Grandpa Witkin’s memoir offers sage advice for any generation
A zaida’s wit and wisdom, the measured acumen of a South African private equity pioneer, and the strength-in-vulnerability of a cancer survivor are some of the formidable facets of Arnold Witkin.
Now, they have culminated in the business icon’s debut book, It’s not a Big Thing in Life, which offers “strategies for coping”. Although framed as “considerations for my adult grandchildren” they are, in fact, universally applicable.
Nevertheless, Witkin’s grandchildren, ranging in age from seven to 16, while still too young to fully imbibe his insight and delight in the wonders of life, are the inspiration behind the work that awaits their perusal.
As Witkin’s eldest grandchild recalls, “When I was a very young child and living in London, my grandpa and I would sit in these big chairs in his and my grandma’s house and ‘contemplate the universe’.”
Witkin, currently based in Cape Town, expresses his enjoyment at being able to engage with his grandchildren in debate and conversation as they find their emerging voices. “We are able to have that kind of relationship where we can really talk about meaningful ideas,” he says. Yet, this is counterbalanced by their hunger for tales from his own experience, “always asking for stories of what happened to me at different ages”.
It’s from this combination that Witkin, aged 76, takes inspiration for the book, which blends personal anecdotes with his musings on various topics. It’s peppered with illustrations by Dov Fedler, and includes an array of references from Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham to Kahlil Gibran and the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At times, the book even offers some key ideas in list form, something which Witkin decided was suitable after realising that even the ten commandments were in bullet points!
Witkin says he has always written notes to himself and as such, the book was essentially decades in the making. However, he did use the time spent in lockdown, when he couldn’t play his beloved golf three times a week, to focus on the project.
The dozens of topics in the book range from success, work, and money, to coping with problems, making decisions, and love, relationships, and sex. The latter, says Witkin, was the hardest section to write as a grandparent. Yet, he felt that it remained a key aspect of experience and as such, to “not say something would be to slice out a gigantic part of people’s lives”.
Witkin also offers much practical advice – one of his proposals being a return to the lost art of letter writing.
He illustrates his point with a poignant story of an interaction between himself and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At the time, Sacks had been at the centre of controversy following a misleading article published by The Guardian. Via a friend who knew them both, Witkin heard that Sacks was depressed about the matter, and he decided to write him a letter in spite of the two never having met.
After receiving the letter, Sacks wrote back expressing his gratitude for the gesture. Three years later, they met at a function, and Witkin introduced himself, mentioning he had once written the chief rabbi a letter.
“He said, ‘I remember it well. I filed it in my ‘good news’ file. Whenever I get a bit low, I open the file, and page through it.’”
Witkin says he remains deeply moved by this example. “Sacks could have walked into his library, opened the pages of hundreds of books, and got divine inspiration. But he was so human.” This is the power of letter writing: “Just the words of strangers can move you.”
Ultimately, Witkin hopes the core message of his books is distilled as an understanding that, “You are responsible for yourself.”
With the exception of a criminal act or extreme tragedy, “Whatever happens to you, you can’t blame anybody else. If you’re in a situation in which you don’t know what to do with your career, relationship, or living situation, you can get help, but you are responsible for getting the help. Moreover, you can have expectations if you want, but you may be disappointed. Ultimately the only question facing you is, ‘What are you going to do now?’”
Even what looks like inaction is a “decision until you change it. There is no such thing as nothing.” This viewpoint helped put life in perspective, says Witkin, pointing out that he has come to realise that most things in life aren’t “a big thing”.
Yet, “If a very big thing happens, acknowledge that it’s a big thing in life. But then, how long does it stay a big thing in life?” is his next question. The answer to this remains a choice. Here’s where his literary example, Miss Havisham – a woman who after being jilted at the altar, spends the rest of her life waiting in her wedding dress, overseeing the rotten remnants of her wedding feast – becomes a critical point of contemplation.
Witkin has tackled some struggles himself, having undergone five operations in the past 18 years following prostate and thyroid cancer. “The definition of inner conflict is when your body and your mind aren’t in the same place. Now [with cancer treatment], my body was here [undergoing an operation in hospital] and my mind was saying, ‘My G-d. I wish this wasn’t happening.’ So, to get my mind to where my body was, there had to be acceptance. There was nothing I could do about this situation, so I had to get on with life.”
