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Keeping shtum*

When I was a young woman just out of school and during a state of emergency, while on a visit to my beautiful Boba, we were talking politics and I told her I was in despair and hoping for the Messiah. She said I could put out my cigarette for starters.

Let me say this out loud: I love being Jewish. For the humour, the stories, for the language and family, for time spent with people who are gone, for yiddishkeit and, of course, for the generosity of food. I love that it is true, too, what they say about the guilt: when you visit your Boba she inevitably asks why you never do.

I love being Jewish despite the fact some of my fellows of the persuasion, would deny me, and anyone else who disagrees with them, this birthright. Jewish people who do not agree with the Israeli state’s approach to its defence are the worst kind of anti-Semites — according to them. I’m telling you that we are called not very nice names, amongst them unJew, traitor and even worse, all vitriolic and not exactly conducive to conversation. I speculate that the majority of those Jews who are compassionate and open to the conversation are so disquieted by the possibility of being branded as anti-Israel, (as opposed to anti-Israeli government), that they choose silence over speaking up. You can hardly blame anyone who isn’t putting themselves into what appears to be a useless firing line, but I can’t help feeling I have an obligation to be among those who risk not keeping shtum. One of the reasons is that right now it sure looks like most Jews agree with the violence and I am hoping that this is not true.

I think “if only all the many complicated peoples of Israel and Palestine, of Christian, Jew and Muslim, would look for their family connection, eat something sweet together and focus on the miracle of being alive at the same time”. Ha. Before you call me an idealist in a predictably scathing and write-off tone, contemplate the fact that out of all the revered -isms that do not work, idealism is the only one so far not to even get a look in.

Having said which, if it ever gets to it, I would defend anyone attacked in any way for just being of a particular faith. And I did not dig the recent singing of “shoot the Jew” at Wits, nor any contortionist’s explanation. It’s enough already. We live on a continent of the most prejudiced people on the planet, why add to that? Why fill the beautiful day with vile? Nothing will persuade me that it is our purpose to live as if we are already dead.

My love of lands comes from the feel of the earth and the sound of our histories, life’s intimate and wonder full spectacles, stories about all the peoples on this planet. My love of Judaism comes from my Boba and Zaida’s stories and not from any deranged religious leader or self-appointed spokesperson for all Jews (not in my name dude), tweeting biblical devastation and fear. Somewhere in our family history, we are related to the Belski resistance fighters, who rescued many Jews during the Holocaust. I feel the responsibility of that — as a South African, a Jew and a white person who is committed to something rare called justice. Also, I had the great fortune, long ago, to get to know an older woman who I loved. She shared with me a brave tale about how, during her imprisonment in a Nazi death camp, she had hidden a letter from her lover inside her vagina. She had the branded numbers on her arm, the reddest lipstick, the shiniest green eyes of anyone I ever knew, and an unrivalled gees for living well. She still believed that people were really good at heart (the most ironic of all Anne Frank quotations), and she radiated that idea and her bright way of being right through my young mind.

And then? Every day now, we see psychopathic leaders of too many of our governments and religions, purposefully nourishing deep hatreds. We see lands of curdling milk and sour honey, coagulating against the most brutual of walls and ruled, not by genuine prophets or visionaries, but by imposters, hardcore profiteers that fuel the horror of war, racism and irrational hatred of the Other. Look what is happening in Syria, in Congo, in America.

How did my friend make a decision to love instead of hate? She had every reason in the world for bitterness, and would perhaps have been better understood by many around her, if she had become what she loathed. Do we become monstrous under some illusion this will spare us? How come we do not see that by standing for violence we became less worthy?

We can not say we did not know.

The Jews who survived the Holocaust have always been aghast at the mute populations that enabled it. The black people in South Africa feel similarly about apartheid, and rightfully question why there are so few white people here (even now), who confess to standing idly by.

My sister writes that she is overwhelmed by all the bad news and says she can choose instead to garden, because she feels powerless and the flowers, at least, will bloom to her touch. She asks if there is a reason for her to think otherwise. I write back, here, to say, your voice may give you some power. And a little power may, you never know, go a long way. And even if I’m wrong, It is worth the risk of not being among those who think they can get away with saying but we did not know, we had no idea, we did not realise the extent, we thought …

And yes of course, please plant sweetpeas.

* Yiddish — shtum means “voiceless”, “silent”, “dumb”


  • Lesley Perkes writes about the state of imagination, her general loss of respect for politics and big business with too few exceptions, eyesores, aesthetically pleasing moments of bliss. Every now and then she writes too about grave matters some people think are best kept to yourself. She does not. Err. Obviously. Sometimes she writes about the silencing and the wars. MsChief at artatwork, a public arts action dis-organisation based in Johannesburg, Lesley is also #lesfolies at The Troyeville Bedtime Story, a timeless legend and neighbourgood adventure, in happy collaboration with Johannes Dreyer, photographer and artist. Writer, curator, producer and general artist with performative tendencies, in February this year Lesley spoke at TED2013 in Los Angeles. It was a life experience of note. She uses her time to fund, or find funding and resources to produce artwork and advocate for make-believe.


