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Moving mountains – SA architect honoured with blue plaque

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Lifestyle

Here’s a true story, from when I was growing up. The year was 1969, and we had just moved into a glass and pine layered box pegged to the side of Linksfield Ridge. My father, Gerald Gordon, was the architect, and the house was featured in various newspapers at the time, front page of the Sunday Times property section, and so on.

Fast forward 52 years, and this same house now bears a Johannesburg Architectural Legacy blue plaque, reflecting on both the house and its designer. And the story is worth its retelling because opening your eyes and pushing back against the derivative and the ersatz matters. Well, it mattered to Gerald.

It was a different time, and objects of even acceptable imagination hardly existed in the South African shops of the era, so he made his own: light fittings, kitchen finishes, sofa frames, etc. Once he made a set of wine “glasses” by welding caramel cups to upturned bedsprings. Yeah, okay, not every idea worked.

Even as the fount of visual ingenuity was in full flow, for Gerald, design was never merely aesthetics. It was about finding the optimal solution. And what was the optimal solution to this house? There was a cliff-face, there was a patch of flat ground below it, and below that more falling mountainside.

That there was any flatland at all was due to the stone-wall topography of Linksfield Ridge left by Dr Hermann Kallenbach, a landscaper and stonemason of unparalleled ability, to say nothing of energy. Jewish too, by the way. And now also recognised with his own Johannesburg Heritage Society blue plaque.

Now, if you put your house on the flat, bang goes the garden and pool. How’s that going to go down with the family? So, Gerald hung it on the mountain. With the front door, let me airily say, at roof level. You need brass kahun … oh alright let’s call it chutzpah to do this. I know this may seem odd to you – hell it is odd – we had koppie and mountain shrubs in our living room.

Gerald was born in Vryheid. How and why his Lithuanian parents got there is a story lost in time, but the family moved to Johannesburg specifically so his elder sisters could find nice Jewish boys (which they did), and Gerald had a Barmitzvah in the Yeoville Shul.

He was at the time also a Betarnik. I’ll leave it to you to work out whether this was more about ideology or the free summer holidays, but one way or another he progressed from that and Athlone Boys High to Wits School of Architecture, and graduated in 1955.

He would return to Wits Architecture in 1976 as a faculty member in design and construction, and get his PhD along the way. His core area was vernacular architecture, which was Gerald all over: that local is lekker, and good design is solution-led. The best architecture is that which most convincingly solves the simultaneous challenges of function, structure, climate, community, and cost.

By vernacular, he was of course doing “African style” a whole generation before it was cool, or at least before it was cool outside of Broederstroom. But Gerald never followed ideological or artsy fads, nor lived a self-conscious identity as a “creative”.

He was allergic to fashion-led architecture, and punned that Post Modern was in fact “Most Plodden”, whereupon our groans of pain would only encourage him to further “pun-ishment”, for which he would observe: “that’s pa for the course”. Begged to stop already, he might sign off with a winked apology: “To err is human. To forgive, daven.”

Retirement from Wits slowed nothing. Gerald, who always maybe had a bit more tummy than was good for him, was by this time cruising around in coloured trouser-braces (which he made himself) devising and prototyping a completely new form of architectural construction, the “Thin-skin” method.

I won’t bore you with the tech, but it’s worth pausing to get how fundamentally different it is. Houses you know are built by putting lots of little brickies in tall rows and a tiled roof on the top. Thin-skin construction forms walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, etc, all in one, by way of a rebar-reinforced wire mesh framework, thinly daubed over with a concrete skin.

The skin encloses an air gap which provides zero-energy insulation (heat retention and passive cooling) and also serves as moisture barrier in the manner of cavity wall construction.

But it’s not some urban-futuro fantasy. Surfaces are mortared and finished in the standard manner, so when all is said and done, it looks just like “normal”. Various houses in Johannesburg and Cape Town have now been made this way, and you wouldn’t know what’s underneath.

It’s low cost, uses locally sourced materials, and is buildable by unskilled labour, so perhaps you’re thinking what a game-changer this is for housing South Africans and the wider world sustainably and affordably? You’re right.

To this, Gerald was a man of inspiration not institutions. And he is of course no longer around. So that’s where it stands. But the diagrams and technical specifications are all unpatented and free for use, available at https://jmgeraldgordon.wordpress.com/ or via the archive at the Witwatersrand University Architecture and Built Environment Library.

  • Adam Gordon is a professor at Aarhus University School of Management, Denmark

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Lifestyle

Community acts to resolve Hebrew teaching crisis

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Teaching our children Hebrew is one of the things that truly sets Jewish education apart, and it’s a driving factor in the decision to send children to Jewish schools. But the subject is facing significant challenges.

Jewish schools in the Western Cape have been the most severely affected, and their counterparts in Johannesburg aren’t far behind. The problem isn’t limited to South Africa – experts say it’s a dilemma facing diaspora communities worldwide.

Geoff Cohen, Jewish identity and community director at United Herzlia Schools in Cape Town, confirms that “one of the biggest challenges we face as a Jewish school in Cape Town is the scarcity of Hebrew teachers. The Jewish community has been shrinking, and this has had an effect on the number of Hebrew educators available to teach in our schools.

“Many of our existing Hebrew teachers have returned to Israel, and there are very few options for our community to study Hebrew at South African tertiary institutions. The pool of Hebrew teachers in South Africa is decreasing, and all Jewish schools seem to be in a similar predicament. Colleagues at Jewish schools in English-speaking countries around the world have indicated that they, too, are facing similar challenges.”

Thankfully, the South African Jewish community has taken the first steps to remedy the situation, as 20 Hebrew teachers from around the country started an Advanced Hebrew Training Course through The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. The course is powered by Middlebury College in Vermont, the leading programme in the world on how to teach English speakers Hebrew as a second language.

“Two of our teachers have just started the Advanced Hebrew Training Course,” says Cohen. “Another solution could be to bring teachers from Israel, but this is costly and there are often cultural challenges. A different solution is to look at online Hebrew curricula that could possibly use expert teachers in other cities or even other countries.”

Rabbi Ricky Seeff, the director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, says, “One of the things King David has tried is to bring shlichim – teachers who come for three years or a bit more and work in our system. They’re Israelis, they’re teachers, and we bring them out to teach, particularly the senior grades. But it’s expensive and presents challenges in finding the right people.

“So thankfully, we’ve recently engaged with The Academy to start creating a pipeline. We are taking local South African talent who understand Hebrew and training them so that they can teach. At the same time, we’re giving some Israelis in the system proper teaching degrees and contributing to their learning.”

In spite of the challenges, “King David’s results and the amount of kids taking Hebrew is still outstanding,” says Seeff. “Hebrew forms the core of so much of what we do, so we’re committed to finding a sustainable solution into the future.”

The Academy course is possibly the first formal step in decades taken by the South African Jewish community to professionalise teaching Hebrew as a subject.

“South Africa is one of the few diaspora communities where there are no communal structures in place to train teachers and leaders entering the Jewish education system, specifically Jewish Studies and Hebrew,” says Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, the dean of The Academy. “Various structures existed in the past, but for various reasons, they were discontinued. The net result is that, particularly over the past 20 years, there has been no programming directed towards Hebrew or Jewish Studies, both for teaching the subjects or for leadership.”

“Hebrew has been worst hit,” says Widmonte, “There was a surge of immigrants from Israel to South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and many of those people became leaders in Hebrew teaching. However, many of them are at an advanced age and immigrants are no longer coming. This has led to a significant shortage of Hebrew teachers. In some places in South Africa, far fewer children are taking Hebrew as a matric subject.”

“Our community relies on Jewish education in our school systems to ensure continuity,” Widmonte says. “But without attracting qualified, capable Hebrew teachers and training them, it’s simply not going to happen. We need to make it a priority. Until now, schools had no way to recruit new Hebrew teachers.

“The upskilling process includes professionalising the Jewish education space, and ensuring that South Africa has degrees and qualifications applying to teachers in these fields. Until now, South Africa has never had a Postgraduate Certificate in Education in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. From August this year, a local teachers’ college will offer it,” Widmonte says.

Widmonte says many schools have come on board. “They realise the need to search for solutions. If we don’t act now, we simply won’t have any Hebrew teachers. So we need to professionalise and recruit. Within a year, we’ll see a major difference, please G-d.”

Finally, there will be continual professional development so that the quality of Hebrew education will remain high.

All this requires funding, and Widmonte is grateful to “visionary donors” who realised this need and are supporting these ventures.

Teachers have also reacted positively. “They have been the most worried about who will replace them and how to improve,” Widmonte says. “Every teacher has come on board with tremendous vigour and energy. They know how important this is.

“Hebrew is an identity marker and a door opener to participate in Jewish life: religious, traditional, and Israeli,” he says. “It allows you to read and participate in shul, lead the Pesach seder, or haggle on the streets of Tel Aviv. It’s one of the ‘binding factors’ of our Jewish community. A lack of Hebrew makes our children uncomfortable in shuls, and strangers in Israel. It would undermine their Jewish identity.”

He dreams of taking this even further, of Jewish children learning Hebrew at a young age at the same time as they learn to speak their mother tongue.

Widmonte believes the community should view this as a “sea-change moment” – a time to invest in infrastructure that underpins our schools. “Our kids should rave about their Hebrew and Jewish Studies teachers. We shouldn’t be prepared to accept any less.”

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Locked Upside Down reopens theatre for business

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The Theatre on the Square finally reopens with Locked Upside Down, an almost wholly Jewish cast and crew bringing us a revue on living in the time of COVID-19 in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The SA Jewish Report speaks to Alan Swerdlow, the director of the show.

This is the first production in the revamped Theatre on the Square. What does that mean to you and your cast?

A theatre lives only when there’s an audience seated, watching, and engaging with a performance, and the act of performance is a reflection and recreation of experiences. For the general public, the past two years have been a time of deprivation from the communal shared experience of attending live shows, but I don’t think the public at large is aware just how devastating the impact of COVID-19 has been on the entertainment industry.

For two years, everyone connected with that industry has been effectively denied the chance of making a living – from stage hands, ushers, ticket sellers, to stage technicians, writers, composers, musicians, designers, performers, directors, and producers. Worldwide, the profession has been effectively gutted, with severe consequences for everyone connected with it.

For us to be the first production in the Theatre on the Square is unbelievably thrilling and inspirational as we help to bring a theatre back to life. Theatre is an act of community, and the pandemic paused or distorted all communal engagement, yet here we are, extending a hand to our community and actually looking into their eyes.

How would you describe this production?

It’s a revue, a reflection of the pandemic experience through songs, sketches, monologues, and dialogue, and like all revues, it’s funny, satirical, sometimes more heartfelt and emotional, and contemplative. It’s thematic rather than narrative, but at its heart, it’s story-telling, which is the oldest and most enduring performance – from grannies telling bedtime stories to the grandest, glitziest entertainment.

Who wrote the play and why? How was it put together?

The revue has been written by Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Lorri Strauss. Their frustration during the “time of COVID” led to a lot of introspection and an overwhelming desire to create something, even if its ultimate realisation on a stage in front of an audience was uncertain.

Once the entire production team had been assembled, creative input came from everyone, and as director, I helped shape the sketches and monologues.

This is one of the first COVID-19 lockdown productions in South Africa. Why do you think it’s important to write about this time?

Everyone is desperate to laugh at what they have been through these past two years. If we laugh in recognition of our demons, we reduce the impact and fear.

Theatre has always been a reflection of what it is to be human, and reflects the experiences of the watching audience even if it’s not immediately and obviously the individual, personal experience.

Empathy and understanding is a major part of shared experiences, and it’s often in a theatre where that empathy and understanding is to be found. At this time, we all need to let off some steam.

What issues do you touch on that we have dealt with as a community under lockdown?

There are issues large and small that everyone has dealt with, but it’s the small ones that are often forgotten first. So, particularly for parents, all the difficulties of juggling home life during lockdown come to the fore. With the home suddenly becoming office, school, nursing home, lecture hall, factory, and what-have-you, it was turned upside down and was anything but the nurturing refuge we like to think of home as being.

Zoom Calls, social distancing, online learning for kids, online shopping, lack of face-to-face contact, compulsive sanitising, expanding our cooking skills (when we couldn’t go to restaurants), being in a confined space and learning how to share it, and lots more – we’re hoping that the audience will recognise these themes and realise that they weren’t alone.

You have a predominantly Jewish cast. Does that mean there are Jewish-isms throughout? Give us some examples to look out for.

Because both Lorri and Sharon are “nice Jewish girls”, they wrote from their own experience, so the entire show is suffused with a Jewish neshomah that I think any Jewish audience will recognise.

There are all sorts of hints and passing references to things like the Jewish Mommies WhatsApp groups to the competitiveness of some parents in things like home-schooling and bread baking.

Tell us about your cast and what makes them bring the characters to life?

Both Sharon and Lorri have lived the experience of mommies with demanding children during lockdown and coped with it in their own way, and Cathrine brings her experience of a singleton living through lockdown. It’s real, immediately recognisable, and the audience can identify with it.

What will make this production memorable?

Being able to be part of one of the first shared experiences of a live performance in a theatre in Johannesburg is memorable enough, but there’s also some glorious singing and some sharp, witty observations about the way we live now. I think the relief that people will feel at “I wasn’t the only one reacting like that” will be palpable.

What type of audience will appreciate it, and what should they be prepared for?

Anyone who has been through the past two years will find that the show resonates with them and they should be prepared for some good laughs, some nostalgia, a few home truths, and the sheer joy of being back in a theatre watching people do what they do best.

