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Teaching a language to stay alive

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Lifestyle

Could you teach someone to speak a language that doesn’t exist if your life depended on it?

This is the question which Holocaust film Persian Lessons raises, and though it may at times stretch credibility, its consideration of what it means to remember is compelling.

Directed by Ukrainian-American film maker Vadim Perelman, Persian Lessons is a unique piece of cinema which doesn’t fit neatly into the typical mould of Holocaust films. The film is based on a novella written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and rather than claiming to be historically accurate, presents itself as being “inspired by true events”, though without explanation.

Set in occupied France in 1942, Persian Lessons tells the story of a young Belgian man called Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who survives being executed by a Nazi firing squad by convincing them that he’s not Jewish, but Persian. He bases his claim on a book of Persian legends, acquired only moments before in exchange for half a sandwich. His luck holds out, and Gilles is taken to a transit camp where a culinarily inclined SS officer, Klaus Koch, (Lars Eidinger) happens to need a Persian to teach him Farsi.

Unfortunately, the Persian pretender knows only a single word in the Persian language, but he (very) easily convinces Koch (whose unorthodox post-war aspiration is to open a restaurant in Tehran) that he is up to the task. Adopting the name Reza Joon, the wily Gilles devises a gibberish tongue, drawing inspiration from the names of Jewish prisoners who are incarcerated in the camp.

Joon and Koch’s relationship develops as the language tutelage unfolds, but the former’s cover is frequently threatened not just by his own memory, but by camp staff who feel that their superior has been duped by a cunning Jew. When he’s not teaching or memorising reams of contrived words, Joon works in the kitchen or interacts with his fellow Jewish inmates, whose plight leaves him wracked with guilt.

Unlike many Holocaust films, Persian Lessons avoids especially harrowing depictions of camp life, and also aims to go beyond presenting Nazis as stock trope murderers. Unsettling though this may be, it enhances the poignancy of Nazi brutality, leaving viewers with perhaps more to contemplate.

“I wanted to show the transformation Koch goes through. He’s able to communicate things in invented Farsi language, things he couldn’t say in German, taboo things,” Perelman said in an interview. “I found it fascinating to portray the growth of this person, his humanisation, and the fact that through this language, he is able to reach and show certain parts of himself that he wasn’t able to perform in German.”

Language, too, humanises the victims of Nazi terror, their names preserved not on paper but in the dynamism of the spoken word in spite of the inherent difficulty of memorisation.

“Inventing them isn’t the problem,” Joon says of teaching his false Farsi. “It’s remembering them, that’s the issue. There will always be more.”

Holocaust memory is one of the film’s strongest themes, as observed by Perelman.

“Gilles transforming prisoners’ names into foreign-language words is immortalising them,” he says. “During the war, there were all those people who vanished completely and remained unknown because all the archives and registers of the camp were burnt by the Nazis.”

Ultimately, Persian Lessons may beggar belief at certain times, but its emotive invocation of memory and the act of remembering expressed through the metaphor of language presents a powerful and poignant message.

  • Persian Lessons will be released in South Africa on 19 March.

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Community

COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers

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The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.

During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.

According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.

Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.

Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.

Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.

“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.

“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.

South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.

Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.

Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”

Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.

“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.

In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.

Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.

Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”

Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.

In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.

“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.

“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.

“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.

“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.

“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.

Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.

“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”

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Community

Making matches in heaven work on earth

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In celebration of Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love, Mirah Langer asked communal spiritual leaders to share their personal stories and insights about relationships.

Rabbi Yossy and Rebbetzin Rochel Goldman

Life rabbi emeritus, Sydenham Shul: Johannesburg

After 48 years together, the Goldmans’ advice is that “the first 25 years are the hardest”, jokes Rabbi Goldman. In actuality, in their decades together and as the parents of 11 children and numerous grandchildren, the couple are a wealth of wisdom when it comes to relationships. “Understand that you won’t change people. Learn to respect each other. ‘Love’ is a four-letter word. So is ‘work’. It’s a work-in-progress. Be patient. People who rush to the lawyer often regret it.”

The Goldmans have forged a life of Jewish practice and service, and it’s this, ultimately, which they see as having centred their marriage together. “Living an observant, traditional Jewish life and feeling the presence of Hashem in your lives adds to your quality of life. Practices like Shabbos and mikvah go a long way to enhance marriage and family life,” reflect the couple, whose union was bestowed with the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe right from the start.

“Though we came from somewhat different backgrounds in terms of our families, we had similar values and goals in life. We also received the guidance and blessings of the Rebbe to go ahead with it, and that gave us confidence,” the couple says.

They first met on the suggestion of Goldman’s sister, who had come to know Rochel at seminary. “I was studying in Montreal and she was working in New York. I flew in for a quick first date, and when we saw there was potential, we dated on my next trip to New York for a few weeks.”

Married in June 1973, their unity is forged by a belief in the importance and sanctity of marriage. “Once we had children, keeping the family strong, stable, happy, and together was a priority in our lives. We believe in bashert, that we are soulmates, so we just have to work things out.”

