From the cockpit – secrets of a Jewish pilot
Veteran South African pilot Robert Schapiro wrote Secrets from the Cockpit before he died. His wife, journalist Arlene Getz, talks to Mirah Langer about it.
How did the book come into being?
It evolved from Robert’s decision to write about his life for our son, Morgan. As Robert wrote in his introduction, Morgan loved his stories, and always said he should write them down.
Robert finished the manuscript after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer that affects the lining of the lung, and I promised him I’d edit it and get it published.
The two of you attended Herzlia. What are some of your earliest memories of him and his determination to break the mould of expected careers for “nice Jewish boys” at the time?
Robert and I met when we were in a school play in primary school. Even back then, flying was all he talked about. I remember clearly how so many people either made fun of him for it or just felt sorry for him because flying school was so competitive.
For me, Robert’s memoir is relevant on many levels. Yes, it’s about a young man who fought the odds to live his dream. But it’s more than just the story of one person’s life. It’s also a snapshot of an era in the evolution of aviation and in the history of South Africa.
In order to fulfil Robert’s dream of becoming a pilot, he had to enter the apartheid-era South African Air Force and was even involved in the border war. Yet, he was clearly ideologically against the state. How did he navigate this?
Remember this was the 1970s, when all the young men of my generation were conscripted for national service, and many of them did get deployed to the border. What was different was that his passion for flying made him agree to join the Permanent Force because it was the only way he could get the pilot training he needed to get into South African Airways (SAA).
He was subject to rampant antisemitism. How did he cope?
Robert sums up the antisemitism right at the start of the book, when he wrote, “Not a day – sometimes not an hour – of my years in the South African military went by without one of my Afrikaner barrack mates calling me Jood [Jew]. They weren’t saying it to be nice.”
He said that it wasn’t unusual for the Jewish recruits to be pulled out of the ranks to do unpleasant menial jobs. In Robert’s case, it must have been worse because he would have been the lone Jew.
Sometimes he’d have to talk his way out of things, like the time when his barracks mates asked him to speak “Jewish”. He started telling them in Hebrew how little he thought of them, and realised when he saw their shocked faces that he’d actually switched his insults into Afrikaans by mistake.
Most times, he said, he ignored it unless it became more than harmless name-calling. Then he either fought back hard or ran away and hid.
How did the two of you get married?
We started dating after we bumped into each other at a restaurant in Cape Town. He was already in SAA, and I’d recently graduated from Rhodes with my journalism degree. When we got married a few years later, one of his aunts told me how happy she was that we’d finally got together because as a child, he’d never stopped talking about me.
Robert offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the behaviour and culture of SAA. What did he find the most startling?
Air crews could have as long as a one-week stopover in places like Lisbon, and it wasn’t unusual for some pilots to spend the time waiting for their return flight doing little else but visiting local bars. On Robert’s first international trip, the captain got so drunk one night, he ended up passing out on the floor of a local train.
Robert also disliked the autocratic captains known in the airline as the Royal Family. Many were World War II veterans who reigned over their cockpits, expected blind obedience, and thought the rules didn’t apply to them.
What did Robert’s Jewish identity mean to him?
He didn’t just see himself as a pilot, he saw himself as a Jewish pilot.
Tradition was important to him. He grew up in an Orthodox home, loved family Shabbat dinners, and had us all in stitches when he used to describe the weird sounds of meat being put into the mincer when his granny made pirogen.
He was an active member of our New York shul community, and impressively dedicated to teaching Morgan his Barmitzvah portion.
Which is your favourite anecdote in the book and why?
One story that is just so Robert is when he decided he needed a pet to keep him company during one of his training courses in Japan. Hotel rooms aren’t exactly conducive environments for that, but Robert decided that one of the small red crayfish he’d seen at the local fishmonger would be the answer.
He ended up having to buy three of the creatures because the fishmonger wouldn’t sell him less than 200g worth, brought them back to his room, agonised over what to feed them, wondered why they barely moved, and then hid under the sheets when they became energised enough to wake him up with the clacking of their claws in the middle of the night. He ended up keeping just one of the three, and of course, he named him Claw.
Tell us more about what he was like beyond the pages of the book.
Robert was, to use one of his favourite words, a mensch. He was kind and generous.
He was enormously talented. He made gorgeous wooden furniture, restored old houses, and was an excellent cook. He baked incredible bread. At the same time, he was genuinely modest.
He was very much his own person. When he wasn’t in his pilot’s uniform, he lived in torn T-shirts and baggy shorts covered in paint stains. He hated formal clothes, and thought he was very clever when he found sweatpants that were the same colour as the flying pants issued by Nippon Cargo Airlines (NCA). He used to change into those after take-off, and tell himself that no-one could tell the difference. NCA managers didn’t see it quite the same way.
He was a wonderful father. And I couldn’t have asked for better, or funnier, husband.
How does Morgan feel to see the book in print?
Robert always regretted that his flying meant he had to spend so much time away from us. Years ago, he wrote, illustrated, and self-published a series of children’s stories for Morgan. The first one was called, Where Does Daddy Go? and it showed Morgan what Robert did when he was on a flight. It ends with Robert telling Morgan how he misses him every day that he’s away.
Morgan loved those books and is thrilled about the memoir making it into print.
‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions
Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.
No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.
Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.
The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.
His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.
According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.
Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.
The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.
“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.
“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”
He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”
The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.
Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?
The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.
Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.
“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.
“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”
She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.
Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.
There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.
Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.
Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.
Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.
Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.
“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”
Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.
“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.
Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.
“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”
The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.
“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”
She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.
Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.
Kiff vibes for a well-known psalm
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.”
Shock as ‘Eishet Chayil’ murdered in Cape Town
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 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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