 attendees, members of the KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community and Christian Zionists, came to the Durban Jewish Centre for this.

“Operation Abraham remains the strongest bond binding KwaZulu-Natal and Israel together for many years to come. When I announced the revival of circumcision, I received support from a team of experts in Jerusalem. They offered to collaborate with me and the department of health to drive the circumcision campaign,” his majesty said. “A few months ago, I was informed that more than 20 000 young men in KwaZulu-Natal had been circumcised without any complications, none had died.”

Over the past decade, one of the most serious issues confronting the Jewish community is the attempt by factions in the South African government to promote the boycott of Israel.

Immediately after the former Deputy Minister of International Relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim, unveiled the policy, Israel’s then ambassador, Dov Segev-Steinberg, stated that the king had accepted an invitation to visit Israel. “He vowed to use his official visit to explore ways to intensify co-operation between South Africa and Israel, especially between the Zulu people and Israeli people,” said Segev-Steinberg.

The ambassador believed that the king’s commitment to visit was “a sign that Israel still has good friends in this country, friends who are happy and willing to share experiences and ensure love and respect for Israel”.

Your majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, you were an honoured and treasured supporter of the South African Jewish community. We salute you, and wish you hamba kahle, baba.

  • Professor Antony Arkin is the immediate past-chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Zionist Council and served as the National Treasurer of the South African Zionist Federation for 20 years.

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Tributes

Final curtain call for ‘Mr Computicket’

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The boy from Benoni who grew up to rub shoulders with the stars and invent a system that would revolutionise the theatre industry has passed away at the age of 92. Percival “Percy” Tucker died in Cape Town after a number of health complications including COVID-19, shortly after the death of his life partner, Graham Dickason.

“I think he died of a broken heart,” says his devastated friend of five decades and former personal assistant, Gail Jaffit Leibman. “It’s terribly sad that after a life surrounded by so many people, he died alone in hospital.”

Tucker was born in Benoni, where his family had settled from Lithuania. When he was seven years old, the Tucker family saw British singer Gracie Fields at a Benoni performance of her South African tour. For him, it was love at first sight, and he was smitten with the theatre. When he was 10, he was alone at home when someone knocked on the door offering complimentary tickets to a play if the family was willing to lend them the furniture for it. Clearly Tucker agreed, because his parents returned home to find men loading their lounge furniture onto a truck. Their furniture was returned after the play finished its run.

“His favourite tag line was that he was BC [born in Benoni] before Charlize [Charlize Theron],” wrote arts and lifestyle writer Robyn Cohen on her website The Cape Robyn. “He and my late mom attended the same school in Benoni. In 2017, Percy took us on a trip there. Heritage was very important to him.”

“When I was bitten by the entertainment bug, he became my mentor and inspiration,” says his cousin, theatre producer Hazel Feldman. “He always had his finger on the pulse. He had an incredible memory until his last day, and knew every detail about every performance or show in South Africa, going back decades. He would travel extensively and when in London or New York, would see 15 shows in five days. What he did with Computicket was incredible. I think I was too young at the time to realise the extent of what he did by inventing such a system.”

“It began as Show Service in 1954,” remembers Jaffit Leibman. “He flew to London, bought the system, and established contracts with every theatre and movie house.” When Computicket opened for business on 16 August 1971 in South Africa, it was the world’s first fully operative computerised, centralised ticket-booking system. “We had contracts in every shopping mall. They would pay us to have booths. And it would be mandatory for all staff to see every show and movie screening so that they would be able to make recommendations,” she says.

“He revolutionised theatre in South Africa. He made it accessible. It was huge for us,” says producer Pieter Toerien, another lifelong friend. “He would joke that he was ‘just a ticket seller’, but he was so much more.”

The two met when Toerien was just 19 and brought his first show to Johannesburg. “I went to Percy for advice on ticketing, and we hit it off right away. He was always there – the ultimate friend. There wasn’t much for visiting actors to do in Johannesburg, and he would happily entertain stars at his flat in Killarney every week. Once, I brought out famous French singer and movie star Maurice Chevalier. He was 82, and insisted on having a walk around Zoo Lake every day. I would take him, but one day, I got flu. Percy immediately offered to do it, and for three days, he would drive across town to take him for his walk.”

Tucker was “very generous”, Jaffit Leibman says. “We had a tea lady in the office. One day, we got a call that she wouldn’t be coming in. When I asked why, the person said she was having a baby. We had no idea she was pregnant! Well, Percy bought her a house and educated her child right through to university. He is now a high-powered periodontist in London. Percy did that a lot, but he always kept schtum about his tzedakah.”

Musical director Bryan Schimmel recalls, “My history with the formidable force of nature that is Percy Tucker goes back to 1983 when I was a student wanting to get into the entertainment industry. I worked part time as a Computicket sales operator during the holidays. He was a bottomless mine of information, and his passion for selling tickets to the arts was infectious. Eleven years later, when A Handful of Keys became an overnight theatrical sensation, Ian von Memerty and I were selected to be the entertainment for Percy’s retirement from Computicket in 1994 and I was thrilled to be asked to play piano and entertain at his 80th birthday. Our industry has lost a visionary, a groundbreaker, a mentor, and a friend.”

Dorianne “Dr D” Weil interviewed Tucker on her show Coffee & Connect, and found him to be “the carrier of so much history. You could really sit at his feet and listen. But not many people knew him or what he did.” Long term friend Brian Van Rheede recalls how Tucker met stars like Percy Baneshik, Jim Stodel, Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley MacLaine, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Roger Moore, Johnny Mathis, Anthony Perkins, Marlene Dietrich, Basil Rubin, and Goldie Hawn.

Opera singer Aviva Pelham says, “He knew what went into productions. He wasn’t there only for the good times, but also the decades in which the arts have been embattled in South Africa. This was especially true for the ballet company, which I’m sure wouldn’t exist without Percy. Not only would he regularly help it to continue, he also ensured the standard remained high. And he never looked for the limelight. He had huge integrity.”

Besides theatre, “He was mad about sport,” says Toerien. “He was a tennis fanatic, and loved golf. He would often wake up at night to watch sport live in different time zones. And if Federer lost, it was a very bad day! He was also quite religious and embodied so many Jewish values. He would go to shul every week, and it was meaningful that at his funeral, his rabbi knew him so well. He won’t be replaced. There will only ever be one Percy Tucker. And if you have a friend even half as good as him, consider yourself a very lucky person.”

“In pandemic days, we book our tickets to watch livestreamed events and video on demand on the digital stage. There are ticket re-selling platforms, featuring complex transactions between multiple sellers and buyers,” wrote Cohen. “Let’s remember the groundwork and foundation put down by Percy Tucker, Mr Ticket, the ticket seller from Benoni.”

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Sir Ronald Harwood makes his final exit

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Sir Ronald Harwood (formerly Ronald “Ronnie” Horwitz) passed away in London last week at the age of 85, after a lifetime as a leading writer, playwright, screenwriter, and actor.

He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist in 2003, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007. He was knighted for his services to drama in 2010. His love of the stage can be traced back to his childhood in Cape Town.

“I grew up with Ronnie Horwitz,” says Abel Levitt, speaking to the SA Jewish Reportfrom Israel. “We started school at the Kings Road Primary School in 1941, in the same class of Sub A. We completed our schooling at Sea Point Boys High in 1951. Throughout our school lives, we were in the same class, at Kings Road, at Sea Point Junior, and at Sea Point Boys High. We lived close to one another, Ronnie in Victoria Road, and I in Brompton Avenue. We were in the Cubs and Scouts together, we played tennis together, and watched cricket at Newlands together. At school, Ronnie took the lead in the school plays. He was outstanding.”

Harwood’s childhood friend, Gerald Masters, recalls, “My father was very good at making things, and made me a large model theatre which Ronnie and I made good use of.” Masters’ original surname was Mosselson, which he was asked to “anglicise” by his employer when he went to London because it was too Jewish. Indeed, the New York Times (NYT) reports that Harwood also “anglicised his Jewish surname as part of his effort to become a British stage actor”.

Writing in his memoir What Ever Next, Masters described how as children, they named this model theatre “The Royal Acropolis”.

“We mutually agreed to Ronnie becoming ‘Sir’ many years before he was actually knighted. Our programmes always had ‘Sir Ronald Horwitz’ as the star.

“Ronnie had long decided to go to London to train and eventually star in the West End. Just before he left South Africa, we were invited by the American rabbi, Dr David Sherman, to take children’s services [at the Progressive Synagogue in Cape Town]. He even suggested we might consider training for the rabbinate!”

However, they both headed to London, which the NYT says Harwood saw as “the centre of the universe”. They shared accommodation. “My late uncle was celebrated concert pianist Lionel Bowman,” says Masters. “He and his partner, Raymond Marriot, got Ronnie’s career underway.”

“Ronnie had left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) before completing his three years,” Masters says. “Money had been a problem, but an opportunity arose which would change his life. The opportunity was that Marriot, a great admirer of actor-manager Donald Wolfit [later Sir Donald], had heard that he was auditioning actors for small parts in his Shakespeare season. Ronnie got the job and the first play I saw in London was that night. He popped up in various small parts, some non-speaking.

“Ronnie’s famous and very successful play [later a film], The Dresser, is based on his time with Wolfit, whose dresser had left him. Ronnie asked me if I would like the job, but I ruled myself out. Ronnie decided to propose himself, and was accepted. It turned out to be a move that would change his life forever. The Dresser was his ‘golden pension’.”

However the two friends struggled at times, and Masters relates a hilarious story of them working in the kitchen of a hospital, where he once “hid a small cooked chicken under my pullover, and Ronnie may have had some other food items under his. At the exit gate, my chicken slipped out onto the pavement. If the official at the gate saw the creature, he said nothing, and we beat a hasty retreat. We ate well that night.”

From these humble moments, Harwood would go on to befriend royalty. “Whilst my dad was HRH [Harold Ralph Horwitz], it was Ronnie who was friends with His Royal Highness Prince Charles and Camilla. They hosted a dinner to honour him on his 80th birthday,” says his niece, Tessa Gnesin, from Sydney. Says Masters, “I know Ronnie was truly surprised to win the Oscar, but his real delight was being knighted. He once said to me, ‘Here I am, little Ronnie Horwitz from Sea Point, a knight who can call Prince Charles a friend.’”

“He had a great love for cricket, and was a regular at Lord’s. Whilst not a practicing Jew, Ronnie went to shul every year to say Kaddish for my dad,” says Gnesin. Indeed, Harwood’s interest in his Jewish identity would blossom in later life. Levitt and his wife, Glenda, have spent 20 years working to protect the memory of the Jews of the Lithuanian shtetl of Plunge (Plungyan) who were killed in the Holocaust, and educate youngsters there about this history, and Harwood became intricately involved in that story.

Levitt recalls, “It was whilst reading his novel Home that I learned for the first time that Ronald’s father, Isaac Horwitz, had emigrated to South Africa from Plungyan, where my father also came from. In half a lifetime, our fathers’ ancestry wasn’t a subject of discussion. I called Ronnie. ‘What about you and [Harwood’s wife] Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?’ I asked. The reply was immediate. The meeting at the airport was emotional. He had recently been awarded the Oscar for The Pianist, and here he was in Lithuania.”

“Upon our arrival, our first stop was at the apartment of Yacovas Bunka, who has welcomed hundreds of Plungyan Jews. Few would have been of the international stature of Ronald Harwood. There was an immediate warm relationship. The following morning, we proceeded to the mass graves, where 1 800 Plungyan Jews were murdered in July 1941. Ronald did not have family who had remained in Lithuania, but he walked around, silent, as he absorbed the sanctity of the moment. He was profoundly moved.

“Our next visit was to the Saules Gymnasium. Every class had seen The Pianist, and they were riveted by Ronald’s charm and dynamic personality. In the evening, there was an event where Ronald related his experiences of working on the film. The following morning, we met with the mayor. I remember Ronald’s words, ‘Mr Mayor, I know that you have difficulties with budgets. I appeal to you, whatever you do, don’t reduce the budgets for culture. To do so will be to the detriment of your society.’”

This moment motivated the Levitts to create an art competition, titled “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust art competition”, where children in the region would explore Lithuania’s Holocaust history through art. “It has grown from a local event, to a regional national event, and all forms of art are part of the competition: painting, drawing, sculpture, drama, music, and writing,” says Levitt.

“For us, that experience of being with my lifelong friend in the land of the birth of our fathers, and to witness young people’s appreciation of the artistry of Ronald Harwood, inspired us to display the winning artworks in countries around the world, including South Africa and Lithuania.”

The moment that Harwood won the Oscar was an emotional one. “I sat together with my family glued to the TV until all hours in the morning,” recalls Gnesin. “He brought incredible pride to the family, and from humble South African Jewish beginnings, achieved the highest honour possible in his field. How we wished his late parents and siblings could have shared in his glory. They all contributed greatly in allowing him to follow his dreams at the tender age of 17.”

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