Living with the Lemba raises more questions than answers
Ten years ago, genetic tests carried out by British scientists revealed that many of the Lemba tribe in Southern Africa have Jewish origins. While that may have been the end of a very long story, for Professor Noah Tamarkin, it was just the beginning.
An anthropologist at Cornell University in the United States (US), Tamarkin has conducted field research in South Africa since 2004, including living with a Lemba tribe for a year. His new book, Genetic Afterlives: Black Jewish Indigeneity in South Africa, asks vital questions about being Jewish and South African.
Tamarkin grew up in the north east of the US, and along with teaching at Cornell, he is a research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits’) Institute for Social and Economic Research.
“Before I began graduate school, I only knew about South Africa from high school and college classes. It was really this project that brought me into connection with South Africa and South Africa’s Jewish communities,” he says. “From there, my connections grew: I came to know Jewish South African academics through my affiliations at Wits, and I came to know the Lemba people and their history of interaction and distance from other South African Jews.”
He was drawn to African and Jewish studies while growing up white and Jewish in the US. “I was very interested in racial justice and what it takes to achieve it. I was in high school when apartheid ended in South Africa, and this was formative for me in thinking about how the politics of race can transform,” he says.
“At the same time, I was also really interested in the complex ways that Jewishness has signalled race in different times and places. These two questions came together when I learned about the Lemba and their genetic studies in the early 2000s. So, while the interest was there, it was really this book project in its first iteration as doctoral research that led me more deeply into both African and Jewish studies.”
His first introduction to the Lemba was in a newspaper story that talked about them as genetic Jews. “I had no idea what that might mean, and more than anything, I wanted to learn what it meant to the Lemba. But I felt that if I just showed up and asked this question, I wouldn’t truly understand their answers. The larger context of their lives concerning religion, race, and otherwise would have been lost to me.
“Over the course of my research, I lived for a short time with a number of different Lemba people, but I spent many months living with one family in particular. Becoming part of this family has been incredibly meaningful personally, and in terms of my research, the intimacy of family bonds helped me to understand much more than I could have if I had remained distant.”
The villages he stayed in were all in Limpopo, and he also stayed with a few Lemba in various places in Gauteng. “The longest continuous stretch that I lived with the Lemba was one year, but the book is also based on additional shorter research trips over the past decade,” he says.
He isn’t the first researcher to live with the Lemba.
“A South African professor at Unisa [the University of South Africa], Magdel le Roux, also did extensive field research during which she lived with the Lemba, and British Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, who now teaches in the US, conducted research and was in fact part of conducting one of the DNA studies that brought the Lemba to my attention,” he says.
Asked if he observed any Jewish customs, rituals, or levels of observance, Tamarkin politely implies that this might be the wrong question to ask. “One thing I realised early on in my research was that there was a long history of various missionary writers and colonial ethnologists who would look for Jewish customs and rituals as a way to prove or disprove that the Lemba were really Jews.
“I didn’t want to participate in that kind of project – the proving or disproving – so rather than look for Jewish customs and rituals, I asked open questions about what it meant to the Lemba to be Jews, or as some preferred, Hebrews.
“This approach really shifted my understanding of what makes a custom, ritual, or observance ‘Jewish’, and made me think a lot about my own family traditions, and specifically what resonated with and what departed from normative ideas of what’s Jewish,” he says.
“I was really blown away by the transnational connections that the Lemba have made with various Jewish and Hebrew groups, and how they have so carefully thought through the kinds of exchanges that are meaningful for them.
“We think DNA can tell us whether the Lemba are really Jews. This book shows instead that DNA provides more questions than answers.”
Elaborating on this, he explains that “DNA studies, specifically genetic ancestry research, presumes that you can find distinct markers in a population that tell you about their migration history. Many people understand this to mean that your genetic ancestry tells you who you really are, because it tells you where you are really from.
