I passed Matric. Successful me, from now on smooth sailing, the world at my feet, like a sweet apple waiting for me to take a bite. No more plumbing jobs for wise old me, no, now on to university and a high-class career. I was on my way to all the things my parents had thought me incapable of achieving. Matric certificate in my hands, the IQ test of Std. III nonsense. Intoxicated, drunk on one shot, in the manner of a man who never drinks and gulps a barrel full to show bravado.
Even Ma convinced, revised her ambition for me, "Leon is smart, he can be the accountant of the family." This was a big step forward from her previous goal for me. Smiling, her eyes behind glittering spectacles, passed over the ornate bookshelves as she sat in the plush brown leather chair of the accountant’s office. The interview ended abruptly, disappointingly; I had given the wrong answer to the question, “How’s your math”?
Many years later, I was living in Israel, one of the many wars broke out and I, being a tour guide, without tourists, studied bookkeeping and worked at it for two years. I found it interesting and realized that I would have made a good accountant.
Head bent, chin on my chest, eyes turned up apologetically, my heart ached with the disappointment I’d caused my beloved parent. She sighed and looked exasperated as we returned to the Pontiac. “What was to be done with this child”?
“What about university”? I timidly suggested. Even with the newfound proof of my genius, I wasn’t sure that I was worth the thousands of Rand they’d need to spend on me for Wits. Dad, however, turned out to be a shining star; he would gamble, “perhaps this dullard would make us proud”. My parents were ready to invest in my uncertain future.
My aim in life, then and now was to learn. Not to learn a trade or a career, but simply to learn for the sake of learning. This approach was considered absurd in the environment in which I lived. There is only one place where learning for its own sake is acceptable. That place is the “Yeshiva”, an institution that has its origin in the Bible:
Joshua 1:8 “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night”.
Boys go there after finishing high school to carry out the all-important function in life, learning. Skills for acquiring a trade or a profession aren’t taught there. Learning is something one performs throughout life. It never ends, it’s a process of becoming ever wiser. It doesn’t have an objective that one reaches and says “now I know”.
The process of acquiring a skill ends when one passes an exam and says “I have succeeded, now I’m an engineer, an accountant, a doctor” etc. It doesn’t count as learning in the pure sense of the word, as in the Biblical verse above.
Wits and schools like KHS are wonderful institutions, I came there to learn, in the sense just described, and I failed the exams. Damelin College made it clear from the word go “you are here to pass exams, not to learn the subject”. They gave me a summary of the main points in each subject and said “that is what you need to know to pass the examination”.
I was trying to learn English and English Literature, while I should have been learning just enough to pass the exam. Had I concentrated on the essentials of the subject I would easily have succeeded as I did in Damelin College.
Down but not out, my ambition to learn still burned within me, but I was not going to ask the folks to pay for a second try. I know now that I was a fool to think in terms of saving my parents ‘money. They would have paid gladly if only I’d insisted.
Many years later, when I was studying to be a tour guide I failed Geology, I tried a second time and succeeded brilliantly. Now I’m known for my expertise in the Geology of Israel. I regret not trying a second time when I was studying at Wits.
In those days, in SA several organizations paid the student for learning. The SAR, SA telecom, Normal College for teachers, and the SA Board of Jewish education. All of these paid tuitions, transportation, and accommodation, if required.
“We are pleased to inform you….”, read the letter from SA telecom. My new future awaited me.
Sunday, one week before starting training at Langlaagde, Dad met our spiritual leader, to check whether he was doing the right thing for the boy.
Rabbi Zwebner said no, “Leon is destined for the Rabbinate”.
Ma drove me to an interview, with Rabbi Goss, the head of Jewish education in SA. He was slightly bald, had the longest nose I’d ever seen, a short pointed black beard that hid his chin, which I’m sure, also came to a point. He offered me the world; free tuition, with only one condition, I had to observe Jewish religious customs strictly.
This was no small matter; I would have to give up travel on the Sabbath, eat only kosher meat. It was like asking me to become a monk. No more movies on Friday night, no more Saturday rugby at Ellis Park, no more biltong, unless made of kosher meat.
Ma looked at me questioningly. Was I going to commit myself to this way of life? It would separate me from my friends and family and turn me into a freak in the Jewish community of Krugersdorp. Was I prepared to take such a drastic step? My nod of consent took a fraction of a second but didn't mean that I was making a spur-of-the-moment decision. I had been drawing close to religion since my childhood. I had already decided to be strict in practicing the customs the Rabbi was asking me to promise to observe. Ma didn’t know about my decision, so she was surprised.
Religion changed my life, each year found me further away from people who weren’t religious, my old school friends, and my family. I argued in the name of religion, I became a lone warrior for the Lord, in an environment where nobody took religion seriously. The most religious thing anybody did in Krugersdorp was to attend synagogue on Friday night. For many being Jewish meant being a member of Kadima Country Club.
My father and mother weren’t religious but began to be influenced by my behavior. Saturdays changed from a day of sport to a holy day of no work and study of the Bible. But they couldn’t change their life; Dad couldn’t leave his business, Saturday was the busiest day of the week.
Religion became my life for the next 17 years until I settled in Israel. Jerusalem is a city crowded with religious Jews, I wasn’t looked on as a freak, as I had been in SA. One day I turned my back on all those customs; off came the hat, out came cigarettes on the Sabbath, I stopped attending synagogue. I became non-religious in a place where most other people were religious.
What brought about this dramatic reversal, in Jerusalem, the holy city of all places? This will be the subject of one of the future chapters of my constantly changing life.