I am so excited that you decided to take on the challenge of learning your Parasha and preparing a lesson about Jewish customs and beliefs, on the occasion of your Barmitzvah.    Your parents can encourage you to participate in a Jewish ritual which goes back many centuries, but only you can make the choice of committing yourself to the work that is involved.

I have spent many hours contemplating the reason why Judaism has retained the enthusiasm of intelligent and talented boys like yourself.   You could be playing soccer, or making music with your drum, or sailing a yacht or playing computer games with your pals.   You have decided to dedicate your time to learning about a people who have beliefs, stories and customs which have allowed them to achieve great things.    Jews have excelled in the arts, in science and in the humanities, and you have demonstrated the potential to further enhance the contribution of our people.

I was brought up during the time of the Second World War.   Every Jewish boy who lives in Amsterdam must know the story of Anne Frank.  You have some concepts regarding the horrors of the Holocaust.   What a talented, perceptive record has been left by Anne Frank of the undignified challenges faced by European Jews during the time of World War 2.    I mention this because the difficulties of being Jewish during the third and fourth decades of the 20th century resulted in my father deciding that it was a disadvantage to be a Jew.

So, when I came to South Africa from England the age of nine years, I was sent to an Anglican School and given the false identity of a Unitarian.    My father felt that this approach to forming a religious identity would make my entrance to this school more acceptable than if I had attended as a Jewish girl.   I grew up with a very confused idea about who I was.   As I had no family in this country I was unable to ask anyone what it meant to be Jewish.

I am going to make a very bold and provocative statement now!  Had I continued on the pathway set for me by my father, you would probably not have been born.   Your father would have grown up with no idea of his religious background.   He would never have met your mother.   And, this is the reason that I am particularly happy that you have been brought up as a proud young Jewish man.    Your family and your friends all support you in developing your chosen lifestyle.    I am so proud and happy to share this occasion with you.

You are able to identify with your own people from an early age.   It was only after I married and had children that I learned about my heritage.   I was in my 30’s when I first enrolled in a course of Jewish history at the correspondence University of South Africa.   I waited until I was in my 40’s until I decided to study Hebrew.    The effort I have made in those later years to research the background of my ancestors has enriched my life immeasurably.   I am so happy you have had the chance to pursue this knowledge from a younger age.

Your mother was born in Israel.    Do you ever wonder how this tiny country which fits into the Kruger National Park of South Africa has managed to develop a thriving economy and contribute rich technological advances to allow people all over the world to live fuller and more comfortable lifestyles?   How lucky are we as Jewish people living in the 21st century to enjoy a proud history of achievement.   Now, in modern times our brethren are at the forefront of developing technological and medical knowledge in the interests of forging a richer and fuller lifestyle.

You are brought up in an environment which offers you the opportunity to be bilingual.   In addition you are studying the language of Hebrew.  I personally envy your ability to speak two great European; languages, both Dutch and English, with fluency and flair.

You are indeed fortunate.    You have a wonderful Great Aunt Bella who lives in Haifa who you have visited regularly.    You have grandparents who live in South Africa with whom you have annual contact.  A loving extended family of cousins who live in Cape Town.    Your parents who have given you the security of a loving and stable home.  We have confidence you will make your mark as a contributor to humanity by living a full life whilst enhancing the lifestyle of those who may not be as fortunate as yourself.

Noam, I am very proud of you, and I have the confidence to predict that you have a great future ahead.   You are destined to make a valuable and meaningful contribution to humanity.

With Love and Best Wishes

Granny Grace.

 

Whilst I was born Jewish, I grew up in a Post-Holocaust Era when many British Jews decided that it was a disadvantage to publicly demonstrate any adherence to this ancient religious grouping.   My father was one of those people.

Immigration to South Africa

My nuclear family of mother, father, brother, sister and myself immigrated to Cape Town, South Africa in 1947 at the conclusion of World War 2.   My father decided to send me to an Anglican School and stated my religious denomination as Unitarian.   I grew up pretty confused about my true religious identity as it was a taboo subject in our family. It is only now as an adult that I realise this state of affairs existed for many Jewish families at that time because of the horrific treatment experienced by the Jewish population of Europe.