“But the premise is wrong. For example, why do we think that past migrations only happened in one direction? Why do we assume that the usual state was to be settled in one place, rather than the complex migratory histories that archaeologists, bio-anthropologists, and historians routinely document? Why do we think that where someone is really from tells us who they really are? These are some of the questions that are raised for me when thinking about DNA.”
He writes that he was drawn to study the Lemba as a way to think about the complexities of Jewish identity – “questions about who and what is a Jew, and where are Jews, and questions about how people are grappling in post-apartheid South Africa in the wake of having been subjected to racial oppression their entire lives”.
Explaining how we can make these questions relevant to our lives as Jews in South Africa, he says, “The Lemba are Jewish South Africans, and they are also black South Africans. I think we start there to make these questions relevant to Jewish South African lives. Too often, when we speak of Jewish people, whether in South Africa or the US or elsewhere, we assume Ashkenazi histories and white experiences. We may know about many other Jewish histories, but these don’t necessarily shift our sense of self and solidarity.
“The kinds of racial oppression that the Lemba have faced in South Africa is outside of my personal experience, and it’s outside of the experience of white Jews in South Africa, but if we recognise that white Jewish experience is only one way that Jewish people experience race and racial oppression, it follows that these questions of Jewish identity and its complexity are at the centre of Jewish experience: they are already relevant, should we open ourselves to them.”
Asked if he thinks the Lemba will ever be accepted as Jews – and if they want to be accepted as Jews – he says, “The important thing to keep in mind is that there are many Jewish histories and cultures and many ways to be Jewish, and they don’t depend on acceptance by all Jews in order to flourish. We’re all enriched when we approach one another with curiosity and acceptance.”
Never bored at the board: Kacev reflects on 17 years of education
For 17 years, Rabbi Craig Kacev deftly steered the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE) to financial sustainability, talent development, and academic excellence. And then last week, he fulfilled a lifelong dream.
He and his wife, Yael, joined 286 overjoyed Ethiopian Jews making aliyah. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his quarantine hotel in Haifa, Kacev reflected on his time at the SABJE.
A son of Pretoria, Kacev matriculated at Carmel College. He spent various periods studying in Israel and graduated with a B Compt from the University of South Africa. He was rabbi of the West Street Shul in Johannesburg for 12 years.
In 1996, he was approached by Rabbi Isadore Rubinstein to fill in for a teacher at King David Linksfield. Admitting that he was highly intimidated and uncertain of his ability to succeed, he took on the role, which he enjoyed, and became hooked on education. He taught Jewish Studies and some Business Studies and Accounting for two years, and was then made head of Jewish Studies at King David Victory Park.
The SABJE saw his potential. He was appointed acting director in September 2003 at the age of 32. The late Mendel Kaplan – a celebrated Jewish communal leader – asked Kacev to lunch at Shula’s Restaurant in Rosebank. “Mendel told me I was too young for the job, and not ready. I replied that Rabbi Moshe Isserles was appointed Chief Rabbi of Krakow at the age of 18. He too was young, but commented that he would get better at it every day.”
Kaplan committed to mentoring Kacev. “I got good community support from the word go.” Kacev became SABJE director in July 2004, among a young crop of communal leaders including schoolmate Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Michael Seeff, and Wendy Kahn.
Kacev giggled as he recalled indelible memories, many of which he “can’t repeat”. Once, the hydraulics failed on a school bus transporting learners from Yom Ha’atzmaut at Gold Reef City. The driver minimised damage by rolling backwards onto a bowling green and crashing into a pole. “When I got that call, I rushed to the scene, heart thumping,” Kacev said. “Thank G-d everyone was fine. It was a wake-up call about managing risk. We ordered new buses, and I learned that you can’t compromise on safety.”
He recalls convincing President Thabo Mbeki and Education Minister Naledi Pandor at the Union Buildings to retain Hebrew on the curriculum. But then, a rumour spread that Kacev was trying to ditch the subject. About 200 high school students marched on his office, demanding that Hebrew be retained. “That misunderstanding strengthened my faith in the system. Students were so passionate about their Jewish identity.”
