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Eternal vigilance – the price we pay for democracy

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On Freedom Day, Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), at the invitation of the MEC for sports, arts, recreation, and culture, participated in a Freedom Day walk to Chris Hani’s house in Dawn Park, Boksburg. Many of us remember the national trauma occasioned by Hani’s assassination by right-wing fanatics back in 1993, and how close this came to derailing the negotiation process. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and almost exactly a year later, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first fully democratic, non-racial elections were held. Appropriately enough, when new public holidays were introduced, the date chosen for what would be Freedom Day was 27 April.

The 1994 elections ushered in a new era of freedom and equality for the country. After many decades of racial discrimination, violence, and repression, the famous opening words of the Freedom Charter, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, were poised to be realised. Well aware that “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”, those responsible for framing the new post-apartheid order instituted safeguards to prevent those hard-won democratic rights and freedoms from being eroded. They included a Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, which entrenched the rights of all to dignity and equality.

Regrettably, the manner in which two Jewish candidates were treated recently when being interviewed for judicial office clearly violated these rights. Both were subjected to a barrage of questions pertaining to their Jewish identity in a way that no other candidates were subjected to regarding their religious identity or affiliations. One was even pointedly asked about his level of religious observance, implying that this might have a negative impact on his ability to fulfil his judicial duties. The statement we released earlier this week drew attention to the prejudicial nature of this statement, which ran “contrary to the basic constitutional principles of protecting our citizen’s rights to practice their religion without fear or discrimination”. We further pointed out that no other candidate had been questioned about their religious practices.

It was also disturbing, to say the least, that questions posed to both candidates focused extensively on their association with the SAJBD. The SAJBD itself is the acknowledged representative elected body of South African Jewry mandated to uphold the civil and religious rights of the community, including combating antisemitism. We asked why it was that an organisation with the objective of protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the panel of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Equally disquieting were the barrage of questions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why was this issue brought up at all in this forum, and why was it that only Jewish applicants, not Muslim, Christian, or other, were grilled about it in this way? From the questions asked at the JSC interviews this month to Jewish candidates, one unfortunately has to ask whether the principles outlined in the Constitution apply equally to members of the Jewish community.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Don’t vote, don’t complain

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The conversation would go something along these lines. “Mrs Feldman,” they would say, on seeing my late grandmother, “You are looking too wonderful!” A pregnant pause would follow as she contemplated the horror of what had been said. “Really?” she would finally answer, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, “You should only know how terrible I feel.”

And then, just to prove her point. Or to make them suffer, she would tell them. Complaint by complaint. Ailment by ailment, punctuated with a detailed description of her matching medication. At a family function, my grandmother would find desserts “too sweet” and the band too loud. She was never happy with where she had been seated, and there was always someone who didn’t greet her appropriately.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Because complaining made her happy.

Whereas our generation might not complain about the same things, we’re hardly different. Social media is a complainer’s dream, where at a whim and at any time, we have the ability to slate, moan, and denigrate anything or anyone we choose. The “Hello Peters”, Google Reviews, and Facebook groups all provide fertile environments for anyone having a bad experience or simply a bad day. Because like it or not, complaining makes us happy.

It does, however, have its limits. And there are conditions attached to our ability and right to complain. We might, for instance, not be happy with the state of our roads, or the water pipes or electricity, but we forfeit the right to complain about them if we choose not to vote in the forthcoming municipal elections. No one will stop us, and maybe no one will even know, but electing not to participate in the choosing of representatives for our neighbourhoods and cities renders our complaining voices silent on a moral level.

The refrain of, “There’s no one to vote for” isn’t only inaccurate, it’s also lazy. The options might not be perfect, but each presents an opportunity for change and improvement.

The decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. Which means that it’s affirmation that things are just as they should be. It means that the roads are pristine, that our water sparkles and is reliable, and that our lights switch on with the predictability and consistency of high school Charidy callers. It means that everything is just as it should be. Because, why else would anyone choose not to choose?

In conversations with the leaders of the Democratic Alliance, Action SA, and the African Christian Democratic Party, each told me the same thing: this election is all about service delivery. It’s about selecting the party and person who has the highest chance of getting the job done.

It might be true that there’s no perfect party and no perfect candidate, but then it might be worth choosing the one that’s the least imperfect of them all. Failure to do that will result the loss of the right to complain about all the things we love to complain about.

Which would make our grandmothers very unhappy.

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Voices

Making us count in the conversation

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Let me introduce myself. My name is Karen Milner, and I’m the newly elected chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). I look forward to engaging with all of you through this column, and welcome any feedback, comments, and input.

