My paternal grandfather was an ordained Orthodox rabbi who emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa, where he found work as a teacher at a Talmud Torah. My maternal grandfather, a businessman, was also a devout Orthodox Jew. The stage was set for me to follow in their footsteps, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
My father retained a scholarly interest in Judaism — the Hebrew language was a special area of interest for him — but despite having been steeped in the Orthodox tradition during his early years, he paid hardly any attention to religious observance in his mature years and it was mainly my mother who preserved the link, a tenuous one at that, through token adherence to some of the Jewish rituals and customs. I watched curiously when she lit the Sabbath candles and murmured the appropriate blessing, and I enjoyed the Passover meal, an occasion often shared with other family members, at which I duly recited the Four Questions, solemnly listed the Ten Plagues and suffered for the umpteenth time the recital in Hebrew of the Exodus from Egypt.
Those impressions of my Jewish life at home can be coupled with my recall of our infrequent attendances at synagogue. My family were not members of a particular congregation but on the High Holy Days we would troop off to a nearby primary school, the hall of which had been converted for the occasion into a makeshift synagogue. There, I eased my boredom by spending most of the time intended for worship with friends in the school grounds. My joy at hearing the singing of Adon Olam was entirely because I recognised it as heralding the ending of the service.
On minor festivals, when there was a social obligation to take the day off school, a friend and I would travel by trolley bus and tram to a synagogue further afield, where once again we would balance attendance at the service with play in the grounds outside.
I attended a secondary school with only a tiny minority of Jewish children, where I went along indifferently with the daily chorusing of the Lord’s Prayer and where, as a clarinetist in the school military band, I tooted hymns like ‘When Jesus Comes’. Inevitably, many of my close friends were non-Jewish.
The high watermark of my Orthodox observance, if it can be called that, was my bar mitzvah. I was coached for this by being taught the key prayers in the Jewish liturgy, being shown how to lay tefillin and how to sing my portion of the law. I performed well on the day (I had a good musical ear) and I was thrilled by the congratulations showered on me and even more by the presents thrust at me from all directions.
Thereafter, my involvement with Orthodox Judaism suffered a nose dive. At university, I was inspired by our botany lecturer, the rationalist and anti-apartheid activist Eddie Roux, and my friends were drawn from the ranks of those who shared my political values. On reflection, I was more interested in Zionism, Jewish politics and Jewish literature than in religious observance, which clashed with rationalistic cast of mind. Nevertheless, I did not sever my bond with religious Judaism. Our sons were put through a reform bar mitzvah, if only to give them a taste of their Jewish heritage and a sense of being part of a culturally coherent community.
My dispassionate regard for Orthodoxy turned to disaffection when I visited Israel in more recent times. I saw how unbridled zealotry had seeped into the fabric of Israeli society, pressurising the citizens of that country, Jews and non-Jews alike, to conform to laws which have no place in a democracy. My overriding emotion today is one of sadness, that a religious tradition of which I was once a part, however peripherally, now looms as a tyranny over a land which represents the heart of Judaism.