The couple study Torah and Chassidic philosophy together “which gives life greater depth”. Since lockdown, they have also enjoyed the simple pleasure of taking walks together.

Rabbi Levi and Rebbetzin Chaya Avtzon

Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregation: Johannesburg

“He’s going to marry that girl!” This was the confident declaration of Rabbi Avtzon’s sister after he came home “grinning ear to ear” from his first date with Chaya.

“Less than three weeks later, we were officially engaged. You might say, ‘Three weeks – so long?’” they quip, “The truth is, we were ready after two weeks, but waited for Chaya’s parents to come from South Africa to celebrate the engagement.”

Although Chaya is from South Africa, they met when she had finished at seminary and was teaching in New Jersey. At the time, Avtzon was living with his family in New York City.

After their marriage, which took place in the Johannesburg City Hall, the couple settled in New York City. However, it was Avtzon, who about a year after being married, initiated moving to South Africa. Chaya didn’t need much convincing.

“Within two days, it was finalised. We moved here not long after. We had zero job prospects, just a strong intuition that this place would be good for us. How right we were!”

This week, on the 14th of Av, they celebrate their 12th Hebrew wedding anniversary. The couple, who are blessed with six children, say that the core of every marriage needs to be about “lots of talking and sharing”.

“Two adults working on becoming better people is the simple recipe” for positive relationships, suggest the Avtzons. “Marriage is made out to be much more complicated and sophisticated than it actually is. Most issues in marriage aren’t marriage issues per se. They are his or her individual character flaws that need work and maturing [from]. If two people work on themselves each day, the marriage will flourish.”

The couple continue to build a life of shared values together, and in their downtime, also enjoy the art of constructing something beautiful: completing puzzles and even sometimes Lego together.

Rabbi Sam and Rebbetzin Aviva Thurgood

Beit Midrash Morasha at Arthur’s Road: Cape Town

It was as Bnei Akiva madrichim at the age of 18 that Rabbi Sam and Rebbetzin Aviva Thurgood first met. “We started off being friends, and I think that really is a beautiful way to start,” reflects the rebbetzin.

While Thurgood jokes that getting married was a “leap of faith”, his wife reminds him how a lighter moment during camp duties become a deeper sign of the kind of union they realised they might share in the future. “Sam was fun-loving, as he is now. He had this cap, a special one that he had got from America. We were doing something with the kids [at Bnei] and it was lots of fun. We ended up with excess flour, and we started throwing flour and water at each other.”

Although it “ruined his cap, for which he’s never forgiven me”, laughs the rebbetzin, “he did once say to me that in that moment, he knew that we would have fun together. I think that’s a great quality to have in a relationship”.

From this starting point, their relationship has “continued to develop over time” and they are united in knowing that “we can learn together and from each other”. The parents of four children also believe in the importance of having common goals. “We have always been heading in the same direction, and even when we are at different places, we’re still converging rather than diverging,” says Thurgood.

The advice he gives the couples he marries is that “a happy marriage isn’t a given and isn’t even the average; a good, happy, and strong marriage is an above-average result, and will require an above-average effort. You can’t rely on an average amount of forgiveness, compassion, kindness, and conflict resolution. You have to bring an above-average amount of commitment to all of those things for true results.”

“I would just add, never stop enjoying being together,” says the rebbetzin. After all, throughout their relationship they have kept their bond with the same shared sense of joy and adventure that brought them together as teenagers. “Even when things are tough,” they always know that “we can laugh and have fun”, she says. Indeed, for a recent wedding anniversary – they have been married for 13 years – they went paragliding together. Next up, they hope, is a sky diving escapade!

Rabbi Greg Alexander and Student Rabbi Andrea Kuti

Temple Israel Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation

“We have been together for 20 years, and you don’t get there without being willing to apologise, forgive, be patient, understanding, agree to disagree, and make time for your relationship. All of this is important and holy work.” So reflects Rabbi Greg and student Rabbi Andrea Kuti on the path they have followed in their relationship.

The couple first met when he was at rabbinical school in London and she was running the cheder of the progressive synagogue in Budapest.

“The backstory is that [Andrea’s] rabbi was trying to shidduch [match-make] her with Greg’s chavrutah [study partner]. Before she met the chavrutah however, she met Greg, and then sat in on a text study session he was leading. They started to discuss Torah, and the rest is history.”

A week later, they begun to discuss marriage. Two decades and three children later, they have forged a connection on a number of levels. Together, they do Tai Chi and climb Table Mountain, and when it comes to principles and practices, they share “dreams, ideals, the way we imagine and dream about community, love of creativity, culture, ritual, love of theatre, love of being citizens of the world, love of music and singing together. Love. Work and more work. When things are difficult, you have to dig deep and work through it.”

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From the cockpit – secrets of a Jewish pilot

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Veteran South African pilot Robert Schapiro wrote Secrets from the Cockpit before he died. His wife, journalist Arlene Getz, talks to Mirah Langer about it.

How did the book come into being?

