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Literary Festival fills Jewish cultural gap

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MOIRA SCHNEIDER

PHOTOGRAPH BY MOIRA SCHNEIDER

CAPE TOWN

Pictured: Daily Maverick assistant editor Marianne Thamm in conversation with academic Steven Robins, author of “Letters of Stone”, at the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival held on Sunday.

“Advertising is used as a stick t sold-out, inaugural Jewish Literary Festival held in Cape Town at the Gardens Community Centre on Sunday.o beat up small independent newspapers, but they’ll be the last ones standing because they survive on the smell of an oil rag,” he maintained.

During the discussion moderated by assistant editor of the Daily Maverick Marianne Thamm, journalist and author Gus Silber said newspapers in modern society had a huge responsibility to explain events to readers as opposed to merely reporting, citing the SA Revenue Service “rogue unit” story as an example. “Simply putting your story on the front page is no longer good enough, especially in this country.”

Silber described the use of smartphones to access and contribute to news as a “huge development” for journalism, with Joseph stating that the vast majority of younger people were consuming media on their devices.

“So, that means we have to produce media for mobile too, otherwise we don’t do the story.”

The idea of the Festival was born as a result of co-directors Joanne Jowell, Viv Anstey and Cindy Moritz’s exposure to Jewish book festivals around the world.

“We felt there was a gap here and we could do this too,” Moritz told Jewish Report on the sidelines of the event.

“Something so key to Jewish culture is our literary tradition – Jews and words – and we wanted to celebrate that.”

Mirroring the Franschhoek Literary Festival’s format, attendees were offered a full day’s programme with seven parallel sessions in each time slot.

The 93 presenters selected, either had to be Jewish, have a Jewish connection or write about Jewish themes. Various tracks included politics, sport, food, psychology and Israel.

Another session saw Thamm in conversation with academic Steven Robins on his recent book, “Letters of Stone”. Robins had grown up with a photograph of three women in his home in Port Elizabeth, not knowing who they were.

His father had never spoken about his family or his life prior to coming to South Africa from Germany in 1936. It was only much later, as a student of anthropology, that he interviewed his father and discovered that the three women in the photograph were his grandmother and two aunts who had perished during the Holocaust.

The book pieces together the family’s story, aided by the discovery in 2012 of a bundle of letters which had been written by his grandmother and aunts to the family in South Africa between 1936 and 1943 when they were deported.

“My grandmother was desperate to get out, yet she had to convey to her sons in Africa that things were okay,” Robins noted. “I also had to read between the lines because they were aware of censorship.”

There would, for instance, be a devastating line about someone who had gone missing, followed by trivial accounts of cake and coffee evenings, he related. “At certain times, her grammar broke down.

“My aunt Edith writes about how her classes are shrinking in size every day – I find out this is because of the Kindertransport. She realises this is the end, whereas my grandmother was stoic, religious.”

The “Omer” was a factor in the timing of the Festival, Moritz noted. With no celebrations taking place, the organisers felt that a book event would “fill a gap”. It is hoped that the Festival will become an annual event. 

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