The Jewish Report Editorial

Our need to succeed

  • Vanessa
In just over two weeks, the Jewish Report will celebrate along with the rest of this community, the 2015 Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, which honours all the incredible contributions Jewish citizens have made in the fields of business, arts, law, philanthropy, innovation, education, job creation, sports - and more.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Aug 05, 2015

I have had the honour of editing all of the articles and biographies that go into the Jewish Achievers magazine. There will be many wonderful speeches on the glamorous evening of the gala and awards ceremony on August 23, about the incredible impact our small community has made on South Africa. We are amazing parents, doctors lawyers, entrepreneurs, scientists, teachers, social workers, and philanthropists - to name just a few.

It is also exciting to witness that South African Jewish women are emerging as leaders and today contribute to the rich fabric of business and philanthropy in our country. The new Jewish Achievers’ Woman in Leadership award is testament to that.

What is interesting to consider is why and how Jewish communities, as immigrants, have placed so much value on achievement wherever we have wandered and landed. We brought with us from Russia and Eastern Europe our immigrant tendencies to overdress, over-cater, over-worry - and over-educate (oops - there is no such a thing!).

Indeed, when our ancestors arrived here on boats in the earliest part of last century and even before, they were on a mission to build, succeed and shed the tired skin of the “poor immigrant”. My own grandparents from Lithuania, to the extent they could afford it, bought furs and jewels, created a great home and prepared lavish meals - for all of them it was a signal for themselves and for others that they had “arrived”.

In fact, when I later lived in Toronto, I was reminded again of my own grandparents when I observed the recent Russian immigrants - women in furs through the harsh winters compared to the more casual sporty wear of local Canadians, or the parties and events of the Russian communities, offering tables laden with elaborate dishes - very different to the more simple fare of the locals.

In South Africa, now - three generations on - Jewry continue to thrive and prosper. Yes, we have lost many of our best and brightest to the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. But still, the depth of local talent is immense and we as a community seem to regenerate and get stronger. And we have never lost that immigrant drive to succeed and be accepted.

Psychologists have theorised that a sense of being on the outside or having major life disruptions such as childhood immigration, can increase the likelihood of success due to tools developed to thrive during periods of difficulty.

South Africa, unlike Europe, is a place where Jews have arrived without layers of preceding generations who have set the tone. As a result, we as individuals often grow up believing we can do anything and have a great impact on society.

We can be entrepreneurial and discover new ways of doing things. We can build businesses, invent systems or offer services that are unprecedented. It is the immigrant mindset or the golden possibility, like the American Dream, that anything is achievable.

It is perhaps also motivated by our own feelings of not being historically connected to the lands we wandering Jews have settled in. So we gain a sense of recognition and connectedness in the wider context from financial, intellectual and other kinds of success. These are the perfect antidotes to any feelings of powerlessness or dislocation we may experience.

More than just immigrants, we are also a minority where our actions and achievements are highly visible to others in our tiny community and we are a very willing audience for one another’s successes, failures, tragedies and celebrations. Thus reputation, status and success are all the more compelling for both the achievers and the observers.  

Recognising our contributions, as we do through the Absa Jewish Achievers, is a vital ritual. It celebrates our resilience and our essence - the ability to survive in any land we may find ourselves and to flourish as the South African future unfolds.



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