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Avinu Malkeinu singing sensation has SA roots

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A six-year-old boy singing an English and Hebrew version of Avinu Malkeinu with passion and gusto has gone viral around the world. This story, however, begins in Durban and Cape Town, where his mother, Nina Shapiro, grew up and raised her adopted sons before emigrating to Perth, Australia.

The video shows Benjamin “Bibi” Shapiro singing, “I’m sorry for all I did wrong … I’ll try to be better forever and ever … I’ll try to be, the best that I can be … I’ll try to do what’s right and be the best I can be,” before switching to the Hebrew words ofAvinu Malkeinu with aspirit far beyond his years.

Even though his mother tries to keep her children off social media, the clip unintentionally went viral, and she has been interviewed internationally.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after Rosh Hashanah, Shapiro admitted “Interviews don’t fill me with joy, but South Africa will always be the home of our heart, and I can’t agree to speak to American and Australian publications and not ‘my own’.”

She adopted her sons as a single mom, and they attended Chabad of the West Coast’s Sinai Academy for three years before they emigrated. “I feel a close connection, it’s an amazing school, and we were all very happy there,” she said. She credits Sinai Academy and the school her son attends in Perth – Carmel School – with developing his love for Judaism.

It was never her intention for Bibi’s clip to be in the public eye. “It was a massive shock. I sent it to family and the boys’ Jewish Studies teacher at school. She taught him the song, so I thought it would give her a lot of nachas. She asked if she could share it with other teachers. Soon after, a friend said she saw it on another friend’s Facebook page, and asked if she should request that they take it down. I said, ‘yes please’, and thought that would be that.

“Then I got a message from a friend in Boston and another in Cape Town – it just got bigger and bigger. By the end of the day, I realised asking people to take it down wouldn’t make a difference. I was really upset. But after speaking to people I trust, I got greater clarity. I realised this was obviously Hashem’s plan – he wants the message to reach the world in this way, and I had no choice.”

Although Perth isn’t under lockdown, Shapiro believes that a video of a Jewish boy singing with devotion and joy will give people a lot of comfort at this time. Another factor in its popularity could be that people are looking for connection while they celebrate the high holidays alone. Bibi being a person of colour could also be a factor in people wanting to know more.

“When I adopted the boys, we adopted each other. I always imagined my own biological genetically Jewish children, so what has been amazing has been to discover that their neshomas [souls] are Jewish – they just came to me in a different way,” Shapiro said.

In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has dominated headlines and many have championed the rights of black Jews, Shapiro said, “If I had to have a message for the world, it’s that Jews don’t come in a box, they do look different, and everything isn’t always as it seems.”

She hasn’t experienced any objection to her family and her children’s race. “I’ve only ever received support. I’ll never forget, I was in Durban, going to shul for the first time with Bibi, and I was terrified how people would respond. I had spoken to Rabbi Pinchas Zekry, who said I had his full support, but I was still worried. As I was walking in, another rabbi, Rabbi Mark Friedman, came up to me and said a brocha over Bibi and kissed his forehead. I cried. It was profoundly supportive. It’s carried on like that.”

Shapiro always imagined she would have girls, “so when I learned that the adoption agency had matched me with a boy, I thought, ‘well he will be able to sing in shul on the bimah’. My mother was very musical, and I wanted to pass that on. It’s always been a dream of mine, and Bibi is musical in talent and in his neshoma. He’s always been connected to Jewish music. From when he was a baby, he responded to it.” In the video, one can see he’s not just reciting words, he puts his whole soul into the song.

Since the clip went viral, South African Jewish singing sensation Choni G (Choni Goldman), the brother of Sinai Academy Principal Zeesy Deren, has offered to work with Bibi in creating more music, and Shapiro has agreed.

“It’s like being invited to the queen for tea! It’s the highest compliment in the Jewish musical world. He created an acapella backing track, and when Bibi heard it, his eyes shone. The next day, they did a video call. Although Bibi is very shy, Choni was great with him, and made a video using clips of their interaction.” This has also been shared widely.

