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Herd outrage – you could be next

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Voices

Can we please speak about outrage for a minute? Because I’m convinced that emotional responses say more about us than we would like them to. And whereas I would prefer to talk directly about secret minyanim (prayer services), about super-spreader weddings, about Rage, and about people travelling back from holiday with COVID-19, it will be easier to illustrate my point if we take a step away from these incidents and consider one that stands outside of our own community.

The story of Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane went viral after she was seen not wearing a mask during a funeral service at the weekend. Following the event and the reaction, she has made a statement at the Vosman Police Station in Emalahleni, where she confirmed her guilt. South Africans were enraged and wasted no time in expressing their disgust on social media and in the mainstream press. Analogies were made to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where “some are more equal than others”, and she was lambasted across the political spectrum and for a short time, became the target of our frustration.

It was, needless to say, exacerbated by the fact that the premier is a representative of government, should have known better, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the fact that she would be on national television flouting the laws that have given others in the country a criminal record.

Our outrage, it seems, was fully justifiable.

But, consider the following. There is a chapter in Jonathan Sacks’ book Not in G-d’s Name, devoted to scapegoats. Although the chapter explains why through history, Jews became a group of choice for blame, the rationale is instructive. He explains that a scapegoat must be similar to us, identifiable, and not too powerful. So, in the case of our minister, there would have been little reaction to a government representative in China not wearing a mask because we can’t relate to them.

Consider further why we seek scapegoats at all, and why now more than ever, we are looking for them. Most of us are frustrated, angry, despondent, and miserable. At least some of the time. The pandemic has challenged us in almost every aspect of our lives. It has made us fearful and anxious. But it’s also clearly an act of G-d, which means that there is no natural “home” for our misery. We might rage against government as everyone around the world is doing, we might blame “the media”, the “fearmongers”, and Bill Gates, but the reality is that no one owns this.

Unless someone likes the minister puts up her figurative hand by not wearing a mask and in doing so, says, “Pick me!” In doing so, she provided a perfect home for all our anger, frustration, and impotence. In doing so, she made herself the perfect scapegoat. She offered us a home for all our emotions. It’s no different to someone deciding to host a wedding where protocols are lacking, someone who flies back on a plane knowing they are COVID-19 positive, lets their children attend Rage, or hosts a secret and illegal minyan.

In doing these things, we are asking a frustrated people in search of a home for their outrage to “pick me!” Anyone who chooses to host a minyan, go to Rage, or not wear a mask offers themselves as the perfect target for all our negativity.

Don’t raise your hand if you don’t want to be chosen.

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Voices

Duty to remember from generation to generation

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Tribute to Veronica Phillips, o”h

When Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips, who sadly passed away earlier this week, was the guest speaker at the Johannesburg Yom Hashoah ceremony many years ago, it was the first time that she had spoken in public about her harrowing experiences. From that time on, however, she was a regular speaker on Holocaust remembrance platforms, including at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, as well as in schools and media interviews. Veronica was a proud and committed member of our community, and an inspiration to those who knew her. One theme she continually stressed in her addresses was that of l’dor v’dor (the duty of passing down the torch of remembrance from generation to generation). This, indeed, is the keynote theme of this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremony, where survivors will stress the solemn responsibility of youth today to ensure that the stories of survivors and above all, those who perished, aren’t forgotten. Although this time, Veronica won’t be with us to drive home that message, her dedicated, unselfish work in doing so in the latter part of her life will always resonate with those who were privileged to hear her tell her story.

Jewish Affairs – 80 years young

This week, the first issue for 2021 of our journal Jewish Affairs (Vol. 76, No. 1, Summer 2021) was published. The articles cover a wide range of subjects, from the Biblical writings, history, and archaeology of ancient Israel, to Zionist pioneers in the modern era, to such noteworthy Jewish South Africans who made a difference like the late Clive Chipkin, a celebrated architect, architectural historian, and Johannesburg heritage activist who passed away earlier this year. To read it, along with all previous issues that have appeared since the journal switched to its online format, go to South African Jewish Board of Deputies (sajbd.org). PDF versions of all previous issues going back to 2009 can be found at Jewish Affairs – archived issues.

Exactly 80 years have passed since the appearance of the inaugural issue of Jewish Affairs in 1941. I warmly thank all the loyal subscribers, advertisers, and contributors who have enabled us to reach this milestone. The original purpose of the publication was to serve as a vehicle for reporting back to the community on the work of the SAJBD and provide information on issues of concern to the community. In succeeding years, it developed into the country’s leading Jewish current affairs, historical, and cultural journal, and is now a vital resource for academics, journalists, genealogical researchers, and others with an interest in the history of our community.

Jewish Affairs is housed on the main SAJBD website, but a new, standalone Jewish Affairs website is in an advanced stage of production. Those interested in taking full advantage of this rich communal resource can do so simply by signing up, at no cost, as a subscriber. Send your name and email to david@sajbd.org.

