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Funerals aren’t what they used to be

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Voices

If there is one event that we attended in abundance in 2020, it has been funerals. Larger and more conventional ones early on in the year, Zoom ones as lockdown became a thing, then “by-invitation-only” ones. Then there were the “come if you are close ones”, and then ultimately “I have no idea if I am expected to go” ones.

Like most people, in 2020, I attended them all, with my least favourite being the Zoom ones. Not because I didn’t appreciate not driving out to Westpark, getting a traffic fine en route, or standing in the unbearable heat or bone-chilling cold (it’s always one of the two). But rather because Zoom funerals always seem to lack the X factor that I need to stay engaged.

The result has always been that my name remains present on the screen, but truthfully, I’m nowhere to be seen. It honestly amazed me when my father died, not only did so many people log on to watch the event, they also actually listened to the speeches. It blew me away. I was there and I found it hard to focus (as brilliant as they were), yet people not only joined to show their respects, but actually paid attention.

Jewish funerals in 2020 simply aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when we would arrive early just to catch up with long forgotten friends (maybe that was just me). Or where we would gather on the steps of the Ohel to watch the new arrivals greet each other with a well-heeled and well-practiced air kiss.

Gone are the days of hugs and sad smiles, because why bother when no one can see you with your mask on in any event? So much so, that with a hat and sunglasses for the sun and a mask for the corona, attending a funeral in person is much like being on a Zoom call with the camera switched off. Unless you have a distinct figure or limp, no one is even going to know that you were there.

And then there is hand sanitiser. The gusto with which the wonderful “Chev” cemetery workers have embraced this life-saving liquid is truly impressive. They are hand-sanitiser zealots of the best kind. If hand sanitising was an Olympic sport, the Chev personnel would win gold! Either that or they just don’t have the heart or energy to bury one more person than they actually need to.

Men who attended a funeral back in March this year and who acted as pallbearers are no doubt still trying to get rid of the copious volumes of hand sanitiser that they were showered with. And it’s not the normal stuff. It’s the Dove soap of hand sanitiser, not because it leaves your skin silky smooth, but because no matter what you do, you can simply never wash it off.

There are many things that I miss about 2019. Large gatherings with friends and family, loud weddings where we could scream into a friend’s ear without fearing that you were killing them, and anxiety free shopping. I miss those.

But I also miss the funerals of 2019. Not because I wanted to attend them in person, but really and very simply, because I could.

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Voices

Second waves and second chances

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The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

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

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Voices

The holiday that couldn’t happen

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I was fortunate to go to Umhlanga in the last week of November on a celebratory holiday after finishing matric. For the few days I was there, I walked on the promenade, saw friends, and spent time relaxing after weeks of hard work. Admittedly, my friends and I felt invincible although still quite shocked at the amount of people walking on the beaches without masks. Even so, our numbers were dropping, we felt safe, and things finally seemed a bit normal.

However, the week after I came home, things began to change. Following the general complacency that overcome our country, case numbers began rising. My friends contracted the virus, holidays were cancelled, and a lockdown was imminent. Our desired invincibility proved false. It was, for lack of a better word, a disaster.

It’s not natural for us South Africans who haunt the Cape Town and Umhlanga promenades for weeks every December to stay home. We are used to holidays filled with parties, dates with friends, chills on the beach, and a general social jaunt that goes on into early January.

Those plans were put on hold when the president broke down on television, announcing new lockdown regulations and begging South Africans to act responsibly in these life-threatening times. We were forced off the beaches and into bed by 21:00, with no alcohol or late-night takeaways to keep us going.

Those fortunate enough to experience a bit of a holiday before the implementation of the lockdown rules should consider themselves lucky to have been able to visit a beach or sit at a bar for sundowners.

Those who didn’t get to escape their homes remain bored, scared, and honestly, a bit jealous. And who wouldn’t be? We’ve had a hard year, the least we deserve is a bit of a getaway.

Unfortunately, our desire to escape reality for a bit left us in a desperate situation. Instead of hotel pools and lunch dates with friends, we have Netflix shows and FaceTime calls. Instead of walks on the promenade and braais with family, we have socially distant teas and early nights. New Year’s Eve was spent in our homes, many of us barely staying awake before the clock struck 12 to ring in what is hopefully a better year (it wouldn’t take much, really).

To ensure that 2021 is better, it’s imperative to act responsibly. As young people, it’s often in our nature to do what we want, regardless of the repercussions. We search for the next bit of fun, and are determined to get it, no matter what gets in our way. We can’t act that way now.

We must act responsibly to ensure that in December 2021, we can have a happy holiday.

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Voices

But he is good for Israel

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The happenings at the Capitol building left most sane people winded. And whereas many were quick to blame 2021 for letting us down so spectacularly and so early into the year, it clearly had little to do with the calendar and everything to do with the former president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Instead of accepting his loss with a hint of dignity and a smattering of grace, Trump chose to cry “Foul!” In doing so, he set off a chain reaction that would not only result in the death of four people but would give his detractors the perfect opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Which they wasted no time at all in doing. And who could blame them, given that they had spent the past five years screaming that this was going to happen.

And happen it did.

Soon after the events, I found myself in a public argument with journalist Richard Poplak, who tweeted, “Yes, but he’s good for Israel”, referring to Trump. I responded with, “You have to be pretty obsessed to try and turn the focus towards Israel. Besides, I’m pretty sure that those white males dressed as Vikings aren’t Zionists.” Whereas I loved the smartness of my answer, the point that he was making was a valid one.

He knew that too, which is why after a series of tweets he wrote, “My tweet points out a prevailing moral failure of many in our community during the Trump era. If this is a time for reflection, no one is better poised to lead it than you.”

I’m uncertain that “no one is better poised to lead” than me, but I will nevertheless give it a try. Because maybe some introspection is required. Although I wasn’t a Trump supporter and publicly stated that I wanted both Biden and Trump to lose, I still hoped that Trump would lose less badly (in other words, to win). It might have been more to do with my thoughts on Biden, but it would nevertheless be disingenuous not to own it. Whereas I have also mentioned numerous times that I abhor many aspects of Trump’s personality and a lot of what he stands for, indeed, he was good for Israel as well as the Middle East (in my view).

I respected how he tried to engage with North Korea as well as his stand against Iran. Although he might not have succeeded in terms of China, I do think his effort was a decent one.

What I liked most about Trump was that I didn’t. Like him. To me, he represented a rare opportunity for nuance and complexity, something that’s largely absent in the world of politics.

Over the last while, we have distilled our view of politicians. We either love them or hate them. We either see no good or we see only bad. Trump awarded us the opportunity to see both in one politician. Through his behaviour, however, he has robbed us of even that.

Whereas I don’t agree with some of Poplak’s views on Israel, he nevertheless raises a point that we should consider. Did Trump’s support for Israel indeed blind us to the reality of what he always was? And if this is the case, what does it say about us and how do we treat the next one that comes along? Whereas I have no clear answer, I know that it is worth thinking about.

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