Inject suitable caution into Purim festivities
The excitement is palpable. As more and more doctors and healthcare workers are vaccinated, there is a sense that we are slowly on our way out of this quagmire of illness, separation, and death.
So many of these frontline doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare industry have put their lives on the line to save ours. No oath or commitment is strong enough to make people do that. It’s pure determination to save lives that’s behind this – a life mission. The kavod that should go to these people is immeasurable.
And to see so many of them, who themselves may have comorbidities or vulnerable family members, rejoicing after getting their vaccine is exciting.
It means that the rest of our vaccines aren’t far behind, especially seeing as the next batch of vaccines is due to arrive in South Africa this weekend.
What we must remember is that these healthcare workers are, in fact, testing the vaccine for us. The vaccine isn’t yet registered for commercial use globally, in spite of it being rolled out in the United States, United Kingdom, and here. So, once again they are putting themselves at risk so we know how effective the vaccine is and what – if any – side effects there are.
Having said that, it’s clear that healthcare workers feel very confident in this vaccine.
You may wonder why we temporarily changed the format of our front page this week to photographs only and no stories. The simple truth is because these men and women being vaccinated is history in the making. We will look back on this time as a turning point in our pandemic crisis. Or at least, we hope we will be able to do so.
It was around this time last year that the Wuhan flu began to hit home. It began to sink in that this dreaded illness that had hit China and other parts of the world was heading this way.
For so many, Purim last year was the last Jewish festival that was celebrated in what was then the normal way. It was festive. It was bonding and celebratory. People took it for granted that they were safe when they hugged each other, danced together, shared a plate of hummus, or dipped into their finger food. Even sharing hamantaschen with friends was totally acceptable.
We took our health and safety for granted when we surrounded ourselves closely with friends and family. We also thought nothing of kissing and being unmasked – yes, even on Purim – with people we didn’t live with.
One year later, and so much has changed. Masks are the norm, and part of our protection from this dreaded coronavirus. Being separate is the rule. And, trying to find a way to celebrate Purim while still observing all the COVID-19 safety protocols is the call.
Our rabbis, Hatzolah, and doctors have put out a stern warning to us to totally downscale celebration of this fabulous chag.
In the words of doctors, they are “urging and appealing to everyone to make sure that this festival of Purim isn’t the catalyst for the beginning of another surge of coronavirus”.
While they aren’t saying we shouldn’t celebrate, they are saying that “this isn’t the time for communal meals, events, and senseless alcohol consumption”. They ask that we keep our seudot to “each person’s home/family bubble”.
They are dissuading people from sending and delivering mishloach manot to lots of friends and family as this could spread COVID-19. They suggest limiting this to a minimal number of people.
While, like us, they would love to celebrate Purim as we have always done, they have seen the ravages of this deadly virus up close, and want to guide us in doing what’s right to prevent a further surge.
The rabbis particularly ask that we limit our seudot to our nuclear family and focus on the “preservation of life” this year in the hope that next year, we can celebrate in the manner we are accustomed to.
Hatzolah gives some great tips in how to safeguard ourselves over Purim this year. This includes making sure all surfaces are sanitised and that people who don’t live together remain two metres apart at any given time. They also encourage plated food, and individually bottled drinks. They recommend having seudot outside and with as few people as possible, avoiding the elderly and people with comorbidities.
The vitally important take-home information this week is that we are on the right path but we are a long way from safety and security in terms of COVID-19.
It’s 100% up to us to keep our guard up, keep social distances, wash and sanitise our hands. You know the drill by now.
It’s too easy to let it go when the numbers are low. So easy! Nobody believes that when the numbers are low, they can get the virus. In fact, most people who have contracted the virus were shocked and never believed it would happen to them.
It’s exciting that the rollout has begun, and our healthcare workers are getting vaccinated. It’s brilliant and a sign of great things to come. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we won’t get there in the next few months.
The light is bright but it’s way down the line. We need to accept that we will still be wearing our masks through the middle of this year. We are most likely still going to have a third surge no matter how quickly we vaccinate two thirds of the population.
So, let’s lift our spirits because there is hope in sight, but let’s make a commitment to stay safe over Purim no matter how difficult that is.
Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
Case of the pot calling the kettle
The South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition, much like the former BDS-SA, which is now Africa4Palestine, claims that it is made up of human-rights activists and definitely isn’t antisemitic. In fact, they both make a big thing about having a handful of Jewish members.