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

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Voices

Finding G-d in fresh herbs

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Sunday wasn’t a day for bald people to be outside without a hat. But I was, and although it was good to walk around a nursery choosing pots and creepers for our courtyard area, I was pretty much well done after an hour.

My wife on the other hand seemed just to be getting warmed up, and it didn’t take a genius to foresee that there was a significant possibility, left to chance, that we would be spending the rest of the day roasting in the fresh herbs section. Because, Howard, our kitchen needs instant access to thyme. And rosemary, obviously.

By this stage, the two assistants we had co-opted along the way – and no strangers to spousal negotiations – started to become a little skittish and moved the laden trolleys towards the airconditioned indoor pay area. I was impressed by their use of non-verbal cues, and resolved to increase their tip once the car was loaded.

Only, G-d had other plans. Further context is that my wife had also left her purse at home and had asked me for my credit card earlier in the day. For something or other. And it was now very much missing. Her claims that she had given it back to me were patently a poor attempt to grasp at any straw possible, but it was clear that we now had a tiny problem. The helpers, now not only afraid for the loss of their tip, also looked to be afraid for their lives as the establishment refused Samsung Pay, and EFT, and an offer of our youngest born as compensation for the jasmine.

It needs to be known that my wife is significantly more attuned to the whims of G-d than I will ever be. And so, she confidently turned to the cowering assistants and in her most evangelical voice said, “We need to trust that He will help us, and we will find that credit card.” Inspired by her Sunday sermon, they seated me in the cool breeze of the aircon, and went on their mission in search of the card. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they were quite literally chanting, “Trust in G-d! Trust in G-d!” as they went on their walk with G-d. And my wife.

They obviously found it. The nursey is acres large and we had traversed it all in search of the perfect pot and creeper. Which meant that the credit card could have been pretty much anywhere. And yet, they found it, unsurprisingly in fresh herbs. Because our kitchen needed fresh thyme. And G-d would never have abandoned us. Apparently.

Between the religious experience and perhaps the tip they received in gratitude for putting up with us, the nursery assistants were clearly inspired. With “G-d is great!” and “Trust in G-d” as their final words, we left the centre with me grateful I didn’t need to call Investec and my wife glowing from the whole religious experience. So inspiring was it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodwill and Kingston didn’t join us for megillah reading on Thursday night.

Which is the point. As annoying as the experience was, my wife was right. Purim is a time of hidden miracles. It’s an illustration of G-d’s presence in every aspect of our lives. And just because this miracle isn’t a grand one, doesn’t mean that He isn’t present.

Sometimes you just have to look for Him in fresh herbs.

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Voices

Online Yom Hashoah focuses on youngsters

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Last year’s COVID-19 lockdown rendered impossible the traditional Yom Hashoah commemorative gatherings. Instead, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), working with the South African Holocaust Foundations, survivors, and other stakeholders, organised a single national virtual Yom Hashoah ceremony for the entire country. This was a signal success, with more than 17 000 people participating. While we are no longer subject to the hard lockdown conditions that prevailed in 2020, the COVID-19 threat is still far from over, hence this year, we will once again be hosting a combined online ceremony. The event is being organised by a national Yom Hashoah planning committee, once again headed by SAJBD National President and Durban Holocaust Centre Director Mary Kluk, and will take place on 9 April at 12:00.

As can never be stressed enough, each victim of the Shoah wasn’t a statistic but a distinct, unique individual, one whom others loved, esteemed, and cared about. For this reason, the practice of preceding Yom Hashoah gatherings with reading out of some of the names of those who perished is now commonplace throughout the world. For this year’s ceremony, we have launched a campaign to encourage community members to send through the names, place, year of birth and, where known, the year of death of family members lost to the Shoah. This will feature in the online programme. In line with the emphasis on passing on the torch of remembrance to the next generation, we encourage younger community members in particular to participate by providing us with these details, even (or perhaps especially) though they won’t personally have known the people whose memory they are helping to perpetuate. To send through these details as well as for further information on the event, write to yomhashoah2021@gmail.com.

COVID-19 and interfaith activism

Confronting the COVID-19 threat is inextricably bound with adapting everyday behaviour to minimise contracting and spreading infection. The leaders of various faith communities have a vital role to play because of their ability to guide and influence their respective constituencies, and hence they have been identified as an important resource by governments around the world. Mary Kluk continues to represent our community on the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Social & Behavioural Change, and our leadership has been participating in several other interfaith forums, including the president’s meetings with religious communities. For the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week, our Cape Council held a webinar titled “Coping with COVID-19 – thoughts of the interfaith community”. Speakers included representatives of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities, as well as the Western Cape government interfaith team. The event was fully subscribed, attracting many from other faith communities and nongovernmental organisations with others participating via Facebook. We commend our Cape colleagues on this most worthwhile initiative.

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

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