Tyler Benjamin, a third year John V. Lombardi Scholar at the University of Florida, just returned from a three-week study opportunity in South Africa. Read Part One of his unforgettable Shabbat experience, and enjoy Part Two, below.
Let me start out by saying the food was delicious and the company, excellent. But as always, it the conversation made the night. I present to you, the cast of characters from my chance Shabbat, an America in South Africa:
Chips' real name is Ivan, but only his father ever called him that. All the friends and family he's ever known have called him Chips, a named bestowed upon him by his (much) older brother when Chips was younger. Much younger. Like, 60 years ago if I counted the thought-lines and stories right. Chips is a very kind man who's first wife passed away in the late 80s. He's since remarried a pistol of an Australian woman named Giki. She's awesome. His parents came from Lithuania through the UK, a passage that cost them just 10 British pounds. Chips has a pretty typical South African Jewish history in that his parents only spoke Yiddish, but his story is atypical in quite a surprising way. Chips' first language was Xhosa (the "xh" is a click) and his second, English. He of course understood Yiddish as well. Xhosa is a native language that Chips spoke with his playmates around the mines his father worked with. Upon further clarification about his name at the end of the evening (Chips, not Chip), I thanked him for counting me and Alison among his friends and family. So, Chips it is.
Pronounced "geeky" this Aussie brought enough spark into Chips'relatively calm and thoughtful life that I bet she's responsible forthe light in his eyes. When my friend and I walked into the house, sheshook our hands and introduced us to her two black staff members (avery strange experience for a middle-class American). She then proceededto spell our names back to us, just so she could remember. Throughoutthe night, she darted in and out of the kitchen and in and out ofconversation. She spurred discussions about 9/11, Obama and Muslims inthe U.S., but also asked us what we were studying, how we got here andwhether or not we'd had enough to eat. Of course, no matter what I toldher, I hadn't enough, so I pretty much stopped refusing food. Sheshared stories of her time in French riots in the 60s, embassies in the70s and her 96-year-old mother renewing her driver's license. What agal.
In case the night wasn't already full of chance amplified by deadline(recall Alison and I were set to leave for Cape Town in twelve hours)one of Chips' granddaughters, Jacqui, set to fly back to New Zealand inthree days where she was studying, dined with us. She spent thesemester in South Africa finishing an internship. Jacqui studies mediaand mass communication and has worked in a number of roles for radiostations, so we talked about what all that could mean for a person likeme. She helped me articulate why I might want to change my major topursue radio. Jacqui's dad lives in North Carolina, and so do mine, sowe talked about that briefly, too. She was very amiable and interestedin what Alison and I had to say. I don't think she stopped smiling thewhole time.
Alison and I first met Johan outside the congregational gates. He wasin a black trench coat and a black yarmulke when we emerged from thedarkness, afoot, asking for our contact on the inside. At Chips',however, I quickly found that Johan was really with it. He followed alot of American politics and media, and had worked at an embassy inFrance for a while. He was very sharp and very interested in talkingabout AIPAC and South African history, and he delivered his interest injust the right way. Always with a smile, and only when he hadsomething novel to say. He was not oppressive or forceful with hisknowledge, simply educational. Later, as he drove Alison and me home,he provided us with one last insight into South African life andculture. In trying to explain what he does for a living - he's aproject manager for a project that's trying to pioneer researchconnections between South Africa and the European Union - he eventuallysettled on not really knowing, but identifying that as the nature ofthe beast right now.
South Africa is a visionary nation in a state of initiative andcreation. That's what Johan articulated for me that night, and that'spart of what I came away from my trip with. But in that time, I forgotto think about the microcosms. I think that's why some of my experiences- stares in Soweto, Voortrekker Monument bias, Alex urban renewal -have been so startling. I certainly put the Jewish story on the backburner, but this past Shabbat brought it all back to me. Alison reallyhit the nail on the head at the end of the night.
"Tonight I remember why I love being Jewish." she said.
And that's the truth.
Tyler Benjamin is originally from Tampa, FL and grew up in the NFTY Southern Tropical Region (STR). He is a former NFTY North American Programming Vice President (2009 - 2010).