I still have recurring memories of the phrase, “If the Germans come into this country, then all the Jews will be sent to concentration camps.”   During the war years, I was a youngster who did not understand the horror perpetrated by the Nazis, but I did grasp the concept of their treatment as being even worse than a death sentence!

Rationale

I now realise that it was as a consequence of this reality that my father did not consider it to be a good idea for any of his three children to marry members of the Jewish faith.   In addition, as a self- made businessman, he did not have much respect for the professions, more particularly the medical profession.   He supported his family as an astute property investor and developer.   As it happened we all married Jewish men of the medical profession, my sister married a dentist, my brother a paediatric doctor, and I married a General Practitioner.

As a mother I needed to learn how to integrate myself into both Jewish rituals as well as the cultural and social life of my co-religionists, whilst familiarising myself with the history of the Jewish Nation, a knowledge of Zionism, the concept of Israel, the indignities of Ani-Semitism, and the joys of Jewish music, art and literature.   The manifold expectations for a Jewish wife and mother were learned through experimental trial and error, whilst feeling a bit of an outsider amongst a culture which I had been denied to me during my childhood.

Commemorating Passover

The first night of Passover is commemorated with a multi-course festive meal, as well as the telling of the story of the Exodus combined with manifold customs and rituals which are all laid down in the Haggada.  The Haggada is the name given to the book which describes and rituals, songs, questions, eating patterns and procedures as well as the wine drinking which make up the Passover Meal.   It was first published in the 15th century and thousands of editions in many different languages have been printed over the years.

Whilst Orthodox Jews will continue to read from the more accepted versions of the text, progressive members of the faith value a more up to date and less traditional version of the story.    The traditional texts use biblical language with which I find it difficult to relate and it was in 1998 after 30 years of marriage that I decided to produce a family copy for the Seder or ritual meal which was conducted annually in our home.

Updating the Haggada

That was 30 years ago when photocopying was a comparatively new facility and it was with great excitement that I reviewed multiple editions of Haggadot in order to cull parts of the ritual and use contemporary language to tell the story.   Subsequently, newer additions of this adaption were printed and have served the family faithfully for the past 30 years.

Now technology was escalated.   The possibilities of creating a more contemporary version of the rituals are manifold.   Go to www.haggadot.com and you can choose from The Greatest Hits Haggada, the Liberal Haggada, The JQ International GLBT Haggada, and The Haggada 2019.

A more traditional rendition reads like this, “In every generation, every Jew must regard himself as though he personally were brought out of Egypt; as it is said: “And you shall tell your sons on the day saying:  It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt……………………….

I am not too sure about how the child of today reared on the shorthand of technological iterations would relate to this story.   But let us now go to a more contemporary reading!

“As human beings today, we reflect with great distance on the hardship of our ancient ancestors but with the great commitment, we spend a significant amount of energy retelling and remembering their suffering and story of perseverance annually.   As we make great efforts to celebrate and commemorate, we also turn and look at our recent history and the stories that surround our collective struggle to bring equality…………”

A central requirement of this tradition is to have the children participate and to ask questions.    The children ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights”

Remaining Relevant

This is just a taste of the full text and ritual of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.   It made me think afresh about how the role of religion has changed over the years, and how religious customs adapt to maintain their relevance for each generation.   I find it refreshing that continuing with these customs help young people to develop an identity of a people who have maintained their lifestyle for 2000 years.    In an era when identity can be so peripheral, I felt grateful that I was in a position to modify both the words and the order for the Passover ceremony so that an ancient tradition could be commemorated in a meaningful way by friends and family.

 

 

 

I was born just before the outbreak of WW2 and have early memories of our home help saying, “If the Germans come into this country you will be sent away to a concentration camp.”    I would have been between the ages of 4 and 7 years when I heard this mantra, and although I did not understand what it meant, what I did understand, or sense at least, was some profound insecurity.   On looking back I am unable to articulate which taboo must have been prevalent in my family, as I did not even consider verifying this statement with my parents.

