Monday, July 20, 2009

Cutting Through the Mountain

Cutting Through the Mountain was published in 1997 by Penguin Books. Its a collection of interviews with prominent South African Jews who were involved - in one way or another - with ending apartheid.

Interviewees range from the only liberal voice in the Apartheid parliament - Helen Suzman - to outlawed communists and ANC members Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Gill Marcus. Most have high public profiles, but some, like the late Jack Flior, trade unionist Taffy Adler, educator Franz Auerbach and arbitrator Laurie Nathan are relatively unknown.

Some of the people in the book, such as Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer and cross-over musician Johnny Clegg, are not commonly identified as Jewish, and they discuss what being Jewish has meant to them.

The book took two and a half years to research and write, and its 636 pages were edited down from some 2 000 pages of interviews. The interviewers included author and architect Geoff Sifrin, the late Professor Joseph Sherman, Dr Fran Buntman, filmmaker Harriet Gavshon, journalist and writer Mark Gevisser, poet and sexologist Dr Bernard Levinson, poet and editor Robert Berold, and journalist Julie Gordon. Photographic portraits of the interviewees - by Gisele Wulfsohn - were especially comissioned for the book. Other photographers include Anna Zieminski and Ellen Elmendorp.

Radio South Africa on "Cutting Through the Mountain":

"Each interview is as delightfully different as the individuals revealing themselves. It's the abiding humanity of these people, the absence of cant and polemic, that gives this collection its potency... the stories we are told in this volume are at times touching, bitter, very angry, funny but always incisive, moral and honest....eight out of ten for Cutting Through the Mountain."

Some Other Reviews...

"And what of the whole ? In my view it is enormously impressive. It makes for fascinating reading, presents an important slice of our history, is intelligently and elegantly contextualised by Suttner, and is beautifully produced." (Jeremy Gordin, The Sunday Independent)

"It is an invaluable contribution, much better than I expected. I am especially impressed by the Jewishness of Suttner's approach. He also shows ability to conceptualise things in the broader context of modern Jewish history." (Professor Gideon Shimoni, Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

End of the Treason Trial in 1958: The late Issie Maisels, as he is being lifted onto the shoulder of supporters, reaches for his pipe. Taken outside the Old Pretoria Synagogue where the trial was being held. Photograph copyright Alf Kumalo.

Extract from interview with the late Barney Simon, creative force behind the Market Theatre

"They [My parents] were not political at all. They were pragmatists. They were the kind of ghetto Jews who just wanted to be left in peace. First of all, my mother was, I supposes, the matriarch of the extended family. She was the one collecting the shillings to bring out nieces and nephews from Lithuania, and in fact one was being negotiated -- a beautiful young girl -- when the Holocaust enveloped Europe. I still have a picture of her. They closed immigration in 1939 while my mother was still negotiating, and she died, my cousin Leah, with the rest of her family, in the gas chambers. [But my mom had] brought out a number of nephews and nieces. Some of them prospered.

There was always a strong sense of Hitler in my childhood. In fact, I knew that bush in the garden where I would hide when Hitler came. You know Camus, the French writer, once said about an artist that 'A man's work is little more than his journey through his life in order to rediscover the two or three great and simple images that first found access to his heart.' I have one very special memory that to me somehow relates to my life, my family, and theatre. That is when I was about four or five years old being in Jeppe shul during the War years, downstairs with my father, my mother across the way -- the most beautiful woman on that side of the balcony -- and very proud that this woman was flirting with me, asking me if I was thirsty on Yom Kippur, trying to convince me to eat and showing me great attention. I would sometimes sit upstairs with her or come down to my father. And there was one woman on the same side as my mother in the poorest seat in the synagogue -- she had one leg and a heavy boot on her remaining leg -- she was dressed in black, more like a Greek widow than Jewish. When she came up the concrete stairs outside, you could hear the bang of her crutches and her boot, and when she got to the top of the women's balcony and have to walk down, she banged so loud that the service would have to pause. When she prayed, she used to beat herself and wail. To me she represented a witch, particularly as there she was in a seat from which she couldn't even see the Ark, on the same side where my mother was so resplendent -- my mother was a Lithuanian peasant woman, but she had a really natural chic.

