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Back to school

A prayer shawl similar to one my father wore in the synagogue
Prayer shawl

"Put your child back in school", my old uncle Louie, looking through half-shut eyes, filled with smoke, hurled this command, at his astounded sister-in-law. Sitting in the midst of his dusty shop his belly overflowing from the top of his grey trousers, he resembled a wise Buddha.

His judgment carried weight in the family, A paroxysm of coughing caught him which he tried in vain to rub out of his eyes.

In my opinion, he took the place of Barney, my maternal grandfather, who passed on his knowledge of wood and business acumen to his two sons-in-law. Each became the owner of hardware stores, the same sort of vocation carried on by him in Springs. My father in Krugersdorp after marrying my mother and Louie, the spouse of her older sister Sarah in Germiston.

Before becoming a businessman my father was a scholar, a phenomenon Jews the world over admired, but a rarity among those who migrated from Lithuania to South Africa.

He led worship services in the synagogue, wrapped in a white prayer shawl, and conducted study sessions where groups of men gathered around to listen to him expound the Bible and the Talmud.

In awe of him from an early age, I yearned to acquire his kind of knowledge and spirituality but was hampered by doubt in my intellectual ability.

A word of encouragement might have bolstered my confidence. But the sensation of gloom, cast by the holocaust left my father and the entire Jewish People bereft of hope in the future of Judaism.

Putting aside his first love he turned his energy to commerce, selling wood and hardware to the Afrikaners. Renowned for devotion to the Holy Scriptures the idea that the simple shopkeeper serving them was in fact someone who had spent his life studying the word of God, would have enchanted them.

Disheartened by his disapproval of me being a scholar, I saw my aspiration as an impossible dream. Thereafter I failed in every subject in the classroom no matter how hard I tried.

Children of parents uneducated in Judaism were encouraged to become professional people, while I, the son of a learned Jew was discouraged from studying.

My grades were rock bottom, leading to me being declared not the scholastic type. This negative approach to my future career was reinforced when I attained a below-average score in the IQ test, which was introduced into schools in those days. Everything pointed to my suitability for plumbing or some other occupation not requiring academic ability.

After completing STD VII with my usual mediocre grades I landed up, at six o'clock in the morning ensconced on the back of Mr. Holzman's lorry crowded with other workmen.

Resigned to living the rest of my life as a plumber I put on a smiling countenance when my new friends cheered me on with slaps on the back.

My schooldays were over. According to my father, my future was assured. A grey metal toolbox, with pliers, a hammer, and a chisel in one hand and a new cobalt-coloured lunchbox with delicious sandwiches in the other. I wore new blue denim overalls.

Jack Holzman plumbers and plumbing supplies, in Human Str., had often caught my eye as I strolled past each day on my way to Heder, a Jewish Sunday School, where the rabbi taught us the Bible.

The second floor of the building was occupied by the "Tattersalls". Men loitered on the sidewalk, puzzling over cards, deciding on which horse to bet.

As always I pondered while I walked: "What career would I follow after growing up?" Never dreaming of becoming one of the plumber's employees. The idea was as absurd as being a gambler.

I never wanted to be a doctor or a dentist or any of the professions, which I thought my parents would admire. I dreamed of being a writer or a movie producer. But only geniuses succeeded in those spheres and in any event, Mom and Dad's opinion was, "a person can't make a living from scribbling or taking pictures".

I had become one of the working class and was determined to make the best of my new life. I learned about the dignity of labour from my friend Morris. Unlike my other friends, who attended Krugersdorp High, an academic institution, he went to Trade School to learn fitting and turning. Comrades in arms, wearing black leather lumber jackets, the uniform of workmen we flaunted our socialist idealism, and discussed ways of promoting the rights of the workers.

We climbed off the vehicle in Sterkfontein Rd. where a new room had been built adjoining SOS butchery, which happened to belong to my friend Aubrey's father.

My job was to carve out a groove the length of the brick wall, into which a water pipe would fit, hidden when later covered by a thin veneer of mortar and paint.

Holding the hammer in my right hand, blow after blow I hit the chisel, chipping away the cinder block . By the end of the day, panting and puffing I ran a finger through the too short and too shallow indentation. The foreman shook his head, pointed to where I should put down my tools, and ordered me to wait in the truck. The next day Mr. Holzman's vehicle didn't come to fetch me for work; my plumbing days were over.

My life's ambition wasn't to be a plumber, however, and I didn't shed tears over my failure.

An opening for a salesman, in a building supply company in Germiston, made its appearance. I would stay with uncle Louie and aunty Sara. The job promised to give me experience in working in a hardware store, similar to the one my parents operated.

An important-looking stout man interviewed me in his office at Federated Timbers. All was set for me to leave home and live in Germiston.

Presented with his new lodger, Uncle Louie uttered the words, stated at the beginning of my story.

They brought me a sense of relief. I would not be following in dad's footsteps selling hardware and building material.

The Buddha had spoken, and I was to return to the sacred halls of learning.

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