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Riches to rags: book about a Joburg boy gone bad



A new book, High Times: The Extraordinary Life of a Joburg Dope Smuggler, by Roy Isacowitz and Jeremy Gordin is being launched this week. The SA Jewish Report spoke to Isacowitz about it.

What made you choose Michael Medjuck as the subject of your book?

Michael visited Israel in 2014, shortly after his release, and we discussed writing a book about his adventures. Nothing came of it for several years. I was still working as a journalist on Haaretz, and Michael needed to get his life together after more than 21 years in prison. Neither of us was ready. We revived the idea in 2020, and began doing online interviews. Those continued throughout the COVID-19 period, resulting in more than 70 hours of recorded interviews, though I still didn’t have definite plans to write a book. Then, in early 2022, Jeremy threw out the idea of a book about Michael – I had told him a lot about Michael – during a meeting with someone from Jonathan Ball Publishers (JBP). She was intrigued and, after talking to her colleagues, asked if I could put something in writing. Apparently it went down quite well. Those contacts went on for most of 2022, with me keeping Michael in the picture, until Jeremy and I signed the contract with JBP in September 2022.

How did you meet, and how well did you know him?

I’ve known about Michael since I was seven or eight years old. He was a year above me at King David Linksfield, and the sort of popular kid who most other kids know about. We probably met each other during that period, though neither of us remembers it. I moved from King David to Northview High in about 1964, and became a close friend of Ronnie De Jong, who had known Michael since kindergarten. Ronnie kept me informed about Michael’s adventures through the 1970s and beyond. Our first actual meeting which both of us remember was when he visited Israel in 2014, though I had known of him for most of my life.

What was it about him you found fascinating enough for a book?

It was the dichotomy between where he came from – Jewish Joburg; King David vice-head boy – and where he ended up – in America’s toughest prisons. It was the similarity in our backgrounds and disparity in our fates. The scope of his adventures and the rags-to-riches-to-rags quality of his story. The subject matter: big-time dope smuggling; a massive operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and experiences in some of America’s worst prisons. The fact that he came out of it relatively sane and normal. It’s the stuff of fiction, yet it’s all true.

How would you describe the book?

I’ll be satisfied if people think it’s a great read. I certainly didn’t write it as a morality tale – the dangers of drugs – or as a testimony to the dangers of overweening hubris. Readers will take from it what they want. For me, it’s the fascinating and often exciting story of a special human being who, in spite of his faults, has lived life to the full.

The book is written by you and Jeremy, but Jeremy is no longer with us. Did you write it with him before he was killed?

Jeremy was instrumental in getting us the contract with JBP. Though I was the one who had met and interviewed Michael, I thought it would be fun if we wrote the book together. We’d been vaguely planning to do something together for a long time. Our division of work was that I would do the writing, he would do the interim and final editing, and we would do the planning and brainstorming together. I began writing in December 2022 and was in touch with Jeremy daily. When he was murdered in early April 2023, only about one-quarter of the book had been written.

What was your relationship like with Jeremy?

Jeremy was my closest friend. We met when we were 13-14 years old, and never looked back. He came to Israel to study in Jerusalem because that’s what I had done the year before. We shared an apartment in Jerusalem. I became a journalist and joined the Financial Mail in Johannesburg, because that’s what Jeremy had done a couple of years before. Our interests were uncannily similar – from literary taste to politics, women, and the people we disliked, we were on the same wavelength. It was a once-in-a-lifetime friendship.

How did you conduct the interviews with Michael?

Mainly online. We got together in Vancouver in November 2022 for some face-to-face interviews and for me to get a feel for where he had come from, and Michael came to Tel Aviv in late-September 2023 to go through the manuscript together.

How do you feel about what he did that landed him in jail?

I didn’t express an opinion in the book, and I’m not going to do so now. Marijuana and hashish are now sold legally on the streets of Vancouver, which is vindication of a sort for Michael. He did many things that were foolish, but he also did things that were courageous. He got through times and experiences that many of us wouldn’t have survived.

Why do you think he did it?

Hopefully, readers will be able to figure that out for themselves. There’s no simple answer. It has to do with his experiences growing up, the particular chemistry of which he is made, and the period during which he and I came of age. He’s the sort of character who will leap without a second thought while most of us are still testing the water with our toes. He’s impetuous, and seems to have got through life without being infected by petty bourgeois concerns.

Do you believe he regrets it? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes, he has many regrets, particularly regarding the effects his actions had on his children. He also regrets hurting his wife as he did. And he regrets wasting almost 22 years of his life in prison. That said, I doubt he regrets having lived life as he did.

You obviously spoke to others who knew Michael from school or childhood. What was he like back then?

I go into that in some detail in the book. Michael was a legend. Everyone who knew him then still remembers him. He was popular with both girls and boys, and he was a born leader who took people into very uncomfortable territory.

What made you choose the title of the book?

It was the outcome of a process of discussion with the publisher. It wasn’t the one I originally proposed, but I deferred to its judgement and knowledge of the market. I like it and think it works.

Are you in contact with Jeremy’s family about the book? What do they think about it?

We’re in regular contact both in regard to the book and because we’re very close. His son, Jake, spent a week with me in Tel Aviv last September, and I had lunch with his daughter, Nina, in Cape Town about two months ago. We agreed that his name should stay on the book. Deborah, Jeremy’s wife, read the book last week and said she enjoyed it.

Who are you are hoping to appeal to?

I didn’t have an audience in mind when writing. I think several of the book’s ingredients: deep-sea adventure; big-time smuggling; cops and robbers; the travails of doing hard time, appeal to a wide variety of people, so I’m hoping it will do well. Michael was a ground breaker and well-known to the Dolls House crowd in the 1960s and early 1970s. I think they’ll enjoy the book.

What are you hoping your readers will take home from it?

That it’s a great read. They don’t have to like what Michael did or agree with his moral choices. He came from where we come from, and his story reverberates.

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