I wonder, though, what their definition of antisemitism is, especially in light of the SA BDS Coalition doing its best to stop the honourable Judge David Unterhalter from becoming a Constitutional Court judge. His crime was working on the executive of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) for some months.
As we all know, the role of the SAJBD is clearly stated as being the “umbrella representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community. It promotes the safety and welfare of South African Jewry, including combatting antisemitism in all forms, and builds bridges of friendship and understanding between Jews and the broader South African population”.
Like most South African Jews, the board doesn’t want South Africa to cut ties with Israel because Israel is a Jewish state, a place that most Jews feel very strongly about. The board – much like the South African government – is also unequivocal about its belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
There are members of the board who are left-wing and right-wing, and some fall somewhere in between in terms of Israeli politics. Although they don’t agree on Israeli politics, they do all believe in a Jewish state. And that’s their right. They possibly have vast political disagreements about Israeli politics, but it doesn’t matter because their job has nothing to do with Israeli politics and everything to do with safeguarding our community here.
Judge Unterhalter is Jewish and, by virtue of that fact, he is part of this minority community. In fact, in 2018, he very deservedly won the Absa Jewish Achiever Award for Professional Excellence.
He is a judge beyond reproach, and takes what he does very seriously. He is a professor of law, and before becoming a judge at the beginning of 2018, he was an exemplary senior advocate. As an advocate, he spent 27 years tackling many high-profile cases. These include representing then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Marikana Commission and the SAJBD in a hate-speech case. He also appeared for the Helen Suzman Foundation when businessman Hugh Glenister tried to get the Hawks permanently separated from the police.
When the SA Jewish Report interviewed Unterhalter on becoming a high court judge, we asked about his being Jewish in the judiciary. He explained that his judiciary function isn’t one to which this is relevant, nor does it have any bearing on his role. “Judaism is truly a part of who I am. It offers a rich tradition from which concepts of justice stem and which are exemplified in the field of law. Although it has no direct impact on my legal decisions, Judaism offers tenets which inform the values of justice.”
Most of us in the community agree with that. We also feel strongly about values, ethics, and morals, as well as the South African Constitution. In fact, our chief rabbi created a “Bill of Responsibility” more than 10 years ago that aligned to the Bill of Rights and is still being taught as part of the South African school syllabus.
Had he been selected, Unterhalter would have been the fourth Jewish judge on the Constitutional Court.
There was Arthur Chaskalson, who was president of the court from 1994 until 2001, who then became chief justice of South Africa until 2005. Then, of course, there was our esteemed Judges Richard Goldstone (1994-2003) and Albie Sachs (1994-2009).
When Unterhalter agreed to be on the executive of the SAJBD, it was to help with dire welfare issues during the pandemic. He wanted to help give back to society, and he saw working through the community he was born into as one way of doing so. Somehow, this got twisted and manipulated into being something so ugly in the SA BDS Coalition’s complaint.
It claimed that the board’s values, ethos, and actions didn’t align with government policies and our constitutional values. What a lot of hogwash!
It went on to say that the board is “akin to the Broederbond”.
Let’s see. As far as I know, the Broederbond was a men’s only secret society whose aim was to promote the interests of Afrikaans nationalism. I guess the only thing similar is that our board promotes the interest of the South African Jewish community, but certainly not by treating anyone else badly. To the contrary. And as for supporting so-called war crimes against Palestinians, that’s certainly not on the board’s agenda.
To jump to the conclusion that Unterhalter also unquestionably supports “war crimes” is a giant assumption to make. Never has Unterhalter made any such comments or suggestions, but that didn’t stop this coalition from demanding that the Judicial Services Commission shouldn’t even interview Unterhalter.
It didn’t even want to give him a chance to be interviewed to find out his views.
It also called the board an “organisation that has a sordid history of hurling allegations of antisemitism against people in South Africa who advocate for Palestinian rights”. Talk about a “a sordid history of hurling allegations”! That’s exactly what the SA BDS Coalition is doing right now and seems to take pleasure in doing. They are in fact the ones who “smear individuals and organisations in an attempt to silence” them.
The board, on the other hand, makes sure that it uses legal recourse in situations of antisemitism. Let’s be real about who is calling who what.
Or is this yet another smokescreen and the SA BDS Coalition simply doesn’t want another Jew in one of the highest legal positions in the country? Oh, but that wouldn’t be the case because they aren’t antisemitic. They would never tar all Jews with the same brush. They would never say that all Jews are the same, or would they?
