When Joburg was Jewburg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2013, $28, pp. 576
Early on in Kenneth Bonert’s raw and ambitious novel of working-class Jewish life in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s, Isaac Helger, the angry, tempestuous protagonist, gets a harsh lesson in race relations from Gitelle, his tough-as-dried-ostrich-meat immigrant mother. She has heard him speak affectionately of his “aunties”—the “colored” women of mixed race who work as servants in their Johannesburg neighborhood—and she proceeds to set him straight.
“Listen,” Gitelle admonishes her son, “a Colored is half of a Black. It’s coffee in your blood. We are Whites. We are Jews but we are Whites here.” If Isaac hangs out with coloreds, she warns him, other whites “will think maybe we have coffee in our blood also. You understand?”
The Lion Seeker, a 561-page doorstop of a novel, is part bildungsroman, part immigrant saga about a redheaded, two-fisted roughneck of unbridled chutzpah and limited conscience who claws, scratches and cheats his way out of poverty, spurred on by his eternally demanding mother—whom he ultimately cheats as well. But it’s also about Jews and the fragile, uneasy toehold they established and clung to in the remorseless racial hierarchy that long dominated South Africa.
South Africa’s Jews were a minority of a minority of a minority—Jews in a gentile world, English speakers in a white community where Afrikaners were the majority, and whites in a country where 85 percent of the population were people of color. As Gitelle suggests, their status as whites was always under scrutiny. It was the perfect recipe, as novelist Dan Jacobson once wrote, for “self-division, self-doubt, self-rejection, anxiety, weariness, conflicting loyalties, envy, shame, the longing to be short of the whole business.”
Jews began arriving at the southern tip of Africa in the second half of the 19th century, most of them from Lithuania. Samuel Marks and his business partner, Isaac Lewis, had first settled in England but headed to South Africa in the late 1860s after hearing of opportunities for dry goods merchants in the vast interior. They built a commercial empire out of a brick and tile works, a glass factory, a brewery and a distillery, a meat processing plant, a tannery and a boot factory. News of their success quickly filtered back to Vilna, Lithuania’s medieval capital, and thousands of friends and family eventually followed. Most of them settled in cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, where the dominant culture and language were English, and their children quickly shed their Lithuanian customs and native Yiddish. “Joburg,” as it was called, quickly became the heart of Jewish life; to friend and foe alike it was known as “Jewburg.” The Jewish population in South Africa jumped from 4,000 in 1880 to nearly 47,000 in the 1911 census, and more than 104,000 in 1946—some 4.4 percent of the white population.
The veneer of English culture that most South African Jews acquired did not lead to complete assimilation. Most felt like eternal outsiders. They were generally more liberal than other whites and tended to be less comfortable with white domination, even though they—like all whites—benefited from it economically. But aside from a handful of communists, socialists and committed liberals, most Jews were apathetic politically and unwilling to stick their necks out to challenge the race-based pecking order.
They had good reason to be wary. The National Party, which was the political vanguard of the Afrikaner national movement, preached a brand of racial purity that was similar in ideology—if not as murderous—to Nazism. National Party leaders viewed Jews as parasites feasting off the white Christian body politic; moderates wanted to shut the gates to further Jewish immigration while extremists sought to expel those already there back to the killing fields of Europe. The editorial pages of Die Burger, the Cape Town daily newspaper that served as one of the party’s mouthpieces, displayed the cartoon character “Hoggenheimer,” a bloated capitalist with grotesquely Jewish features.
Jews suffered from a double hex: They were identified both with international capitalism and Bolshevism. The government blamed Jewish activists for the 1922 mine workers’ strike. Its leaders rammed through the Immigration Quota Act of 1930, which choked off the flow of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to a trickle.
Blacks, of course, had it much worse. When the National Party took power in 1948, it codified white domination and racial inequity into apartheid, an air-tight system of oppression that condemned blacks to inferior life chances from the day they were born to the day of their death. Apartheid dictated where you could be born, where you went to school and what you could learn there, whom you could sleep with and whom you could marry, where you could work and live and even where you could be buried. Whites, by contrast, enjoyed voting rights, economic prosperity, good jobs, nice houses, servants and all of the privileges that white skin bestowed, so long as they did not challenge the system. Many Jews went along, while others left for countries with more secure opportunities where race was less of a factor. Others channeled their energies toward Zionism—South Africa’s Jews proportionately became Israel’s most fervent donors. The Jewish population, which peaked at nearly 120,000 in the early 1970s, is now down to some 70,000 with many Jews emigrating to Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States
Born in South Africa, the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, Kenneth Bonert is acutely aware of the precarious position Jews occupied in the 1930s and 40s and of the intricacies of the politics of racial domination, and he uses these as the backdrop for his story. His main character is a man-child of intense needs and appetites and a burning sense of grievance. Isaac Helger virtually throbs with anger and ambition for wealth, respectability and women. But most of all he craves the love and approval of his indomitable and manipulative mother, who encourages his worst instincts in driving him toward success.
In his single-minded drive toward quasi-respectability, Helger confronts a series of predictable challenges and obstacles, many of them of his own making. He is kicked out of school for masturbating in a closet while lusting after his attractive female teacher. He suffers a bad beating from an Afrikaner thug who lives across the street in the tough Joburg neighborhood of Doornfontein. He gets fired from his job after hiring out his moving van as an illegal taxi, is rejected by the white shiksa princess he longs to possess because he lacks empathy for blacks, and loses yet another job when he’s wrongly accused of stealing.
Bonert’s pot sometimes boils over with clichéd storytelling, and his prose can be fractious and tortured. But the compulsive energy and passion of his prose is well matched to the feverish longings of his deeply flawed protagonist, and the book gains speed and urgency as it steams along.
The plot takes many predictable turns. Isaac is torn between the conflicting demands of his parents—his mother urges him to seek success as a huckster selling shoddy goods, while his father tries to instill in him a devotion to honest labor and craftsmanship (if you’ve ever cared to learn the intricacies of car panel beating, this is the book for you). Isaac shows a talent for both paths but a commitment to neither. In the end, he goes to war, returns home a wounded warrior, lowers his expectations and learns how to hide his heart, but winds up deeply alienated from his own family as well as from the turbulent and relentlessly racist society that he both navigates and exploits. He’s a hard guy to identify with or to love, a tragic figure in a tragic country of enormous potential yet great injustice. He might never win our hearts, but he demands our attention, as does this ambitious and unruly novel.
Glenn Frankel is former Southern Africa, Jerusalem and London bureau chief for The Washington Post and author of Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa (1999). He won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of the first Palestinian uprising.