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Legendary pilot tilts his wings at scribing

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Lifestyle

“I never set out to achieve things or make a name for myself. Whatever happened, happened by good fortune,” says Captain Selwyn “Scully” Levin, whose name is synonymous with flying in South Africa.

This legend has blazed a trail across the aviation industry as a commercial and show pilot in an astonishing career spanning 56 years.

“I’m a very enthusiastic guy who makes things happen, and when I rushed ahead and did things, I sometimes created a vortex behind me,” Levin says.

Now retired, the 74-year-old flying ace has penned Punching Holes in the Sky, a collection of anecdotes drawn from his years as an aerobatic pilot.

“My daughter, Hayley, is in the media business,” Levin told the SA Jewish Report. “I had done a fair amount of writing for some aviation publications she had put out, and she said I should write my own story.

“I wrote my memoirs and realised that no one would be interested in my life story besides my family, so I put it aside for my kids and grandkids who may read it one day. I changed tack, and reorientated the book towards my air show career instead.”

Levin qualified as a pilot in the South African Air Force in 1964, inspired by the example of his father, also an accomplished pilot.

“All I ever really wanted to do was become a pilot,” says Levin. “My dad bought an old plane for me to play in as a child. He had an enthusiasm for aviation which was catching, and he has always been a hero in my life.

“Another hero was Dr Max Muscat from Vryburg, a flying dentist who would go all over, fixing people’s teeth in really out-of-the-way places across the country. He’d land on the side of the road, farmers would come, and they would have their teeth attended to.

“He and my dad were pals at university, and because he flew and was a dentist, I wanted to be one too. I thought I would be a flying dentist like him.”

However, after completing three years of service in the airforce, Levin joined the ranks of South African Airways (SAA), and became a commercial pilot.

“I couldn’t believe my luck,” he says. “I’d sit in the cockpit and pinch myself because I couldn’t accept that it was true. Up until very recently, I’ve been pinching myself every day.”

Levin progressed rapidly, becoming a flying instructor for the airline, and later holding positions in flight operations management. However, he wanted to do more.

“I loved it,” he says, “but it wasn’t quite enough, hence the aerobatics flying. I competed in and won a few championships and started the aerobatic team. Later, I found myself doing demonstration flights for SAA at air shows. What could be better than that?”

Levin even performed in the United Kingdom (UK), making a name for South African aviation in a country which takes flying very seriously.

“The British are far more air minded than any other nation,” he says. “England hung by a thread when Germany wanted to invade, and everybody owed the Royal Air Force a debt of gratitude for what it did.

“The British are air-crazy, with air shows drawing 90 000 people. We arrived with a Boeing 747 and did what other display pilots had never done, showing a monstrous airplane, and we won the award for the best display. We stole the show.”

Levin scored a win for South Africa again in Reno, Nevada, in the United States (US) when he flew in the national air races.

He recalls, “I arrived in my veldskoene, rugby shorts, and t-shirt. The Americans didn’t take me seriously, saying I’d probably need a lot of help and I should ask if I was unsure. I thanked them, and who came first? I did.”

These were some of Levin’s memories when putting his book together, giving readers a sense of the thrill of taking to the skies.

“There are so many followers of air shows in South Africa, no matter where you go,” he says. “Our shows are smaller compared to those in the US and UK, but they have a hell of a following.

“I figured that people would enjoy the opportunity to understand what it’s really like. I decided I’d take them into the cockpit and show them what it’s like through writing this book.”

There were also highlights in his career that didn’t make it into the book, Levin says.

“I realised only afterwards that I had forgotten certain things and really should have included them,” he laughs. “I flew in 56 movies, and forgot to put them in. I met people like Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, and Herbert Lom, and did a lot of work doing stunt flying.”

Nonetheless, the book has given Levin the opportunity to reconnect with many people and establish new friendships.

“As I went along, I remembered certain people, how they had helped me, how good they had been to me, and sent books to them because of what they had done for me.

“I’ve also heard a lot from people who have read it, especially pilots. I sent a batch of books to Israel with a friend and suddenly, one guy who had been a top pilot in the Israeli Air Force and with El Al wrote to me to say he couldn’t put my book down. It makes me feel good.”

Levin also reconnected with his father through the book.

“Every time there was cause to mention my dad, I had a tear in my eye thinking about him,” he says. “Nothing will bring him back, but I dedicated the book to him. I wrote a lot about him, and my wife proofread it and reminded me that it wasn’t a book about my dad, but about flying.

“Still, the book helped me get in touch with him again.”

Although he believes readers need a slight knowledge of aviation to really appreciate the book, Levin feels that almost anyone will enjoy reading it.

“When it became a little technical, my wife struggled a bit with it,” he laughs. “But she has no problem reading a recipe or knitting pattern, and things like that baffle me.

“I hope that my book gives aspirant fliers the message that if they want to do it, they must just go out there and give it their all.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Lionel Gilinsky

    Mar 25, 2021 at 7:35 pm

    Scully, you truly are a legend and adored by friends and fellow pilots Worldwide. SA and me personally admire you and what you have done for Aviation here in SA and the rest of the world. Keep Smiling my friend and Keep Safe. Best wishes from a friend and someone you helped pass Navigation when I wrote my Commercial theory in 1962. Shalom Lionel Gilinsky now living in Umhalanga Rocks.

  2. Tzemach Bloomberg

    Mar 31, 2021 at 3:24 pm

    I have a friend whom you might know, by the name of Eric Lewis and who now lives in the UK.
    I was always mad on flying but never got the chance.
    How can I purchase a copy of your book?

  3. Gary Rudnick

    Apr 1, 2021 at 1:23 am

    Great story. I would love to buy copy of the book.

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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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