Says Goldman, “When I first saw the video, I thought ‘he’s adorable and can keep a key’. He has a huge personality, and is very talented without realising it. He sings with meaning and passion. I’m willing to nurture this if he wants to explore it further.” They may do more collaborations in the near future.

Although Bibi doesn’t understand social media and doesn’t know about the video, he knows “something is up”. People come up to him, although I tell them he doesn’t know about the video. “He knows that his singing makes me really happy, and has made a lot of other people happy. He knows that Hashem has given him this gift, and he mustn’t be shy to share it.”

Shapiro says it’s important that parents understand that any content they share of their children can go viral, even if intentions are good.

So, what’s next for the young singing sensation? “Both my boys and our rabbi’s son sang Avinu Malkeinu on the bimah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It was exactly what I envisioned when I heard I was getting a boy,” says Shapiro. “It’s like coming full circle. The whole congregation was crying. It was so beautiful. I would like that to continue.”

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Kiff vibes for a well-known psalm

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The South African Jewish community received a special Shabbat “gift” on the first Friday of 2022, when David Scott (better known as The Kiffness) released his latest remix on 7 January. Taking a joyful rendition of the psalm Im Hashem Lo Yivneh Bayis by the Shira Choir, the South African musician added his own beats and even a cameo of a cat, to take it to new heights.

For many, it was a delight to see such a celebrated South African performer embrace Jewish music and bring it to his diverse and global audience.

What’s more, Scott released the song online just hours before his wife gave birth to their first child. “It’s been a crazy day,” he told the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation (Gardens Shul) pre-Shabbat Zoom session, where he was a special guest. The shul’s chazan, Choni Goldman (Choni G), had provided invaluable advice to Scott as he worked with the song and then invited him to join the community online.

When Scott shared that his wife had just gone into labour, Gardens Shul Rabbi Osher Feldman blessed the musician and his family. He also thanked him for showing that music can bring people together.

Making time to speak to the SA Jewish Report from the hospital after his son was born, Scott explained how the remix came about. “Most of my remixes start with fans messaging me on Instagram, Facebook, or email. This particular video of the Shira Choir (who are based in Brooklyn, New York) popped up in my inboxes a couple of times, so I checked it out and was instantly hooked and amazed by the wonderful music.”

He says that the choir was aware that he was working with its music. “Whenever I embark on a collaboration of this nature, I always reach out to the original artist[s], introduce myself, tell them what I do, and ask if they would be okay with me doing a remix. I sent them an early draft of the remix I was busy working on. I was very glad to hear that they liked it! The rest was history.”

“The original is already a masterpiece on its own. My remix just injects a bit more chutzpah into the song,” he says.

The response to the remix has been hugely positive. Asked why he thinks this is the case, Scott says, “Music is a universal language, and people recognise and resonate with good music regardless of where it comes from. But I do think there’s something special about this song. I feel as if the composer tapped into something much bigger than ourselves when he wrote the melody, as did David when he wrote The Song of Solomon (Psalm 127).”

The lyrics translate as, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Guardian of Israel.”

“The song resonates because it’s a gentle reminder that everything we build is in vain unless it is built upon solid principles,” he says. “I have always believed that anything that’s difficult now will make life easier in the long run, and anything that’s easy now will make life harder in the long run. We live in a society where instant gratification is rife, so it was refreshing to hear David’s psalm in the context of music. Music has a way of making truth more digestible.”

Though the response has been overwhelmingly positive, “unfortunately there have been a few negative comments”, he says. “My response is always either to ignore them, block them, or if I’m up to it, respond in kindness. The few nasty comments I have seen, I‘ve decided to block.”

On working with Goldman, Scott says, “I know Choni G through performing at Barmitzvahs, Batmitzvahs, and weddings together. When I began remixing the song, I wanted to make sure I had all the right translations and transliterations in place. I knew Choni could help me, but what I didn’t know was how gracious he would be with his time and willingness to help. What a guy!”

For his part, Goldman told the SA Jewish Report that “Dave messaged me asking if I know the song, saying people had sent it to him asking to remix it, and he digs it. I told him, ‘Go for it!’ I knew the choir, and pointed out that the verses are from Psalms. Dave is a super talented guy. He didn’t need my help! But wherever I thought I could help out from a Jewish perspective, or just by being a soundboard for him, I did.

“Over the next two weeks while he remixed it we were in touch with various things,” says Goldman. “This ranged from giving my take on subtleties, how people might receive it, to helping with translations, transliteration, and Hebrew text, and putting him in touch with the right people in New York to license the song. The remix is great, and I’m a big fan of his work. I’d love to work on something together at some point. I’m sure we will.”

Scott says that joining the Gardens Shul pre-Shabbat Zoom session was “really great. It was very special to receive such a wonderful blessing from the rabbi before heading to the hospital as we prepared for the delivery of our first-born son.”

Asked if he would work with more Jewish music in future, he says, “I’m open to all kinds of music as long as it resonates with my spirit. This particular song resonated with me deeply, and maybe it will open more doors to working with more Jewish music in the future.”

He says the community can support him by simply subscribing to his YouTube channel. “You will be notified of my upcoming videos. Every view helps me to keep an income and to continue what I enjoy doing.”

To the South African Jewish community, he says, “I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the warm reception to the song. It was a leap of faith on my part [as a Christian] to work with music outside of my own faith, but I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and went for it. I did find comfort in knowing that the Psalms are celebrated in both faiths and essentially point toward the same thing, which is G-d. So with that in mind, I had a gut feeling that it would work out, and I’m glad I was right. I have nothing but love and respect for my Jewish brothers and sisters.”

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Shock as ‘Eishet Chayil’ murdered in Cape Town

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At the beginning of 2021, Doreen Lewis’ brother, David Lewis, died from COVID-19 at age 68. The siblings lived together and were deeply involved in the Cape Town Jewish community. But before the year was out, tragedy struck again: Doreen was murdered in her home in lower Vredehoek around midday on 14 December 2021.

Described as having a “special neshama”, Doreen (73), dedicated herself to caring for her brother, who was born deaf. She was planning her brother’s consecration an hour before she was brutally murdered. The two siblings are now buried one grave apart.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from London, their surviving brother, Frank Lewis, says he hadn’t seen his siblings since before the pandemic, but they spoke every day. Even though he left South Africa in 1989, he never imagined his sister would one day be tied up and murdered in her own home.

“Doreen was a beautiful girl who never married. She dedicated herself to caring for my late parents and brother,” says Frank, pointing out that there are many “unanswered questions” about the murder.

Their cousin, David Stein in Cape Town, says that after her brother’s passing, Doreen lived alone, although more recently her domestic helper and her husband had moved in after their room on the property had burnt down. Because the domestic helper’s room was being rebuilt, there were many builders on site. The flat is in Myrtle Street, right by the Gardens Shopping Centre.

“They think the guy [who murdered her] posed as a builder or insurance agent. It happened around noon – in broad daylight,” he says. “The domestic helper and her husband were in the flat, but they heard nothing. The murderer can be seen on the security cameras but because he’s wearing a mask, it’s difficult to identify him. All he took was an old cell phone. The motive was probably robbery.” Stein says the domestic worker discovered the body, but isn’t a suspect.

“The investigation is being dealt with by seasoned detectives”, Warrant Officer Joseph Swartbooi of the South African Police Services Western Cape Media Centre told the SA Jewish Report. “The investigation has reached a sensitive stage, and the investigating officer is following up on all leads.”

Captain Ezra October of the Cape Town Central Police Station added that he had interviewed the investigator, Detective Warrant Officer Shaun Bardien, regarding an update. “He informed me that the investigation is at a sensitive stage. The community arranged possible video footage, and he is awaiting feedback.”

Bardien is a member of the Serious and Violent Crimes detectives unit. Local media report that he and his team have successfully solved two murder cases in the Cape Town City Bowl, so there’s hope that this killer will also be apprehended. Victims in the two cases were aged 81 (killed in 2017) and 60 (killed in 2018). They were both killed in their homes.

Cape Town Jewish Jewry and the wider community reacted in shock and anger to the murder, especially because the area has deteriorated in recent years. “We lived near Gardens Centre for a while and it was more dodgy than just about anywhere else we’ve lived subsequently, including on Long Street,” wrote one resident of the area on Facebook. “A very uneasy mix of street dwellers and car guards checking out everybody and everything. My car got broken into four times near Gardens Centre.”