As actors, directors, and entertainers, how have you all managed lockdown in South Africa?

I won’t lie – it has been really, really tough. But lockdown has given us one gift, the gift of time to reset, reflect, consider, and find new ways of harnessing our creative impulses. There has been a lot of writing, philosophising, acquisition of new skills, and the sorting out of priorities – in addition to the cleaning out of cupboards, learning to sort laundry properly, and keeping a sourdough starter alive.

What impact has it had on your personal lives?

As mentioned, we’ve had the chance to sort out our priorities and discover resilience out of necessity. Having one of the most important things in our lives taken away from us gave us a new appreciation for what it is that we love – our creative expression. For me personally, it was learning not to take anything for granted ever again.

  • “Locked Upside Down”, starring Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, Lorri Strauss, and Cathrine Hopkins will be at Theatre on the Square from 9 to 26 February. Tickets are available at computicket.com or contact 083 377 4969 or 011 883 8606.

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Exercise and a good marriage: tips from world’s oldest gym instructor

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Meish Jaffe is probably the oldest gym instructor in South Africa and at 97 years of age, possibly the oldest in the world.

A resident of Jaffa, the Jewish retirement home in Pretoria, Jaffe introduced his fitness regime soon after he came to the home four years ago. His exercises are specifically designed to meet the needs of older people with varying levels of physical activity and mobility.

Jaffe has another remarkable achievement to his name, one he shares with his wife, Bella, (92). They have been married for almost 72 years.

They have known each other since they were young children in Rosettenville in the south of Johannesburg, where Bella Aronowitz was born.

Jaffe hails from London’s East End. He was three when his family came to South Africa in 1927.

His grandparents had moved to Cape Town from London many years earlier with their children. At the age of 20, his father decided he wanted to see the world, which he did by joining the merchant navy. He finally settled in London after meeting his wife there, returning with his new family to South Africa a few years later, settling in La Rochelle, a suburb bordering on Rosettenville.

Jaffe often went to Bella’s home when his father had his regular klaberjass game with Bella’s father.

He was fascinated by the people he met through Bella’s father, a shoemaker, focusing on one specific product.

“The Turffontein Racecourse was right next door,” Jaffe explains. “He specialised in making upmarket boots for jockeys. We got to know all of them, like Tiger Wright and others.”

He and Bella parted ways for a time after they attended different high schools, and he left school at the end of his junior certificate year, to use the old terminology, (Grade 10 today).

He then qualified as a panel beater. After a few years, he went to Durban, where he worked repairing ships.

“I wrote to her from Durban, but she didn’t answer me. So I went back to Joburg,” he says in his matter-of-fact manner. “After a while, we got together. She realised that I was the right guy for her, and that’s the story.” They were married in the South Eastern Hebrew Congregation shul in Rosettenville on 25 June 1950.

Sometime later, with Bella also working as a bookkeeper and shorthand typist, he decided to open a panel beating shop in Germiston. After operating successfully for six years, he lost everything after making some poor investments.

His brother, Henry Jaffe, who lived in Pretoria, insisted that Jaffe, Bella, and their three small children, Brian, Neil, and Caron, come to Pretoria to stay with him until they could get back on their feet.

Moving in with Henry for about three months in 1960 proved a turning point in their lives. Jaffe raised the money to buy a shop in the Pretoria central business district, which he ran for six years.

Then, 45 years ago, he bought the business which has remained in the family ever since, Valhalla General Dealers. At the time, “it sold everything from bicycle parts to ladies’ panties”, Jaffe says. “I threw everything out, and turned it into a hardware store.”

The business expanded over the years into several adjoining shops, and Jaffe bought the entire property.

Jaffe and Bella retired in 2000 to live permanently in their holiday flat in Umhlanga. Their sons, Neil and Brian, who had joined the business early on, took over from their father and their grandson, Craig, also now works there.

They moved into Jaffa when Jaffe was 84. “But I wasn’t ready for it,” he says, so they moved back to Umhlanga, returning to Jaffa finally when he was 93 and Bella was 88.

They are both happy at Jaffa. “I would say Jaffa is the best Jewish old-age home in the country,” he says.

It didn’t take long for him to start his exercise classes at Jaffa, eventually taking them three times a week. He is the oldest in the group, with several in their nineties and others in their eighties and seventies.

“They are getting fitter now,” he says, “exercise improves their flexibility and mobility”.

Their recipe for a good marriage? Bella says simply, “Just listen to your husband.”

“I married the right partner,” Jaffe says. “We’ve never had an argument of real foundation. We’ve had a very good marriage. We’ve got three children, eight grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.”

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