Wild Things to Do - An Oral History of Joffe & Idelson
January 2009 was the 80th birthday of my beloved uncle Gus No'am Seligman. When Gus was born in Johannesburg in January 1929 he was named by his parents, in keeping with Jewish tradition, after the closest departed relative. Gus, and later Joel, was given the name Goodman, a rather strange anglised translation of the Yiddish name Guttman, itself a translation of the Hebrew name Tuvia. Guttman Joffe, the grandfather of Gus, David Meir (Dovvie), Issac Moshe (Moke), Ora, Joel, Danny, David and father of Abraham (Arthur), Mary, Mendel and Harry, had lived and died in Kraslava, then part of the Russian Empire and now in Latvia. The passage from Kraslava to South Africa; the subtle name change from Guttman to Goodman; the later change to No'am; the integration of the children into South African society; the re-dispersal of Guttman's descendents to four continents; the change, loss and adoption of new cultures and language, is our story, a story worth recounting.
As an archaeologist, history is my profession. I know minute facets of Byzantine history; understand intimately the topography of the Holy Land during the Crusades; relish the finer points of the process of Islamisation of Jerusalem following the Umayyad conquest and study the details of Herod's magnificent edifices throughout Israel. But what do I, we, know about ourselves, about our own recent history? Sadly, surprisingly little. A brick wall was constructed between our, their, lives in the Pale of Settlement and our new lives, first in South Africa and later also in England, Israel, Australia, Ireland and the USA. The trauma, and it is that, that our families underwent through the past century is unlike any that they faced as an extended family for centuries in the Shtetl of Kraslava. Like all human journeys the result is an assortment of successes and failures. The successes are clear. We are a group of well educated, well off, well adjusted (?), liberal people contributing to our societies and to our families. We have adopted, wholeheartedly, our adoptive cultures and we swim naturally in the warm waters of our new languages (both English and Hebrew). But in this process there has also been loss. We gladly absorbed and take pleasure in the cultures of others, but largely dismiss our own. This has had a price tag. Few of the second generation, and none of the third generation after Kraslava have any knowledge of the language of our parents-grandparents, Yiddish. Their culture, not necessarily the religion but certainly aspects of the religious culture, the history and geography of our ancestral home and the family's place in it are almost completely foreign to us. Even the social importance of the extended family is already a thing of the past, our geographical dispersal making such links unfeasible. Modernity is now placing pressures on the sustainability of the nuclear family, a value I see as sacrosanct. The likelihood that anything from centuries of history, culture or identity can be forwarded to the fourth-generation is meagre. We have lost our cultural, historical and geographical context as a family with a specific identity for something more universal. The rainbow of multi-culturalism now fades into the beige of universality. But before we fade into general Western culture we should pause and think if that is what we really want.
For myself this process of reexamination occurred through default. At Bar Mitzvah all Israeli school children are given a task to write a small paper about their families, about their places of origin or about an object or aspect associated with their family's past. Together with Daniel, my eldest son, we decided to register the members of our close family who perished in the Holocaust in the archives of Yad Vashem. Surprisingly the subject, though constantly in the background, had never really been discussed. Indeed, at least nine Joffes were murdered in the massacre of Kraslava Jewry at the Pogulanka Forest in Daugavpils (Dvinsk) on the 2nd August 1941.
As usual we had waited too long, as those who knew the people had passed away, requiring us to refer to the little data recorded on the backs of old photographs. Soon enough this led to genealogical search though the internet and through electronic mail that produced surprising results. The research, that went far beyond a school project, became a fascinating journey resulting in this website and the reestablishment of familial connections lost over up to five generations, encompassing relatives both close and far, today resident in Israel, South Africa, Russia, USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia.
Of course, a search for self identity can take many forms. I was happy to see that for Gus's birthday Jonathan sent the following story he had developed from the oral history dictated by Yiska. Oral histories and biographies are a basic tool of historians. They are works of perception, based both on selective memory and selective amnesia. They are a primary source whose subjectivity requires forensic cross-referencing. Still they are a truth that must be told and retold and augmented by others who should also add their own accounts.
I pass this over to Jonathan to continue. Enjoy!
Wild Thinks To Do
By Jonathan Morgan
An Introduction by Jon Seligman
Wild Things to Do - Prologue
Yiska - 7th January 2001, 90 years
Ora - 30th of December 2001, 71 years; 30th December 2008, 79 years
Gabriella - Batmitzvah, 30th November, 2008, 12 years
Gus - 29th January 2009, 80 years
This is my contribution to our family birthday present to our family history. I will email it to all interested family members and ask them to add - bits and memories and stories and corrections and photos -between the lines. May it grow like the worldwideweb itself. Please scribble between the lines in your own words so the text becomes a kind of conversation / mural / collage / scrapbook. What Yiska and I have provided is just the scaffolding of an unfolding family story that continues and the version you each end up will have its own direction, own area of focus and own unpredictable twists. We will I imagine construct it quite thoroughly electronically before we print it and when we do print it, each family's version will I expect be quite different. Some bits will be too personal for wider consumption, others will be less interesting to "outsiders." Let's see. Together we are the rivulets that make up the Joffe-Idelsohn delta.
