Jewish Literary Festival: Death and other subjects

The annual Jewish Literary Festival regales visitors with a smorgasbord of speakers connected with books reflecting Jewish experience in a myriad contexts. We attended this year’s instalment at the Gardens Community Centre on 21 March, coinciding with Human Rights Day and the Autumn Equinox. It proved to be salutary, by turns harrowing, fascinating, thought-provoking and side-splittingly funny.

With 26 events spread across five slots, choosing an itinerary across the festival programme is a daunting task. There are 4500 ways to win on this set of literary reels, so you’d have to clone yourself that many times to complete every possible combination. Rather than be paralysed by FOMO, we took the opportunity to choose our own adventure through this garden of forking paths. Overarching themes soon emerged between topics that were wildly divergent at face value, culminating in a satisfying literary experience.

Scanning the choices in the opening slot, the topic that immediately sprang to mind was Death. “What the dead tell me” was a gore-fest of horrifying actuality and black humour served up in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium by Farm Killings and Femicide in South Africa author Dr Nechama Brodie, Antony Altbeker, who has published a book on the Inge Lotz trial, and forensic pathologist Dr Ryan Blumenthal, whose Autopsy: Life in the trenches with a forensic pathologist in Africa also featured among the titles colourfully stacked for sale in the Sukkah Hall (courtesy of The Book Lounge).

Effervescently curated by Mandy Wiener, the session focused on what autopsies can reveal about the lives of people who have died from unnatural causes (60,000 to 80,000 a year in South Africa), especially murder. Many narratives intersect on a body, as Brodie said, but unpacking a person’s narrative from their corpse elides their story. Prurience amplifies the distortion field: the first question asked of Altbeker at his book launch was, “Was Inge a virgin?” The pressure to answer questions posed by thirty wounds from blunt and sharp objects caused investigators to craft their own narratives that ultimately unravelled, leaving the case unsolved to date.

Perhaps things would have been different had they proceeded with Blumenthal’s ice-cold, meticulous approach to reading the book of the body: “I determine how they die, not why they die.” Locard’s exchange principle states that every contact leaves a trace (“You are the net result of every contact in your life, from pollen to TED Talks). Blumenthal and his hard-working colleagues (South Africa has 70 forensic pathologists at most) use every scientific means at their disposal to get to the bottom of conundrums such as an apparent suicide in Atteridgeville. The victim had been heard threatening to stab himself to death, and he was duly found dead with a stab wound and a knife to hand. But this was no cut-and-dried case. Blumenthal’s forensic senses tingled on noticing the wound was not in an “area of predilection”. Even more suspiciously, the lesions were atypical for a stab wound. Further probing revealed the stabbing masked a fatal bullet wound. A teenager had shot his acquaintance and sought to cover up the evidence with a blade. The firearm was found in a trashcan at the bottom of the garden.

That case was closed, but as many as 85% of South Africa’s murders (30,000 a year on average, of which 80% are black men) are going unsolved at the moment. There are many reasons for this. One, Brodie said, is that some crime scenes and bodies tell stories, but many don’t. Scenes are contaminated and people’s deaths are more ambiguous than you may think. People demand answers based on history and philosophy, “but you can’t always make sense of death.” Forensics can determine whether death was caused by (eg) blunt force, projectile, or strangulation (the most common cause of femicide), but this evidence has to be interpreted, which is where a lot of things can go wrong. Another reason murders go unsolved is the lack of resources available to the police. Altbeker pointed out that policing services have been eviscerated at detective level: “We don’t need street patrols, we need detectives to build cases that can be prosecuted.” 

Beyond autopsies, forensics is also a means to probe the body politic. For example, Blumenthal reported some interesting statistics coming out of lockdown: an uptick in suicides (mostly by hanging), increased levels of addiction and interpersonal violence, and a proliferation of skeletons as bodies were left to decompose. There was also a flare-up of traffic accidents whenever mobility restrictions were lifted, as people came crashing out of lockdown.

Going for gold: Jews in sport

The shadow of death accompanied us to the Old Shul, where sportscaster Tapfuma Makina was waiting to chat with Peter Lindenberg, who went from an undistinguished sporting career at KES to become a watersport and motor-racing legend, and Michael Meyerson, whose book showcases the achievements of Jews at the Olympics. Lindenberg’s recently published no-holds-barred tell-all autobiography contains plenty of incidents detailing his sheer will to survive and win at all costs, entailing not a few of them head-on bouts with the Reaper. These include twice being assumed dead on hospitalisation after power boating accidents at speeds in excess of 200 km/h, and a car fire. Then there was the time back in ‘98 when Lindenberg crashed his Mustang, broke both ankles, drove to a power boat qualifier and got back into his bakkie to go to another motor racing qualifier, at which point he realised that something was wrong, called for the medics and passed out (his crushed ankles had been held together by his racing boots). In hospital, the doctor manipulated the bones back into place without anaesthetic. His wife could hear the screams out in the hall. Other challenges that Lindenberg took in his stride were arson (a disaffected former employee burnt his factory to the ground), near bankruptcy (a sequestration hearing was called off because the plaintiff took ill and died the weekend prior) and brushes with criminal elements at his Gosforth race-track, including a multiple shooting that left three of his managers dead. None of these set-backs dampened Lindenberg’s spirit: “If you have fear you will never win. If you’re scared, you will never go beyond the limit.”

If Lindenberg’s example shreds the bizarrely persistent stereotype that Jews are lousy at sport, Meyerson’s book blows it out of the water. That, in fact, was the Australian-based radiologist’s exact motivation to write. In tracing the careers of Jewish champions from the first modern Olympics in 1896 until the present day, not only does Meyerson prove conclusively that the success of Jewish athletes is disproportionately large compared to the size of the community, he also emphasises the circumstances in these champions have waged their struggle. Who could forget that swimmer Mark Spitz, possibly the most famous Jewish athlete of all time, won his seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics against the backdrop of the hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes? Then there’s the story of Bobby Moch, cockswain of the victorious US team in the eights rowing event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Moch only learned that he was Jewish when he asked his father for contact details of relatives he planned to meet during his visit to Germany. Such was the atmosphere of racism at the time that his father had concealed his Jewish identity to succeed in the States. The 75,000 strong crowd’s chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland” were so loud that Moch had to beat the cadence on the sides of the boat. Slowly but surely, his team pulled through from the back of the field until the disbelieving Nazis fell silent as the Americans pipped the Germans and Italians at the finish in the final ten strokes. Meyerson’s book is filled with stories like this and is gripping from start to finish.

Between Pietersburg and Parow

Jews in far-flung places was the theme of the next session, hosted by JLF co-founder Vivienne Anstey in Israel Abrahams Hall B. The histories of the Jews of Limpopo and Parow were respectively presented by Charlotte Wiener and Prof. Richard Mendelsohn, who is currently writing a social history of the Parow Jewish community. (His Sammy Marks: the uncrowned king of the Transvaal happens to be one of the most fascinating books on South African history I’ve ever read). A wealth of anecdotes and insights into these two very different communities flowed forth: the hunters, prospectors and traders who lived far from any Jewish centre and had to make do for themselves in the wilds of Limpopo, and the urbane shopkeepers, developers and industrial magnates who rode the Boer-war-era property boom, establishing distinguished brands like Cape Gate, founded by the Kaplan family.

Predominantly Litvaks fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia, the two communities faced very different challenges. Need to bury someone, but the ground’s too rocky? In Limpopo, it wasn’t unheard of to find a suitable place and consecrate the ground yourself. The shochet plied his trade on a special block in the town butchery, marking the meat with his own stamp – until the day he heard three women commenting on how excellent the tongue each of them had bought had been. The problem was that he’d only sold one tongue – the enterprising town butcher had made his own kosher stamp! In the burgeoning Parow community, problems of a different nature arose, such as the controversial Rabbi Lipshitz. Married to the niece of Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Rabbi Lipshitz became renowned for his dazzling erudition but also drew criticism for his undiplomatic speech and heavy-handed teaching methods. For 34 years, he defied every attempt to oust him from his position of authority, until he returned to Israel in 1964. He was preceded by members of both communities, where a strong spirit of Zionism flourished; many youngsters went to fight in 1948.

Both communities had their hey-days in the 1950s, a time of optimism and progress. As troubles in South Africa escalated after Sharpeville, people began to disperse. The shuls were ultimately deconsecrated, and today their furniture – the bimahs, the siddur boxes, the pews grace shuls in Ra’anana and Tel Mond.

Telling stories through photographs

Three representatives of a different generation were seated on the stage of the Holocaust Centre Seminar Room: photographers Paul Weinberg and David Lurie, and Gus Silber, the man with the golden pen. The conversation between them was compelling, touching on the motivations of photography, its capacity to bear witness and its power to heal. Lurie and Weinstein agreed that the Jewish experience of the past two centuries and the iniquities of the apartheid regime compelled them to document the strange, fractured society in which they found themselves. They took risks: in 1986, the security police raided offices of Afrapix, the internationally renowned collective photo agency (now in the Wits Historical Papers archive) Weinberg founded as a means to bear collective witness to the anti-apartheid struggle; Lurie ventured into unfamiliar neighbourhoods to forge relationships with subjects that took his interest and, contra Susan Sontag’s accusation that photographers are essentially vampires preying on their subject’s essence, creating photos in a process of mutual negotiation. The post-apartheid years carried their own challenges: a depressed, medicated Weinberg embarked on a project called Moving Spirits, which allowed him to see and share in spiritual practices at sacred sites all over the country and gifted him with a new way of seeing (his eyes lit up with a soft glow as he described the process, and you could almost see the images ripple under his skin); Lurie eschewed his former style and started taking photos of Table Mountain in various urban contexts, moving steadily in from locations in Khayelitsha and the Cape Flats to the leafy suburbs, every step exposing a different facet of the city’s hidden, hypocritical, brutal, gentle, traumatised, beautiful face. As the digital democratisation of photography via mobile technology proceeds apace, image-makers like Weinberg and Lurie have become artists of the visual, their work increasingly likely to be seen in galleries rather than the media.

Wartalk: Jews in the military

Two generations of historians faced each other across the long, wooden table in the Leon Wilder Boardroom: Prof. Richard Mendelsohn, and his son, Prof. Adam Mendelsohn, whose latest work concentrates on the experiences of Jewish soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War (the first volume focuses on the Union, a forthcoming second volume on the Confederacy). Responding to questions posed by Chai FM’s Benji Shulman, the younger Mendelsohn delivered a torrent of fascinating historical facts, anecdotes and analyses. In the multi-ethnic Union army, Jews often hid their identity to escape from antisemitic abuse. Diet and burial were problems that had to be set aside. At that stage, most American Jews were economic migrants from central Europe; some were diffident about how emancipation might affect their interests; others embraced the Union cause with a zealous fervour born of a keen sense of injustice and the rights of human-kind; others still were converted by the war. One such was Markus Spiegel, who joined the Union army to earn money and because creditors couldn’t foreclose on the property of enlisted men. It turned out that he had a natural gift for the military art and rose through the ranks to become a colonel, the most senior Jewish officer in Grant’s army. He became a dedicated abolitionist and fought to punish the South for its vile ideology, only to perish when his troopship was ambushed by Confederate artillery on the Mississippi. Another fiery Jewish warrior was Edward Solomon, who displayed a “Zelig-like” ability to appear at crucial moments in the battle and whom Grant eventually appointed governor of Washington Territory.

PS, I’m Jewish – The World

The grand finale of the Jewish Literary Festival took place in a packed Gardens Shul, a magnificent Victorian building with carved wooden pews and incandescent stained glass windows. The opening act was Pieter Dirk Uys. Dressed in his trademark black, Uys sat on a chair in front of the audience and delivered a poignant, lyrical flood of memories centered on his German mother: how she made their Pinelands home a haven of kindness, cuisine and music; how her nostalgic memories of the Berlin of her youth awakened his interest in German culture; how, a classically trained pianist, she encouraged his passion for the arts; and how she never told him that he was Jewish. There were clues – he once asked a visitor if the tattoo on her arm was a telephone number (“Call it, see if anyone answers”) – but he didn’t pick up on them. Only after his mother’s depression-induced suicide – the meds robbed her of sensation in her fingers, so she could no longer play – did a family friend reveal the truth to him. Why did she, like Bobby Moch’s father, conceal her Jewish identity? Perhaps the trauma of leaving people behind in Nazi Germany (a friend persuaded her to move in 1936) meant that concealment was a means of protecting her family. Maybe, with the signs of apartheid in every park, in every station, Cape Town didn’t feel so safe after all. But Uys is proud to have reclaimed his Jewish heritage. Today, his grandmother’s grand piano is on display in a memorial centre in Germany.

From one family history to an interconnected web of family histories: The World: A Family History is the eminent historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book, a gorgeously covered tome weighing in at a whopping 1,344 pages. In conversation with Prof. Hugh Corder, the impish Montefiore discoursed wittily and eloquently on his “lockdown project”: how he stayed indoors for three years, researching and weaving a tapestry composed of hundreds of interconnecting family stories set out in 22 Acts divided into sections with evocative titles like “Star Wars, Pierced Penises, Sex Slaves and Steam Baths” and “The Literary Halitosis Plot”. Imperial dynasties, families with hereditary trades, Russian serfs – they’re all families, social constructs ultimately determined by the stories they tell about the world, and their collective story is the history of the world.

Montefiore’s scope is vast, taking in not only territories that, historically, have dominated history (do I need to name names?) to smaller countries such as Albania and Swaziland, not to mention the world-moving yet under-documented powers of Africa, Iran, India and China. Neglected narratives are given space to restore the balance – for instance, the dominant narrative of Atlantic slavery is complemented by the equally egregious slaveries prevalent for centuries in Russian, East Africa and Asia, not to mention the 14 million people enslaved in Europe under the Nazis.

Averring that “history is a sacred duty”, Montefiore testified to the excitement of experiencing history in the making (as a war correspondent, he was an eye witness to the Georgian civil war of 1991) as well as the responsibility of writing history (his biography of Catherine the Great was so well received that Putin afforded him access to Stalin’s archives, which yielded the revelatory Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; that very morning, one of his collaborators on that project informed him that his Moscow flat had been raided). To illustrate the danger inherent in the very idea of history, Montefiore volunteered an anecdote about a Chinese historian: given the choice between execution and castration, he chose the latter, so that he could finish writing his own history of the world. It was a brave choice, considering that only about 20% of people survived castration (to staunch the bleeding, they were often buried in dry sand). The stoic historian said, “I took the choice to be mutilated so my book could be read.”

No wonder Montefiore’s favourite historical song is “Sympathy for the Devil”. Listen to it as part of The World’s official Spotify playlist.

Some readers may ask why the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations didn’t come up (at least not in any of the seven sessions that The Critter attended). It seems that this forum was not designed to address such sensitive issues. — Ed.

One thought on “Jewish Literary Festival: Death and other subjects

  1. I found the different portrayals of Jewish life and their experiences in this world,instructive and effective as I want to learn more about this hidden private culture that permeates our world; where we see abandoned Shuls in small towns all over South Africa. The Jewish people definitely had and is making their mark in building South Africa

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