What, in their view, is Unterhalter’s crime? The fact that he spent a few months on the executive of the Jewish board of deputies. Because of that, they make incredibly demeaning and ugly assumptions. Are you sure this can’t be construed as antisemitism. Hmmmm, what do you think?
Getting my head around six million individuals
If ever you question the importance of commemorating Yom Hashoah, which we do this week, keep in mind that we’re not talking about statistics, but the systematic annihilation of a huge percentage of our people.
In fact, before the Holocaust, 60% of all Jews lived in Europe. Two out of three of them were murdered during the war. In 1933, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe and this number was down to 3.5 million in 1950.
This is hard to absorb, I know, but so often, people dismiss comparisons of the Holocaust with the behaviour of Israel or even with apartheid. The more I acknowledge what it means to murder six million Jews systematically, the more I realise that there is simply no comparison.
This year marks 80 years since the beginning of the mass annihilation of Jews and each year, fewer and fewer survivors remain. Many died this year of COVID-19. Their survival enabled us to understand what they lived through and how six million of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other family and friends were brutally murdered. The only reason for their death was because they were Jewish.
Until recently, the number six million was simply a very large number to me. Although I had seen the movies and read the books, I couldn’t quite identify with it as being six million people like me and all those I love in this world. It really isn’t easy to absorb and comprehend this number in terms of individuals who had a future, perhaps a degree or three, a wife or a beloved, and children. They had potential and lives yet to be lived, but their lives were stolen from them way before their time.
The Nazis took away their humanity, their individuality, and attempted to make them just a number, which they tattooed on their arms.
Every year, on Yom Hashoah, we observe a ceremony under the auspices of the president of Israel known as “Unto Every Person there is a Name”, in which names of those who perished in the Holocaust are called out.
The point of this particular exercise is meaningful because an individual is given a name by their parents. And they and their families have a surname that they share. This makes every single person a unique individual. Each person has a name, a personality, a particular look, a way of walking, talking, and a way of being that is special to them. So, starting with a name we are given at birth, a person is individualised. And so every year on Yom Hashoah, we do our best around the world to individualise and humanise as many of the six million Jews who died as possible.
To date, Yad Vashem has recorded 4 800 000 names of Holocaust victims on its Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, with more than 2 750 000 names registered on Pages of Testimony.
Here’s the thing: if we had all the names of the six million who were murdered, and could say each name, age, and place of death in one second, we could cover only 86 400 individual names in one 24-hour Yom Hashoah.
To read six million, we would need almost 70 days of 24-hour non-stop reading. If we recited names for only 12 hours a day, giving the reader time to sleep, eat, and have a few short breaks, we would need 138 days to cover the names of the six million Jews who were annihilated in the Holocaust. And that’s if you can read all their vital details in one second.
This brings me a little closer to understanding what the number six million actually means in terms of individuals.
On the Yad Vashem site (YadVashem.org), you can find lists of these names. I went to look this week and found 23 people with the surname Krost who were victims of the Holocaust. I know of a handful. I wonder who the others were. Were they also family?
Then, I looked at the lists of children’s names and there were literally hundreds of pages of names of children, some not even a year old. I couldn’t help the tears as I read names, ages, and where and how they died. I felt quite sick. I couldn’t help thinking that these littlies, who should have been playing and having fun without a care in the world, were brutally murdered because by chance they were born Jewish.
It was then that I decided that I was going to light the six commemorative candles with my sons this year. We will recite the El Maleh Rachamim prayer, and then start reading children’s names and keep going until we can’t anymore. I believe this will give us a better inkling of the massive horror of the millions who perished all because they were like us.
In this edition, there is a story about the Holocaust on page 12 that stands out for me. It’s about the Wannsee Conference, where the decision was made by the Nazi leadership to murder Jews en masse. What really hit me was Holocaust educator Dr Matthias Haß’s warning that it was because of the small incidents of antisemitism that the Wannsee House decision was made. It was the accumulation of decades of slowly building antisemitism that seeped into German society over years that eventually led to the dehumanisation of Jews, he said.
How often do we dismiss or not make a big deal about what seems to be minor incidents of antisemitism or racism? Sometimes it isn’t always so clear and sometimes it is. But it’s not easy to stick your neck out, especially when you are alone in a situation. And sometimes it might be cleverly disguised as anti-Israel sentiment.
