Rosh Hashanah beginnings…

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

Beginnings… That is what comes to mind for me before every Rosh Hashanah. 

The very many times in each of our lives which were beginnings. Hopefully beginnings heralding a change for the better, for excitement and joy. 

But also recognising that beginnings can be forced on you because of circumstances beyond your control. Don’t we South African — or in my case ex-South African — Jews know this only too well? But then again, can we ever be ex-anything? Don’t we carry each part of our lives with us wherever we go?

If you have read what I’ve written over the past couple of years for the Cape Jewish Chronicle (CJC), you know that I do. (here a shout-out — as the Americans say — to Marlene Shifrin, a regular reader of the CJC, and a South African Jew with a past very much like mine, from a small town (hers even smaller than mine, Grabouw, with a tiny Jewish community) now dispersed around the world. Like me, she now proudly calls herself Israeli, and compliments me when my writing enables her to return to the place we all came from, and reminds her what it gave us).

But I digress as usual (“It’s all about the di-gressions,” I hear Virginia Woolf whispering in my ear via Professor John Coetzee, my lecturer in 20th century literature at UCT). My beginnings are going to be the subject of this Rosh Hashanah musing.

One day as I was driving a very elderly ex-South African Jew in the ‘golfit’ (Hebrew — or my kibbutz slang — for golf cart), he asked me a question, “Where are you from?” I answered that I was from South Africa. It took me a few moments to interpret his mumbled response as a dissatisfaction with my rather inept understanding of the question as to where one was from. ‘From’ for us wanderers, is not about the place you were born — in my case Somerset West — but where you were really from. I volunteered the place of my grandfather Israel Resnick’s birth, Kupershik. His eyes lit up. “Kupershik! I remember playing football against them before the War.”

I did my arithmetic (as the study of mathematics was known in Somerset West Primary) and realised that for him, for Sabba Dragon, the War was the First World War, and not as it is for most of us living today who do not add an additional defining word to the word war when we use it, the Second World War.

So, my beginnings were in Kupershik (without going into where the Cohens, the Eismanns and the Mankowits were from).

Hence, my beginnings would be Somerset West via Kupershik, Fresnaye and Malmesbury (where my respective grandparents lived. BTW, if any of you know where the Mankowits or Eismanns were from, I would love to know. The Cohens? Impossible, as they came via Pittsburgh to Cape Town).

Let me move from beginnings to a more loaded word, awakenings. I think of three awakenings as crucial beginnings in my life: my intellectual awakening, my emotional awakening and my identity awakening (I never had a religious awakening — sorry Aish, it is not going to happen as I am very comfortable in my very Jewish skin).

My intellectual awakening had nothing to do with the teachers from Somerset West Primary, Hottentots Holland High School, Paul Roos Gymansium or Cape Town High School (the schools I attended), or from my years as a Brownie and a Boy Scout. The awakening was due to the arrival of Habonim in Somerest West, and especially the extraordinary decision to send Jeffrey Peires out into the bundu to be our Habonim madrich. Jeffrey was a magnificent educator blessed with the two I’s crucial to any educator, Integrity and Intensity. He opened my eyes (not I’s) to a world of complexity, nuance, different truths and ways of understanding the world. Certainty was gone forever and, thankfully, replaced by questions and serious conversation. My mind would never be the same again.

My emotional awakening was due to, possibly the first kiss with a girl (was it Laurette Swanepoel or Geraldine Munnik? I am not sure and they are far away in New Zealand and Germany, so you might have to ask Maggie Lombard in Tulbagh if she remembers). Possibly due to my first erotic fantasies about the girl most boys of my generation in Somerset West fantasized about, Joan Brederode, or possibly due to my first girlfriend much later (as I was shy) when I was 16 and living in Sea Point (I am not going to reveal her name here as she might read this because, as opposed to the previously mentioned, she was unsere — and I lost touch many years ago and she might even live locally as a Cape Town Jewish Bobbe in her mid-60s).

My identity awakening had many moments, but as I sit and write this in Israel, I am reminded of one moment as a pupil, a naughty pupil, at Paul Roos Gymnasium Stellenbosch. I am sure that in the minutes leading up to the moment I will never forget, even though I have forgotten his name, I behaved badly. Possibly very badly. But I will forever remember my shock, as the incensed teacher turned to me and screamed these words at me (and forgive my Afrikaans as it has been a long time since I was vlot (fluent for the rooineks among you)
in Afrikaans:

“Gaan Israel toe, jou f_kken Joodjie, waar die Arabiere jou kop kan afskiet” (Once again for the rooineks, “Go to Israel, you f_ _ _ing Jewboy, where the Arabs can shoot your head off”). My Zionist identity, my decision to make the most significant change in my life had many parts to it, but probably none as momentarily dramatic as those 30 seconds of my time at Paul Roos (BTW, I loved my time at Paul Roos and especially the educational level and the fact that it was a challenging place to be).

Almost 47 years now in Israel, the most important beginning of my life was when, at the age of 22, I arrived to start my new life here. Whenever I think of my beginning here, and my new life in Israel, I am reminded of the tombstone on Ben Gurion’s grave. Unlike most other tombstones I have seen over the years, there are three dates on his tombstone — his date of birth (1886), the year he died (1973) and the year he was reborn, the year of his Aliyah to Israel (1906). Now, I am not Ben Gurion, but I too feel that 1976 is the year that I was reborn, when I began my life in Israel. 

A life which has been filled with beginnings, wonderful beginnings. My life as a married man (almost 40 years), my life as a father (just under 37 years), my life as a grandfather (just over eight years) are the three wonderful and powerful beginnings I have had here in Israel, and which I enjoy right now in the days leading up to
Rosh Hashanah.

I wish you all, South African Jews everywhere (no, we have agreed, there are no ex-South African Jews as we all carry with us those extraordinary experiences of growing up where we did — I do not need to remind you of what the word extraordinary means in all its complexity), a Happy New Year, Chag Sameach, and may this New Year be filled with wonderful beginnings
(and continuations).

Julian Resnick (Mankowitz/Cohen/Eismann) of Kupershik/Malmesbury/Fresnaye/Somerset West/Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu/Jerusalem/Kibbutz Tzora.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora

• Published in the September 2022 Rosh Hashanah Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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