The lines I have provided come from 360 minutes of audio tape Yiska herself scripted and recorded over twelve days on Josie’s farm in Tzaneen when she turned 84 in 1995. I have edited and retold her words but sometimes they are just as she has said them. The photos and more stories come from an archaeological dig into a great big dusty grey carton of photos that has been waiting for this for years above Ora's coats. I also had some more talks with Yiska and Ora and I hope that you have lots more around this with Yiska and with each other.
Yiska's tapes rest in my memory box which I encourage each of you to make too. It is actually eight. One inside the other, the boxes sit like Russian Babuschka dolls. The outer most box has 400% zooms of original photos of our great great grandparents, including Hilel Schneider, the cantor of Leipzig, and Chaya Musha the butcher, who was my grandpa Arthur's mom. I carry her name between Jonathan and Morgan (in the form of Misha.)
Yiska’s tapes begin with the word "shalom" and she acknowledges the simple but powerful question of Abigail Joffe, one of the youngest grandchildren, just like during Pesach.
"Will you tell some true stories about my father Joel and his family, and record these on tape?"
Yiska lives on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Killarney in Johannesburg. Her son Josie, who gave up a successful career as a dentist and as a maxillo facial surgeon, to live a secluded artist's life in a house he built on a plot in the Northern Province, has barred and boarded the place up to care for his mother. He sits on the couch listening to me interview her, getting up occasionally to inhale strong smelling tobacco and to blow the smoke out the enclosed balcony window. For his mom's birthday he is going to present a slideshow tracking the life of his mother. I will present this story in one form or another. There will be no dress rehearsal. Yiska has lived a remarkable life, full of sea voyages, disruptions, relocations, triumph over bad luck, drama, music, culture, spiritual journeying, service, teaching and witnessing. It is tightly interwoven with Ora's story too, and the two belong in the same present.
The other day I was thinking how remarkable it is that Yiska has survived so long. My granny Dena passed away nearly 20 years - half of my life - ago, in what seems another era. And Yiska has diabetes. I know she is not always happy to still be in this world, her sight is all but gone, and she is accustomed to living a rich, full, creative and independent life. Everything she does she does carefully, beautifully and properly. There is not a self destructive bone in her body, and it is this care which extends to everything she does, I think, that has kept her alive beyond her own desire to be so.
I stand beside her in the kitchen as her hands feel for the places and shapes of her tea pots and milk jugs and china cups. A braid of platted hair hangs over her shoulder. I am used to seeing her hair piled upon her head, she was a beautician, and in the deepest sense she is a beauty and special to us for many reasons. One being the fact that she is our only link to what came before us from the Idelsohn Joffe direction. It has taken me a long time to get round to interviewing her in any kind of proper way and I'm very very glad I didn't leave it too late.
As a writer and someone interested in my history I really appreciate the thoroughness with which Yiska has painted the story of my family. Her take and her perspective on the Joffe-Idelsohns is a fascinating one. She has just the right mix of insider and outsider-ness to tell it both passionately and truthfully. By reconstructing this story I feel very different to how I felt a few days before. What Yiska has given me is valuable beyond expression. Thanks to her and to my father Issy, who has filled me up with tales from his side of the family, I can now not only name all eight of my great grandparents, and many of their parents and grandparents. I can also tell you how they looked and something about their characters, and I can give you glimpses into their lives in what was surely a different world.
This is the rub, the gift, the magic. If you think you can see yourself in your own parents but it is all too cloudy, and its hard to own and claim what you see, go one folder back, and one more, to your great grand parents. There is no better place to view your own diversity and your multi storied self. With a little enquiry, research and stirring, you can get those dividing and joining rivers to flow right up between your ankles and into whatever wild and exciting future you want to dream up-stream.
Enough about me and my thoughts on this. Let's jump in, swim as far as we can up-stream, turn onto our backs and float right back to here and now checking out the view between our toes. Yiska told me that so many times in her life there was no one to guide her, and that her whole life was about jumping into the deep end and swimming to the shallow end - which is the proper place to begin, or is it?
30 Dec 2008
Ora is the living link between the young and the olds and the deceased and it was on her 71st birthday that I began this project. Today she turns 79. Happy Birthday Ora.
This retelling is also dedicated to Danny Joffe, my uncle who passed away in November 2008.
However the real prompt to revisit it came from my lovely young cousin / niece Gabriella Joffe on the occasion of her batmitzvah. Yiska and I first put this together in 2001. Since then Yiska and Danny have both left us. Every few years an opportunity arises to revisit and update it. This time it was Gabriella's batmitzvah which was in November 2008 but the day I got down to it was Ora's 79 birthday. Gabriella I believe is quite the family historian as well. She recently constructed an essay / project around Joel's life.
As I read through it and gave it a light edit I also remembered Danny who Yiska spoke of lovingly so often in the text. Michal Seligman also emailed us recently and asked for contributions for Gus's birthday. Sorry Gus, we may have missed the deadline but here is something in the form of this updated manuscript. So to Gabriella, Ora, Danny, Yiska, Gus and to the rest of you, hope you get something out of this.
Lots of love, Jonathan
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.
Wild Things to Do - The Chapters