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Grandpa Witkin’s memoir offers sage advice for any generation

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Lifestyle

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.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Marc Loon

    May 13, 2021 at 10:13 pm

    As a family friend, Arnie was a role model and mentor of mine growing up. His sense of humour was often laden with some or other message about life. I’ve only just begun reading this book, but it’s clear he’s managed to put his Witkinisms into print successfully.

  2. Bill Dunn

    May 29, 2021 at 8:58 pm

    This is a great read for all teens, young adults, parents, and grandparents. Full of insights and wisdom bolstered with specific actionable suggestions. I highly recommend it.
    Bill Dunn
    Retired Businessman, Active Grandparent

  3. Ian

    Jun 15, 2021 at 7:35 am

    Arnie’s comment : The art of letter writing was highlighted to me : I loved a Girl: Swedish Authur Trobish: : true story: letters to a Priest in Africa: letters from all 3 back and forth: local traditions v Christian marriage: a great insight into conflicting value systems and understanding: living in SA this has helped me greatly understand this

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Lifestyle

Snapshots of youth

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To commemorate Youth Day, the SA Jewish Report asked some of South Africa’s most illustrious photographers to share a photograph that they felt evoked something of youth, either past or present, within our land. They reflected on their choices.

Ilan Godfrey, Swimming in the ‘Long Sea’, Diamanthoogte, Koffiefontein, Free State, 2013

I came across these kids swimming while travelling across South Africa to various mining towns for my book titled Legacy of the Mine. Daily life in and around these mining towns was an important component of this project, and this scene really emphasised how this legacy is engrained on our landscape. The pure joy, spontaneity, and youthfulness of the children, and their ability to find the most imaginative of spaces to play, really epitomises Youth Day for me.

The suburb of Diamanthoogte (Diamond Heights) is home to a predominantly coloured community that lives on the outskirts of the diamond-mining town of Koffiefontein in Free State province. During the summer months, children enjoy swimming in the canals, which they refer to as the ‘Long Sea’. The canals carry the overflow of water through the town from Kalkfontein Dam and the mine dam to outlying farms.

Koffiefontein became a stopover point for transport riders travelling between the diamond fields in the south and gold mines to the north during the 1800s. After diamonds were discovered here, Koffiefontein developed into a mining town. The town has a significant military history. It was seized by the British during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, and was later used as a detention camp in World War II. Among the internees was John Vorster, who later became prime minister and president of South Africa. The mine has been closed several times over the years, but continues to recover some of the most valuable diamonds in the world.

Jodi Bieber, Soweto Country Club, Soweto, 2007

Through all my travels in South Africa and around the globe photographing different communities, my experience reveals that children the world over, often living in environments with few opportunities, show resilience and creativity with very little. I fantasised that one day, I would become a talent scout for those children that shone in order for them to live out their dream.

Marc Shoul, Jané, Sydenham, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1999

I took this photograph in my early 20s before I became a father. When I Iook at this image, I see the gentleman in the background, and I can sort of relate to the feelings in a way. I shot this in a house that I would frequent from time to time when I was in Port Elizabeth. This was when I was completing a body of work called Beyond Walmer where I was concentrating on the lower-income white group, post-1994. The little girl’s expression is just priceless. The man on the very right hand side, to my knowledge, is her father; the guy holding her is a mother’s new young boyfriend or husband at the time. It would be amazing to go back to that house and see where all these people are now. Perhaps I will.

It’s an image that has contrasts, and hopefully, it has some sort of hope for the future, not only doom and gloom, but the reality is that there is a long, winding road ahead.

Alon Cohen, Kids of the Street, Oaklands, Johannesburg, 2016

This photograph of four young men that live together in a community on the streets of Oaklands, Johannesburg, represents a massive segment of the youth that we sadly haven’t managed to cater for in this country. These guys are well meaning, lost people that come each from their own unique, dysfunctional background where they felt they could no longer stay because to live amongst their families was more torturous than living on the streets.

I just know that given a healthy place to live and a basic purpose to fulfil every day, many of these youth could bring value to their lives as well as the country as a collective. Yet, in spite of everything, they’re still able to look at each other and have a laugh. So human, just like any one of us.

