I am writing this letter from Turkish Air's Gate 23 heading to Istanbul from Johannesburg's fascinating airports. There's something about the anonymity and high energy that attracts me to the almost interchangeable airports that I usually encounter.. “Jo’burg” is different than any airport that I have ever seen. No bookstores, pricey kitsch souveniers, women's clothes or fast food. Zebra skins presumably for rugs (what else would you do with a large formless zebra skin?), carved wooden elephants and hippos, and colorful swathes of material in bright geometric patterns, jewelry stores showing diamonds brighter than any I have ever seen before. No Starbucks.
South Africa is carved out of the Africa you hardly see unless you want to once you are in the large cities. Capetown was my first stop. It looks like a southern European city, with colorful pastel painted houses alongside elegant mansions. On the way from the airport, Africa lifted its head with the long streets populated by Blacks living in tin roofed shanties. The changes that I anticipated seeing since my last visit about 20 years ago are real but slow by my standards. They somehow fit into the timeless rhythm of Africa. The organizers of the Sinai Indaba arranged a trip to Table Mountain for the speakers. We took the airlift up, and suddenly were way above all of the questions that Africa evokes. You face the Atlantic, with its twenty-foot winter waves now reduced to a distant vision of white foam. You can go further and see the Indian Ocean, its depth and tranquility in total contrast with Atlantic high drama. The people of Capetown are delightfully well intended, slow in changing (perhaps influenced by the environment, perhaps not), but by and large very strong in their faith and identity. Unless you are under 30. The plague of apathy that once was confined to the States has spread. The decline in overt racism makes it possible to be anonymous in South Africa. In the old days, when everyone was categorized, since you were neither Black, Afrikaans nor English, you belonged to The Jews. Today you can belong to nothing beyond your career and your family.
Jo’burg is different. Faster paced. Walls for the most part surround the houses. Inside you see an entirely different vista than you see from the outside. This is the norm that you are completely accustomed to in a very short time. The community is much larger than Capetown and much more cosmopolitan. This means that your aren't competing with the beach and the sun when you try to bring some Torah with you, which makes life easier.
The occasion that brought me to SA is called the Sinai Indaba. The word Indaba is an African phrase for a powwow. About 2000 people came to the Capetown Indaba, and over 6,000 to the one held in Jo'burg. I never saw anything even remotely like it in my life. The range of participants was from barely identified with the Tribe, to the most orthodox members of the Family. This is organized by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who has one of the most brilliant minds for initiating and organizing this sort of thing. Some of you may have heard of the giant Shabbos he organized a few years ago with tens of thousands of participants. I expected him to be a high power CEO. He isn't. He is one of the most humble men I have ever met.
The main message of the entire event was "Be yourself" which means that you can't negate the part of you that is Jewish, nor can you negate your own individual capacity. Of all of the speakers who were there, the one who (at least in my opinion) expressed this best was Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman. He told us that the six-day war took him to the recognition that G-d did miracles that demand response. He went to the Kotel and said, "I want to thank you Hashem, I want to give you what every father wants, love to His children. I will leave Yerushalayim and go to where Your children need me". When he spoke about his journey to Migdal HaEmek and the incredible things he did there one thing stuck out. He sees the neshamah, the spiritual soul in everyone he comes across. There is nothing patronizing about his style of outreach. He truly loves each person for themselves, and does whatever he can to make them see themselves with the same purity that he sees them.
So much for now!
I am happy to be heading back, and bring best regards from the Neve girls/women in SA to all of you.
All the best,
As ever, Tziporah