Remembering the Holocaust

Stories of the Holocaust started to be discussed in public from the 1970s onwards, and in the 1980s I attended a one month course at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem when I studied the history and the impact of the German policy to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe.

I am aware of the concept of Holocaust fatigue, which describes an attitude amongst many people that the horror stories of this atrocious period of history have been sufficiently aired, and that it is time to move on.   However, I was introduced today to a new angle of Holocaust History when Arthur Shostak addressed a small audience at the Cape Town Holocaust and Memorial Centre.

Another Perspective

Whilst Shostak’s early academic career as a Sociologist and Futurist earned him many accolades, more recently he has relentlessly pursued a new angle to history, which has not been spoken about until recently.   In introducing the topic, the presenter elicited the attention of the audience by claiming that he was going to share ‘a secret’ with us.    He has travelled with his wife to 48 different countries over the past few years addressing the public not on the horrors of Holocaust Memory but on what he calls Holocaust Compassion.   Whilst The Righteous Among the Nations, Non-Jews who assisted Jews in Nazi Germany and often saved many lives, have been recognised; Jews who risked their lives to save others of their faith have been overlooked by the records.

Stories

The Orchestra Saved a life

Illustrating this news angle, the presenter told the story of a Jewish Prisoners Orchestra who had come to the camp to entertain the SS.  Talented victims of the Holocaust had their lives spared if they could be of value to the German Regime.   The members of this orchestra saved the life of Eva Brown aged 16 whose job it was to extract gold teeth from Jewish victims when their bodies were collected from the gas chambers.   She was desperately thin and overworked but perceived an opportunity to save herself when she heard about the presence of this musical ensemble.    Eva managed to make her way to the rehearsal area and sat herself down amongst the flautists.    As soon as the conductor came to the rehearsal he noted that an unknown person had placed herself amongst the woodwind players.   “I am starving and overworked and need to escape from this awful existence.    Kindly give me a place in your orchestra,”   she timidly requested.   If it was discovered that members of the orchestra had shielded a prisoner, each and every member would have been sent to their death.    However, on consultation, it was unanimously decided that this fugitive would be given a place in the orchestra.   This was indeed an act of selflessness and compassion.

Sharing Forbidden Information

When truckloads of Jews arrived by train to the Death Camps which they had been lead to believe would be re-development programs, the arriving passengers would go through a selection process.    Eli Wiesel tells the story of how he was standing next to his father awaiting his fate when he heard a gruff voice asking him his age.   “I am nearly 15 he declared.”   The voice responded, “No, you are 18, and don’t forget that.”   The questioner then asked Eli’s father with the same question.   I am 50 .” responded Mr Wiesel.   The voice insisted, “Just remember when they ask that you are 40 years old.”    This Jewish recruit whose allocated job was helping to organise the selection process was not allowed to converse with new arrivals.   If he were to be observed, certain death would follow.   However, this guard was aware that those between the ages of 18 and 40 would be sent for slave labour.    Those under 18, or over 40 were allocated to extermination camps.    We do not know what would motivate someone to risk their lives in this way, to save the life of unknown arrivals.   Truly an act of selfless compassion.

Official Disobedience

It is well known that whilst living in the Ghettos, Jewish leaders would be selected to do administrative jobs.   If they tried to deceive the Nazis, they knew that it would mean not only their own death but the death of their families.    However, many stories have emerged which show that these leaders risked their lives by giving inaccurate tallies to the Germans, thus managing to save numbers of people being sent to their death.

One Man’s Mission

The presenter was passionate about making the knowledge of these many acts of compassion known to a wider audience.    He travels around the world publicising an aspect of history which has been neglected until now and has been effective in bringing new stories to light which have been incorporated into displays at Holocaust Museums around the World.   Arthur Shostak has become an envoy for recognising that this era not only was an example of ‘Horror’ but also demonstrated opportunities for “Help”