For example, after one operation, Witkin was left in immense pain for weeks. He decided to plan how to cope with this reality. One of his strategies was to tell himself, “I love you exactly as you are.”
“‘I love you’ are powerful words. Most of us don’t think we love ourselves. So, to say this to yourself, at a time when you are feeling miserable and sorry for yourself and looking terrible, it makes you feel protected. You are both being loving and being loved.”
His reflections in the book are combined with humour. For example, following an operation that affected his vocal cords, Witkin lost the use of his voice for some time. During this period, he would open business meetings by declaring, “don’t let the softness of my voice detract from the seriousness of my purpose”.
Indeed, Witkin’s hypothesis is that the barometer of any relationship should be how often you share a genuine laugh.
As to his best witticism, it comes down to wordplay: “What do you call an inexplicable phobia of intricately designed groups of buildings?” he teases.
“It’s called a complex complex complex,” he offers with a hearty laugh.
- Details on where to purchase Witkin’s book can be found at www.arniewitkin.com
Witkin shares a mantra that he uses to cope with difficult situations:
• Stay calm.
• I’m safe.
• I’m in good hands.
• Surrender to the process (let go).
• I’m strong.
• I will get through this.
Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala
Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.
The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.
Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.
Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.
However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.
The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.
Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.
“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”
Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.
“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”
In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.
“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.
Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.
“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.
From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.
On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.
In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.
Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.
That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.
Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.
However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.
Bake bosses: fondant queens take the cake
Some are adorned with the delicate lace, glistening pearls, and relief cameos of a baroque boudoir; others uphold a gallery of watercolour Peter Rabbits in petite. In one, the entire history of Cape Jewish life is rendered in mini-marvels, while in another, an edible garden of Namaqualand succulents and aloes blooms.
Indeed, there’s no telling what portal you have opened when lifting the lid of another of Vivienne Basckin’s boxes of cupcake compositions. Yet the real wonderland lives inside the imagination extraordinaire of this Cape Town-based cupcake artist.
“I enjoy the challenge of taking it out the box – if someone says, ‘Could you…?’ There’s no limit to what one can do when you explore and play.”
Entirely self-taught, Basckin says that while she used to enjoy making cakes for her children and even came up with a koi fish one for her husband “using the salmon mould everyone uses for Pesach”, she discovered her cupcake artistry in 2015 when she was invited to a friend’s 60th birthday and felt stuck for a gift idea, “So I made 60 cupcakes and from then, the whole thing started. It’s a hobby gone mad.”
Although she has always loved the flamboyance of the baroque and rococo periods, she had never found an artistic medium for this fascination – until, surprising, she found fondant. “When I started to work with it, I realised that this little piece of fondant afforded me every single opportunity to do colour and form. I wanted to do something that’s a bit more edgy.”
Through trial, error, and zany experimentation, Basckin is now renowned not just for this striking antique style – but a wide range of designs.
Beyond the kitchen, Zimbabwean-born Basckin has globe-trotted with her husband and now-grown-up children. Her son was born while they were in Amsterdam, and her daughter in Hong Kong. She worked for more than 40 years as a teacher and lecturer in institutions as diverse as Harold Cressy High School and Herzlia, the University of Amsterdam, and the Professional Communications Unit of the University of Cape Town’s engineering faculty. Today, she also works as a guide at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.
When it comes to non-edible art, she is also an accomplished painter. Twenty of her watercolour renderings of Western Cape synagogues are displayed at the South African Jewish Museum. Now, Basckin has even translated her talent onto the cupcake as canvasses, painting with edible watercolours onto dainty slates of fondant. She has also become a sculptor of note – albeit on a Lilliputian scale – of figurines of any fancy.
Basckin’s cupcakes are made in sets. Each individual mini-cake is a unique design, making up an overall artistic arrangement within a specific colour palette and artistic theme. “I can’t go to bed at night until I have actually got the composition right.”
Most recently, she has been creating baked biographies for birthdays in which she designs a set of cupcakes, each one depicting an individual aspect of the person’s life and likes. For example, one customer had their dog’s portrait painted on one, and their beloved Bentley immortalised on another. A rich maroon theatre curtain is folded over the top of another with golden drama masks, while a tiny bowl and chopsticks adorned another to show off a love of Chinese food.
The actual cupcakes are all classic vanilla with a butter icing underneath the design. “All the excitement is on the top!” she quips. Basckin is able to make kosher orders, partnering to use the premises of a kosher caterer. Although she has investigated the possibility of deliveries to other cities or overseas, the fragility of the creations makes it impossible.
However, her acclaim has travelled so far, a friend in Austria contacted her saying there was a woman there who wanted Basckin’s cupcakes for her son’s wedding.
When Basckin explained that it wasn’t possible to send them over, they paid for Basckin to come to the country for a week to make her masterpieces for the happy occasion.
Ultimately, says Basckin, the best part of the work, is the connection with people and their celebrations. “The loveliest has been going on a journey with a family, from making their engagement cupcakes to their wedding ones, and now for their child’s fifth birthday!”
She says her husband jokes that she loves the “instant gratification – the joy when they gasp, and I just know it hits the spot!”
The Egoli empresses of edibles
Esti Cohen of Esti’s Boutique Baking Studio, Kerry Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery, Sharit Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, and Natasha Seef-Bear of Ma Baker love bringing a bit of sweetness to Joburgers’ lives all year round.
Although they come from backgrounds as diverse as the fashion design, psychology, marketing, and documentary filmmaking, they all share a love of creative expression and a passion for people.
“I’ve always been artistic. Even when I was two years old, I would draw the Smurf village on the wall,” recalls Cohen, who was born in Israel but lives with her husband and three children in Johannesburg.
For her, baking also started as a hobby, but has evolved into a professional craft whereby she has so many culinary fans, that she gets calls at night for those craving her carrot cake. “Customers become so dedicated to a cake, be it the carrot, lemon meringue, or coffee. They will buy three or four at a time!”
Her highly decorated birthday cakes come in perfected classics like chocolate and vanilla, as well as marble, and indeed, for Cohen, the balance is always between delicious flavour and beautiful appearance. ”First you eat with your eyes, and then it must be a joy to taste,” she says.
Most of her recipes are family secrets that are worked and reworked according to their approval. “A lot of my recipes go way, way back. We will take a recipe and do it over and over until everyone in the family agrees – because they are the ones who will be blunt with you. When we are happy with it, we launch it into the world!”
She has also enjoyed teaching workshops, especially to children, in various creative pursuits, and views her business as “always evolving”. She works in a studio in Sandringham, and is kosher under the Beth Din. During COVID-19, Cohen began making a Shabbat menu, which has been very successful.
She says that even after 15 years, every time she get a compliment, it fills her with happiness. “I love the whole process, from when the client contacts me and is excited about their simcha. This is what G-d blessed me with: they feeling that I can be a part of happy things.”
Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery also believes there is no better feeling that a satisfied customer. When a little birthday boy or girl “doesn’t want to cut their cake” because they love it so much, she knows she’s managed to bake magic into the mix.
She says the trends for girls are all about Candyland and glitter fantasy figures like unicorns, mermaids, and Frozen characters. Many boys are into gaming at the moment like Roblox and Fortnite. Paw Patrol seems to close the gender gap.
Halfon also enjoys the “entrepreneurial aspect of the work”, and her business has grown to the point that she’s able to oversee much of the running of it, a perfect blending of her previous experience in marketing for a food magazine.
Seef-Bear of Ma Baker started her journey by making her children’s birthday cakes and realising how much she enjoyed it. She started making for friends, then advertised on social media until it became a full-time pursuit, one built around being able to have quality time with her children.
“I sit up at night when the kids go to bed and just create things,” she says about her love of sculpting figurines and challenging herself to try new designs.
Her business, which is kosher but not under the Beth Din, has allowed her to gain in confidence as she has taught herself a variety of skills. Right now, fidget pops in fondant is a popular choice for celebration cakes, as are Disney options.
Yet, like Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, she has had her share of wackier requests. Both have been asked to forge intimate appendages in dough form for racier occasions – the former in cake and the latter in biscuit bites.
But beyond this bit of the bawdy, Shapiro’s repertoire is indeed refined, crafting the most elegant of floral wedding sets, to bright and bold pop-culture compositions.
Like Seef-Bear, Shapiro is self-taught – “You can learn anything on the internet!” – and first discovered her passion for baking making her children’s birthday treats.
As a child, while she “liked being in the kitchen because my mother was always there”, Shapiro says she has never considered herself artistic and therefore was surprised to discover her creative side.
As life comes full-circle, her mother now works with her in the running of things, with Shapiro declaring, “She’s the force behind the business, actually.”
She also offers unique products that allow people to decorate or paint different biscuit designs, with one range offering an edible version of a “colouring-in-page” for children. Kosher under the Beth Din, they have also launched a build your-own-sukkah biscuit kit alongside their existing gingerbread house ones.
And as for her tips for the year ahead, “It’s definitely have a cookie a day!”
Kentridge artwork sales throw lifeline to artists
“The situation we are in cannot be the end state of the world; there has to be a better condition for everyone, including artists.”
So said world-famous South African artist William Kentridge, whose donation of an artwork titled Oh to Believe in Another World to The Lockdown Collection (TLC) has contributed to the awarding of 60 bursaries this year.
Almost R720 000 was raised through the sale of this blue rebus-text artwork as well as a previous Kentridge poster sold over lockdown called Weigh All Tears. As a result, the TLC exceeded its goals, and enabled 60 students to be awarded a bursary of R12 000 each.
A charitable and art-inspired initiative, the TLC was conceived and developed by Lauren Woolf, the founder of consultancy Mrs Woolf; Kim Berman, the founding director of Artist Proof Studio (APS); and Carl Bates, the founding partner of business leadership initiative Sirdar in 2020 in order to capture South Africa’s historic COVID-19 lockdown and support vulnerable artists. The organisation recently won two accolades at the 2020/2021 BASA (Business and Arts South Africa) Awards.
Mrs Woolf, with arts partner APS, won the SMME (Small, Micro or Medium-sized Enterprise) Award, and Sirdar, with arts partner APS, won the First Time Sponsor Award.
“It was awesome recognition to receive the two BASA awards on behalf of Artist Proof Studio with the TLC partners,” said Berman, a professor in visual art at the University of Johannesburg.
The TLC was launched within 48 hours on the eve of South Africa’s historic first COVID-19 lockdown. Due to the instant fallout of the pandemic, it aimed to raise desperately needed funds for artists and the broader community.
Ahead of TLC’s auction the following month, Mark Auslander, a professor from Central Washington University in the United States, said, “This is the most significant initiative in the art world on planet earth right now.”
The auction raised more than R2 million in just a few hours. It was a “white glove sale”, which means every artwork in the auction sold, including additional artworks by Kentridge sold in an innovative Zoom live bidding format.
Since then, the TLC has raised more than R3.5 million in total, allocated more than 500 grants to vulnerable artists, and just recently awarded 50 bursaries for art students.
Said a beneficiary, “The funding allowed me to buy food and pay for electricity and data. This, in turn, allowed me to continue marketing my work online for possible sales. This wouldn’t have been possible [had] I not had the support from TLC and the fund.”
Speaking about what she will take out of TLC, Woolf said, “That energy that comes with the urgency. The creative energy, the physical and spiritual energy that comes when a lot of people come together for a cause and initiative that they believe in.”
Berman described working with Woolf and Bates as “a dynamite combination of skills and collaboration. The synergy was electric and catalysed hundreds of people all over the world who bought into and invested in the concept.
“We raised R2 million from one auction with the sale of 21 artworks, which was remarkable. The business and marketing networks of the co-founders were quite awesome to witness. They could mobilise the business community to get involved and invest in this visionary idea. My role was to invite the artists to participate, and use the Artist Proof Studio network, an organisation I co-founded 30 years ago, to reach out to the art community. It offered an amazing opportunity to organise a campaign that supported hundreds of vulnerable artists across the country, and many of them are students or alumni of APS. The impact this has had on so many artists during a very hard time was moving.”
The initiative “motivated the artists to carry on working and at the same time gave them a platform to show how the pandemic had affected them and their families”, said Cinthia Sifa Mulanga, an artist who contributed to the collection.
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on vulnerable artists, said Berman. “APS has taken a leading role in ensuring that artists are supported over this time. At APS, our key interest is to keep artists making art and remain self-sustaining by keeping them healthy, connected, and having the materials to create. Many of the APS artists received grants and bursaries to sustain their practices and livelihoods. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s the artists in all disciplines who have kept the world hopeful, entertained, and inspired during this global trauma.”
Asked for her advice for aspiring artists, Berman said, “In my book called Finding Voice: A Visual Arts Approach to Engaging Social Change, I write about the use of art as a vehicle for solidarity and collective action that leads to empowerment and agency in addressing the challenges faced in times of trauma. I see the TLC art campaign and the voices of students as a hopeful vision for engaging greater social justice in our institutions and communities.”
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