250 – and all that!

by Irma Chait

A short light-hearted history of a great many issues
The good things and the bad *

WHILE THERE may be others who claimed to have first mooted the idea of starting a Cape Jewish Chronicle, it was Myra Osrin who took on the project and nursed and managed it to reality. Myra the indefatigable, the entrepreneurial, the energetic (so who says ‘Eliot is amazing’?) initiator of many a major programme for this community.
Once she comes up with a good idea, Myra runs with it to the finishing line – and wins the gold. As in this instance. She tailored a mock-up of what she envisaged, found a printing consultant in David Smith of Tricolor Press and together they worked out the various technicalities. Though in offering the editorship to a former, and now out of work Latin teacher, totally green and unschooled, I may add, in the field of print — or for that matter any form of media — she might have been accused of ill judgement. In any event, the person in question immediately refused … reconsidered … and then said, “What the hell! Okay, I’ll give it a try.”
While the paper was to be free to readers, to get the various communal organisations to embrace the idea and come to the party was no easy sell and greeted with a modicum of scepticism. To make it kosher, then, it was styled as under the auspices of the WP Zionist Council and the Board of Deputies, Cape Council, the added selling point being that if it floundered or flopped, these two august bodies would pick up the tab. And so it came to pass — a good thing.


ALL THAT HAPPENED 250 issues ago, in mid 1984, nor was it without much sweat, tears and trepidation that the Cape Jewish Chronicle Volume 1 No 1 was posted out at the beginning of November.
In fact that first issue was well received, and while the motivation was for every Jewish household in the Western Cape to get it free of charge, a voluntary subscription campaign was soon added to the mix. R15 per year. Not bad! It was to increase incrementally over the years.
Furthermore, to ensure financial viability, every organisation was to pay for the space it took in the paper, which could account for a certain reluctance on the part of some — the short-sighted decision-makers who did not foresee the saving of great wads of money in postage, as also the PR and guaranteed exposure they would achieve within the total community, not just to those whom they were canvassing at great cost via the postal services. A very good thing.
Clearly, those who succeeded them became well aware of those benefits, as we note today.
In addition Myra secured ‘patronage’ from generous business folk, professionals and companies in the community, who were and remain prominently positioned in blue in the middle spread pages ‘Patrons Panel’. These too have increased incrementally over the years — we now have 20! And to top the cake would be the commercial advertisers, classifieds (which we termed ‘Chronicads’ — a good name) and various family notices, wedding pics and whatever. A marked increase here as well. So far so good.
So … we were established, launched … and housed … in a third level office, with irregular flooring and stained carpets in Leeusig House, Leeuwen Street, the home of a host of community organisations — a rather intimidating place, to a former Latin teacher unversed in the ways of communal ‘action’ and personnel on first entry, (not good) but subsequently found to be very homely and family-like (just fine).
Our first advertising rep to blaze the trail in that department was Iona Sacks, to be succeeded a couple of years later by Claudette Lurie. And in due course Tessa Epstein, in 1991, replaced Lynn Jamieson as secretary, with Anita Shenker taking over the advertising position the following year. Very good indeed.


DURING THOSE YEARS at Leeusig, we were neighbour to a range of colleagues. In our infancy we had the pleasure of dealing with the irascible and irrepressible Minna Levitas who ran the UCF in an office around the corner, and who, when Lynn asked her yet again for her material for an issue in progress — as it was now past deadline — sent back a scrappy note reading, “Tell her the deadline is when I decide it will be.” Not at all good.
She sent it, nonetheless.
At the other end of the range was the very charming and genteel BOD executive director Ian Sacks, next door. Ever supportive and helpful, he was a man who spoke his mind, no pushover. Ian simply could not understand why we should want a computer, and expressed his disapproval. As to our then getting our own fax machine, he was horrified! But not too long afterwards he acquired both for the Board. And that was a very good thing.

