Rollercoaster ride to keep from starvation
Ronan Keating sang, “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it”, and never before has this been more true than over these past five months. Not an adrenalin junkie myself, I far prefer to be on terra firma than even contemplate bungee jumping, sky diving, or taking a rollercoaster ride.
Yet here we are, unwilling participants on a ride we didn’t sign up for, and our choice is to scream blue murder, or let the ride just take us where it must. When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a three-week lockdown (which turned into five months), I had visions of catching up on Netflix, reading, and enjoying quality family time, but Hashem had other plans. Certainly a very scary ride didn’t feature, although looking back, I’m not sure how I could ever have imagined otherwise.
I have never worked so hard, yet felt so fulfilled. I find it amazing to believe that pre-COVID-19, I thought I knew what busy was. I had no clue. The work we do is hard, yet rewarding. It can kill you, but it also makes you stronger. You lose sleep, but you gain humility and gratitude. You feel stretched to your limit, but you learn so much about resilience.
You see the best and the worst of humanity. You meet incredible people who enrich your life in ways you never thought possible, and you break when you hear about the death of a starving child. What we do is purpose-driven and humbling. I have always maintained that we get far more from giving than our beneficiaries do. How lucky we are to get to take from those who want to give, to give to those who need it most.
When Midnight Oil sang, “How do we sleep when our beds are burning”, it couldn’t have imagined thousands who weren’t only frightened by COVID-19 and being able to feed their starving children, but stressing about how to keep them warm and provide a roof over their heads when the fires came.
We have seen children eating dog food, and babies receiving only water. We have taken flack from our community for not assisting our own, which we most certainly do, and from white squatter camps who feel marginalised.
As much as we wish we could ensure that nobody goes to bed hungry or cold, the reality is that people are dying on our watch, and there is nothing we can do about it. We become emotional when we realise how many millions still need assistance.
To say that we went into overdrive when COVID-19 hit, would be an understatement. Working 15-hour days became the norm, and with no help other than my amazing husband, cleaning, cooking, and laundry became the things I did in the spare time I didn’t have.
Surprisingly, I found it to be far more therapeutic than I would have expected. Our recruitment company certainly took a back seat, and I have relied heavily on my extremely capable business partner and close friend, Leigh Brouze, to hold down the fort.
Personal grooming hasn’t been a priority, and I haven’t had my hair, nails, toes, or eyelashes done in five months. I miss being pampered, and look a sight, which is only a problem when people pop past to drop off things and I find myself apologising for my appearance. Now, I have a few more wrinkles, a little more grey.
Before April, I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup, and certainly wouldn’t have been caught dead in Ugg boots that must have got their name from being so ugly. Now, on the extremely rare occasion that I venture out to get groceries, lipstick isn’t required thanks to our masks, and I honestly forget that I’m in Uggs with no makeup. Truthfully, nobody cares.
Zoom meetings have now become a way of life for us all, and it’s the only time I feel compelled to put on lipstick.
From the start, every day was Monday, as we scrambled to feed hundreds of thousands of people who had no other way of receiving food. Thankfully, Wendy Kahn and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) chose to partner with us in distributing R9 million from an anonymous donor, something we will be eternally grateful for and humbled by.
This enormously generous donation has helped to save millions from dying of starvation. Our community has always been and continues to be incredibly proactive and generous. Without it, we could never have done what we do. We are also truly grateful to the dozens of ex-South Africans who contribute to our appeals. Before March this year, the biggest single donation received was for R211 000, so I feel a great sense of responsibility to have been entrusted with millions.
Initially, being far too busy even to think of seeing people, five months down the line, I would love nothing more than to visit my ageing mom in Port Elizabeth or host a Shabbos dinner. I crave the smells of freshly chopped liver and roasting lamb that symbolises guests on the way, and I miss our table being full of loved ones and laughter.
My family have been unbelievably supportive, not complaining about how our garage has become the official Angel Network headquarters, or how often the bell rings daily. They do, however, miss time spent together and bemoan how inaccessible I often am.
I may not be baking banana bread or keeping the house spotless from all the hair of our three Labradors, but I do know they appreciate the work I do.
I’m extremely fortunate to have the support of the most amazing team of women who form our executive. I could never do what I do without every one of them on my side and in my corner, fighting the good fight, and I salute them all.
Working closely with more than 45 CANS (community action networks) set up by ourselves and the SAJBD, we have provided millions of meals to people across all nine provinces of our country. We have also assisted more than 150 000 citizens with clothing, and hundreds with housing and education. There are no to-do lists, and we hit the ground running from the moment we open our eyes every morning.
The good, the bad, and the ugly may be the name of an epic Western from the 1960s, but we have certainly seen it firsthand. We have encountered the good in people whose paths we may never have crossed without this pandemic, experienced the bad through corruption, and dishonesty and thieving are the ugly.
This too shall pass, painfully, like a kidney stone, but it will pass, and we will all have to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we did whatever we could with what we had.
I will never, ever use the words “freezing” or “starving” again to describe how cold or hungry I am, having looked into the eyes of those who really were experiencing it. “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it”.
- Glynne Wolman is the founder of The Angel Network.
Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.
Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.
The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.
“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.
Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.
When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.
Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.
Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.
He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.
“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”
Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.
A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.
An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.
“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”
The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews
The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.
Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.
Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.
The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.
The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”
Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”
According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.
“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”
In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.
Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.
“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”
“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”
In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.
Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi
More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.
Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.
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