From searching for Sugarman to seeking out a ‘barmi boy’
Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman once successfully searched for Sugarman (also known as the musician Sixto Rodriguez) and found him, so what are the chances of him finding an equally evasive Barmitzvah boy?
As depicted in the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary, Segerman isn’t one to give up. But he’s now setting his sights on a mystery a little closer to home: the identity of a Barmitzvah boy who appears in a photograph he found at a market in Cape Town a few years ago.
Writing to the SA Jewish Report, Segerman explained how he came across the photo. “I’m originally from Johannesburg, but have been living in Cape Town for the past 25 years. Over the past few years, it has become a tradition for us to go to the Milnerton Market on a Sunday morning to browse through the many different stalls that comprise this huge weekend flea market. There, we can find records, books, magazines, curios, and many other weird and wonderful bric-a-brac and tsatskes, all at reasonable prices.
“One Sunday morning, I was browsing through a stall, and I saw a framed picture of a Barmitzvah boy, seemingly from around the time when I had my Barmitzvah (late 1960s to early 1970s) judging from the suit, thick tie, siddur, haircut, and so on. There weren’t any other Jewish items at that stall so it was just sitting there on its own. I bought it for a few rand.
“It was still in good condition, but had no identifying features on it, apart from the name of the studio where the picture was taken, but the guy in the picture looked strangely familiar. I’m far more familiar with the Jewish community in Joburg, but I did mix with Cape Town Jewish children at Bnei Akiva machaneh, so maybe I had met this guy there.
“Anyway, we put the picture up on the unit in our dining room where all the other pictures of our family members are, and it fitted in perfectly. So much so, that over the years, whenever people came for a meal, they would ask who it was, and we would make up all kinds of different stories about who he was, and then we would tell them the story of how we found the picture. We gave him a few different names over the years. Someone once said he looked like a ‘Milton’, so that stuck for a while, but generally, he was known simply as ‘the Barmitzvah boy’. We told people different stories, like he was a distant cousin or a friend of the family, it changed every time, but we always then told them how he came to be on our unit.
“But, more recently, it has been bothering us, and I decided to try and find out what his name is, where he is, and what his story is. But, in spite of putting the picture on various relevant websites and Facebook groups, I haven’t had any success.” He hopes the SA Jewish Report can help him with his search.
Segerman sees parallels between this search and the search for Rodriguez, “but, contrary to popular reports, I’m not nor have ever regarded myself as a ‘musical detective’ or any other kind of detective. How the Rodriguez story began and evolved is still a source of amazement to me as it wasn’t planned or plotted, it just happened.
“I have always been naturally curious, and enjoy finding things like rare LPs, books, or tiny diamonds that accidentally dropped onto the floor of the jewellery factory in Johannesburg where I worked for many years with my father – but never missing people. But, may I add, that once I start looking for something, I don’t usually stop until I find it, no matter how long it takes.”
It was this natural curiosity that drew him to the market. “Since moving down to Cape Town, I always enjoyed browsing through Greenmarket Square and Greenpoint markets for music, books, and magazines for my own collection. But when I got involved with [his renowned Cape Town record store] Mabu Vinyl in 2003 [which has since closed down], I started looking around more seriously for second-hand LPs, 7-inch singles, CDs, books, and DVDs for our shop. Someone suggested that I try the Milnerton Market, and initially I went occasionally, but it soon grew into a regular Sunday morning tradition.
“Over the years, the market grew as more and more private sellers began to set up their little stores as a way to sell off spare stuff from home alongside regular stalls. Because a lot of people enjoy taking a stroll around this large market, it’s quite lucrative for these sellers, so they look for more and more stuff to sell. That’s why one can find such a disparate range of stuff, like this picture.”
So, although he’s not sure if he has a greater or lesser chance of tracking down the barmi boy than Sugarman, “at least with Rodriguez, we had plenty of information and clues from his records. With the barmi boy, all we know is that he was probably from the Cape, and the name of the studio where this picture was taken, which is ‘Brigda Studio’. But I can’t find any reference to it on Google, and even if I did, I doubt it would still be in existence. If it was, I doubt they would remember who this was after more than 50 years. So, that seems like a dead end, and I really have nothing else to go on apart from the fact that my son-in-law said that the siddur that the Barmitzvah boy is holding looks very similar to the one he was given for his Barmitzvah by his shul [in the 1990s].
“But, having said all that, I must admit that if we could find Rodriguez, then we can probably find anyone, including this barmi boy. I think it’s fair to say that, for me, the thrill of the chase, or the challenge of the search, is as important and exciting as the joy of finding what one is looking for.”
Leila Bloch of the South African Jewish Museum’s (SAJM) Jewish Digital Archive Project (JDAP) says that the archive exists for exactly this kind of material to be preserved and hopefully to trace the boy in the photograph or his family. “In fact, we were once given a bunch of letters found at the Milnerton Market, and we traced them back to a famous fashion designer who had written them to his family while he was studying in London. His whole family came down from Israel, and as they pored over the letters, they were so emotional.
“There is so much potential in finding and sharing such material. We collect photographs, film, and other material that is often discarded, and it finds a home in the archive. That’s the beauty of this ongoing archive – we are always discovering new connections. With enough time, we can try help trace the mystery Barmitzvah boy.”
SAJM director Gavin Morris adds: “The sad reality is that a large proportion of our community have left the country, in many cases leaving their parents behind. As their parents age and downsize, many of their treasured family memorabilia are discarded as the cost or hassle of sending it to their children abroad is prohibitive. These items find their way into all manner of junk shops, curio stores and markets.
“Stories of items such as this one are more common than you’d think. The SAJM is constantly contacted about some or other item of Judaica that has been unearthed. Unfortunately the museum is not in a position to purchase, or even safely store these items. For this reason we have launched our SAJMarchives.com website (which includes JDAP), so at least digital copies of these items will still exist for future generations.”
- To share any information about the mystery Barmitzvah boy, email Stephen Segerman: email@example.com
- To contact the Jewish Digital Archive Project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.
The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.
The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”
The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.
“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.
The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.
“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.
Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.
“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.
Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”
The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.
“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”
JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.
This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.
“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”
The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.
“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”
The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.
Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”
Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”
Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”
Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs
ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.
The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.
Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.
“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”
On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”
Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”
ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity
Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.
Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.
He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.
Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”
Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”
They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”
Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.
Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.
“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”
Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.
When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.
Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”
Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.
“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”
Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”
Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”• The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco