I’ve often been quite dismissive and even a bit scathing of the very incestuous and extremely tight South African community I have around me.
When Little Pencil was in preschool there were 2 Australians in his class of 20 kids. That’s quite a huge (make that overwhelming) majority of South Africans. And they were pretty intense albeit very lovely – the mothers that is, not the kids. The kids were just lovely.
The very close-knit ex patriot community meant that the kids all had South African accents (did I mention most of the teaching staff were also South African?). My son learned that corn was mielies and mandarins were naartjies, that dinner was supper and that back home was South Africa although he was born in Australia and had spent only 2 weeks of his short life in “that home”.
I was excited to move Little Pencil out of mini South Africa to go to a primary school that was a little more, how do you say, diverse. Granted there’s a fair share of my birth countrymen there but it’s balanced and we’re back to saying mandarins and corn and we now eat dinner every night and giggle slightly when people say supper like its quaint and antiquated.
I still have a lot of South African friends who I love and of course my family will always be South African at heart although most of them live here now. But the distance from that very tight and insular community at pre-school made me a little more intolerant of the very closed South African circle. There’s a saying that you can sneeze in Bondi and someone in St Ives will bless you – that’s how small the community is, but worse, that’s how much every body knows your business.
I found it stifling. Invasive. I backed away from it – found it loud, aggressive and constricting.
A couple of weeks ago one of my closest friends suffered a terrible loss, the tragic and seemingly senseless death of her 38 year old sister-in-law in South Africa. She and her family went back to South Africa for the funeral and the customary days of Jewish mourning. When they returned they had a prayer service for their friends and family to express their condolences and pray for the peace of the departed, her family and her 3 very young children.
I didn’t want to go to the service. I had just stepped off a plane, I was in no hurry to face some of the people that I knew would be there and I wasn’t feeling particularly religious (in fact it was the same day I was toying with becoming a Buddhist.) But I love my friend dearly and nothing was going to stop me going to show her my support, to squeeze her hand and just be there if she needed me.
As I stepped into the synagogue where the service was taking place it hit me. This is what the community is all about. The synagogue was packed, there were literally hundreds of people there. My friend and her husband have very few family members in Australia – maybe 6 people. But there was a synagogue full of people, people that genuinely cared and wanted to be there to do the very same thing I had – to squeeze their hands, to be there to support them and to show them that they are never going to be alone and that they are loved.
In good times and in bad their close-knit, somewhat incestuous friends were there and it didn’t matter what accents they had or how they were South African more than Australian even though they had lived more of their lives here than there. It made me feel very grateful to be part of such an amazing community.
I’m definitely going to try be less scathing.