Said another resident, “I moved here last year, and as much as I know that no area is unaffected by crime, I have never felt this uneasy in my own home.” Another person added, “I have been threatened by multiple car guards while walking in Schoonder and Myrtle streets after shopping.”

“The Gardens Centre area has been frightening for us all to park nearby and approach on foot for many years,” wrote a third resident. “This area has been described as a hot spot for years. Residents have had to fight for themselves.”

Doreen’s brother, Frank, says they spoke about his sister moving after David’s passing, but she didn’t want to as she was comfortable in her lifelong family home. Her murder comes after another elderly Jewish couple, Rosalie Bloch and Aubrey Jackson, were tied up and murdered in their home in 2018. Two years ago, Western Cape police offered a R100 000 reward for information, but the investigation has stalled.

“Doreen was a quiet type, and well-loved. She was an excellent cook and baker,” says Stein. “Their parents always had a welcoming and hamishe home. They lived close to Schoonder Street Shul, and every visiting rabbi would spend Shabbat with them.”

Cape Town attorney Peter Greenberg knew the siblings for many years. “I had my law practice in Gardens Centre for 28 years and during this time, I got to know Doreen and her brothers. I think David’s passing was devastating for Doreen as they were very close. Doreen was devoted to taking excellent care of David’s day-to-day needs. She was well-loved and a true eishet chayil [woman of valour]. Her untimely and sudden passing was a huge shock.”

“David was the first deaf referee in South Africa, and was known to have given Rabbi David Rosen a red card in a local soccer game,” Stein says. “He also played bowls and loved Yiddishkeit. They were both in hospital with COVID-19. Doreen survived, David didn’t.”

“David refereed at provisional and club level, and he represented South Africa as a referee at the Maccabi Games as well as local derbies,” says his friend, Adam Zartz.

Frank Lewis’ sister-in-law in Cape Town, Jenny Cohen, says, “Doreen had an amazing sense of humour. She would do small acts of kindness, like taking a plate of homemade biscuits to the guard every time she visited the cemetery.” Now, she lies in that same cemetery, taken too soon.

Stanley Norrie of Café Riteve on the Cape Town Jewish Community Campus says Doreen visited the café every day, spending time with old friends as they reminisced about their childhoods centred around Schoonder Street Shul. Writing on Facebook on 15 December 2021, he said, “Two weeks ago, Doreen Lewis was celebrating a birthday with her friends at Café Riteve. Every day we saw Israel, Noreen, and Doreen smiling and laughing. Yesterday, she was brutally murdered! We are so sad and wish her family strength. It’s absolutely incomprehensible.”

Zartz says Doreen battled in the wake of her brother’s passing, especially because COVID-19 restrictions meant that she couldn’t attend the community events she so loved. “Maybe this was Hashem’s way of saying that she and her brother needed to be together. Their memory will be cherished.”

Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stop on 08600 10111.

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Businesses hang on for dear life on COVID-19 rollercoaster

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In a cruel twist of fate, the businesses that were to benefit most over the festive season have now had to bear the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions in light of the new Omicron variant. Just as travel, hospitality, and theatre were opening up to pre-pandemic levels, they faced a fourth wave and restrictions that are taking them back to square one. Many in the South African Jewish community have been affected, but they vow to survive, overcome, adapt, and thrive into the New Year.

“When the United Kingdom initially took us off the red list, it seemed as though half of South Africa wanted to travel in December,” says Andrea Bonalumi of Visa Box, a travel visa consultancy which services South African outbound travellers. “We were inundated with enquiries not just for the United Kingdom, but all European Union countries. So we went from zero to 1 000 overnight. We were working flat out!”

Because of this workload increase, “I hired back an employee whom I had previously retrenched. I also signed a lease agreement for 2022 so that we could all get back into an office, assuming the run would continue.”