It evolved from Robert’s decision to write about his life for our son, Morgan. As Robert wrote in his introduction, Morgan loved his stories, and always said he should write them down.

Robert finished the manuscript after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer that affects the lining of the lung, and I promised him I’d edit it and get it published.

The two of you attended Herzlia. What are some of your earliest memories of him and his determination to break the mould of expected careers for “nice Jewish boys” at the time?

Robert and I met when we were in a school play in primary school. Even back then, flying was all he talked about. I remember clearly how so many people either made fun of him for it or just felt sorry for him because flying school was so competitive.

For me, Robert’s memoir is relevant on many levels. Yes, it’s about a young man who fought the odds to live his dream. But it’s more than just the story of one person’s life. It’s also a snapshot of an era in the evolution of aviation and in the history of South Africa.

In order to fulfil Robert’s dream of becoming a pilot, he had to enter the apartheid-era South African Air Force and was even involved in the border war. Yet, he was clearly ideologically against the state. How did he navigate this?

Remember this was the 1970s, when all the young men of my generation were conscripted for national service, and many of them did get deployed to the border. What was different was that his passion for flying made him agree to join the Permanent Force because it was the only way he could get the pilot training he needed to get into South African Airways (SAA).

He was subject to rampant antisemitism. How did he cope?

Robert sums up the antisemitism right at the start of the book, when he wrote, “Not a day – sometimes not an hour – of my years in the South African military went by without one of my Afrikaner barrack mates calling me Jood [Jew]. They weren’t saying it to be nice.”

He said that it wasn’t unusual for the Jewish recruits to be pulled out of the ranks to do unpleasant menial jobs. In Robert’s case, it must have been worse because he would have been the lone Jew.

Sometimes he’d have to talk his way out of things, like the time when his barracks mates asked him to speak “Jewish”. He started telling them in Hebrew how little he thought of them, and realised when he saw their shocked faces that he’d actually switched his insults into Afrikaans by mistake.

Most times, he said, he ignored it unless it became more than harmless name-calling. Then he either fought back hard or ran away and hid.

How did the two of you get married?

We started dating after we bumped into each other at a restaurant in Cape Town. He was already in SAA, and I’d recently graduated from Rhodes with my journalism degree. When we got married a few years later, one of his aunts told me how happy she was that we’d finally got together because as a child, he’d never stopped talking about me.

Robert offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the behaviour and culture of SAA. What did he find the most startling?

Air crews could have as long as a one-week stopover in places like Lisbon, and it wasn’t unusual for some pilots to spend the time waiting for their return flight doing little else but visiting local bars. On Robert’s first international trip, the captain got so drunk one night, he ended up passing out on the floor of a local train.

Robert also disliked the autocratic captains known in the airline as the Royal Family. Many were World War II veterans who reigned over their cockpits, expected blind obedience, and thought the rules didn’t apply to them.

What did Robert’s Jewish identity mean to him?

He didn’t just see himself as a pilot, he saw himself as a Jewish pilot.

Tradition was important to him. He grew up in an Orthodox home, loved family Shabbat dinners, and had us all in stitches when he used to describe the weird sounds of meat being put into the mincer when his granny made pirogen.

He was an active member of our New York shul community, and impressively dedicated to teaching Morgan his Barmitzvah portion.

Which is your favourite anecdote in the book and why?

One story that is just so Robert is when he decided he needed a pet to keep him company during one of his training courses in Japan. Hotel rooms aren’t exactly conducive environments for that, but Robert decided that one of the small red crayfish he’d seen at the local fishmonger would be the answer.

He ended up having to buy three of the creatures because the fishmonger wouldn’t sell him less than 200g worth, brought them back to his room, agonised over what to feed them, wondered why they barely moved, and then hid under the sheets when they became energised enough to wake him up with the clacking of their claws in the middle of the night. He ended up keeping just one of the three, and of course, he named him Claw.

Tell us more about what he was like beyond the pages of the book.

Robert was, to use one of his favourite words, a mensch. He was kind and generous.

He was enormously talented. He made gorgeous wooden furniture, restored old houses, and was an excellent cook. He baked incredible bread. At the same time, he was genuinely modest.

He was very much his own person. When he wasn’t in his pilot’s uniform, he lived in torn T-shirts and baggy shorts covered in paint stains. He hated formal clothes, and thought he was very clever when he found sweatpants that were the same colour as the flying pants issued by Nippon Cargo Airlines (NCA). He used to change into those after take-off, and tell himself that no-one could tell the difference. NCA managers didn’t see it quite the same way.

He was a wonderful father. And I couldn’t have asked for better, or funnier, husband.

How does Morgan feel to see the book in print?

Robert always regretted that his flying meant he had to spend so much time away from us. Years ago, he wrote, illustrated, and self-published a series of children’s stories for Morgan. The first one was called, Where Does Daddy Go? and it showed Morgan what Robert did when he was on a flight. It ends with Robert telling Morgan how he misses him every day that he’s away.

Morgan loved those books and is thrilled about the memoir making it into print.

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