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Petrol, oil, water – and a whole lot of Hebrew

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When Sydenham Shul’s Rabbi Yehuda Stern drove into the Shell Garage in Sandringham last week, he wasn’t expecting to be greeted with the words, “Shalom, boker tov.

“At first, I thought, ‘Wow, that was a nice welcome’, but I wasn’t expecting much more,” Stern said. However, when the petrol attendant continued to speak in Hebrew, Stern got out his phone and asked if he could record the interaction.

“He wanted to know if I needed oil and water – shemen and mayim,” he said. “And then he went out to my windows, or chalonot, and then tzmigim (tyres). What cracked me up was when he said “2.2” in Hebrew. I asked him if those were the only numbers he knows, but he was able to tell me what “2.4” was as well.”

Sibisiso Zulu, who calls himself Baruch because his first name means “blessing”, lives in Berea and hails from Jericho in the North West Province. He’s a supervisor at Shell Garage Sandringham, having worked there for about seven years.

Five years ago, Sibisiso recalls, he heard a couple of clients saying the words “Baruch Hashem”. He asked what the phrase meant, and they told him it meant “G-d bless you.” After that encounter, he started using the phrase with Jewish clients. “They would ask me how I know these words, and would teach me other ones,” he said. Slowly, he began to learn new words and phrases from different clients.

He said that although it’s a difficult language to master, he was happy to learn. “Working in a Jewish area, it’s nice to be able to accommodate my clients,” he said.

Clients are often surprised that he’s able to speak Hebrew, but also excited about it. “Sometimes, if a client comes in in a bad mood and they meet me and I speak to them in Hebrew, I’m able to put a smile on their faces.”

Since Stern posted the video of their encounter on Instagram, Sibisiso says he has had people coming up to him at work to speak to him in Hebrew or ask him about the video.

The caption of the video reads: “Living in South Africa has its challenges, but there’s certain beautiful things you get here that you will not get in other places in the world. This morning, I experienced one of those: a warm and friendly petrol assistant who greeted me with an innocent ‘Shalom boker tov’.

“Initially I didn’t think much of it because you get that quite often around the Jewish neighbourhood. But then Sibisiso, or Baruch as he refers to himself, begins asking me questions re my car and specific petrol requirements in Hebrew. He was hilarious, and put a big smile on my face. You’ve really got to love Africa!”

By Monday evening, the video had been viewed by 7 000 people.

Another rabbi, Rav Ramon Widmonte, the dean of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, was returning to Johannesburg last week from a symposium for Jewish and Hebrew in Education in Cape Town when he too was surprised by a Zimbabwean, calling himself Israel, who spoke convincing Hebrew. Widmonte was also so thrilled by this, he recorded a conversation with the man, which he posted on Facebook. In the recording, Israel told the rabbi that he learnt to speak Hebrew when studying at a Jewish school in Harare for three years.

The rabbi wrote on the social media platform, “What an astounding encounter.” Unfortunately, he was unable to comment further.

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