The Josh Broomberg Affair in 2014 (when the pupil wore a keffiyeh at an international debating event during the Gaza War to support the Palestinians and the photo went viral) was a mammoth challenge.
“King David became a political football, and the community was angry. I received two petitions with 10 000 signatures each, for and against Broomberg’s actions. I was grateful for my board in those tough times. We headlined The Star twice that year!
“It’s much easier to resolve student conflicts than parent conflicts,” he said. Kacev had to mediate after a parent slapped a school secretary, who laid assault charges. He had to separate fighting parents at the tuckshop, and often dealt with grandstanding divorced spouses. One parent drove over another’s foot. He once had to lock a parent out of the school. He also found a huge beehive, where a teacher hoped to produce honey, tucked away on the edge of one of the schools.
“For every mad story, there were 100 good stories – kind parents, heroic teachers, and amazing kids who looked after their friends.”
So what kept him at the SABJE for 17 years? “King David schools offered a dynamic and ever-changing environment. I could never get bored. I had to keep checking myself, make sure I was making a difference. I got the opportunity to contribute and serve, and do big things while learning from some superb board members about leadership.
“I stayed because I learned so many new things,” Kacev said. “I became a transport manager, a school-uniform designer. I learned about legal issues in schools, and could use my financial background.” The secret to success is having policies and systems that are clear, he said.
The SABJE had precarious finances, with aging, neglected infrastructure when he took over. “I’m proud that in the past 17 years, we have always broken even and have invested substantially in facilities.”
Kacev visited the United States to see where King David schools could be improved. “Our mantra became ‘the best teachers, with the best curriculum in the most appropriate facilities’.” Building collegiality between the sometimes-competitive schools was also a priority.
“When the community was steadily shrinking and shul attendance was declining, schools became a centre for perpetuating Jewish identity,” Kacev says.
The schools sought to nurture Jewish leadership, and he’s proud of the learnership programme that has supported almost 40 ex-Davidians to become young, dynamic teachers.
“Building King David Ariel fulfilled another dream. We wanted a high-quality Jewish remedial school, and it has exceeded our most optimistic models. It’s so gratifying.”
He is most proud of receiving the 2014 Max M Fisher Prize for outstanding Jewish educators in the diaspora. “It was a big moment to receive the award from Natan Sharansky in Israel.”
“The year 2020 was another good example of amazing leadership and a supportive board. Looking back, I think we closed the schools too early, and closed the country too early. You must balance social, academic, health, and financial considerations. There’s no perfect decision. The department of basic education further confused things, being slow, gazetting unclear regulations, constantly making changes.”
Once online learning got going, it had to be in partnership with parents. “COVID-19 was like an MRI – it exposed our underlying societal problems. It did allow us to push technology. We leapt two or three years in six months. We will increasingly see technology used in teaching.”
Kacev is confident in handing the reins to his replacement, Rabbi Ricky Seeff. “He’s a King David graduate himself, creative, and the man for the moment. Having him in place made it much easier to leave South Africa.”
Kacev plans to stay in education. He is helping the SABJE develops its Chumash curriculum, mentoring and coaching South African educators and others, and managing a project on Jewish thinking skills. By May, he should be involved in a Jewish education programme with worldwide impact.
His final message is not to take our Jewish schools and communal institutions for granted. We need to support these bodies to sustain the vibrancy and viability of the South African Jewish community.
Matrics of 2021 ready to roll with the punches
After watching the matrics of 2020 endure a rollercoaster year, the class of 2021 are expecting their final year of school to be filled with similar ups and downs. However, they’re ready to take it on the chin and see the positive side of matric in the shadow of a pandemic.
Jonty Schkolne, 17, the deputy head student at Herzlia High School, says, “I think we all know that this year will be different. It even started off differently as we did online lessons for the first two weeks of this year. Luckily, we have experience in different types of school years, and will be able to adapt to anything that life throws at us.”