One day a little rebbe came to the shul. I didn't know who he was. I remember him being very small and he had a reddish beard. He got on the podium and started to talk, and I didn't know what he was talking about. He was talking in a fast Yiddish and the whole synagogue, which was this synagogue of landslayt, began to rock and wail, and he was describing the slaughter of the Lithuanian Jews by the Lithuanian goyim , not even by the Nazis. From what I understood afterwards and in years later, he was describing the slaughter of the Jews in the Vilna ghetto. He was describing bayoneting and rapes and beheadings and God knows what and I will never forget looking up in the middle of all this chaos in the synagogue -- that terrible wail -- and seeing my mother beating herself like that old woman in black. That is something that has always remained with me. When I did Marat/Sade I used that wail at the moment when Marat fears that he is going blind and is comforted by the fact that he can’t see because of the smoke of bodies burning.

I know that experience somehow made me a Jew. It's something that has always stayed with me and was obviously very important to me in terms of understanding my mother, my family, the destiny of my people."

South Africa's favourite Nuncle. Joe Slovo shares a boat with Jay Naidoo and Madiba in this Zapiro cartoon from June 1994. Slovo did not have long left to live.

Extract from interview with musician Johnny Clegg

"Then in Killarney, I was arrested by the police, and charged with trespassing. All the caretakers there didn't want me to go up to the buildings. They just thought this was very abnormal. Here’s this white 14 year old boy with a guitar going upstairs, and being with the servants while they were drinking, and they didn't know what was going on. And there was this constant sort of innuendo put across to me by the police when I was arrested, and by the caretakers, that there's something else that I'm after, what's going on, am I being abused, or ... they could never have accepted it for what it was. I realised that these people couldn't see, they couldn't see the reality. There was a reality there that they could not actually perceive. I was arrested again at Wemmer hostel, three or four times. I became very aware of having to enter and exit black areas with care and caution. And I became very good at it.

[I was arrested for] Group areas contravention in the hostels and municipal compounds. And trespassing on private property was the other. But it was the only way I could get to play with other musicians, black street musicians. I remember the first time that I was arrested at Wemmer hostel. I was fifteen. I was dancing with Richard Zwane's Shameni team, and it was a new style. I had danced with Charlie's Bhaca Emabomvini team, learnt Bhaca for two years, already been arrested at Charlie’s compound, and now I was going to Wemmer hostel. I was in the hostel when the police arrived and took me away. The team just said the whites have come to take their boy, we won't see him again. They didn’t fight for me. The police took me to my mum, and said ‘listen, we've caught your boy inside Wemmer hostel, it's extremely dangerous, 2 or 3 bodies come out there every weekend from inter-tribal warfare, and it's a place of illicit gambling, stolen goods, prostitution. We go in there armed. It's no place for a young white boy to be. In the first place it's dangerous and in the second place it's illegal. And you know as he gets older, we're going to arrest him and put him in jail. So you just keep him out the way.’

My mother and I used to have these huge arguments about me going into these areas, and I must say that in the end, she understood one thing, which I played on, she understood the love of music. She loved jazz. She wanted to be Ella Fitzgerald. If she could, that's who she wanted to be. I wanted to be a Zulu street guitarist and she could understand that, and she could understand the frustration of wanting to be that in a country where it was basically against the law. So, she just said ‘look after yourself. And I'm not going to come bail you out anymore. You carry money in your pocket, you pay your fine.’

I went back to the hostel. The next weekend I was there. So, they said, oh you came back. Oh that's very good. And about a month later, the police raided the hostel again, I was caught again, and this time the dancers put up a fight. They defended me, and they said no, he's a dancer. He's dancing here, and he's our boy, and he's a good boy. He's not a crook, and he's not a criminal, he's been dancing here for four hours, we can vouch for him. The police still took me out, but it was a rite of passage for me, and I had basically passed, the dancers let me in, because I went back. And I kept on going back, and I was arrested again and again. Eventually my headmaster found out about this, Dr. Davies. He called me in, and said, it had come to his notice the Hillbrow police had arrested me at Lady Dudley Hospital compound and they'd informed him that I was constantly trespassing there and hanging out at the back with the Black workers in the compound, you know, playing guitar. That time was actually quite a nasty arrest for me. As a youngster I used to go to the Lady Dudley on a bicycle, and when the police arrested me they thought that I was going to run away, so they tied up my bicycle, and I was really made to feel like a criminal. I was held in the charge office. At other times, some of the police were actually curious. You know, they'd arrest me, they'd kind of intimate that they'd saved me from a very, very dark fate. They were young guys, and they would sit there puzzled as I said, no I'm having a great time, and I'd explain to them how I really enjoyed dancing and learning how to stick fight."