The next time someone says to me, “Don’t make a big deal about it” referring to antisemitism, I will remember how I tried to get my head around the systematic murder of six million Jews.
Longing for freedom we can’t have
As I prepared for our tiny seders last Pesach and we were just settling into this strange experience called lockdown, I told my sons it wouldn’t last long. I said we would look back at the end of the year, it would all be long over, and we would be back to normal.
How wrong I was!
Now, we go into our second Pesach during the pandemic, and while the numbers are down, we still face a potential third wave that some experts say could surface after Pesach and the Easter weekend. I sure hope not!
We have so much more freedom than we did this time last year when we were still in the honeymoon stage of the pandemic. At the time, it was still fairly exciting to be at home all the time and there was a certain charm to the streets being so quiet and being able to clearly hear the birdlife.
There was something very special about spending all our time with our immediate family, eating and cooking every meal together. Zoom had its pros too. I mean, you really only had to dress the top half of your body for a serious meeting.
Now, I long for a board meeting in a real boardroom where I can actually look into the eyes of the person I’m speaking to. I long to hug people I care about. And more than anything, I would love to go to a dinner party where I don’t know everyone and have a good chat with someone I’ve never spoken to before.
Who would have thought that anyone could miss these day-to-day experiences from our former lives?
I laughed the other day when a friend said she was going to go to the supermarket to get groceries, and her husband told her she didn’t have to bother, she could order online. She was incensed that he would take away her freedom to get out of the house and be among strangers, albeit masked and socially distanced. I could relate to that.
I even look forward to getting dressed up to go to shul over Pesach. I don’t get dressed up enough these days. How often I would want to find excuses not to go to functions in the past. Now, I would love the opportunity.
It’s all about having the freedom to choose, freedom to do what we want, freedom to be who we are. Just plain and simple … freedom.
And that’s what Pesach is all about. Jews moving from slavery to freedom.
What’s always so interesting is that when you have freedom, you often don’t appreciate what you have until you don’t have it. Think about it. When you are on holiday in Cape Town and you drive along the Atlantic Seaboard or over Lion’s Nek, you appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the shoreline, the mountain, and the sea. When you live in Cape Town, do you enjoy the pleasure of what you have all the time?
Is this human nature? Are we always longing for that which we don’t have, or can we be happy with our lot? And if you are happy with your lot, do you still create goals you can work towards? Or is being happy with your lot a case of giving up your freedom to grow?
This last year has brought monumental change for most of us. I’m amazed that almost everyone I know has gone through some kind of trauma. Just when I’m about to feel sorry for myself, I hear someone else’s story, and realise how lucky I am.
It has been a year in which we have all had to draw on our strength, our internal flame, and keep moving forward.
On the radio recently, there was a discussion about how the numbers of people reaching out to helplines doubled within months of the pandemic hitting South Africa. Few of those people were directly affected by actual illness, but it was various traumatic offshoots that hit them.
We shouldn’t underestimate how tough this year has been for us – and it’s not over yet. In fact, there is no way of knowing what life will be like this time next year.
What I do know is that Pesach will still be a special time for our community. It will still be a time of family gatherings, a time to reflect on our freedom and those who don’t have that luxury. It will be a time when we will once again read the Haggadah and remember who we are and where we came from. It will be a time when we remember how we witnessed miracles that saved our lives. There is such comfort in knowing that some things stay the same.
In our annual special Pesach edition, we bring you a host of phenomenal thought leadership pieces written by wise spiritual leaders. We also have a selection of other fabulous Pesach stories. A personal favourite of mine is the kneidel story, which you’ll find on page 34.
We also bring you the latest news and features to ensure you have lots of exceptional stories to read over Pesach.
I’m proud to include in those stories our lead (page 1), which is so inspiring and uplifting. It tells of how a local branch of the South African government has welcomed help from Israel in improving drinking water in outlying areas. This humanitarian venture will save lives and help those in dire straits. Is this new relationship a miracle or a blessing to herald Pesach?
Whatever the case may be, it warms my heart that there are people in government that understand that you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and if people want to help you and you need help, let them.
In my interview with former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon (page 15), he mentions how irritated he was when the African National Congress boycotted Israel’s offer to help Cape Town in its water crisis, choosing instead to go to Iran to get help. I hope this new endeavour is a sign of things to come.
Shabbat shalom and chag Pesach sameach!
PS: We won’t be publishing the newspaper on Chol HaMoed, but will resume the following week.
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