WITHOUT WISHING to dwell too long at Leeusig, literally and figuratively, in retrospect those were really good days. A full-on book could be written about the characters, many now no longer with us; the fish lunches every Friday to entertain some visitor at a board meeting; the slew of meetings which kept the kitchen staff a-fish frying (and Revelas Fisheries in Long Street afloat) and my personal favourite, Annie’s magnificent sweetcorn pie.
How fondly I remember the late Rabbi David Sherman ‘shooting’ the jug of custard across the wide, gleaming board table for somebody who needed it to ladle over her apple pie!
And there was the Gitlin Library downstairs, run by the erudite, and bridge ‘ace’, Yvonne Verblun — or was it in fact Lorraine Knight? And the youth groups down in the depths, next to the kitchen, always bolting noisily up and down the stairs, while we tended to take the very erratic — and ancient — lift. There was the sweet-natured Izzy Wolman, with a dish of sweets ever near, and a most protective secretary in Shula Rabinowitz, plus a whole lot of others whom space does not permit mention here. Sorry chaps — bad.


WE HAD OUR OWN had our own editorial board meetings at that ‘meeting’ location on the first floor, always with sweetcorn pie on the menu. I saw to that!
At first the Ed board was chaired by Myra, but then she handed it over to Willie Levitt, a lovely man with a great, laid-back sense of humour, who wrote books and, in his retirement, articles for us, apart from various other activities, like bowls etc. He was to be succeeded by our present chairman Ben-Zion Surdut, who reckons he has been there for 30 years — “or so it seems.”
Ed Board members have come and – for various reasons — gone, but the stalwarts, who have been ‘a-Board’ from the beginning — would be Willie Katz (we’ll get back to him later), Gerald Kleinman, Myra and yours truly. More recent additions still with us — and more recent can mean anything from about 20 years ago — are Ben himself, Jack Tworetzky (our treasurer) and Jonathan Silke.


IN NOVEMBER 1993, to celebrate what was then an unimaginably tremendous achievement, our 100th issue, we held a cocktail party, catered by Merle R at the old pre-vamped Albow, for organisations, Ed Board members, our loyal Tricolor printers and other production partners of the time … and our husbands and kids, with many a back-pat and a couple of speeches.
When it came to Issue 200, we were too mean to spend the cash and settled for a nice front cover — a sketch which artist Tony Grogan kindly allowed us to use from his book of Cape Town, depicting the spires of the Gardens Shul against a background of the Mountain. We also had an intimate lunch for the staff and Ed Board — executive only!
Good, but not fair.


FEELING THAT after 200 issues we were probably looking jaded and needed a facelift, we were incredibly fortunate to get a real pro in Darryl Fine to design us an elegant, new masthead and logo. He also insisted that we change the font which David Smith had given us back in 1984 to a very clean and chic Franklin.
David, now over in the USA, was in no position to argue that one. Nor would his successor, Albert Berman, whose interest and support has been unwavering in our quest for perfection. This terrific working relationship with Tricolor has endured, with the invaluable input of two senior staff members, Bennie Small and Ian Max and their ‘backroom boys’, who go all out to make the best of every page, irrespective of quality of pictures.
Our new look was further enhanced when we began introducing more colour to our pages. Not cheap, but well worth it, as some of our advertisers and organisations clearly concur. And we pressured a conservative treasurer to budget in a full-colour front page for every issue in the year. Jolly good chap!


NOW, FOR THIS 250th, while still a bit mean, we have splurged a little with this 4-page full colour outer cover and the production of a limited edition of commemorative ‘250’ coffee mugs. These will be rationed out to the ‘deserving’ and to winners of our ‘Face of Cape Chronicle — Find Willie!’ competition, details of which are themselves to be found on this page.
Which brings us to the subject of the ‘Willie’ in question — William Katz, alias ‘The Shammash’.
Not everyone knows — maybe — that Willie is the Shammash or that the Shammash is Willie, but the truth is … they are! He is in many ways a very famous personage. He has been an ardent member and supporter of the Jewish communal ‘club’ for far longer than his Chronicle career. Much loved too, not only for the stash of sweets he carries in his pockets and doles out enthusiastically to kids and adults, not only on shabbas and high holidays. A keeper of trivia, statistics, cute quotes and the like, he is the readers’ first port of call when the paper arrives. A time-keeper at editorial board meetings, he regularly interrupts a fairly important bit of discussion to demand, “When’s the next meeting?” Not good.
While Willie does seem to be taking an inordinate amount of space in this narrative, I must add that he has a fine sense of humour and boasts a great demand for his services as toastmaster at weddings, birthday parties and such events.
Enough of Willie … to return to the narrative … circa 1998/9 …


MEANWHILE, WELL-COMPUTERISED now, and encouraged by our latest repro house (one-by-one they folded — were we the jinx?), our ‘media machine’ progressed further and we started setting the copy ‘in-house’, that is, in our dingy office. This required the addition to our team of Paula Cohen and the necessary ‘QuarkXpress’ programme, which she taught herself and managed marvelously.
Paula was also a breath fresh air for the dingy office, the fresh air added to every now and then, when she had to have her ‘smoke’ — at our insistence out through the window! That meant too that we could keep a check on the comings and going in the streets. A good thing, sometimes, when the action was exciting. The law courts, below left, offered a fair amount of drama, and there were regular major and minor bashes, smashes and screeching tyres in Long Street.


AT LAST, IN MARCH 2000, the time arrived to move from Leeusig to 87 Hatfield Street, into the newly completed building and our own magnificent offices, for which we are grateful in particular to the amazing Eliot and the super-carer, Eric Michaels.
“When we go home at the end of the day, we will never ever leave this office in an untidy state,” we vowed. A vow not to be kept. A bad thing.


THE ENTIRE VIBE of the organisations which had formerly dwelt on 4 floors plus a basement in Leeusig now changed, with this big, open zone in the centre and smaller offices off the passages on either side. We were at the far end, and a long haul to the ladies’ room. Not very good.
The camaraderie, laughter and irritations formerly confined to the 4 aforementioned Leeusig floors now permeated just one level, with the Chronicle able to shut ourselves off in a flash by simply closing the door. But this in no way prevented people from coming or barging in uninvited and launching into their mission without regard to the prevailing situation in the office — rendering the possibility of getting on with that work untenable — particularly when sub-editing material often of a very poor quality.
Mind you, when Rabbi David Hoffman popped in and lingered to share some lengthily complex thoughts, he always accepted most amiably my suggestion that he go on his way so that I could get on with my work.


REGARDING THE POOR quality of material submitted, it would seem that for a large percentage of our clients and customers the art of punctuation, spelling and general presentation is sadly lacking. A bad thing.
And while on the subject, the quality of pictures submitted continues to vary from the excellent to the indecipherable, an ongoing problem. Also not good.
On the subject of contributors moreover, a very, very important element in the timely and more fluid production of the paper, from the word go, has been the adherence to deadlines — sadly, a virtual impossibility for 99% of our Jewish organisations and their personnel. Very bad.
There are some who are unfaultable, and one, I have to say, who gets an A plus in my book, is Moira Schneider, who periodically writes great stuff for the WPZC and BOD, and always gets it in ‘punkt’ on time. Good girl.


THIS WOULD BE a fine moment to acknowledge the fact that, occasional annoyances aside, after 250 issues of experiencing the Jewish organisations and personnel, both lay and professional — and their passion and labours for the causes they embrace — this comaparatively small Cape Town community must be the finest in the world! Such a judgement is based on many, many factors. Having no space to elaborate on its virtues (or for that matter ‘vices’), we’ll do it in one word — heart!
That ‘aside’ aside, when it comes to writings and submissions, the outstanding and scholarly perspectives on Israel and the Middle East of a brilliant young man, Hagai Segal, cannot be overstated. Hagai was stationed here in South Africa some years back, spending time here in Cape Town, where he has many friends and admirers. While for some his column may not be easy reading, his analyses and observations are objective, up-to-date and reliable, sparing nobody in revealing the situation as he sees it. He adds stature to our paper, and is our answer to Gerald Kleinman’s regular pre-Hagai calls for some serious (of substance) articles in the paper.


THIS AND OTHER such features ensured, after about 15 or so years, that the Chronicle was at last accepted as an institution of the community — and with that its size inflated steadily. It also became more attractive to advertisers, who either came forward or were brilliantly ‘sourced’ and hooked by Anita the Ace of ads. So, what was initially regarded as a huge issue — about 28 pages — was never to be seen again, an average size being something like 36. Good … but … not so good for the staff, having to cope with a lot more work, and after a time this 4-member ‘union’ felt a sense of dissatisfaction. But we didn’t have to strike, our request for increases being heard, understood and satisfied. A very, very good thing.
It should be noted that Tessa, at our general telephone ext.136, has also borne the brunt of the increase of interest in our publication. And one of the areas that she specialises in — the Family Announcements — has really grown, as can be noted in this very issue. These announcements are both happy and sad, and when someone calls with the latter, one can hear immediately how Tessa’s voice changes to a tone of sympathy, as she assists the caller in composing the message. Not such an easy job, Tessa also has to keep on reminding and nagging people to get their material in, with the editor making frantic gestures to her to get tougher … “We need it NOW, Tess!”
I cannot resist revealing a typo that I picked up and (reluctantly) corrected in one of Tessa’s ‘Condolence’ inserts in this issue, where she had typed “… we thank you for your massages of sympathy”. I thought this might be quite a good thing, perhaps, to ease the pain.


TO RETURN TO THE POINT where we had set up at 87 Hatfield, by now Paula, who had stayed with us handling the DTP side, was ready to move on to new PC pastures. There we were, in our beautiful offices, all computerised and in a total panic. But sympathetic to our situation, Paula stayed on until, in January 2001, she had found us an outstanding successor in the person of Desrae Saacks.
Desrae, who is in addition an artist, is great at the job, conscientious, hard-working and professional. She works well with the editor, whose quirks as regards punctuation, preferred fonts and styles she understands. For this and her suggested improvements to text and style, the editor regularly offers her her job, which she hastily refuses.
One should mention that there is nothing of the conventional press or media room in the Chronicle office. We are unique in every sense — in our systems (or lack thereof), in our procedures and in our distractability — as when someone announces she’s hungry/thirsty and work ceases while we phone up the refreshment providers for “What’s on the menu today?” and get our orders placed — and then eaten/drunk as a priority once they arrive. For a good hot cappuccino we’ve even kept rabbis waiting! Not really nice.


IN THE GENERAL HATFIELD AND OFFICE context, it is worth mentioning that a few years back, three of our staff participated in a CSO training weekend, which was an experience never to be forgotten and which entitled us to be made ‘marshalls’ with our own black caps and instructions on what to do in emergency situations.
The weekend itself was a tremendous bonding exercise for those in the building who participated, and for a short while we felt far superior to the faders’ who had not gone. We would ‘high 5’ each other in the passages like real comrades. But, alas, the moment passed and we soon sank to our former lowly status, even when there were fire drills and we donned our caps, when nobody remembered the instructions anyway.


THESE PAST 6 or so years at Hatfield Street have provided material for many a chapter in ‘the book that may never be written’ and have seen the advent and departure too of a number of interesting individuals. It is difficult to focus on specific people, especially as not enough time has passed to render it as ‘history’ but rather as ‘current’ — and thus liable to attract libel suits. A bad thing.
Perhaps it would be advisable to continue the story when we reach the 275th or 300th issue, which should take about 3 to 4 years, coinciding probably with the 2010 Soccer World Cup, which, while a milestone, would have little relevance for either side. At such a time, however, the current CJC office quartet could probably have been replaced, allowing the new author of the history to share some anecdotal stuff about us.
Which, with apologies to all those who feel miffed that they were not mentioned, is an excellent time to end Part One of the CJC saga. And if you have read to the end, you are really GOOD!


(1) Where facts in this magnum opus may be disputed, please excuse such inaccuracies as a reluctance on the part of the writer to check every date and dubious detail. Call us, by all, means, but in gentle mode.
(2) *As some may recognise, in the style of ‘1066 and all that’ by Sellar and Yeatman (1930). If anyone would like to read ‘1066 and all that’ — to understand why the good and bads — call us and we’ll happily lend you a copy.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here