Extract from interview with Nobel Prize winnere Nadine Gordimer

"I wish now that I had asked my father more, but it was a curious fact of my childhood home. My father thought that he had married above his station. My mother came from a Jewish, background, but they had been in England for generations. She came to South Africa when she was six years old. Her father had immigrated here. He had come to search for diamonds, leaving his English wife behind with her mother. Then he sent for her.

My grandmother was pregnant with her first child (not with my mother.) They were living in Roodepoort. At that time you may remember, in the early part of the century, there was this idea of bringing Chinese to South Africa to work on the mines. These people were to live in a compound. Apparently there was some terrible fight and one of the Chinese staggered to the kitchen door about midnight. She heard something at the kitchen door. Now my grandfather was a typical frontiersman. He played poker the whole night. My grandmother was used to being alone. She thought it was her husband knocking on the door. She opened the door and in fell a Chinaman with his throat cut. He promptly bled to death under the kitchen table. So grandma Phoebe Myers left immediately. She took a coach or whatever it was to Cape Town and took a ship home to her mamma in London where she stayed.

My grandfather started another child with her and then returned to Kimberley. My mother was born but didn't see her father until she was six years old. By this time my grandmother had got over the traumatic experience and so she brought her two children back to South Africa. My mother went to Barnato Park school in Johannesburg.

Now my father came from a typical little shtetl. You couldn't get a high school education so when you were about twelve you either learned to be a shoemaker or to mend watches. He mended watches. He had an elder brother who was here already. The reason why they found ease in getting here was that my paternal grandfather, who of course I never met, my father's father, was a clerk in a shipping firm. He was able to get cheap steerage passages for his sons for whom there seemed to be no future at all in the shtetl. The eldest one Marcus, had already been here when my father aged 13, without a word of English, was put on a ship and sent out. He somehow made his way and ended up with a little shop in Springs. From mending watches and selling jewellery he became moderately prosperous. Somehow or other he met my mother.

[She was educated] and was middle class and he was not. He came from a very poor background. She was suffering, I discovered afterwards, of what was known as a broken heart. She had fallen in love with somebody during the war. The 1918 war, and it hadn't worked out. She had been jilted as they said in those days. My father fell in love with her. There were other psychological and physical factors. My mother was much taller than my father. I take after my father, a very tiny person. My mother was quite a tall woman. So there was this inequality, even in height which I think operated there. He always felt timid talking about his background because she always sneered at it. 'Where you came from people slept on the stove to keep warm.' Her whole idea of status was how one lived and how one comported oneself, and what one ate. Her idea of cooking was good English cooking. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. So all the things he had at home he never ever had again.

Its a long way round to telling you my father's background was never discussed. It was indeed despised. My sister and I were brought up to think that these poor things sitting in some village in Russia were not even worth thinking about. Whereas my mother's parents were in South Africa. We loved them. I loved my grandmother and we had all the tales of their life in London. So it was very unequal. As I say I wish I had asked him more.

He wasn't allowed to have any Jewishness. My mother didn't go to the synagogue and we never went. I was never in a synagogue except to go to a wedding. Fortunately we were two girls, so there was never any question of having a bar-mitzvah. For instance, on high days and holidays we would go to pick him up. On the Day of Atonement he would walk to the synagogue and we would then pick him up. We stayed at home then. We went to a convent school. We realised later how embarrassing it must have been for him. Everybody was in their best, just as Christians are on Christmas Day, so Jews have nice clothes for the Day of Atonement, and we would come along in the car with my mother and we would be in shorts and barefoot because we were not part of it at all. We just used it as a holiday and I think it must have been quite humilitating for him. He was totally dominated by her. You don't understand your parents until you get to middle age yourself. I can see a lot of reasons why she made an unfortunate marriage."

Trade Unionist Ray Alexander Simons and June Mlangeni on their return to South Africa 1991

Cutting Through the Mountain was funded by the Liberty Life Foundation

No comments: