Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

Steven-Cohen (2)

Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? South Africa has a tradition of Jews taking leading roles in innovative arts as patrons and audiences. With the changing nature of South African society and the community, will this tradition wither? Performance artist Steven Cohen, who has received international acclaim, is shown in the photograph

WHEN Israeli-born concert pianist Aviram Reichert performed in South Africa in the early 2000s on a five-week programme, auditoriums were packed everywhere. Having performed as a soloist with major philharmonic orchestras worldwide, Reichert commented that it was “very seldom that you encounter such audiences” in their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Close to two decades later, internationally acclaimed Israeli-born pianist Amit Yahav joined the Odeion String Quartet last week to perform Chopin and Dvorak at the Linder auditorium in Johannesburg. The music was superb, but the hall was half empty; mostly old people came to hear him, a few of them Jewish.

Jews are almost absent in the arts today, particularly young ones. Younger Jews have either emigrated, are doing business degrees and are uninterested in the arts, or have become deeply religious.

In the past, the most innovative artistic individuals, institutions and the bums on seats, were Jews: the likes of Steven Cohen, William Kentridge, Moving Into Dance founded by Sylvia Glasser, The Market Theatre by Barney Simon, the National Children’s Theatre by Joyce Levinsohn, Daphne Kuhn’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square, Norman Nossel’s generous support of classical music, the Johannesburg Musical Society by Avril Rubinstein, to name but a few.

It’s natural that each generation becomes bored with the previous one’s ethos, in arts and elsewhere. Teaching staff at South African universities report that when struggle musician Johnny Clegg and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are mentioned, many students have either never heard of them, or refer to them as ‘old white men’.

Added to this is the pressure of the social media generation, and its impatience with such precious memories. This generation doesn’t read books, walks around with its collective headphones on and cellphones at hand, not talking to anyone, engaging instead with virtual friends on digital platforms. The digital age seems unstoppable, with everything being gobbled up and digitised.

Yet there are signs here and there of a counter-revolution, small green shoots appearing with an ‘analogue’ ethos, where it matters that you can touch something with your hands, read a physical book and have it on your bookshelf, see people face to face, not just on a screen, and so on. One small example is the revival of vinyl records, because people find digital CDs too cold in their ‘perfectness’. Manufacturers of vinyl records are running at full capacity.

Back with the arts: while Jews are withdrawing, it is ironic to see the young Afrikaans community, always highly cultured and now largely freed from apartheid’s stigma, producing excellent artworks engaging openly with post-apartheid South Africa.

As an example, a courageous Afrikaans-language film currently on circuit called Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen, looks piercingly into tough issues in Afrikaans culture. It focuses on a sensitive 18-year old Afrikaans boy (played by Schalk Bezuidenhout) from a conservative, rural village. He is drafted into the South African army during the 1985 state of emergency when unrest was at its peak. Being musical and talented, he enters the army choir. There are almost no black people in the movie; it is entirely about what young white, mainly Afrikaans boys faced in the army and the propaganda they were fed by the mainly Afrikaans regime. A brave movie for young Afrikaners to make.

SA Jews also went through the horror of apartheid and the army. They too have cutting edge stories to tell and explore. Are there storytellers brave enough to do it, in this generation? Will the pendulum swing for Jews, and pull back into its ranks innovative, young people? Ultimately, it always does. In the meantime, green shoots must be nurtured.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 


The visit ‘home’: Do SA émigrés ever wish they’d stayed?  

OR Tambo statue at airport

Is this place mine? Political turmoil in South Africa has led many people to leave over the decades. Did they make the right choice? In the picture, a statue of ANC president OR Tambo at the international airport in Johannesburg

ANYONE who has attended a 40-year high school reunion knows the uncomfortable feeling when you meet classmates from several decades ago, who immigrated to other countries and have had vastly different lives. After five minutes of warm greetings – “Wow, it’s so nice to see you again! Do you remember when we played Sunday league soccer together?” – an uncomfortable silence falls over the gathering, amidst awkward attempts to joke about the passing of time and how everyone is getting older. The gap between their lives and yours is too great for easy conversation.

That often happens when people who left South Africa decades ago, come visiting family here, to attend a funeral or wedding. The relative who has built a life in America – or the UK, Israel, or elsewhere – and has American kids, and who is full of praise for his new country, has little appetite for understanding the complicated, worrying politics of South Africa. He might rage about how Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump as president, but the equally bizarre realities of South Africa are of little interest, serving mainly to validate his decision to leave long ago.

We are living through ‘exciting’ times, for those with the insight to see it that way. No less than a new liberation struggle is required against the degenerate regime the once-proud ANC has become – similar to liberation movements elsewhere after they gained victory over oppressors.

Journalist Jacques Pauw’s recent book, The President’s Keepers, and other publications by struggle heroes such as Ronnie Kasrils, all confirm South Africans’ worst fears about how the corrupt ANC leadership has damaged this country.

Superficially, white South Africans’ lives, and the Jewish community, Afrikaners and other minority communities, have changed little since the émigrés left. They drive the same kinds of cars, live in similar large houses, employ domestic maids at tiny salaries, run successful businesses, and send their kids to private schools. Of course, they are surrounded by high security walls and electrified fences, but they say they have gotten used to it.

There was a brief historical moment after Mandela emerged from jail and became president, during which South Africans would gloat and say the émigrés who had left had erred, and had missed out on the inspiring country South Africa had become. Showing a South African passport when travelling was a proud action, then. Today, however, there is shame, with the decline to junk status financially and politically. It evokes gloating from those who had the wisdom to leave after Sharpeville or similar events.

Current happenings in Zimbabwe add fuel. Jews remember the once-proud Zimbabwe Jewish community which has all but vanished after 37 years of Mugabe’s despotic rule, the liberator- turned-dictator, who is finally being thrown out after destroying the country. Is that our destiny here?

Last weekend Professor Njabulo Ndebele, an academic and fiction writer, and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, addressed an ANC struggle veterans’ meeting, bemoaning the bunch of thieves the government had become. The country’s spirit may “run dry,” he said, without a new “imaginative political project to give life and shape to it… [South Africans] require entirely fresh perspectives from which to view and understand themselves.”

What will it mean in ten, twenty years to be a Jewish South African? It is up to far-sighted leaders to articulate a new vision for a community half the size of what it was in the 1970s, and still shrinking. Sadly, such leaders are scarce.

Ten years from now, when émigrés come visiting for a reunion, will they find family and friends inspired again? It certainly could happen, the country’s spirit, today, has not yet been broken. We are again at a crossroads. But the jury is still out.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )