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A new play opens debate on playing Wagner

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Many Jewish musicians will not play or listen to the music of Richard Wagner because he has been promoted as Hitler’s favourite composer, but for most this is an unspoken agreement.

Victor Gordon, the late award-winning Pretoria playwright, has pulled the Band Aid off this debate in his play You Will Not Play Wagner. It has been turned into a Zoom film with award-winning actress Annette Miller, who previously played Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, as its lead and premiered internationally on 16 November.

“The film opens a discussion on a topic that’s usually not discussed – intergenerational trauma, community, and the assumptions about Wagner,” says Tali Nates, founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

“Should Wagner’s music be played or not? Why is Wagner in the conversation and not others who were much more antisemitic than him? All these critical thinking questions need to be discussed, and I think this play or film allows us to do that.”

The film is dedicated to the memory of Gordon, who was also an artist, musician, community leader, and strong literary advocate for Israel. It was directed by Lilia Levitina.

The play was Gordon’s second international production, and was performed live in both Israel and Australia. He adapted it for Zoom just before he succumbed to COVID-19 in June this year.

Gordon, a retired pharmacist, wrote his first play at the age of 13. He also developed an interest in painting and music, and would go on to sell just under 100 paintings and play jazz semi-professionally for more than 40 years.

He was aware of the informal ban on Wagner’s music in Israel because of the German composer being promoted during the Nazi era as Hitler’s favourite composer. Although this unofficial ban has been unsuccessfully challenged by acclaimed conductors Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, Gordon wrote a play to explore the dramatic possibilities inherent in the debate around this subject matter.

Set in New York and Tel Aviv during the COVID-19 pandemic, the film focuses on the days leading up to the final of the Esther Greenbaum Conductors Competition. Greenbaum is a Holocaust survivor and the competition’s patron who puts up the prize money for the winner.

She would like the character, Ya’akov, a millennial Israeli upstart, to beat the other five composers, each of a different nationality, in the final. To her surprise, Ya’akov chooses to play music by Wagner in the final.

Ya’akov, who believes the taboo on Wagner’s music in Israel must change, engages in an emotional argument with Greenbaum and the competition’s organiser, whose name is Morris, during a Zoom meeting.

Morris says Ya’akov’s choice will not be tolerated by the general public while Israel remains home to one Holocaust survivor. Ya’akov stands by his selection because he has not transgressed the competition rules and believes the anti-Wagner tradition is “stupid”.

He questions whether a problem would have arisen had he chosen a composer like Mikhail Glinka or Modest Mussorgsky, who never hid their dislike of Jews. He says Wagner had Jewish friends and made great music which presents a unique challenge for any conductor.

Greenbaum argues that Wagner had an influence on Hitler and the philosophy of the Third Reich.

Having ended the meeting in a hysterical state, Greenbaum tries to get her final Zoom meeting with Ya’akov off to a better start, but it soon becomes extremely heated.

When Ya’akov says a live experience with Wagner’s music made him the composer he is today, Greenbaum says that is not her experience. As a mere child, she was forced on pain of death to play Wagner for her concentration camp’s orchestra. “Were I not able to play the violin – were it not for Wagner’s music – I would not now be alive,” she says.

Ya’akov argues we should not forever remain victims of the Nazis and playing Wagner would be the ultimate victory over them.

Nates, a historian who lectures internationally on Holocaust education, says it’s not important whether playing Wagner in Israel would amount to treachery or triumph. “The discussion and the dialogue are the most important,” says Nates, whose father and uncle were among the many Jews saved by businessman Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust.

“The film is so powerful because it’s not just telling a Holocaust story, a survivor’s story, or an artefact’s story. It’s not telling one story. It tells about memory, intergenerational memory, and coming to terms with history. It connects history and personal history, and memory and the importance of collective memory and collective trauma.”

Nates was impressed with how Gordon changed the configuration of the play into a film, but she says it doesn’t cover all aspects of the Holocaust, “which has a complicated history with many layers”.

She says the complicated relationship between Hitler’s admiration of Wagner and the missing pieces of this part of history means playing Wagner in Israel has become a pop culture taboo.

“One of the key historians of Wagner and the Holocaust wrote a book that basically questioned the assumption that Wagner’s music was played by the orchestra of Auschwitz. It was 100% not played by the orchestra in the camps, but it is pop culture belief that it was.”

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Community acts to resolve Hebrew teaching crisis

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Teaching our children Hebrew is one of the things that truly sets Jewish education apart, and it’s a driving factor in the decision to send children to Jewish schools. But the subject is facing significant challenges.

Jewish schools in the Western Cape have been the most severely affected, and their counterparts in Johannesburg aren’t far behind. The problem isn’t limited to South Africa – experts say it’s a dilemma facing diaspora communities worldwide.

Geoff Cohen, Jewish identity and community director at United Herzlia Schools in Cape Town, confirms that “one of the biggest challenges we face as a Jewish school in Cape Town is the scarcity of Hebrew teachers. The Jewish community has been shrinking, and this has had an effect on the number of Hebrew educators available to teach in our schools.

“Many of our existing Hebrew teachers have returned to Israel, and there are very few options for our community to study Hebrew at South African tertiary institutions. The pool of Hebrew teachers in South Africa is decreasing, and all Jewish schools seem to be in a similar predicament. Colleagues at Jewish schools in English-speaking countries around the world have indicated that they, too, are facing similar challenges.”

Thankfully, the South African Jewish community has taken the first steps to remedy the situation, as 20 Hebrew teachers from around the country started an Advanced Hebrew Training Course through The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. The course is powered by Middlebury College in Vermont, the leading programme in the world on how to teach English speakers Hebrew as a second language.

“Two of our teachers have just started the Advanced Hebrew Training Course,” says Cohen. “Another solution could be to bring teachers from Israel, but this is costly and there are often cultural challenges. A different solution is to look at online Hebrew curricula that could possibly use expert teachers in other cities or even other countries.”

Rabbi Ricky Seeff, the director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, says, “One of the things King David has tried is to bring shlichim – teachers who come for three years or a bit more and work in our system. They’re Israelis, they’re teachers, and we bring them out to teach, particularly the senior grades. But it’s expensive and presents challenges in finding the right people.

“So thankfully, we’ve recently engaged with The Academy to start creating a pipeline. We are taking local South African talent who understand Hebrew and training them so that they can teach. At the same time, we’re giving some Israelis in the system proper teaching degrees and contributing to their learning.”

In spite of the challenges, “King David’s results and the amount of kids taking Hebrew is still outstanding,” says Seeff. “Hebrew forms the core of so much of what we do, so we’re committed to finding a sustainable solution into the future.”

The Academy course is possibly the first formal step in decades taken by the South African Jewish community to professionalise teaching Hebrew as a subject.

“South Africa is one of the few diaspora communities where there are no communal structures in place to train teachers and leaders entering the Jewish education system, specifically Jewish Studies and Hebrew,” says Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, the dean of The Academy. “Various structures existed in the past, but for various reasons, they were discontinued. The net result is that, particularly over the past 20 years, there has been no programming directed towards Hebrew or Jewish Studies, both for teaching the subjects or for leadership.”

“Hebrew has been worst hit,” says Widmonte, “There was a surge of immigrants from Israel to South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and many of those people became leaders in Hebrew teaching. However, many of them are at an advanced age and immigrants are no longer coming. This has led to a significant shortage of Hebrew teachers. In some places in South Africa, far fewer children are taking Hebrew as a matric subject.”

“Our community relies on Jewish education in our school systems to ensure continuity,” Widmonte says. “But without attracting qualified, capable Hebrew teachers and training them, it’s simply not going to happen. We need to make it a priority. Until now, schools had no way to recruit new Hebrew teachers.

“The upskilling process includes professionalising the Jewish education space, and ensuring that South Africa has degrees and qualifications applying to teachers in these fields. Until now, South Africa has never had a Postgraduate Certificate in Education in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. From August this year, a local teachers’ college will offer it,” Widmonte says.

Widmonte says many schools have come on board. “They realise the need to search for solutions. If we don’t act now, we simply won’t have any Hebrew teachers. So we need to professionalise and recruit. Within a year, we’ll see a major difference, please G-d.”

Finally, there will be continual professional development so that the quality of Hebrew education will remain high.

All this requires funding, and Widmonte is grateful to “visionary donors” who realised this need and are supporting these ventures.

Teachers have also reacted positively. “They have been the most worried about who will replace them and how to improve,” Widmonte says. “Every teacher has come on board with tremendous vigour and energy. They know how important this is.

“Hebrew is an identity marker and a door opener to participate in Jewish life: religious, traditional, and Israeli,” he says. “It allows you to read and participate in shul, lead the Pesach seder, or haggle on the streets of Tel Aviv. It’s one of the ‘binding factors’ of our Jewish community. A lack of Hebrew makes our children uncomfortable in shuls, and strangers in Israel. It would undermine their Jewish identity.”

He dreams of taking this even further, of Jewish children learning Hebrew at a young age at the same time as they learn to speak their mother tongue.

Widmonte believes the community should view this as a “sea-change moment” – a time to invest in infrastructure that underpins our schools. “Our kids should rave about their Hebrew and Jewish Studies teachers. We shouldn’t be prepared to accept any less.”

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Locked Upside Down reopens theatre for business

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The Theatre on the Square finally reopens with Locked Upside Down, an almost wholly Jewish cast and crew bringing us a revue on living in the time of COVID-19 in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The SA Jewish Report speaks to Alan Swerdlow, the director of the show.

This is the first production in the revamped Theatre on the Square. What does that mean to you and your cast?

A theatre lives only when there’s an audience seated, watching, and engaging with a performance, and the act of performance is a reflection and recreation of experiences. For the general public, the past two years have been a time of deprivation from the communal shared experience of attending live shows, but I don’t think the public at large is aware just how devastating the impact of COVID-19 has been on the entertainment industry.

For two years, everyone connected with that industry has been effectively denied the chance of making a living – from stage hands, ushers, ticket sellers, to stage technicians, writers, composers, musicians, designers, performers, directors, and producers. Worldwide, the profession has been effectively gutted, with severe consequences for everyone connected with it.

For us to be the first production in the Theatre on the Square is unbelievably thrilling and inspirational as we help to bring a theatre back to life. Theatre is an act of community, and the pandemic paused or distorted all communal engagement, yet here we are, extending a hand to our community and actually looking into their eyes.

How would you describe this production?

It’s a revue, a reflection of the pandemic experience through songs, sketches, monologues, and dialogue, and like all revues, it’s funny, satirical, sometimes more heartfelt and emotional, and contemplative. It’s thematic rather than narrative, but at its heart, it’s story-telling, which is the oldest and most enduring performance – from grannies telling bedtime stories to the grandest, glitziest entertainment.

Who wrote the play and why? How was it put together?

The revue has been written by Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Lorri Strauss. Their frustration during the “time of COVID” led to a lot of introspection and an overwhelming desire to create something, even if its ultimate realisation on a stage in front of an audience was uncertain.

Once the entire production team had been assembled, creative input came from everyone, and as director, I helped shape the sketches and monologues.

This is one of the first COVID-19 lockdown productions in South Africa. Why do you think it’s important to write about this time?

Everyone is desperate to laugh at what they have been through these past two years. If we laugh in recognition of our demons, we reduce the impact and fear.

Theatre has always been a reflection of what it is to be human, and reflects the experiences of the watching audience even if it’s not immediately and obviously the individual, personal experience.

Empathy and understanding is a major part of shared experiences, and it’s often in a theatre where that empathy and understanding is to be found. At this time, we all need to let off some steam.

What issues do you touch on that we have dealt with as a community under lockdown?

There are issues large and small that everyone has dealt with, but it’s the small ones that are often forgotten first. So, particularly for parents, all the difficulties of juggling home life during lockdown come to the fore. With the home suddenly becoming office, school, nursing home, lecture hall, factory, and what-have-you, it was turned upside down and was anything but the nurturing refuge we like to think of home as being.

Zoom Calls, social distancing, online learning for kids, online shopping, lack of face-to-face contact, compulsive sanitising, expanding our cooking skills (when we couldn’t go to restaurants), being in a confined space and learning how to share it, and lots more – we’re hoping that the audience will recognise these themes and realise that they weren’t alone.

You have a predominantly Jewish cast. Does that mean there are Jewish-isms throughout? Give us some examples to look out for.

Because both Lorri and Sharon are “nice Jewish girls”, they wrote from their own experience, so the entire show is suffused with a Jewish neshomah that I think any Jewish audience will recognise.

There are all sorts of hints and passing references to things like the Jewish Mommies WhatsApp groups to the competitiveness of some parents in things like home-schooling and bread baking.

Tell us about your cast and what makes them bring the characters to life?

Both Sharon and Lorri have lived the experience of mommies with demanding children during lockdown and coped with it in their own way, and Cathrine brings her experience of a singleton living through lockdown. It’s real, immediately recognisable, and the audience can identify with it.

What will make this production memorable?

Being able to be part of one of the first shared experiences of a live performance in a theatre in Johannesburg is memorable enough, but there’s also some glorious singing and some sharp, witty observations about the way we live now. I think the relief that people will feel at “I wasn’t the only one reacting like that” will be palpable.

What type of audience will appreciate it, and what should they be prepared for?

Anyone who has been through the past two years will find that the show resonates with them and they should be prepared for some good laughs, some nostalgia, a few home truths, and the sheer joy of being back in a theatre watching people do what they do best.

As actors, directors, and entertainers, how have you all managed lockdown in South Africa?

I won’t lie – it has been really, really tough. But lockdown has given us one gift, the gift of time to reset, reflect, consider, and find new ways of harnessing our creative impulses. There has been a lot of writing, philosophising, acquisition of new skills, and the sorting out of priorities – in addition to the cleaning out of cupboards, learning to sort laundry properly, and keeping a sourdough starter alive.

What impact has it had on your personal lives?

As mentioned, we’ve had the chance to sort out our priorities and discover resilience out of necessity. Having one of the most important things in our lives taken away from us gave us a new appreciation for what it is that we love – our creative expression. For me personally, it was learning not to take anything for granted ever again.

  • “Locked Upside Down”, starring Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, Lorri Strauss, and Cathrine Hopkins will be at Theatre on the Square from 9 to 26 February. Tickets are available at computicket.com or contact 083 377 4969 or 011 883 8606.

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Exercise and a good marriage: tips from world’s oldest gym instructor

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Meish Jaffe is probably the oldest gym instructor in South Africa and at 97 years of age, possibly the oldest in the world.

A resident of Jaffa, the Jewish retirement home in Pretoria, Jaffe introduced his fitness regime soon after he came to the home four years ago. His exercises are specifically designed to meet the needs of older people with varying levels of physical activity and mobility.

Jaffe has another remarkable achievement to his name, one he shares with his wife, Bella, (92). They have been married for almost 72 years.

They have known each other since they were young children in Rosettenville in the south of Johannesburg, where Bella Aronowitz was born.

Jaffe hails from London’s East End. He was three when his family came to South Africa in 1927.

His grandparents had moved to Cape Town from London many years earlier with their children. At the age of 20, his father decided he wanted to see the world, which he did by joining the merchant navy. He finally settled in London after meeting his wife there, returning with his new family to South Africa a few years later, settling in La Rochelle, a suburb bordering on Rosettenville.

Jaffe often went to Bella’s home when his father had his regular klaberjass game with Bella’s father.

He was fascinated by the people he met through Bella’s father, a shoemaker, focusing on one specific product.

“The Turffontein Racecourse was right next door,” Jaffe explains. “He specialised in making upmarket boots for jockeys. We got to know all of them, like Tiger Wright and others.”

He and Bella parted ways for a time after they attended different high schools, and he left school at the end of his junior certificate year, to use the old terminology, (Grade 10 today).

He then qualified as a panel beater. After a few years, he went to Durban, where he worked repairing ships.

“I wrote to her from Durban, but she didn’t answer me. So I went back to Joburg,” he says in his matter-of-fact manner. “After a while, we got together. She realised that I was the right guy for her, and that’s the story.” They were married in the South Eastern Hebrew Congregation shul in Rosettenville on 25 June 1950.

Sometime later, with Bella also working as a bookkeeper and shorthand typist, he decided to open a panel beating shop in Germiston. After operating successfully for six years, he lost everything after making some poor investments.

His brother, Henry Jaffe, who lived in Pretoria, insisted that Jaffe, Bella, and their three small children, Brian, Neil, and Caron, come to Pretoria to stay with him until they could get back on their feet.

Moving in with Henry for about three months in 1960 proved a turning point in their lives. Jaffe raised the money to buy a shop in the Pretoria central business district, which he ran for six years.

Then, 45 years ago, he bought the business which has remained in the family ever since, Valhalla General Dealers. At the time, “it sold everything from bicycle parts to ladies’ panties”, Jaffe says. “I threw everything out, and turned it into a hardware store.”

The business expanded over the years into several adjoining shops, and Jaffe bought the entire property.

Jaffe and Bella retired in 2000 to live permanently in their holiday flat in Umhlanga. Their sons, Neil and Brian, who had joined the business early on, took over from their father and their grandson, Craig, also now works there.

They moved into Jaffa when Jaffe was 84. “But I wasn’t ready for it,” he says, so they moved back to Umhlanga, returning to Jaffa finally when he was 93 and Bella was 88.

They are both happy at Jaffa. “I would say Jaffa is the best Jewish old-age home in the country,” he says.

It didn’t take long for him to start his exercise classes at Jaffa, eventually taking them three times a week. He is the oldest in the group, with several in their nineties and others in their eighties and seventies.

“They are getting fitter now,” he says, “exercise improves their flexibility and mobility”.

Their recipe for a good marriage? Bella says simply, “Just listen to your husband.”

“I married the right partner,” Jaffe says. “We’ve never had an argument of real foundation. We’ve had a very good marriage. We’ve got three children, eight grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.”

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