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Rosh Hashanah: It means different things to different people

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With Rosh Hashanah approaching we asked several leading lights in our community what Rosh Hashanah means to them.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Sep 02, 2015

Anton Harber, adjunct professor of journalism and founding editor of the Mail and Guardian (previously the Weekly Mail) puts forward his point strongly:

“As a Jewish South African, the issue weighing most heavily on my mind at this time is seeing how Israel is treating African migrants and refugees. Jews should know better than most what it is to flee war, conflict and prejudice.

“How do we go in one generation from being a refugee people to one that treats refugees badly? How do we, as individuals and a community, take back the narrative from the extremists who have put us on a path of violence, hatred and confrontation?”

Harber says this is what he will be thinking about over the new year season “more than anything else. It is not easy, but this is a time to face up to the most vexing issues.”


Glynnis Breytenbach, MP, Democratic Alliance, and shadow minister of justice, spoke about what Rosh Hashanah means to her “as a relatively inexperienced Jew”.

She only discovered her Jewish roots as an adult when her maternal grandmother was terminally ill and told Breytenbach about her Jewish heritage for the first time.

“This topic had never been raised before in our family and my maternal grandfather and my own father were not Jewish. My grandmother’s maiden name was Cohen and she came from Lithuania.  

“My godmother filled in the history as best she could after my grandmother had passed away, telling me of how my grandmother and her sisters, along with their parents, came to South Africa in the early 1900s when my grandmother was a baby. The majority of the rest of the family was decimated during the pogroms and later the Holocaust.  

“So I discovered my own Jewishness quite late, but it did explain why I had always been drawn to the Jewish way of life, even though I am not a particularly religious person.  

“Rosh Hashanah, therefore, for me is really about reflecting on my family, how we came to be here, and what being Jewish means to me. I also reflect upon the year that has passed, about the (many) things I could have done better, and also reflect on the coming year, and how I can improve on those and other matters.”

Being a politician for her is about helping to make South Africa a better place for everyone “and Rosh Hashanah is the ideal time to think about how to go about this aspect; how, in practical ways, we can make a difference. It is also a time when I reflect on how immensely proud I am of my Jewish heritage.”


Artist Kim Lieberman, who expresses her thoughts through her art, says she has been “stewing and sifting through ideas for years, co-ordinating the grip on concepts that intrigue and pull me both philosophically and in reality - our human context. How we mix, and are a mix, of our history and experience.

“In the last year these concepts have resolved and resulted in new works. These works, in combination with older works, form a body that is ready to enter a public space, and be seen.”

The present view, she says is on Africa, moving away from the South African focus we are used to. “Our European past, our Chinese present and how we respond to both - gaining from - yet standing our African ground. How we can adapt past the reality of colonialism into a mix that is strong, intelligent and uniquely on the African continent.”

She advocates that we should care for who we are now and be able to move with stability into the upcoming years. These are key concepts in her works.

“South African Jewry is able to be more sensitive to understanding how to broker peace in the aftermath of our history; it would be an incredible scenario seeing what we have learnt go out into the world at large and the Israeli issue specifically.”


Stan Smookler, formerly from Stan and Pete caterers, renowned for his humorous online “Stan the Good Shabbos Man” every Friday,  says that to him Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish High Holy Day, the beginning of the Jewish new year.

“To me it means the culmination of the past year, going into the new year, filled with promise of hope, health and peace in the world. The High Holy Days are a reminder from where we come and hopefully to where we are going, a time of doing good things for others, and helping the less fortunate…

He says in the “Beloved Country” [South Africa] it falls at the beginning of spring, which is such a good time of the year.


Nicci Raz, newly-appointed national director of the SA Zionist Federation, says this is the time of year when most of us start thinking about what we would like to do differently.

“My new year resolution is quite simple: Listen more.

“I feel that this simple skill, when practised, can literally change the world. Listening authentically to those around us - our children, spouses, friends and colleagues - offers a rare opportunity to tap in to a different reality, one which is rich with knowledge and experience, ultimately giving us the tools to make better life choices for ourselves and infusing us with compassion for others.”


Wayne Sussman, co-chairman of Limmud South Africa, who is on the Melton faculty and works in the steel industry, referred to writer Peter Beinart’s recent piece on the decline of the deli.

“While there has been a proliferation of kosher food, there is a battle for chicken liver, old-fashioned pickles and knish. I hope my son and daughter and those younger than me bring the deli back as one of the cornerstones of their identity.”

Talking about writers Philip Roth, David Grossman, Amos Oz and comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, he said they were not getting younger.

“While there are certainly pretenders for their veritable thrones”, Sussman hopes in the new year for a new wave of Israeli and Jewish-centric literary and TV talent.  

“The growth of Limmud on a global level continues to amaze me. I am looking forward to Limmud events continuing to pop up all over the world, energising volunteers, attracting younger people and bringing Jews from all different walks of life together.”

Sussman feels our community is becoming more and more concentrated. “We have so many old, beautiful Jewish institutions across this country. I hope for many barmitzvahs and weddings in shuls like Kimberley and Stellenbosch.”


Nadav Ossendryver, last year’s winner of the Creative Counsel Young Jewish Entrepreneur Award at the Jewish Achievers for his website of wildlife sightings, says the year 5776 is going to be the year that can help pave the way for South Africa's future.

“Wildlife and conservation is an integral part of South Africa's heritage and a big tourist attraction. Wildlife and conservation have been my calling since I fell in love with game reserves at the age of eight and started running a wildlife-based company, Latest Sightings, at 15.

“My new year's resolution, is to spend 5776, and upcoming years, promoting conservation, protecting our wildlife and love for nature in our country to people all over the world, so that they can focus on the great aspects of South Africa, rather than the bad.

“I also hope I can inspire other young people in our community to follow their dreams and passions in life, and act on them to make them a reality.”


Alana Baranov, vice-president of the Council of KwaZulu-Natal Jewry as well as a steering committee member of the World Jewish Congress' Jewish Diplomatic Corps, believes that Rosh Hashanah is a universal new year, “the anniversary of the creation of all human beings and a time to celebrate the unique potential of human existence.

“This special time of year gives us the opportunity to not only express gratitude and reflect on the past, but to dedicate ourselves to building a better future not just for our own community, but for all who live in South Africa and beyond.”

Her new year’s hope is for each of us to commit to transforming the Jewish value of tzedakah, which alongside prayer and repentance will seal us in the Book of Life.

“We are living through the largest refugee crisis in recorded history. Few tenets in Jewish law are repeated as often as the call to protect the stranger and our community, with its history of fleeing persecution, can do so much to combat xenophobia and other hate crimes.”



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