Paul Weinberg, Dancers, 1995

I took this photograph of two Zimbabwean dancers while on an assignment for a cultural magazine called Du in 1995. It was a dance production with a group of street performers. A fleeting moment of connection between two people, whose parents had been engaged in a conflictual past, but now were kinetically and intimately bonded through this performance. Images provoke arresting questions. That was 25 years ago. The two youths then are now middle aged. So much has happened in Zimbabwe since this period, as in this country. What happened to these two people, where are they now, how did life play out for them? This image also provokes an important meditation for me. A moment of synthesis that speaks back as well as to the future. How difficult is it really to suspend prejudice and polarity to find our common humanity and human potential? Why do we struggle to learn this over generations? This image, buried deep in my archive, has come back to life. It’s a touchstone for a more humane and loving world, as relevant now as it was then.

Eric Miller, Poverty, the Third Pandemic, Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, 2002

In the middle of this pandemic, the consequences on the poorest and most vulnerable are exacerbated by the poverty and circumstances within their communities. My work as a documentary photographer in this country stretches back several decades, and includes the documentation of a previous pandemic, HIV/Aids. Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, was at the epicentre of the HIV/Aids pandemic, with an infection rate generally greater than 30%. The photograph shows the three oldest of five sisters orphaned after their parents died of Aids-related illness. Four of the girls attended school, the fifth taking care of her own two-month-old baby at home. The girls, aged then between eight and 19, were left to care for themselves, collecting water from a nearby stream for cooking, washing, and so on. They were reliant on assistance, receiving food provided by a local community organisation which survived on donations from well-wishers. During the current pandemic, my thoughts often turn to them and the many similarly orphaned children left to fend for themselves or in the care of elderly grandparents who during this pandemic have been most vulnerable in the face of rampant COVID-19 infection, often relying on government grants as their only income for survival.

Ilan Ossendryver, Tyre Race – Kliptown, Soweto, 2019

Kliptown is an area in which everyone has been forgotten, yet it’s quite an amazing place. I’ve been working with the community there for many years.

I selected the photograph because of the creativity with which children create toys and games. They have parents that care, their parents will fight for everything, but the government doesn’t care. The photograph shows the creativity of the children, but also the failure of government to really help people. They live in really terrible conditions: no running water, no toilets, and no electricity.

I do outreach programmes and we hold a tyre race where they get prizes. Eventually, I give everyone prizes, but first I want them to learn to keep trying better next time. In their expressions, you can see the absolute determination to win, and the community watching them. One of the men watching is actually one of the best drummers in South Africa, and even played at a Lag B’Omer celebration at a shul in Johannesburg.

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It’s lift off for Novick and SAA

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Former kulula.com now LIFT Airline mastermind Gidon Novick may be a sucker for punishment, but he has taken to turning South African Airways (SAA) around and making it something South Africans can be proud of.

“I’ve already got grey hairs, a few more can’t hurt,” Novick joked, speaking to the SA Jewish Report last weekend, days after his involvement in the 51% buyout of SAA was announced.

Novick and Global Aviation, which partnered to launch LIFT in December, have joined up with Harith General Partners, a private equity firm that invests in infrastructure across Africa, to buy a 51% share of the national carrier. The Takatso consortium will be chaired by Harith’s chief executive, Tshepo Mahloele, and Novick, who was also the former chief executive of Comair. The government will still own 49% of SAA.

SAA was put into business rescue in December 2019, costing the country about R250 million. Late last year, R10.5 billion was allocated to SAA for business rescue. This was released over time, and some of it (roughly R2.7 billion) will be allocated to SAA’s subsidiaries.

The government will have no further financial obligations to the airline. Said Novick, “We will control the company, but also value and respect the input from government as a significant and strategic shareholder.

“No doubt there will be excitement and stress,” he said. “I feel like there comes a point in life where you need to chill or give it a real go and take what comes with that. I believe I’m up for the challenge. It feels opportune.”

He said he was at a unique point in his life where he has both energy and experience. “I have done a few things along the way, and am still young enough to have the energy. This venture will make good use of that energy and experience and hopefully, will be meaningful on a few levels.”

Novick comes from an airline family in which his late father, Dave, was in the industry for 51 years. He took Comair from a company with two aircraft and built it into a major player in the industry with British Airways and kulula.com. As part of Comair, Gidon, a chartered accountant with an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at North Western University, started the then innovative kulula.com.

In 2019, Novick told financial journalist Alec Hogg that running SAA would be “pretty much the worst job – after Eskom”. However, he did say that if he were ever to take on SAA, “certain things [would] have to be put in place, and one would require the autonomy to make some quite drastic decisions in that organisation”.

