By Jonathan Zausmer
Reviewed by Dave Bloom
Jonathan Zausmer is a good story teller. Vividly capturing recollections from his childhood in the quant Western Cape coastal village of Hermanus in the fifties and sixties, the author’s style is both “whacky” and charming and will resonate with all South Africans with a special ‘close-to-home’ feeling for former Capetonians.
The reader is whisked from modern-day Israel back in time to a Jewish family living in the seaside resort and fishing town.
His feelings are mixed as he arrives in Cape Town in the present and is overcome by “the magnificence” as well as “The stark gruesome reality on the outskirts of the urban sprawl” that “places a dark shadow on sensations of nostalgia. ….he returns to the village of his birth and yearns to find a physical trace of his previous life. A Hassidic melody and an old Jewish joke merge in this bitter-sweet journey home.
The author jumps time zones and locations and keeps his reader utterly engrossed and intimately engaged. The young son Jayson faces the challenges of growing up and discovering – as he comes of age – that he is surrounded by a racist, ethnically divided and an anti-Semitic South Africa at the peak of Apartheid. This process involves encounters with “non-whites”, Afrikaaners, Christians and Jews with widely different outcomes, and lessons for him and for the reader today. The issue of ‘identity’ dominates throughout the book. The author describes it as “the heart of the story…. the drama, bliss and torment of childhood, illuminated by time.”
The book’s five-page glossary indicates his rich use of local terminology and the language of Jayson’s world. This incorporates Yiddish (from his parents), Afrikaans (from his teachers and school friends), Hebrew (from Israel and Jewish tradition) and many typical South African colloquialisms. Many expatriate readers will nostalgically relate with amusement the mosaic of languages used in daily interactions.
Contributing colourfully to an “all in the family” publication is the rich contribution by the author’s sister Jillian Zausmer Goldberg of her magnificent sketches.
My favourite chapter is “No Place for Sissies in Africa” – an eloquent analogy on the one level of Jayson’s challenges in provincial “red-neck” South Africa as he chooses to become a ballet dancer, and on another – the powerful tensions and dynamics of an obviously troubled society seen through the naïve eyes of a young Jewish boy.
There will be few readers familiar with Cape Town who would not share the author’s following observations and feelings: “As we broke through clouds into a familiar winter’s day, I could not refrain from that tinge of exhilaration as I looked out and saw the bay, the mountains, every crag and creek still a part of my very being. The ‘Table’ and its siblings – an elegant Lion’s Head and an anguished Devil’s Peak -and their constant clouds all shifting and gathering and dissipating in a very Cape way, orchestrated by the changing winds and tide. I believed at that moment that if I were to circle the Cape ten thousand times, if I were to see this magnificent Capescape every day emerging from below, I would never tire of it.” And neither will the readers ‘tire’ as they turn the pages and the stories unfold.
Anyone growing up in South Africa in those years will enjoy many aspects of Jonathan’s book and be left with a mixed feeling of sadness for a lost youth and yet a broad smile for experiencing a unique and well written series of short stories depicting many shared experiences.
About the authur:
Raised in Hermanus, Jonathan Zausmer matriculated at Cape Town’s Herzlia High School and graduated with a B.Soc.Sc. at UCT and a Master’s in Business from Boston University. He immigrated to Israel in the framework of Habonim-Dror to Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, where he lived and worked for several years, and was part of the first group that founded and established the town of Kohav Yair where he lives today. Jonathan was a founding member of the Forum Tzora peace action group, and is an active member of the Geneva Initiative NGO.
*Picture Imperfect. Contributing to the narrative, are insightful sketches by the author’s sister, Jillian Zausmer Goldberg that catches the surrounding rural area as well as adding a pictorial social commentary on poverty under Apartheid that meshes with the text. Jillian studied art education at Michaelis School of Art, UCT and is herself an author living in the USA.