It’s my pleasure to start my tenure by announcing the results of the elections of the SAJBD national positions:

Shaun Zagnoev – national president

Mary Kluk – national vice-president

Zev Krengel – national vice-president

David Kuming – national treasurer

Marc Pozniak – national vice-chairperson (Gauteng)

Rael Kaimowitz – national vice-chairperson (Western Cape)

Susan Abro – national vice-chairperson (KZN)

Our elections took place last Sunday, 17 October, as part of the SAJBD’s biennial national conference, and it’s an amazing privilege for us to begin our term of office on the back of such an inspiring and thought-provoking event. The Board’s national conferences are typically a hybrid of past, present, and future, where reflecting on the events of the previous two years goes hand in hand with assessing current realities and looking to the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This conference was no exception, addressing issues of real substance while also showcasing what the Board has done on behalf of its constituency.

We were honoured to have an exceptional panel, comprising Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Advocate Wim Trengove, and Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter to address the critical challenges facing our country – the economy, the rule of law, and electricity. None of the speakers attempted to airbrush the sobering reality of the difficulties ahead, but they also relayed a message of genuine hope. This message was reinforced as we learned about the remarkable work done by the recipients of our communal leadership awards – the Kirsh family; Professor Barry Schoub; Dr Richard Friedland; Uriel Rosen (the initiator of the Hatzolah COVID-19 Wellness Programme); and Vivienne Anstey. We are humbled and inspired by their example. They showed the truth of Margaret Mead’s profound words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Upholding Jewish civil rights remains the core mandate of the SAJBD, but its mission includes leading the community in being an active, identifying part of society. By addressing at our conference such critical issues as the economy, the role of the judiciary, and the Eskom question, we helped ensure that the community, in spite of its small number, continues to be a dynamic part of the national conversation. I congratulate all those who helped to put this very successful event together, and in particular, our superb professional staff team headed by Wendy Kahn. The widespread media coverage that the conference generated, together with the interest shown in such recent Board events as the #MakeUsCount pre-election debates, also shows how our community continues to be regarded as a significant voice

I thank my colleagues for the trust they have placed in me, and look forward to working with them in protecting and promoting the welfare of our vibrant, resilient Jewish community.

Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Challah – bread of Jewish men’s affliction

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There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to be a Jewish male. Expectation of performance begins at eight days, and hardly eases up until we shuffle off the mortal coil, well ahead of our time, exhausted from the effort and stress of it all.

The expectations are seemingly without end. We need to make our parents proud, we need to provide for our families, to be good husbands and better fathers, and we need to have run at least one marathon in a far-flung city by the time we are 45.

We need to be able to sing in front of the community at our Barmitzvahs, just when we are at our most awkward and when our voices are the most unreliable. We need to be able to intone anything at any given time.

And then, on the one night of the week when we can relax, we are required to cut the challah with the precision of a surgeon, the speed of Usain Bolt, and we need to do so while everyone watches in hungry expectation.

Following the kiddush prayer and the ritualistic washing of hands, there is a period of silence. With no speaking until the eating of the challah, it’s one of the most underrated aspects of being a Jewish male. It’s a moment that represents almost every aspect of “Jewish maleness”, and it happens week after week after week. Why?

Because no matter what, it will be done wrong. The slices will be too thick. Or thin. Or the wrong challah would have been selected. Too much, too little salt will have been added. And the challah serving plate will have been passed in the wrong direction. Eyes will be rolled, lips pursed, and heads will be slowly shaken. From side. To side. To side.

A Jewish male it would seem, cannot please a Jewish woman.

I have asked around. A friend’s wife told me that she can’t stand the way he cuts the challah, and prefers to do it herself. “He just can’t get it right. It’s got so bad that I hardly even let him carve the meat.”

She even went as far as to buy an electric carving knife, which she used before he got home from work on a Friday so that he didn’t need to. It might be worth mentioning that when he’s not “butchering” the challah, he’s a well-respected surgeon. At least he made his parents proud.

And there are those who are too precise for their own good. My father-in-law is one such case. Each piece of challah is measured to perfection. Sliced the way through, and then checked in case any remnants of attachment to the piece before remains, before moving on to slice number two. And so on.

Generally, we like to start Shabbat on Wednesday when visiting, as it takes about that long before we get to eat. All while we sit in silence.

The slicing of challah is the most underrated aspect of being a Jewish male. It carries with it all the expectation along with all the disappointment of generations of men who have failed before them.

It’s a moment that’s shared in all households across the Jewish world week after week. It bonds Jewish women to the past, and will link them to their great granddaughters, who will one day share knowing looks with their sisters as they watch their husband “butcher” the challah, just as their father did.

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