Freed of Fred
This is an apology to my daughter, Abby, to animal lovers everywhere, and to the late Yorkshire Terrier called Fred. May his memory always be for a blessing. I can’t apologise for not getting along with him, but I can apparently apologise for writing an article less than two hours after his sudden passing. According to my wife, it was even too soon to be “too soon”. In my defence, however, I was emotional and writing is cathartic. And I had a deadline.
Some context. Fred died peacefully after 13 years of my suffering. Something that was bravely borne (by me). We never got along, but I treated with him kindness and respect, aside from the odd occasions when I might have suggested in front of him that if he didn’t stop abluting under my desk or barking incessantly while we were eating dinner that I would have him put down. For the record, we never did that, and Fred died peacefully last Tuesday after eating thinly sliced chicken breasts that he had me cut up for him, as he didn’t like to chew on his own.
As a family we are, of course, saddened by the loss, and may we know no more sorrow. But just because he’s now dead, doesn’t mean that I have to pretend that he was ever a nice person. He wasn’t. And I have no doubt that had I “gone” before him, he wouldn’t have had a kind word to say about me.
Such was our relationship.
A well intentioned and kindly listener to my show messaged me to say that she had a magnificent pet cemetery to recommend for Fred. “It’s a bit far out of Johannesburg, but it’s worth it,” she suggested. As thoughtful as that was, considering that I have both parents at Westpark and I can hardly find the time to visit them, I can’t imagine dedicating an entire Sunday to spend time with Fred at his final resting place. Besides, I had seen the R450 invoice on the kitchen table from the vet for “cremation of small dog”, so that ship had clearly sailed.
He wasn’t well loved by anyone other than my daughter, whom I suspect did so just to annoy me. So unpopular was Fred (may his memory be blessed), that around a year ago, a security guard, in the absence of alternatives, actually drew his gun and pointed it at him. It wasn’t a pleasant event, and whereas I don’t want to speak ill of the dead – G-d forbid – any more than I need to, it does illustrate the type of reaction Fred caused. After months of having his heels nipped at, the poor bloke finally almost lost it. And no one could blame him. Not even my daughter.
The reaction to my article was interesting. Whereas some enjoyed the take, others were deeply offended. Social etiquette demands that we mourn the loss of our pets. It demands that we call them our “fur babies”, and that we post sad photos in happier times. And I would have probably done that if Daisy or Gatsby had suffered the same fate. Because they are, indeed, all of the above.
The offers we have had in the past week, not for meals to assist in our time of loss, but from people offering to give us their “Fred” to comfort us, suggest that I’m not alone in my experience. Where I might be alone, however, is in my foolishness in acknowledging it. Especially when I did so too soon even to be “too soon”.
Getting on board with 2022
In memoriam: George Szemere
I start this week’s column with a tribute to Holocaust survivor George (Stern) Szemere, who passed away in Johannesburg last week. George was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940, at the start of World War II. In the final year of the war, his father was one of those taken by the Arrow Cross to the Danube River, told to jump into the icy water, and then shot. George went into hiding with his mother and sister, and survived. In 1958, he left Hungary and subsequently settled in South Africa where he married.
Shirley Beagle, who assists Holocaust survivors with claims under various compensatory and hardship funds, only discovered George fairly recently. Just before the holidays, he was admitted to Helen Joseph Hospital and Shirley was concerned with his welfare. Through our network of Jewish Community Service doctors, we found Jewish doctors to monitor and visit him. I attended his funeral over the weekend. In spite of it being very small, it was dignified and moving.
How Lalela boosted a nation’s spirits
Coming near the end of another trying year, Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane’s success at the Miss Universe pageant in Haifa, Israel, came as a much-needed boost to national morale. Mswane represented our country with grace and courage, and was rewarded by being placed third out of 80 participants.
However, perhaps even more impressive was how she stood her ground not only in the face of an extraordinarily vicious campaign of bullying, intimidation, and invective on the part of the local Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, but also the opposition of high-ranking government members. All manner of pressure was brought to bear on her to withdraw from the event, but in the end, her right to choose and the wishes of the majority of South Africans prevailed. The Jewish community supported Mswane throughout this process, and it was a pleasure for our leadership, together with hundreds of other South Africans, to be part of the enthusiastic crowd at OR Tambo International Airport welcoming her home.
Latest COVID-19 guidelines
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has taken the lead in convening regular meetings of the national communal leadership to discuss issues, share information and best practice, and plan and co-ordinate our response. To ensure that decisions are based on reliable and up-to-date information, we have included medical and other experts in the discussions. On Sunday, a Zoom meeting was held to brief communal leaders on the medical and legal considerations regarding mandatory vaccination. Professor Barry Schoub and Neil Kirby from Werksmans Attorneys set out the scientific and legal framework for the question. Based on this information, each organisation will assess the situation from their perspective and decide how to proceed. A recording of the meeting is available. I encourage those seeking information to write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solidarity with Beit Yisrael Shul in Colleyville, Texas
On behalf of South African Jewry, the SAJBD sent messages to Jewish communal organisations in America and to the American Embassy expressing our support after four members of the shul were taken hostage by a gunman in an antisemitic attack. We are immensely thankful that they all escaped unharmed.
- Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.
Pass the potatoes over the violence
Some years ago, for no reason that I can clearly remember, there was a spate of “drive-by” shootings. What started as horrific and shocking headline news, soon retreated into the latter pages of the daily newspapers.
It was during this time that I recall reading a Madam & Eve cartoon in The Star newspaper. If memory serves me, it went something like this: Madam and Eve are having dinner, when there’s a burst of gunfire. Windows shatter, the table is upended, and they find themselves taking cover to save their lives. It’s during this fracas that Eve turns to Madam and says, “Do you think we’re becoming desensitised to this?” Madam, looks at her and in response says, “I don’t think so Eve. Please pass the potatoes.”
That is what I felt when I heard of the hostage situation at the synagogue in Texas during Shabbat last week. I wanted to be shocked and for it to have an emotional impact. And yet, if I was eating carbs, I could easily have asked for the potatoes.
The lack of outrage was reflected across many media outlets. Business Insider lead with the headline “The Texas synagogue hostage-taker was on the phone to his kids when he was shot dead, his brother says.” In spite of the qualification that this was according to his brother, the headline shows a clear attempt to humanise the “hostage taker” and illustrate that he’s a father, whose dying act was in the service of parenthood.
It doesn’t focus on the victims, who spent 10 hours not sure if they would survive, and doesn’t give credit to the fact that the act was in fact focused on the release of his sister, a vehement outspoken antisemite who is serving a life sentence for terrorism. Rather, the picture created is that of a family man, cut down while chatting to his children.
Is it little wonder we prefer potatoes!
Columnist Bari Weis explains it brilliantly. Her theory is that in order for there to be an appropriate public reaction, both the perpetrator and the victims need to be acceptable. White, right-wing Nazis make the “perfect” terrorists, whilst non-religious, non-Hassidic, secular Jews make the perfect victims. If either one of those aren’t present, then there will be an attempt to play down the incident. Which is why the “hostage-taker” was referred to as a Brit, a father, a brother, anyone but an Islamist.
She puts it this way. “It’s not difficult to gin up outrage these days, yet you won’t find celebrities or sports stars or influencers making #colleyville or #antisemitism go viral. Meanwhile, the members of our so-called intelligentsia are claiming the real victims aren’t those innocent Jews held hostage, but Muslims who could face Islamophobia-inspired violence.”
It’s worth monitoring our own reaction. Because we too fall prey to what we read and how incidents are reported. If we’re not vigilant, we’ll soon find ourselves in a cartoon, under fire asking for the potatoes.
Late to the COVID party
It’s like man-flu, only with everyone around being even more annoying than they usually are. That’s my experience a few days into a bout with Omicron. Thankfully, I’m late to this series and have experienced none of the pilot, season one, Beta, or even Delta. I have also been twice vaccinated, and given what I have seen of this variant, might suffer the real symptoms but not the anxiety of prior episodes.
Not that you would think that I was ill if the family’s reaction is anything to go by. Instead, they seem annoyed that I have had an impact on their lives and they are now forced to quarantine when the year is about to get started.
No cups of tea, no mopping of my brow when clamminess overtakes me, and no slow shaking of heads in a sad, sympathetic manner. Not a get-well card or gift or a slab of Lindt 80% chocolate.
Quite the contrary. It seems that much like the overnight erection of the Berlin Wall, I find myself having been barred from parts of the house where others reside.
Hostile stares and accusatory looks are more the theme. I try in my rasping, weak voice to explain that I have no idea where I got the plague from. But my words fall on the uncaring, more concerned about quarantine than the delicate health of an ageing father.
It might not be true to say that I haven’t been preparing for this diagnosis for two years. As a third-generation hypochondriac (on both sides), from the day I heard the word “Wuhan”, I became certain that we were all going to perish. A pandemic is something I have unknowingly been training for most of my life.
I have imagined, enacted, and re-enacted the recipe of this positive diagnosis so often, that when it did arrive, it was admittedly almost anticlimactic. That’s not to say that it didn’t, much like COVID-19 itself, take my breath away.
In some sense, it’s my time to shine. The number of interviews, podcasts, articles, and sessions I have conducted on COVID-19 has by no means made me an expert on it, but it has allowed me to engage with those who are knowledgeable. So much so, that someone referred to me as “the deputy head boy of COVID South Africa”. Head boy, I assume, being Dr Anton Meyberg of the Sunday COVID Podcast. Not that I accepted the title by any means – because simply put, I’m no one’s “deputy”.
Lack of sympathy aside, the reality is that I’m deeply grateful for so much. I don’t feel well at all, I have lost my voice, am incredibly fatigued, and my family is annoying.
For me, Omicron hasn’t been easy. But the fact that I have this variant and not one of the prior variants, the fact that I’m vaccinated and that our medical care, family, and community is so exceptionally caring makes this something to celebrate, not fear.
It’s also possible that when my kids gesticulate wildly when I come near them it’s not because they are unsympathetic and don’t want me around, but rather because they are so concerned about me that seeing me like this is too painful for them to witness.
I’m certain that must be it.
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