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Five PhDs push the boundaries of the known world




“The best thing about doing a PhD is being able to have the time and luxury of thinking. It’s three years, and yes, it’s very busy, but your job is to think, create, and contribute something new. That isn’t something many people get given the opportunity to do.”

This is the reflection of Ruby Birin, a Johannesburg-born and now Oxford-University-based doctorate student in archaeology, one of five PhD students which the SA Jewish Report interviewed to get an insight into the space of contemplation and creativity behind such studies.

Ruby Birin – archaeology of southern Africa

Birin originally chose archaeology as a “good crossover” between her interests in history, classics, and geography. Since then, she has thrived in the field, having taken part in excavations in Israel and Italy, as well as working as a lab technician.

For her DPhil in archaeological science, as the degree is termed in Oxford, Birin is working to establish the chronology of the Middle Age and later Stone Age in southern Africa.

“My work is trying to explore when new technologies are invented. Where do we see these new innovations popping up? And how do they spread across the continent?

“This is the period in which we start seeing art and culture represented. We start finding things like ochre which can be used as paint, and engravings on shell, beads, and ostrich eggs. We know people are starting to do things a little bit differently and with more complexity.”

Birin says that a vast amount of work has been done in excavations and dating of artefacts from this period. She’s now collating the research to establish spatial and temporal patterns – “whether we can spot where and how quickly these things are spreading”.

Though her findings are still at a preliminary stage, it can be seen that even in the same places at the same time, people go through periods of rapid change and yet are also making autonomous decisions: “There is a wave where people make lots of the same things and then also periods where people are making very different things from each other – even their neighbours. Humans were diverse as they are today. We all come from this very complex and vibrant history, and it’s really remarkable how we can see that through the material artefacts that people have left behind.”

Birin says she would like to continue to do research in the future, although she’s also interested in museum work and bridging the gap between academia and the public where she “could make these ideas exciting, innovative, and interactive and so that people can have ownership over their own past because if we’re not doing it for people to understand their own past, then what’s the value of doing it?”

Sarah Berman – psychology of fatherhood

Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Sarah Berman chose to focus her doctorate at the University of the Witwatersrand on fatherhood, exploring the development of a sense of self in this role.

She conducted interviews which revealed how the process of shaping this identity wasn’t “necessarily an easy one” and took time. “Many of the fathers felt excluded from pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. They felt unprepared for fatherhood because they experienced it through the bodies of their partners as opposed to their own bodies,” Berman says.

Nevertheless, as fathers actively reflected on their role, they came to strong insights about it, often wanting to demonstrate a generational shift towards greater connection to childcare.

“One participant said the stigma of, ‘Oh my goodness, you left the baby with the father’ and when you return ‘the house is upside down. The child’s got socks on his hands and vomit all over.’ That’s not the way dads are anymore. Dads are much more involved.”

Yet, in focusing on supporting their partner and baby, the fathers sometimes didn’t give themselves the space to unpack their own feelings. When they began to do so in the interviews, they were able to formulate a stronger sense of their bond.

“One of the fathers initially struggled to respond to my question how he thought his daughter saw him as a father. A week later, he returned and told me that our first interview made him more aware of how his daughter responded to him. In this interview, he said, ‘Every time I come home, she gives a smile. She definitely loves me.’”

Berman elected to do a part-time PhD starting in 2015, as she runs her own private practice. She also had her own children while working on the PhD, and is now the mother of a one-year-old baby and twins, aged three. This has been a “juggle”, she says.

Yet, as she now writes up her final thesis, Berman says she feels privileged to have had the experience of interviewing these fathers who were willing to speak so openly about their personal experience. It has offered findings that can directly benefit therapeutic practice, particularly regarding parenting.

David Fachler – Johannesburg Jewish history

David Fachler, who qualified as a lawyer in South Africa, left for Israel in 1999 and began studying again, this time in the field of contemporary Jewry. He decided to pursue his doctorate in the subject as a long-distance student with Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn at the University of Cape Town.

While at first, his focus was on the ba’al teshuvah movement in the 1970s (the return of secular Jews to a religious way of life), his research has branched out into multiple facets.

For example, the shifting focus of the office of the chief rabbinate over the decades illuminates some of the key questions regarding communal identity. “There’s always been that tension of how you see yourself. In terms of a universalist approach, as a rabbi for the whole community, or do you want to focus on strict religious observance? Where do you draw the line between diversity and communal discipline?”

Jewish educational institutions have also grappled with curriculum design and the type of Jewish identity they shape. “There was a big argument in the 1950s and 1960s about the division of the Jewish Studies curriculum,” Fachler says, whether Hebrew was to be positioned as a secular-language subject or an element of Jewish Studies. As different sectors of the community reached different outcomes, the branching off of smaller independent schools emerged.

Moreover, as international movements like Ohr Somayach and Chabad came into South Africa, they brought varying approaches. While the former focused on encouraging full observance, the latter promoted making people as aware as possible within a wider reach.

Fachler says it’s also interesting to contemplate whether the orthodoxy shaped in South Africa was a reclamation of the Lithuanian traditions from which many South African Jews originate or something new. Indeed, the big change today is that most of the Orthodox leadership is home-grown talent – either the offspring of those who originally came from overseas to build religious life or the products of the institutions they set up.

“When you have local elements, you have stronger traction because you have the same mentality. There is a kind of warmth but there is also a lowering of intensity [of strict observation],” Fachler says.

He says he hopes his research helps to bring the full story of the community to life. “The younger generation is unaware of all the different contributing factors that make orthodoxy and Jewish life in general. It’s important to restore the narrative, and to see things in their proper perspective.”

Jessica van Jaarsveld – environmental ethics philosophy

Jessica van Jaarsveld’s love of her area of study is clear when she reveals that she even thanked her (then-master’s degree and now PhD) supervisor in her wedding speech!

However, Van Jaarsveld’s initial university studies at the University of Johannesburg began in a strikingly different field from her current pursuit. She started with aeronautical engineering, for which she developed, she quips, “a burning, passionate hatred”. She switched to a politics, philosophy and economics degree, and then stayed with philosophy. Now she’s an internationally renowned and award-winning expert in environmental ethics.

In some ways, she says, her engineering and philosophical studies stemmed from the same “desire to understand how the world worked behind the scenes. If engineering was the black-and-white mechanics of it all, philosophy opened up a whole world of questioning and critical thinking that I hadn’t really come across before,” Van Jaarsveld says.

Her research focuses on a new theory of human development that pushes back against the limitation of looking only at economic measures, instead casting for a more holistic viewpoint. “The leading voice in that kind of counter movement is called the capabilities approach, which looks at what people are actually able to be and do in everyday life; what choices and opportunities are available to them,” she says.

While these models talk about the need to live in and with concern for nature, there is little discussion of what that actually entails. “I’m trying to expand on what that means, and argue what it would take in terms of government policy to really protect that.”

Furthermore, it’s often polarised by those that see nature as having its own intrinsic value and others that evaluate it according to what purpose it serves for humankind. “I’m arguing for a middle ground, which I’m calling green anthropocentrism. This acknowledges that human concern very much comes into our value perception, but not in a way that reduces the environment to just its material resources. We value the environment because it’s a core component of what being human is.”

Van Jaarsveld’s doctoral studies have coincided with her entry into motherhood, with a toddler by her side and another baby on the way. Her research has bridged her Jewish and South African identity. “Philosophical methods of conversational interrogation and arguing have such strong parallels in Judaism and Jewish education; it’s how we would attack a portion of Gemarah in the same way, with the same logic,” she says.

Her work has resulted in her applying the indigenous concept in sub-Saharan Africa of ukama – a theory that extends from ubuntu, which is between people, to the relationality of the human and non-human community. “There are these absolutely beautiful theories that encompass the idea of mutual coexistence,” Van Jaarsveld says.

Steven James – artificial intelligence

Steven James is basking in the light, quite literally, after handing in his final dissertation for his computer science doctorate in artificial intelligence.

“It’s been a tough few last months, and I haven’t had much sun, but, yes, it’s great,” he said, reflecting on his journey at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he started off as an undergraduate and now works as a lecturer.

“The reason I got into computer science in part was because I really enjoyed doing things like puzzles, crosswords, and paying chess. Computer science was almost like a meta problem, a grander puzzle. Then, artificial intelligence just followed naturally.”

James’s doctorate, which was co-supervised by Brown University in the United States, is about a subfield called reinforcement learning, essentially “how you can get physical robots in the real world to solve tasks”. His focus was on how higher-level concepts can be incorporated in machine learning and planning.

It’s query was based on whether an artificial-intelligence system could begin to recognise an image as a symbolic representation and then incorporate prior knowledge of its functions and apply these to different tasks. For example, could a machine learn that any door opens and closes and then “combine that into a high-level concept that can be used for planning? If it sees a new door, will it know what it does?”

For part of his research, James coded a video-game stimulation that played out various scenarios and evaluated the success of an artificial-intelligence system in navigating these.

“The general takeaway showed that we have a system that can reuse past knowledge, and the more tasks it sees, the more levels it solves, the more knowledge it has to bring to bear on a brand-new level that it has never seen before. In doing that, it makes learning and task solving quicker.”

However, scaling these ideas to the real world was a long process. “The world is a very noisy place, unexpected things happen all the time,” James says. As such, he’s passionate about continuing research in this field.

He has found collaboration to be particularly beneficial, saying that “to produce good work, a cross-pollination of ideas” brings richness and stimulation.