At the same time, he’s hoping for a relatively normal year, “as matric is supposed to be one of the best years of your school career. I hope that we are able to experience all the highlights of the year, with minimal interference from COVID-19.” Schkolne is concerned about the possible cancellation of matric milestones like the matric dance, “but the matrics of 2021 are used to a bit of disappointment and are expecting that maybe some of our events will be cancelled or look different to previous years”.
“I’m grateful to say that if schools do suddenly close, I would be able to continue at home,” Schkolne says. “I spent the majority of last year doing school online, and I know what works for me. My school is also able to provide proper online lessons and resources, and I feel that I get just as much out of an online lesson as I do in a physical lesson at school.”
On not being able to socialise, he says, “Obviously, nothing is the same as seeing my friends at school, but luckily there are many other ways to socialise online – through social media and WhatsApp. Last year, I didn’t see one of my best friends for five months, but we made the effort to video call and keep in touch.
“We’re all taking it day by day and trying not to worry about the effect COVID-19 will have on our matric year,” he says. “We are kept so busy with tests, assignments, and assessments, we don’t really have time to think about the ‘what ifs’.”
But Dani Furman, 17, at Edenvale High School in Johannesburg, fears going back to school online. For her, the pandemic might mean “not being able to finish the syllabus on time, and not getting enough face-to-face interaction that we would usually get in the school year”. She says she finds online learning stressful, and government schools in particular may have to shut down suddenly.
“During lockdown last year, our school didn’t offer much of an online aspect. We do have Google Classroom, but there’s no online teaching going on – it’s all self-study,” she says. “So, a lot of the time I was joining other school’s lessons, going over past papers, and doing revision, just to make sure I did the best I could. If we had to go into another lockdown, it obviously wouldn’t be ideal. And I really enjoy being in the classroom, communicating with my teachers, and asking questions.
“I would feel bad for the people around me,” Furman says, “because not everyone has access to facilities like Wi-Fi or computers. Some of my friends don’t have cell phones, computers, or books, so it’s very hard for them. They can’t even interact with friends, and it’s difficult to get the work. But the school assists them, and as friends, we help each other out.
“My hope is to do as well as I can, given the circumstances of COVID-19,” she says. “It’s a whole new world we’re living in and it’s tough to adapt to these changes and new ways of study. Obviously, everyone hoped the year would be normal, but I did accept that this year was going to be different. We’re still going to be wearing masks, we’re not going to be having close contact with people, and we can’t hug our friends when we see them – which is part of the school environment and just being human. I’m still accepting every day that things aren’t going back to normal anytime soon.”
Regarding missing milestones, Furman says, “In all honesty, the matric dance is the least of my concerns. All I want is to finish my school year, and for everyone to pass and do well.” Not seeing friends would be hard for her. “I’m very much a people person, I love interacting and seeing friends – I’m a social butterfly.” Under lockdown, she and friends with internet access met on a Zoom call once a week to catch up and check in with each other.
“If you managed to get through mentally last year, you got an ‘A’ in life,” she says. “It wasn’t about putting pen to paper, it was about being able to cope with the year.”
Shaina Resnik, 17, of King David Linksfield says, “My hope for my matric year is to reach my full academic potential but still have some balance and spend time with my friends and family doing things I love.
“I fear that I may not have the volunteering opportunities I would have had, and won’t be able to gain the experience that would aid me in the medical field due to the pandemic. I do fear that COVID-19 may mean the cancellation of major events like the matric dance, but it’s more important for everyone to be healthy.”
Although there has been endless debate about the merits of online learning, Resnik feels that a sudden switch to Zoom classes during her matric year probably wouldn’t trip her up. “I worked very well during online school [last year], and I found myself more productive and having more time for myself. However, I fear for the students who are less privileged than me as they don’t have the facilities for online school. If schools close, they will be at a huge disadvantage.”
If schools closed suddenly, she would miss seeing her friends each day. “However, I will keep in touch with them through WhatsApp and social media.” She points out that there are “definitely benefits to not being able to go out and socialise every weekend, as this will give me more time to focus on school work”.
Frazzled matrics face last-minute choices
After a mammoth wait for results, matriculants are now speedily preparing to go to university or take time out following what some have called the “worst year ever” to graduate from high school.
With exam results of both National Senior Certificate (NSC) and the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) coming out far later than previous years because of COVID-19 hurdles, school leavers are having to make a last-minute scramble to make plans for 2021.
It has been a week or two of crack decisions and a crazy run around for some, with life changing decisions about whether to work, study, or take a gap year. All of these decisions take months to plan normally, but only days or minutes in the time of coronavirus.
The much-anticipated gap year has taken many twists and turns as countries vacillate between opening and shutting international borders for travel and tourism.
These matriculants faced anxiety over their matric results to begin with, compounded by further stress about whether to register for university or not. Still unsure about whether their overseas gap year would materialise, they had to decide whether or not to register for university in case travelling became impossible.
“My son has faced his first real adult dilemma,” said Johannesburg social worker Stephanie Urdang, “to register in time for university or wait for Israel to eventually open its borders so that he can go on Limmud.
“He was accepted into the two university courses he applied for and needed to register for his degree. He only had a few days to decide whether to register or not. It was very stressful. It was a hard decision to make, but he is hopeful he made the right one.” His university registration process has now passed, so that makes it official – he won’t be studying this year. In the meantime, he waits.”
Stacey Swartzberg’s son is enrolled at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom (UK), and was going to Israel before the start of the UK academic year.
“All the delays have made his Israel plans unfeasible, so he has changed plans completely and is going to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he will be with a lot of his friends. You can plan all you like, but COVID-19 has taught us that plans often come to naught.
“This week, there is more clarity, but now there is a rush to settle in Cape Town, find an apartment, rail a car, and sign a lease. It’s all very last minute,” said Swartzberg.
One Johannesburg mother who wished to remain anonymous is worried about getting her son to Cape Town on time before the start of the academic year at UCT.
“My son wasn’t sure he was going to get enough points for his desired course at UCT. He had to wait to hear from the university, which he did only a few days ago and fortunately, he did get into the course of choice. Now he is trying to find flat mates at the last minute and a place to live that’s affordable. He has only had a short time to do all this as orientation begins this week at UCT, and lectures begin in two weeks. These are all serious adult issues.”
Many matriculants received provisional acceptances from their universities of choice following applications made last year, but they weren’t guaranteed acceptance until the release of their matric results. It added to the stress of waiting.
One Johannesburg mother said her son, who obtained six distinctions, was anxious about being accepted into engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). While he got more than enough points to get into his desired course, he didn’t receive provisional acceptance on his Grade 11 marks which were very good, she said.
“The long wait for matric results was torturous,” she told the SA Jewish Report this week.
“He was ecstatic when he did so well, but anxious about whether he did well enough. It was a huge relief for him when Wits made him a firm offer the day after the matric results came out, but the stress leading up to this was unforgettable. There are few places for students doing engineering and so many applications so you are never secure in your choice until the last minute.”
One King David student who also wishes to remain anonymous found the wait for matric results unbearable.
“I was very stressed. I wanted to study for a BCom at the University of Johannesburg and because I did maths literacy, I needed to outperform on my other subjects to acquire enough points to get in.
“Fortunately, I did very well, and I got in easily, but it was very stressful,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t have the option of a gap year or to study in another city, so I really needed to work hard and make it happen. I was worried that I would need a plan B.”
Going into the big wide world is challenging and daunting at the best of times, but 2021 is on another level.
“A lot of kids are still debating whether to take a gap year after the horrendous year they had last year, just to have some time off. Kids are frazzled,” Urdang says. “I believe every kid who passed matric in 2020 is a hero. Some children thrived, and some slipped through the cracks. Many didn’t cope emotionally and academically.
“Besides learning on their own and pivoting to be online, they were surrounded by the stress of parents being retrenched, the loss of family members, people around them getting sick and not being able to visit them, huge financial worries, and of course, things like crime and youth unemployment have all taken their toll. They are heroes in my eyes.”
In years to come, writing matric in 2020 will be worn as a badge of honour.
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