  1. Tofolux Tofolux 10 September 2013

    @Lesley, I cant help but get a sense of de-ja-vu here. This is almost a verbatim account of some who lived SA during the period of apartheid. There were so many who wanted to say/do something and yet did nothing. Steve Biko articulated this so well when he described it and for introspection I would suggest you read his book. The problem here is that there is no rationale that one could bring to this table despite the fact that the alternative is moral. And maybe this is what is at issue here. Its fine for others to take up the fight and here I remember the conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the SA army and kill their countrymen albeit that they suffered, were ostracised and humiliated by their peers, family and friends. Herein also lies the aspect of bravery because only the brave would dare. What is quite distasteful though is that those who will not dare, will dare to cast judgement on those who fight, those who resist and will sit in glass houses telling those warriors how they should have braved the war. This without moving a finger or batting an eyelid at the most inhumane treatment. I refer here to all those who are making a killing out of killing those in the Middle-East. The sheer inhumanity that is meted out on the victims in the Middle-East is totally appalling. But what is most appalling is those who allow gross inhumane treatment to be meted out to innocent people in their name. You are well placed to do something and I think you will.

  2. Orla-Jo Global Echo Orla-Jo Global Echo 10 September 2013

    This is a thoughtful and insightful piece, thank you for sharing it.
    Global Echo

  3. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 10 September 2013

    Lesley would have helped most readers by informing them that Boba is the word for “grandmother.” Close and careful readers would have worked this out but probably not your average reader.

    The word “shtum” made me think of the Afrikaans word “stom” and I wonder if they have some common distant relative. This does not seem to come from German but is the same as the Dutch word. We live in a world where we are often dumbstruck by the inhumanity of man. I wonder if “shtum” is ever used in this sense.

    Lesley should have noticed that in all of recorded history – more than three thousand years of it – there is one thread running through it all and that is that people are not essentially good at heart. We live in a messed up world where it is hard to understand how even brutal dictators sometimes show kindness to someone and where decent people sometimes treat those closest to them disgracefully. We are all characterized by inconsistency and so often selfish and dishonest.

    The problem is that we consider morality as part of our human fabric – that we do things that are right and things that are wrong. We often do good things but not with good motives. This is indeed a confusing world but the Jewish Tanakh or Bible actually parts the curtains a little to give us glimpse into why it is so and how we should respond.

  4. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 10 September 2013

    Tofolux #

    It is interesting that political prisoners during the apartheid years were allowed one book without hesitation and that was the Bible. Steve Biko knew many of the biblical narratives. But he did not understand the one book that could have brought light into his life as it had done in the life of Albert Luthuli – the one book that could have made him a worthy successor of Luthuli, prevented his senseless death and possibly brought much quicker changes in South Africa with much less violence.

  5. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 10 September 2013

    A jewish woman keeping shtum? Now there is a novel idea. Of every nation on this earth, the jewish woman has been the least likely to keep her opinions to herself!

    It would be easier if it was a cut and dried situation that had ‘bad’ on one side and ‘good’ on the other. It isn’t.

    Gaza has to be the most crammed and claustrophobic place on the face of the planet. Never did I believe that you could fit that many people into so little space (I was reliably told that Syria helped with that).

    Israel has to be filled with the most paranoid and frightened people ever. A week without some form of airstrike or threat is a rare occurrence. At the border towns, it is like being in a movie about the blitz.

    Then you get the West Bank which is reminiscent of a Stellenbosh wine farm. Mothers sitting at coffee shops sorting out lift clubs with half wearing head scarfs and half sprinkling Yiddish into sentences. They could be in a different universe completely to their ‘neighbours’ (okay, I was only there for a day and a half).

    What I can’t understand is WHY they are at war to start with. The similarities between the people of Gaza and the people of Israel are astounding. If nothing else, someone should get them together for a food-off. They don’t need armies, they would just feed eachother to death!

  6. Christine Keeler Christine Keeler 11 September 2013

    Lesley’s complaint about fellow Jews who verbally abuse her because of her views, leaves one with the impression that this is a uniquely Jewish failing. Of course, the behaviour is universal. One could (should) look e.g. at the societies with which Israel is at odds. There, physical violence and often death, is the punishment and it comes at the hands of officialdom.

    Lesley’s judgement is thus in question. One wonders how her one-sided thinking affects her views on Israel. I will never condone the verbal abuse she describes but her detractors probably have a point about her beliefs even if they express it crassly.

  7. Lesley Perkes Lesley Perkes Post author | 13 September 2013

    Thanks for all your comments and suggestions. Christine, I did intend to show how the silencing and the hatreds are prevalent across religions and countries … and gave examples of that. And I agree about my judgement. It is in question but I don’t think it is one-sided.

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