Inspiration from the 9th Street Community in Johannesburg

Dearest Hakhel communities in Israel and around the world,

In this moment of deep pain for our people, I have been given the opportunity to write about an event that 9th Street held for our community of multidisciplinary artists here in Johannesburg. I’ll also share what I got out of the event. I hope it helps you in some way.

After 7 October, all kinds of messages reverberated on the 9th Street WhatsApp group. In response, the 9th Street leaders quickly initiated an event. People clearly needed to talk in person. Those who showed real interest in the event became the organisers. We also reached out to the Jozi Partnership Minyan, another intentional community here that runs Shabbat and Festival services. Someone offered their home. We picked a date. Sooner was better than later, we all agreed. We offered it to those in our communities, but we also cast our nets wider and invited friends and family who don’t usually join us. As organisers who were feeling vulnerable ourselves, we made a point that the event should not take up much time or energy to plan and execute. People could just come and hang out. We marketed it as a moment to eat, drink, talk, sing and just be together. We got takeaway pizzas, cooldrinks and wine. One of us brought some sheet music. We allowed people to come and go as they pleased.

On the day, about 30 of us gathered at the heritage home of Renee and Ron Mendelow. Their garden is especially large and idyllic. There were many new faces. As the African sunset cast its light and shadow around us, our children played outdoors. As we ate and drank, people spoke in small groups, huddled closely together. The discussions were about 7 October, the war, philosophical concerns, spiritual questions, and just ordinary every-day things. Some people were emotional, some clear-headed, others distant and distracted. As night fell, some of us moved to the stoep to sing Jewish songs and psalms for peace and hope. After the singing, we discussed how important it was to lean into each other.  The Mendelow family agreed we could do this again at their home soon. For most of us, it was a very important moment of stillness and of processing. It was medicinal.

After the event, I began to make sense of my overwhelming feelings. I had been crying a lot, and after the event I cried some more. What is happening is so awful, so messy and complicated and getting more and more difficult to navigate by the day. But it’s perhaps especially difficult for us here in South Africa. Our government has sided with the Palestinians, as they have expressed, because they were freedom fighters during apartheid and see themselves in the struggle narrative of the Palestinian people. This is at the expense of Jewish South Africans. Our president has not reached out to a grieving Jewish South African community. If he cared to bother, he would struggle to find one of us here who hasn’t been personally affected by 7 October. Two South Africans were killed. In this environment, I asked myself, how do we speak up for ourselves as Jews. But by far the biggest ah-ha moment for me that day came from the most unlikely of places, a Venus Flytrap.

Renee Mendelow, the host of our event, has a nursery of carnivorous plants. During the event, she called my children and me to her nursery. She generously gave my kids their own Venus Flytraps. She told us about these fascinating plants and how to look after them. I only knew them from their bad reputation; they eat bugs with their spikey traps. I was surprised to find out that they need a lot of special care. They need rain or sterilised water, not just ordinary tap water. They need full sun. They need their water to be poured into a saucer underneath them, not from the top. If you put your finger in one of their traps, either on purpose or by mistake, the whole plant exerts tremendous energy to close, and when it gets no food in return, it can die. I could see my daughter was repulsed by her gift. I’m proud to say she sensitively hid this from Renee. But now she cannot stop asking questions about it and both children check in on their special plants every day.

Why am I telling you about the Venus Flytraps? Because I think these carnivorous plants are such a brilliant metaphor for the Jewish people. Just as the plant embodies the genetic ability to adapt, so too the Jewish people have shown time and again we too can adapt and are resilient. Also, when I think of this plant as a metaphor for our people, it helps me to ask difficult questions.

Just like the plant requires special care, what special care do we need right now? Just as the plants reach up to the sun, how do we stand up for ourselves and for our people?

The plant doesn’t close its trap for all bugs. I discovered yesterday, an ant is too small for the plant and not worth the effort to close. So too for us, is it worth fighting every social media battle? And how do we recognise that we do have spikes and we do kill bugs? Jewish people have ugly, nasty bits. Israel is now at war. War is a nasty business. Even though Israel never asked for this war, still innocent Palestinian citizens are being killed every day by Israel’s hand. Then I ask, does this plant merely embody survival of the fittest, or is its survival also hinged on the relationship between itself, the bugs it eats and its being in the right environment? Is this a metaphor for the relationship between Jewish Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the environment of the Middle East? How do we make sure no one sticks their finger in us again, like Hamas did, with the intention to kill us? How do we stop ourselves from accidentally sticking our own fingers in and hurting ourselves? There are a few ideas I have for this one but I’ll let you come up with your own. And lastly, how do we give our children the necessary lessons and tools to care for the plant, to carry our people forward? These are very hard questions to ask now and even harder to answer. But as sensitive and caring Jewish community builders, I know we are the right people to ask and hopefully we can find the answers, together.

I would encourage all intentional community members to find still moments together with your people. To just be together. It doesn’t have to be grand or fancy. It doesn’t have to be so deep or meticulously planned. Whatever it is will provide a special moment for the group and for each person. Maybe you will even find your own Venus Flytrap.

Through community, I hope that each of you may be able to process all this mess with deep self-reflection, strength in yourselves and compassion for others.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Leigh Nudelman Sussman