So it may not be such a surprise that Novick now says this has always been something “that could emerge or evolve over time”.

He is excited to take on what many may consider to be a dinosaur because, “Government has come a huge way, some of it by necessity, and the dealings we have had have been so positive. I understand it better now, and believe we have a real opportunity for alignment and pulling the right interest and skills together in the private and public sector.

“The best thing is we all have the national interest at heart,” said Novick.

He said real discussion about the SAA takeover started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he reached out to the department of public enterprises to start talking. “They had put together various advisory teams to look at SAA’s future as it was under business rescue.”

These discussions began before Novick launched LIFT. “I was sharing some ideas about what we could do with SAA. It was very initial, and then we got stuck into launching LIFT, which we are still completely submerged in,” he said.

“At the time, I had been out of the airline industry for a while, and was building an airline model in LIFT that was right for this time. That helped a lot, and became more practical and real in relation to working with SAA.”

To create LIFT, Novick partnered with Global Aviation, a company that leases out fully crewed, maintained, and insured aircraft to established airlines locally and around the world. Then, he met the leadership of Harith that already co-owns Lanseria Airport and was interested in investing in airlines.

“I was introduced to Tshepo Mahloele, its executive director, who said they were interested in SAA and we combined our efforts,” said Novick. Harith committed the finances necessary for the deal.

As to what exactly the future SAA will look like, Novick said, “I don’t quite know yet. We have done a lot of work in planning how things will operate, but there is still mountains to be done.

“I believe in the creativity that exists in South Africa, and the solution will capture the best of the legacy of the SAA emblem and its name. We will infuse modernity and creativity into something all South Africans can be proud of. It will be iconic and fresh, stand out, and be globally recognised.”

Novick said he planned to import some of LIFT’s efficient agile operating model into SAA, among other things. “The customer obsession we have at LIFT will also become a mainstay of SAA,” he said. “It’s critical, everything has to revolve around the customer.”

As for staffing, he said 80% of SAA’s staff had already taken voluntary retrenchment, but, “we need to take a good and careful look at the organisational structure”.

He is clear that the vision for the new SAA is to build an iconic national brand and a globally competitive airline, particularly on the African continent. “It will be a cornerstone of commerce, tourism, and industry.”

He isn’t yet sure how LIFT will fit in, however he says experience and skills will be exported into SAA so that the national carrier can benefit from its learning.

Novick plans to start local flights soon, and get going with regional ones soon after. “Regional flights use the same infrastructure as local, so that isn’t too complicated. The long-haul network will depend on tourism, the opening of borders, COVID-19, and global collaboration.

“I am hoping this initiative becomes a blueprint for future public-private partnerships, and gives all South Africans the confidence we need to continue building this incredible country,” Novick said.

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On cantors and choirs: sifting through the soundtrack of SA Jewry

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History books may detail the facts, but it’s through the notes and melodies of Jewish liturgical music that the emotional story of the Jews of South Africa can be heard. Now, two afficionados on the subject have begun the mammoth task of collating the tales of cantors and choirs on the tip of Africa, detailing its rich legacy and hopes for the future.

Chazzanut [cantorial music] is a unique Jewish creation. The chazzan [cantor] is described as a chacham lev – he who has the wisdom of the heart,” says Evelyn Green, who along with Professor Russel Lurie, has dedicated herself to the preservation and practice of Jewish liturgical music in South Africa. After all, she reflects, “What are the Jewish people without their music?”

Green and Lurie have been stalwarts of the Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir (JJMC), Green since its inception in 1985, and Lurie, an acclaimed maxillofacial and oral surgeon, since 1987. Green, who is also renowned for her work as a Unisa (University of South Africa) music examiner and private music and singing teacher, is the choir’s musical director, secretary, and repetiteur (singing coach). For the past 25 years, Lurie has served as its chairperson. Most recently, they have begun collating and researching the history of the cantorial and Jewish liturgical musical tradition in this country – the first such project of its kind.

Last month, they presented a set of webinars under the auspices of the Cantors’ Assembly in America. They also spoke to the SA Jewish Report about their extensive work together and their determination to take it even further while keeping the art form alive and thriving.

The interweaving of the everchanging South Africa context and this centuries-old Jewish tradition is illustrated by a delightful anecdote involving a cross-over choir, a bottle of whiskey, and a compulsory invitation to the home of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

As South Africa commenced its democracy, “within this political scenario, the choir embarked on an outreach programme and on occasions, combined with one of the country’s best black choirs, Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society,” says Green.

However, Imilonji KaNtu is made up of male and female singers, and this doesn’t comply with Jewish Orthodox tradition. Nevertheless, in 2000, in the spirit of the times, the JJMC felt the collaboration had such deep meaning, performing together could be justified.

“A few days before our concert,” says Lurie, “my secretary [of his medical practice] came into the office and said Chief Rabbi Harris was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. In his broad, Scottish accent, he said, ‘Russel, I want you at my home at 18:00, and bring Evelyn as well.’

“We walked in, and the tension was there. We sat down, and he brought out a tray with whiskey. He said, ‘We have a problem: Russel, Evelyn, you are against halacha. You know that men and women cannot sing together, but I want to congratulate the two of you because you have made a stride in the building of a rainbow nation.’”

Then, recalls Lurie, he immediately turned to the next task at hand asking, “Now how do you take your whiskey, because if you want water with it, you’ll have to find some other place.” Then he turned to Evelyn, joking “and you are too young for this, you can have a cooldrink”.

At the end of the evening, he told Lurie and Green, “Anne [Harris’s wife] and I will be at the concert. Leave the rabbinate to me, but don’t ever do it again.”

Green remembers opening night. “It was at the Linder Auditorium, which was totally packed except for two empty seats. We waited for five and then ten minutes before deciding that we had better start, and as I walked onto stage, they arrived.” Harris remained a keen fan of the JJMC for the rest of his life, hosting them for a lunch every year. “He was the most wonderful man and supporter,” reflects Green.

Jewish liturgical music was first carried to South African shores by immigrants fleeing pogroms and unrest in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish songs they carried with them were anthems to love, loss, and resilience.

After World War II, South Africa became a safe haven for refugees who brought both Ashkenazi and Sephardi music traditions. Lurie details how one chazzan of the Oxford Shul in the 1970s was in fact a Holocaust survivor who was taken, along with thousands of others, to the shooting pits. “He lifted his arms and pleaded with the officer in charge to let him sing a prayer for his people. They let him sing, and they pulled him out.”

Indeed, as Europe struggled in disarray in the aftermath of the devastation, South Africa was seen as an attractive option for chazzans to come and work. “South Africa was a springboard. The cantors would come and stay for four or five years and move on,” says Lurie.

Some of the most acclaimed cantors in the world spent time in South Africa. A special story is told across three generations of the Alter family, starting with Israel Alter who was born in the Ukraine, and studied in Vienna and Hanover, before arriving in South Africa in 1936, fleeing Nazi rule. He went on to serve for 25 years at the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg. His son, Elazer Alter, followed in his footsteps at various shuls in Johannesburg and today, Israel’s grandson, Avron, serves as the cantor at Sandton Synagogue.

In the 1980s, visits by icons of liturgical music like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and cantor Sol Zim, as well as the influence of cantor Ari Klein, resulted in experimentation in a new direction. Classical chazzanut was blended with Hasidic and even contemporary pop and folk music. Klein “introduced a light-hearted approach to services and his rendition of foot-tapping music had his congregation in awe,” recalls Green.

So popular did this trend of contemporary experimentation become, Harris even joked in his memoir that he had not known that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed music for the synagogue.

From this heyday of excitement and innovative energy, the current status quo is more concerning, say Lurie and Green. While South Africa certainly boasts superb local home-grown talent in the field, there appears little community support for these efforts in terms of sponsorships. Moreover, say Lurie and Green, there isn’t sufficient effort in Jewish education to promote musical appreciation and practice.

Most chazzans are able to practice their art only in a part-time capacity as they must find other employment to make ends meet. In addition, in South Africa, the shtibl shul set-up, whereby there is no chazzan or choir at services, is the increasingly popular choice, particularly of younger generations.

It’s all the more pity, say Green and Lurie, because their own lives are testament to what richness an immersion in the music has brought. “There is no end to it, and it is so beautiful,” says Lurie.

Green recalls the poignancy of experiences like when the choir was invited to the first International Louis Lewandowski Choral Festival in Berlin in December 2011. At one point, the choir was taken to the cemetery of Lewandowski, one of the greatest composers of Jewish music. It was pouring with rain and freezing cold, yet the choir sang in his honour by his grave. When they visited the Holocaust memorial in the city, they too chose song to express themselves.

Lurie says it was an act of the most sacred affirmation. “It showed, ‘Look we are here. Not only are we here – we are singing!’”

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