I am always the first to defend South Africa. It has happened countless times. I sit around a Shabbat dinner and the host asks me,
“so…how is it living in Johannesburg”
I jump up and say, wow, Johannesburg is a special place. I love it.
The shock is almost palpable. They are waiting for me to tell them about the fear, about the dangers lurking behind every door, and of course, the trauma I have been through…
But the truth is, I love my community so much. I love where I am from and the feeling of belonging that I get whenever I think of those Frangellicas cheesecakes, those Nandos burgers, those Glenhazel Shabbat walks….
Which is exactly the reason I am writing this. As an insider and an outsider, one that is riddled with constant nostalgia, but also has the distance, the time, and the space to understand the place that has raised me- the beauty, and also the deep flaws that haunt it; I cannot not speak out.
Since making Aliyah in 2015, some parts of me begged myself to write this piece, for hours I would write a sentence, and then too swiftly delete. But recent events have made it impossible to ignore those voices that shout within me. Only one that knows a place, with its beauty and its ugliness, has the audacity and the nerve to point out its flaws.
We live in a beautiful glass vacuum. One where our maids (our family) iron our clothes, celebrate our Barmitzvahs, and then go home once every six weeks to visit their children. One where we play carelessly in the courtyard at breaktime with no worries in the world, and then are kept up with the fear of someone breaking into our homes and holding us at gunpoint. (I grew up, as most of us do, knowing the “safe word” if GAP calls). One where the communal illusion persists that we are all loved and accepted… when I know only one or maybe two beyond brave gay, bisexual, or exploratory men and women who have come out in their adolescent years…
We are a warm, loving, and beautiful community. Something happens and there are fifty people offering to bring meals for Shabbat to those suffering. But don’t we realize that sometimes, this need not be the case.
We cannot control the rampant danger of crime the infects our streets, what we CAN control is the level of acceptance. The level of judgment. The level of mental health awareness. The need to improve some outdated traditional customs that torment so many of our youth (yes, I said it, Joburg- you are outdated in a few important ways). With a close community, comes so many pros, and just as many flaws.
This beautiful, talented, deep as the ocean victim who we just lost was a family friend of mine from birth. I have clear memories of him in nappies (diapers), of his Barmitsvah, of him on Bnei Akiva camp sharing his hopes and dreams, and wow… of him as a brilliant young adult, giving to the world and to those around him as only he knew how.
Unknowingly, we have continued a community that does not fully embody acceptance, that does not promote mental health awareness as much the physical, that does not scream to all our youth “WE LOVE AND ACCEPT YOU FOR WHO YOU ARE”…that is a fault of ours, one and all.
I am not writing this out of anything but a plea, a plea to all of us- South Africans, The global Jewish community… hell, the entire world….wake up, smell the roses, understand that we as children are so affected by our surroundings…and control what we can. Accept, understand, listen, and love.
We need to step up our game. We need to step up our game now.