Indeed, he remembers one night, working with a colleague on a project that had already taken months. “Eventually we cracked it. I was tired, it was dark, and no one was on campus. I remember just sitting there and looking over the empty campus, and it was a good feeling of satisfaction, making a breakthrough with someone I’d been working with for a while – and I thought to myself, I would like to chase that feeling,” he says.

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Shirley Valentine gets the show on the road



Shirley Valentine is coming to Montecasino Theatre from 26 January. The SA Jewish Report speaks to director Gina Shmukler about the show, long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us a little about your theatrical experience and the past two years?

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry. I’m exceptionally fortunate that I direct corporate theatre, which has sustained me over the past two years. We have made theatre in the virtual space – basically TV for corporates.

What made you choose to direct Shirley Valentine now?

I was approached by VR Theatrical to direct. We were in rehearsals for Shirley Valentine when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. In February last year, we staged it for the first time at The Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg. At that point, theatres were allowed an audience of only 50 people. We played to 50 people in a 456-seater theatre. I remember crying when the first audience entered. Theatre has its own power of connection.

The set, props, and wardrobe were packed for Montecasino as we imagined we would be opening shortly afterwards. Another year passed … and here we are.

What is it about this play that appeals to you in general and as a woman?

Its humanity is what appeals to me. Shirley is alone in a marriage that has lost its love and connection. She’s honest about her aloneness as she talks to her “wall” and later her “rock”. Playwright Willy Russell captures the complexity of relationships, infusing the story with heart, humour, and love. Isolation has become real through the pandemic. We have all experienced the loss of community and connection, and what that means. Shirley’s journey takes her to the point where she falls in love with the idea of living. She discovers what it is to be alive.

Her journey is one about finding and learning to love the most important person in her life. Please explain this, and why it’s an important lesson for all of us?

Shirley has been holding onto a dream, “to sit at the edge of the sea and drink wine in a country where the grapes are grown”. It’s this dream which she believes will nourish her and lead her to happiness. And yet as she sits there, nothing changes. She realises we take ourselves with us, so while she lives that dream, her inner world doesn’t shift. She confronts what she calls her “wasted life”. It’s from this point that she begins to grow and fall in love with herself again.

For some, Shirley Valentine is a sad soul who is lost and so desperate, she talks to walls. For others, she’s a heroine. What is she to you, and why?

She’s a woman who fell in love with her husband, got married and had two kids, and had dreams that life and domesticity interfered with. And she got lost along the way. For me, she’s a woman of great courage and humour, who at the age of 42, redefines what matters to her and then lives by it.

What were you looking for in the actress to play Shirley? What does Natasha Sutherland bring to the role?

When I was auditioning for Shirley, I knew that technically, I needed someone who had real “theatre chops” as a one-person play requires great stamina and guts (to say the least). I hadn’t yet decided my vision for the play, but when Natasha auditioned, she brought something so real, so compelling, so contemporary, that I knew she was probably my Shirley. Theatre runs in Natasha’s veins, and it’s been a gift to work on a well-written play with an extraordinary actress and person.

Why bring a fantasy of a Greek island holiday to our theatres when we have been starved of travel for almost two years?

Doesn’t theatre give us the chance to dream, to be taken to unexpected places emotionally and imaginatively?

Last July, we filmed a virtual event in the Market Theatre and as I sat there, I was struck by what theatre offers me. A chance to get out of my head, to travel through music or the spoken word to unexpected places within myself, and a window to dream.

What do you believe our theatre audiences are looking for now?

Heart. Connection. Community. To laugh and share collectively.

So many theatre personae have been starved of work as a result of the pandemic. How do you believe this should be remedied?

Looking to government and our minister of arts and culture isn’t an option right now.

I have thought so many times who I would dedicate the run of Shirley to and to be honest, there has been so much death in our industry. Artists have suffered with limited work, no medical aid, they have no food, and have lost their homes. It’s very sore!

Nothing replaces the visceral power of the human story shared in a living, breathing environment such as the theatre. My wish would be more investment in the arts from corporates.

Shirley often says, “It’s funny that…” For me, it’s funny that businesses are eager to invest so much in their corporate social investment work when theatre has such a role to play in our society. When we can, let’s all exhale and rebuild our South African theatre industry, but for now, you can start by booking tickets to see Shirley Valentine, which runs from 26 January to 12 February in Joburg at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino.

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Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome



In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.

Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.

“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.

But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.

During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.

“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”

The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.

“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”

Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.

“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”

As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.

“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”

Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”

No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”

She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.

“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”

Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.

“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”

The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.

The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.

The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.

Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.

“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”

Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.

“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”

It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.

The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.

“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”

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‘Kosher’ prawns and mussels spark packaging alert



For some Jews, kosher prawns and mussels would be a dream come true. So, when it emerged in December 2021 that two local treif seafood products had a United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) Beth Din kosher hechsher on their packaging, many laughed it off as a humorous error.

Others took it more seriously, saying that if prawns can be labelled kosher, there may be mistakes where the distinction isn’t so clear cut.

The prawns were a Woolworths product, while the mussels were from Shoprite.

“The erroneous use of the Beth Din logo on products is nothing new,” says a member of the local Kosher Consumers Organisation (KCO), speaking on condition of anonymity. “It happens from time to time and occurs throughout the world. It’s acceptable, and mistakes do happen, but only up to a point. We’re concerned about the frequency with which this is happening in South Africa. Almost every alert which goes out is about products which contain the logo when they shouldn’t, or products which contain the incorrect designation of parev or dairy. As consumers, it’s impossible to keep track. It also makes one question the reliability of the logo when it does appear on a product.

“Chocolate, cold drinks and the like is one thing, but prawns and mussels is another completely,” the consumer says. “This is unacceptable. It speaks to a breakdown in controls and systems of monitoring and approval. In an age of fake meat and fake cheese, the damage that can be done by the Beth Din logo on non-kosher seafood can be immeasurable. The response from the UOS has been tepid – one email sent to the community. One email only. What about people who have no email? Where’s the urgency?”

The KCO points out that “the treif seafood which bears the Beth Din logo is made in Cape Town. The latest extremely confusing alert which went out about wine which has the Beth Din logo on it, but also the Hebrew words ‘not kosher’ is also a product made in Cape Town. Following the passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels a year ago, the UOS of Johannesburg has taken over the kashrus operations of Cape Town.”

The group says it remains anonymous because it’s fearful. “We wish we could be open, but one cannot tackle the establishment these days without repercussions. We understand that our anonymity may prevent us from being taken seriously, and that’s a price we need to pay. But we’re concerned for our livelihoods. The Kosher Consumer Organisation of the 70s to the 90s was a powerful force in the community. Times have changed, the community has changed. But it had a great history and was well-received by the community.”

Commenting on the treif seafood labelling saga, UOS Kosher Department Managing Director Rabbi Dovi Goldstein says the error lies with the companies concerned. “Woolworths and Shoprite are longstanding and major clients of the Kosher Department, with thousands of kosher-certified products on their shelves. Both companies have been committed to the Jewish community for years and were most apologetic and co-operative in rectifying the problem when this printing error was brought to their attention,” he says.

“In both instances, the mislabelled products were brought to our attention by members of the community. Unfortunately, errors like these occur from time to time all around the world. When we were made aware of them, we remedied it by notifying the community via email and our various social-media channels, and we contacted the companies and had the products removed from their stores or the logo covered, to which they agreed.

“Where issues of mislabelling occur, we work with manufacturers to address the issue to ensure it doesn’t happen again and notify our community immediately,” Goldstein says. “In addition, over the holiday period, Villa Cape wine was also seen on shelves bearing an unauthorised logo, together with the Hebrew lettering stating ‘not kosher’. This was an unauthorised use of our logo, and the company in question has also been contacted and the products recalled from the shelves.

“The reality is that we have tens of thousands of products with our logo on the shelf, which is positive for the kosher consumer. The community is our eyes and ears on the ground, and may very well spot a labelling error on packaging on the shelf before we do as the kosher department. We have recently established a dedicated email for community members to send this kind of information through to our team. If you come across any product that bears our logo and seems unauthorised, please email with a photograph and the details of the packaging, and we will investigate.”

Woolworths spokesperson Kirsten Hewett said, “We apologise for this labelling error. Accurate, transparent, and helpful product labelling is very important for our customers. The kosher authority notified us of the packaging error on 20 December 2021.

“We immediately removed all the incorrectly labelled products from our store shelves on 20 December. As an interim measure, a sticker will cover the kosher logo on the packaging while the label is being corrected. While we do have procedures in place to prevent mistakes, we are reviewing these procedures and will implement further controls to prevent errors in future.”

One community member complained directly to Woolworths, and shared extracts of the response he received. “Our technical team was extremely concerned to hear about the matter. All factories producing products for Woolworths are audited independently by various inspection services to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

“Following your complaint, we have conducted a full investigation with the manufacturer which involves a detailed investigation of the label printing and approval process. We have identified the error, and have corrected it immediately. We have addressed this with our supplier and reinforced the importance of following the correct labelling procedure. We take pride in adhering to the correct kosher practices when manufacturing and packing our kosher products,” the company wrote.

The Shoprite media team said, “The supermarket chain would like to apologise to its loyal customers for oversight of this labelling error. It has already agreed with the UOS of South Africa and Kosher SA to ensure that the packaging is updated and correctly labelled in its next packaging print run. A kosher alert was subsequently issued detailing the particulars.”

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