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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Only at Christmas...

-A  divertissement-

I qualified as a dental surgeon at University College Dental School (London) in March 1982. I began my first job in practice soon after that. I joined a small well-run practice in Rainham (Kent), an overgrown village between Gillingham and Sittingbourne. I was about 60 miles (~96 Km) from Central London, but it felt as if it were on a different planet.

My patients were delightful on the whole, and not overly demanding. The principal dentist, Julian Unter, was helpful and never put me under any pressure. I recall once after I had been in practice for only a few weeks that a patient asked me how long I had been a dentist. Not wishing to alarm her that I had only been ‘let loose’ from dental school a few weeks earlier, yet wanting to be honest, I replied: “I have been working up in London for five years”.  This, which was true because I had been studying in a dental environment for that length of time, appeared to satisfy the questioner.

There was a branch of Tesco’s supermarket in Rainham. I used to buy bits and pieces there for my lunch. Whenever I handed a chocolate bar or any other piece of dentally unsuitable confectionary, the cashiers, many of whom were patients of our practice, would then wave the chocolate or similar in the air and then shout to everyone in the shop: “Look what the dentist is eating”.

I was brought up eating Mediterranean dishes at home, and learned to cook them myself. Garlic was an essential ingredient in my cooking. I used to cook for myself in my digs in Kent. One day, I was working on an elderly lady’s teeth, when she swept my hand away, and exclaimed: “Ooh, you’ve been eating garlic, Mr Yamey.” From then on, whilst I was working in Kent – and that was for about 11 years – I desisted from eating garlic during the working week. Now, I work near Central London and few of my patients are of Anglo-Saxon origin, and almost all of them eat garlic, so my consumption of the stuff is no longer a problem.

Parsley was another of my favourite ingredients during the 1980s when I worked in Kent. When I began working there, I went into Tescos, which was almost the only food store in the village, and asked for parsley. The reply I received from the surprised store assistant was: “No dear, there’s no call for it. We only get parsley in at Christmas.” I was only 60 miles from London, where parsley was readily available throughout the year, but no one wanted it in Rainham except at Christmas. This and many other similar cultural differences made me realise how different Kent was to London and many of the exotic places that I had visited much further away from it.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Distasteful matters in biography

I am in the process of writing a biography of one of my 19th century ancestors, who gradually assumed great importance in the political life of South Africa during the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries.

I have been led to believe that my subject was sympathetic to the problems faced by his black African (‘Native’) and other non-European neighbours and fellow countrymen. This has been acknowledged by at least one black African organisation, the Steve Biko Foundation in King Williams Town. When I visited their headquarters in 2003, I saw a plaque commemorating him alongside a number of other similar memorials. He was the only white person considered to be worthy of honouring by the Foundation.

So far so good!

As I report on his activities in matters concerned with the treatment of black Africans  in King Williams Town, and then later elsewhere in South Africa, readers, many of whom are imbued with today's 'politically correct' notions, might well be surprised at what he, a so-called liberal, said and did.  The reader of an account of a far-off era must always remember that the actions and views of my ancestor, some of which may surprise the reader today, were quite liberal in comparison with those of many other South Africans of European origin. Therefore, we cannot, and should not, judge my subject's approaches to what used to be called ‘Native’ matters through 21st century eyes. Instead, we should try to understand and judge them through 19th century spectacles.  This won't make the unpalatable more palatable, but at least it makes it understandable and helps to judge more fairly a man, who meant to do his level best for those less fortunate than him.

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Saturday, 4 July 2015

From Europe to Freedom

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Almost as soon as the British took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch at the beginning of the 19th century, practising Jews began arriving there. At first, most of them were occupied in trade although at least one was a medical practitioner. Amongst the earliest traders were well-known names such as Bergtheil, Norden, Solomon, Thalwitzer, and the Mosenthals. The latter were responsible for opening up the interior of the Cape to trade, as well as bringing out more Jewish men from Germany (mainly) to work in their network of trading stores.

Until the discovery of first diamonds and then gold in what is now South Africa, most Jews leaving Europe tended to head westwards to the USA. After the valuable products started being unearthed, the number of Jews heading towards South Africa rose sharply. Both the increasing prosperity of the 4 constituent territories (that were to unify in 1910 to become South Africa) and also the pogroms in Tsarist Russia led to Eastern European Jews, especially from Lithuania and its neighbours, flowing into the country in ever increasing numbers.

Despite the Jewish people always being a small proportion of the European population of South Africa, they ‘punched above their weight’ – they made a disproportionately large contribution to its development, economically, politically, and in many other ways. This has been described masterfully and in great detail in “The Jews of South Africa” edited by Saron & Hotz, which was published in the 1950s.

My book “Exodus to Africa” approaches the story of Jewish migration from Europe to South Africa from a different angle. I have used the stories of some members of my large South African family to exemplify and illustrate a range of aspects of this movement of Jews out of the lands where they were subject to oppression to a place where they were largely respected and allowed to lead their lives without undue hindrance. My story begins with the earliest member of my family to arrive in the Cape (in 1849), the German Heinrich Bergmann, and it ends with the last person to arrive from Europe, Hendrik Jami. He arrived in the Cape in 1949, having travelled from Lithuania via Shanghai.

Exodus to Africa” - a study of mass movement of an oppressed people - describes why Jewish people left Europe; how they got to South Africa; what they and their descendants did there; and how some of them influenced the history of the country. My stories include those who witnessed, or were in some way directly involved in: the Cape Convict Crisis of 1849; the Anglo-Boer War; the Union of South Africa; railway building in the Eastern Cape; diamond ‘mining’ in South West Africa; Jewish Territorial Organization; the Grey Shirts; building ‘locations’; fighting in both World Wars; municipal government; and opposing apartheid. My book adds a personal flavour to spice the general history. The examples chosen from my family all illustrate general points relevant to the history of the Jews in South Africa. My story might well be subtitled ‘From Mosenthal to Mandela’

The book is available in paperback ( from www.lulu.com) and also in the Amazon Kindle format.