So, when the world slammed its doors on South Africa, it was a nightmare come true. “Now, I sit with these commitments I’m not sure I’ll be able to honour and even worse, the unknown. When will this end, will it ever end, why did they react in such a way?” she asks. “Some of my clients haven’t seen their family for more than two years. Some were going to meet grandchildren for the first time. Some had already spent tens of thousands [sometimes hundreds of thousands] of rands on a trip they will never enjoy. It’s just terribly sad – and just before Christmas. I have a client who needs to go to Australia to attend a Barmitzvah. Will that ever happen?

“The industry as a whole is writhing, and our industry is massive. Not only outbound, but what about our tourism? It’s a mess to say the least, but I just hope and pray that it will end as quickly as it started. We will survive. I have to survive. It’s my livelihood as well as that of my staff.”

Fiona Sacks, a freelance tour guide and event organiser in the Western Cape, says, “I was due to have a bumper December. I had clients coming from Egypt and from Israel on a cruise. I had work for a company in Cape Town for its year-end function which involved a tour and its overseas team joining. Needless to say, within about a day and a half, everything was cancelled and the end-of-year function was postponed until next year. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. And then, of course, the knock-on effect was felt across the whole industry.”

Moving forward, “I’m seeing a trickle of new enquiries coming in so I’m cautiously optimistic that more work will come, and I will prevail,” she says.

For Theatre on the Square owner Daphne Kuhn, the curveball is just one more challenge in the pandemic rollercoaster ride of those in the live entertainment industry. After a tough 20 months, “We finally opened about six weeks ago,” she says. “There was no ‘grand opening’, and respecting the virus protocols, we’ve had to let out and rent the theatre for film shoots and other small functions. We had a number of concerts and we were often packed with people filling the 50% capacity, all of whom had to be vaccinated. This ‘soft opening’ also allowed for a number of our classical and jazz concerts, but these, sadly, were curtailed over the past few days. We cancelled the last three classical concerts this week as it wasn’t safe to hold gatherings, and some of the artists were ill.

“We lost out on our marketing costs, publicity, printed programmes, as well as technical salaries of our employees, as there could be no income derived from ticket sales. The musicians lost their fees, as all income normally goes directly to the artists for our concerts where we promote musicians.”

There have been a few saving graces. “The two big student showcases that were cancelled have been postponed for the New Year, so we didn’t lose their fee, as they hired the theatre in this case,” says Kuhn. “It had an impact on our technical employees, whose fees I had to pay. Thankfully, everything has been postponed and rescheduled for the New Year when we hope it will be safer to open again. We have rent relief at the moment until the New Year, but utilities and all regular running costs continue – with no income! The only consolation is that nowadays, we normally close the theatre for three weeks over the festive season as Johannesburg becomes very quiet.”

A number of concerts have been rescheduled from late January, and play productions have been scheduled from February 2022, if all is well,” she says. “We remain positive and absolutely determined that in the second quarter of 2022, we will reopen formally with a series of intriguing stage productions that will entice audiences and get them back to savour the joy of live entertainment.”

For DJ and performer Danielle Bitton, December 2021 was the summer season she had been waiting for. Along with the impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industry, she has spent the past two years battling and recovering from breast cancer. But she was finally going to be back behind the mic and the decks, where she belonged. That is, until the new variant took away those hopes.

“To say the past two years have been tough for us artists would be an understatement. Just when we thought there might be some semblance of normality and a December summer season, who decides to show up? Mr Omicron, making a grand entrance riding in on the fourth wave!” she quips.

“Since the announcement of this variant, some of my gigs have been cancelled as people are afraid of being out again. It’s not just musicians who are suffering – the film industry is too. I was fortunate enough to book a commercial just before the announcement of the new variant, but friends who had international jobs lined up have all had them cancelled. This is a huge loss for the entertainment industry.”

Ever the optimist, Bitton says the new variant won’t get her down – physically or literally. “I recently took Mr Omicron home with me from an outdoor party, even though I’m double vaxxed with Pfizer. Was the hype worth it? Not really. I had a postnasal drip and a cough. I felt like I had a cold for two days, and then I felt fine. My only hope is that we don’t get more restrictions. Us artists need this season to survive next year! I pray with this new milder variant that COVID-19 is on its way out!”

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