Lesley Perkes
Lesley Perkes

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‚Äôs 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”

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