Commentary Magazine

My Jewish Childhood

There is an ironic contrast between the way we think about adulthood when we are children and how we look back on childhood once we have become adults. As children, we cannot wait to leave the state of subordination in which we are trapped, whether at school or at home. Out there are the grownups who do important work, go to bed when they like, spend money, have sex, drive cars; and here we are, dependent on them, subject to their orders, knowing we cannot cope without them—in short, living through what the poet W.B. Yeats, in one of his great phrases, referred to as “the ignominy of boyhood.”

And when we become adults? Even those not in thrall to the doctrines of psychoanalysis are likely to think that the experiences that ultimately shaped their consciousness took place during childhood. It was then that we perceived everything with an unparalleled sharpness and sensitivity, and that our emotional lives had an immediacy seldom matched subsequently. In those respects, at least, most of what followed has been a falling-off.

Perhaps writers or writers-to-be are particularly prone to reaching forward in childhood to the unrealized future and then, in adulthood, looking back with longing or blame on the receding past. And perhaps that is why the memoir or short story or poem may be more appropriate to the topic of growing up than the analytic or discursive mode. Imaginative writing is at home with confusion and multifariousness and the absence of clearly defined “borders.” Discursive writing, by contrast, whether on the topic of childhood or any other, seems to impel one toward categorizing and generalizing, toward lining up strengths and weaknesses, good things and bad, credits and debits, in neat, bookkeeping columns. But no aspect of our lives is really separable from any other, and almost any experience can be seen in retrospect as one of both gain and loss. All this is further complicated by the fact that growing up Jewish—which is my particular subject here—is just one way of growing up anything, of going through the universal experience of being a child and then, at no definable moment, ceasing to be one.

So, before proceeding in the most direct and categorical fashion—by dividing into good and bad the experience of growing up Jewish in South Africa—I must insist that these categories are being set up in order to be disrupted or even destroyed. I am also acutely aware that the childhood I am about to describe took place a long time ago—in the late 30’s and 40’s of the last century—and in a setting—the isolated, declining mining town of Kimberley that then had a Jewish community of about 130 families—that was “atypical” even by South African standards. Whether that strengthens or weakens the historical interest and present relevance of what follows must be left for others to decide.



Among the good things I associate with having grown up Jewish in that place and at that time, the first must surely be the strength of feeling within the family about the family—as an institution and as a fixed framework for our lives. This feeling was conveyed by my parents and I believe by most other Jewish parents in town to their children. As it happens, my own father and mother did not get along particularly well with one another, and they themselves had both come from homes that had been disrupted in different ways—even apart from the great upheaval of their migration at an early age from (in my father’s case) Latvia and (in my mother’s) Lithuania. Yet none of their children ever doubted the strength of their commitment to us or the depth of responsibility they felt toward us.

This was made manifest not by way of explicit declarations or programmatic and sentimental appeals, but by what I would call their very opposite: gestures, tone of voices, facial expressions, assumptions unwittingly made, hopes and expectations left unspoken. By such means, too, I seem always to have been made aware (though from what age and in what terms it is impossible for me to say) that my parents’ feelings about their children were inextricably associated in their minds with the vulnerability and fragility of their position as Jews and immigrants, and that what was true of them applied in varying degrees to most other members of the community.

Obviously I am not suggesting that only immigrant Jewish parents gave a high priority to the welfare of their children and felt their responsibility toward them so keenly. What I have in mind, rather, is the style or manner of their caring, and the powerful undercurrents that ran within it. These were also made manifest in another aspect of my parents’ lives into which and out of which their Jewishness flowed: their intellectual curiosity. Though my father was the manager of a butter factory and my mother worked in the firm as an accountant, they were bookish by temperament. They read. Their tastes differed—my mother was given to reading novels and biographies and my father books on current affairs—but their reading was important to both of them and they talked to us as well as to each other about what they were reading and the ideas it suggested to them.

One consequence of growing up in such a household was that from an early age the children became readers, too, and generally did well in school. So did a disproportionate number of the other Jewish children—a fact that one or two unpleasant teachers in the Kimberley Boys High School did not fail to point out to those among us who were not high achievers. To tell the truth, at such moments I was never sure to whom these teachers felt more hostile: the boys who fulfilled the stereotype of Jewish “cleverness” or the ones who failed to do so.



The next benefit I would enter on the list is the sense of kinship, or at least of commonality, shared by the Jewish families in Kimberley. Almost all of them were of Lithuanian or Latvian origin like my parents and indeed like the overwhelming majority of South African Jewry. Almost all of them were also relatively recent arrivals in the country, or the children of new arrivals. Since the community was so small, I imagine its members all knew one another by sight and name. The organized nature of community life gave both adults and children regular opportunities to pursue the usual kinds of collective activities: synagogue worship and the administrative business involved in running the synagogue, Hebrew lessons for the youngsters, Zionist meetings addressed by fundraisers from abroad or from the big cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, women’s gatherings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, the burial society, a Young Israel society, and so forth. As children, in short, we were provided with what could be called a ready-made milieu which, though it did not satisfy all our social needs and aspirations, nevertheless gave us many of our friends and much of our entertainment, and helped us in a variety of ways to acquire a sense of what we might make of ourselves.

Related to all this was our consciousness that being Jewish involved us not just with the local community in Kimberley, and with other communities in South Africa, but with Jewry everywhere. During my boyhood the Jewish world was undergoing a catastrophe of proportions unlike anything even in its long history. The full extent of this catastrophe was, perhaps fortunately, not known to us; but we were aware that terrible, unspeakable events were taking place in Europe, and that these not only affected us morally and psychologically but threatened our physical existence as well.

I will say more about this on the debit side, but I hope it will not seem crass if I add here, as a most heavily qualified “credit” of a kind, that as children we learned that through our Jewishness we had a direct stake in world-shaking events. For us to have found ourselves in a small town in South Africa was not the random happening it might have appeared, but was part of a history of dispersion and suffering that had been going on for many centuries and might well go on for as many more. As Jews we may have been newly arrived at the foot of the African continent, but we were not newly arrived in the world. In fact, we had been here long before almost any other group anywhere that could make a plausible show of possessing a continuous, historic identity.

The Zionist movement—in which, perhaps because of the racially riven nature of the country itself, the South African Jewish community took a proportionately stronger and more active interest than any other in the Western world—had something of the same impact. It incited us to believe that we were intimately involved in struggles which, however physically distant, could well affect our own futures. (Not that World War II was physically distant for many young men of the town, my older brother among them, who served in the South African forces in North Africa and Italy.)



In alluding to this “international” dimension of growing up Jewish I must also mention another worldwide phenomenon from which many South Africans in general—and not only those of British stock—derived a strengthened sense of identity and self-importance. I mean the British empire and commonwealth, to which the entire country had been forcibly attached after the defeat of the two independent Boer republics in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer war. People who lived “under the British crown” in those days could think of themselves as belonging to, as part of, a political system that exercised global power and was held in global esteem. However insignificant they were within that system, they had some kind of obscure claim for consideration not just wherever they happened to be, but elsewhere too: in Canada and Australia, in Malaya and India, as well as in the so-called “mother country” itself. The crown, the coinage, the buff postal envelopes marked “On His Majesty’s Service,” the playing of “God Save the King” at the end of movies, some of the history we studied in school, some of the films we watched (like the ardently imperialist Rhodes of Africa or Lives of a Bengal Lancer)—all this, politically incorrect though it is to say so today, was a source of an enlarged sense of selfhood, even for those who could at best claim to be stepchildren of the empire.

As evidence of this I might point, for example, to the biography of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist statesman and first president of Israel, born and brought up in Eastern Europe and a passionate admirer of Britain and what he believed to be its imperial mission, or to the memoirs of major figures in the Indian struggle for independence like Gandhi or Nehru. Even more relevant are the echoes of such sentiments I can remember hearing from those who, on the face of it, should have rejected them outright, like members of the large Cape Coloured community in Kimberley, and from blacks as well as resentful, republican-minded Afrikaners. Among the blacks I should particularly mention Sol Plaatje, my fellow-Kimberleyite, translator of Shakespeare into the Tswana language and founder of the African National Congress, who repeatedly and unavailingly turned to London to intercede on behalf of his people against the “colonial” whites.1

For Jews, the imperial connection had a peculiar importance for two further reasons. First, South Africa’s constitutional status as a self-governing British dominion within the commonwealth made it seem “natural” that the country should have entered World War II against Germany on Britain’s side (even if the vote in South Africa’s parliament was a damned close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington said about his victory at Waterloo). Second, Great Britain was the mandatory power in Palestine, where the struggle for the establishment of an independent Jewish state was then gradually coming to its crisis.



A final item on the credit side: growing up Jewish, I believe, encouraged many of us to feel a quasi-instinctive sympathy with other despised and unjustly treated racial groups in South Africa, and a distaste, to put it no more strongly, for the way they were habitually spoken to and spoken of by most whites in those days. Long before the Afrikaner Nationalists (who came to power in 1948) were to introduce their elaborate, ideologically driven apartheid policies, a fierce color bar affected every aspect of social, political, economic, and educational life all over the country. In their over-whelming majority, the members of the Jewish community accepted this dispensation and lived by it. Yet I can say of the Jewish boys at my school, who came in all sizes, shapes, and dispositions, that I never heard them using the violent and abusive language against people of darker skin that was common coin among many (though by no means all) of our non-Jewish schoolfellows. Nor did I hear Jewish boys boasting of what they or their fathers or their uncles had done to this or that unfortunate black servant or urchin or passer-by who had been (in the odious phrase of the time) “cheeky.”

This may not sound like much in today’s climate, but it was something. I know, too, that the view my parents took of the voteless, rightless, poverty-stricken majority of people around us was explicitly derived by them from their own past and their feelings about that past (the past, that is, of their own lives and the life of their people). Currently there is much discussion within the South African Jewish community about how pusillanimous or otherwise the Jews were vis-à-vis the injustices perpetrated against other groups in the country, especially during the apartheid years. Some of what I will be saying has a bearing on the prehistory of that debate, raising the question of how secure politically, socially, and even physically the Jews felt themselves to be at the time I am speaking of here—which is roughly between the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939 and the crucial electoral victory of the Afrikaner Nationalist party nine years later.



I turn now to the debit side of this exceptionally messy balance sheet. And I begin with a statement of the obvious. Black or white, the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa espoused and continue to espouse varying forms of Christianity. The languages they speak, the calendar they follow, the customs they observe and most of their musical, literary, and pictorial modes of expression are all steeped in, or dependent on, Christian beliefs and assumptions. It would be improper, and pointless, for any non-Christian minority to feel aggrieved on that score.

Next, as long as the people of South Africa (or anywhere else) are divided into ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups—and I cannot imagine them not so divided—there will always be tensions and animosities among them. It is always going to be difficult to get socially and racially diverse peoples to live harmoniously together within a single polity. No talk of rainbow coalitions, or (in South Africa’s case) of a Rainbow Nation, is going to change this state of affairs.

Finally, in speaking as bleakly as I am going to do about the anti-Semitism I grew up with, I do not want to suggest that it was universal. Far from it.

Still, the fact remains that the heaviest item on the debit side of my experience of growing up Jewish, the bad thing that probably embraces all others, was the anti-Semitism—of a virulent kind and of epidemic proportions—that was abroad during my boyhood. If the sentiment, the passion, and the ideology of anti-Semitism—and it was all these—never actually became murderous in South Africa itself, that was as much a matter of luck as of any imperviousness to it within the society’s own institutions. By “luck,” I mean that the British did not surrender to Nazi Germany at the time of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. If that had happened, one can only speculate about the fate of the community, especially given the undisguised longing for a German victory expressed by the official Afrikaner Nationalist movement—not to speak of such now-forgotten but once actively and vociferously pro-Nazi outriders to it like the Ossewa Brandwag, the New Order, and the Greyshirts.

By the early 1940’s Nazism was at its peak. It seemed all-conquering. The Nazis had spread their poison worldwide, and we know from documents discovered after the war that they regarded South Africa as a territory particularly ripe for the harvesting. This was the climate in which we conducted our lives; and, just like Jews living in countries much closer to the Nazi armies than we were, we carried on by and large just as if everything were normal and would continue that way. So, fortunately for us, did most of our non-Jewish neighbors. But the prevailing climate affected not only those who were openly or covertly pro-German. The Nazis had not invented anti-Semitism, and their version of it was so successful because in large part it merged with attitudes and beliefs that were ancient, insidious, and yet somehow casual; that were taken for granted yet held with great tenacity and an ebullient self-righteousness by all and sundry.

Well, sundry anyway: businessmen, teachers, clergymen, directors of the De Beers Consolidated Mines, boys at school, parents who discouraged their offspring from playing with Jewish children, newspaper editors who wrote offensively about the Jews. They were not Nazis, but they were anti-Semites, whether they were conscious of being so or not; and emboldened by the climate of the time, they made their presence felt in all sorts of ways.



Let me give just a single instance of the willingness to wound Jewish feelings I am speaking about here, and which helped to determine and to darken my own feelings both about being Jewish and about the society at large. From roughly the fourth through the eighth grade (that is, between the ages of nine and thirteen), not a school year passed without one of our prescribed literary texts including a prominent Jewish figure whose unpleasantness was made central to his Jewishness by the writer himself. We had a child’s version of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, with its crawling, money-crazed Isaac of York; we had Baroness D’Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which contains at least one chapter featuring a miserly and treacherous Jew; we had an Afrikaans novel with a name I have forgotten but which I remember to have been similarly adorned; and finally we were given Dickens’s Oliver Twist, best-known perhaps for its portrait of the unforgettably villainous Fagin, which we studied exhaustively over two years. The choice of such a succession of books at that particular historical moment, whether deliberate or not, says much about the unspoken attitudes of the officials of the Cape Province department of education. (True, we later escaped The Merchant of Venice, but only because Hamlet was the alternative Shakespeare text on offer for that year’s examination.)

In the eyes of most white South Africans, Jews occupied the lowest rung of esteem and social acceptability among whites. Not the lowest rung professionally or economically—that was reserved for the “poor whites.” But the very fact that I can compare the poor whites with a group whose menfolk were mostly shopkeepers and professional people, and which aspired earnestly to a middle-class way of life, illustrates just how anomalous and indeed oppressive was the situation in which the Jews found themselves. The word “oppressive” will no doubt look provocative to some eyes, in view of the many other, more radical forms of racial oppression and dispossession that were rife in South Africa during my childhood. But when I look back on what it was like to be a Jewish ten-year-old in a small South African town 60 years ago, I have no inclination to use any other term at this point.

Now add together the following: the inevitable marginalization of Jews in a largely Christian country; the readiness to speak and think ill of Jews that was then so widespread in society as a whole; the insanely paranoid and ideological anti-Semitism being spread by what was then the strongest military power in the world; and, last but not least, the constant interaction and interchange among all these levels of attitude and belief. Take all this into account and think about its effects on the minds and sensibilities of ten-year-old youngsters who are at the wrong end of it, and what is one likely to one find? The answer is plain enough. Self-division, self-doubt, self-rejection, anxiety, weariness, conflicting loyalties, envy, shame, a longing to be shut of the whole business.

None of this should come as a shock or a surprise to anyone. Jews have been saying for centuries that it is hard to be a Jew, and a vulnerability to the moral and psychological pressures I have just named is one of the hardships they have faced ever since they began to seek acceptance by the larger societies within which they lived or toward which they migrated. These pressures were and to some degree still are a source of great pain; they are also at the heart of much Jewish humor; they are at work behind and within Jewish ambition and creativity in a variety of fields, literature not least among them. (As a not-so-tiny example of the tortuosities of consciousness I am trying to describe, let me say that my early, humiliating acquaintance with Oliver Twist was the beginning of a lifelong addiction to the novels of Charles Dickens.)

Of course, not even the most self-hating Jew believes that all Gentiles lead happy and unproblematical lives, or that he himself would do likewise if only he were released from servitude to his Jewishness. But anyone who has been the object of racial hatred knows that it is so wounding to its victim—more wounding than personal abuse directed against him as an individual—precisely because it denies his individuality. To every member of the spurned race it says: to me you will never be a person with a life and interests of your own, but always a representative of a species. Whatever you do will reveal only your speciesdom; and if you try to escape from it, that too will reveal the species you belong to.

Readers were warned that some good things and bad things were likely to change places as my argument proceeded, and I have been depressingly as good as my word. I know that for many people who have grown up Jewish, one of the good things about it, indeed the best thing, is Judaism itself; and such readers may be wondering why I have not mentioned the consolations the religion offers to those who are faithful to it. This is a serious question and it demands a serious reply. I have not mentioned the consolations of religion because I never felt them.

Some of the rituals and observances of the Jewish festivals had a limited aesthetic appeal to me as a boy—those that took place in the home (like the table laid for the Passover seder) more than those in Kimberley’s only synagogue, where services were conducted in a strictly traditional manner. But as far back as I can remember, these observances were vitiated for me by my inability to accept the beliefs and teachings to which they owed their existence. I have no doubt that the dismal states of mind I itemized above would be felt less keenly by a believing Jew. Perhaps they would not be felt at all. But this fact can hardly affect my own position. To someone like myself, belief adopted for instrumental or therapeutic reasons, rather than out of genuine conviction, is bound to appear contrived: a complication of the problem, so to speak, rather than a solution to it.

To have grown up secular, as in effect I did—with the active encouragement of my mother and the compliance of my father, whose deep feelings about his people were manifested in his almost obsessive identification with the Zionist cause—was quite a common way of growing up Jewish in my youth. And for people of that generation it was a common way of staying Jewish, too, in the sense of retaining a strong interest in Jewish life both in Israel and in the Diaspora, as my own career as a writer and that of many of my contemporaries in other fields would attest. Today it appears that just as more and more Jews are marrying “out,” so too more of them—though a much smaller number than the first group—are returning to the religion of their forefathers. In my time and place the choice of the latter option was rare indeed. Of the boys who grew up with me I can only think of one who later became truly observant; and even he had squared the circle by marrying a Gentile woman who then converted to Judaism.

In South Africa today the salient fact about the Jews is that their numbers have now shrunk to about half of what they were 50 years ago (an estimated 75,000 in all). Assimilation and a strikingly low birth rate have contributed to this depletion, but not as much as the constant hemorrhage of emigration. During the apartheid years Jews were inclined to leave because of their conviction that the racial policies of the Nationalist government would sooner or later reduce the country to social and political ruin; now the incidence of violent crime and the specter of AIDS continue to drive them away, as does their lack of confidence in the capacity of the country’s new rulers to avoid the administrative failures (and worse) that disfigure so many other independent black states to the north.



Much of what I have written here about my boyhood in South Africa may sound excessively gloomy: a going-back over old, unhappy things. But history never ceases to surprise us, and not a few of the surprises that have come our way during the past 50 years—that is, from the time I crossed the line between adolescence and adulthood—have been more encouraging than anyone had a right to expect.

My conviction about anti-Semitism, for instance, is that though the sentiment has not disappeared, and probably never will, as a political force it is now largely spent. Rash though it may seem to say so, I suspect that anti-Semites themselves—even in Russia!—doubt that their creed will ever again serve as the central inspiration of a mass movement that will carry them to the power they crave. There are many reasons for this, among them social and demographic changes on a global scale that have nothing to do with the Jews as such. But among those reasons, surely, is the existence of the state of Israel, which has done away with what, in my view, never failed to provoke the anti-Semites to their excesses—not, as they always liked to claim, the power of the Jews, but its very opposite, the helplessness of the Jews, which fed the sadistic conviction of their enemies that this particular people could be driven and hunted from place to place, and killed outright when circumstances were propitious, because no country in the world would regard it as its prime task to give them protection.

Those days are over. They are no more going to return than a biologically based doctrine of white supremacy is going to return to power in South Africa, or Marxism in the now nonexistent Soviet Union. For all this, at the beginning of a new century, we have reason to be grateful.



1 Plaatje was also, incidentally, the first man to make a recording (in London, in 1920) of Inkosi Sikulele Afrika, which is today the South African national anthem.


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