‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

Everyone’s Included in Monkey in the Middle and What Kind of Bat Mitzvah Will She Have

A boisterous game of “Monkey in the Middle” overtook our family room after Shabbat dinner last week. Astonishingly, nothing was broken and nobody got hurt. Laughter, happy yelling, and lots of good-natured teasing kept the blue-and-white beach ball airborne and away from the “monkey,” who in this game, was my daughter.

My only little girl is a feisty 8-year-old. She holds her own with big green-gray eyes, a smattering of freckles, a knowing smile, and a steely grip amid the three brothers who love nothing more than to give her a hard time about, well, everything: that she mispronounces “bird,” that she’s something of a busybody, that she prefers to keep her room testosterone-free, and yells “out” as soon as a male body, canine or human, places a smelly toe over the threshold.

Read more here.


This post first appeared on Kveller.

Happy Sweet Sixteen to Us!

source: footage.shutterstock.com

source: footage.shutterstock.com

Sixteen years ago today, June 9, I arrived in San Francisco with little more than a suitcase, a new husband, and the kind of anticipation that makes one shiver from excitement and pure nerves… although the shivering may have been because of the chilly fog swirling rapidly over the Golden Gate and up and down the hilly streets. I was possibly the furthest I could be in the world from my home of Pretoria, South Africa.

I would come to learn that the fog is the Bay Area’s “own natural air conditioner” and even though it means I never go anywhere without a fleece or a hoodie in summer, not even to the beach on a rare 90-degree day, it’s what makes San Francisco the magical place it is, together with the clanging cable cars, the crookedest street in the world, earthquakes, bridges, and iconic Transamerica building. Welcome to San Francisco!

During my 16-year transformation from shivering, bewildered South African to proud American, I have discovered these invaluable Sixteen Truths You Must Accept to Survive Life in the United States (besides emphasizing the “r” at the end of words like “chair, here, four” in order to be understood):

  1. It’s easy to make friends if you have an accent – not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me they could listen to me talk all day, and they really mean it. If my husband is around, he assures them they actually couldn’t.
  2. Unless Americans know a South African or have been to South Africa, unless they have actually heard a South African talk, they have no idea what accent this is. I am most definitely from England, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand – but very rarely from South Africa.
  3. Sushi, tacos and dim sum are as American as any kind of pie (except you will be hard-pressed to find a steak pie, curried lamb pie or Cornish pasty pretty much anywhere in the US).
  4. A boot is a trunk, a nappy is a diaper, a plaster is a Band Aid, football is soccer, and a lift is an elevator – but also in the US you do not hire a car, only people are for hire. Everything else is rented. In South Africa the only thing you rent is a property – from a letting agent not a rental agent. I know. I’m still confused.
  5. You can ship anything, anywhere in the continental United States – even raw meat. And live frogs.
  6. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads an inscription at the General Post Office in New York City (source: Wikipedia). And the US postal system itself is extremely efficient. Our frog arrived within two days of ordering it. But a universal truth is that post offices themselves are inefficient no matter where in the world you are. This is strangely comforting.
  7. Americans love ice. With everything.
  8. Bananas, onions, pineapples and toilet paper rolls are four times the size in the US than in any other country in the world. I’m pretty sure this is a fact.
  9. Woolworths (every ex-South African’s favorite store) is not the only place in the world to buy comfortable underwear and pajamas – it’s only taken me 16 years to figure that out. I’m not sure what to ask my mom and mom-in-law to bring me now. Oh yes, tea!
  10. Halloween and 4th of July really do happen exactly like on TV in the eighties. And there is no better way to celebrate anything than with a parade.
  11. Disneyland is “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
  12. Any establishment can be a drive-thru – even a bank.
  13. You can return almost anything you don’t want anymore, any time, even if you’ve worn it or used it. I’m not admitting to have done this… okay, maybe once.
  14. Roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pecan pie are delicious for everyone on Thanksgiving – even if you’re not a born American. Our goal over the next 16 years is to deep-fry the turkey like they do in Arkansas.
  15. When someone asks where you went to school, they are not expecting you to say Carmel Primary. Elementary school is not school! They want to know where you went to college, university, and did you do a post-grad. My answer to this question used to be fairly long, even though I did not do a post-grad: I went to Rhodes University (blank stare), in Grahamstown (polite smile), in the Eastern Cape (maybe some recognition), in South Africa (oooh, so that’s where you’re from. I thought you were Irish). Now when I’m asked where I went to school, I say, “South Africa.” Kills at least three questions at once.
  16. Until my sister moved to San Francisco, we had no family around – which was okay in our daily lives, but made Shabbat dinners, weekends, holidays kinda lonely for a while. My very first San Francisco friend taught me that “Friends are the family you make for yourself,” and I am grateful for this every day of the last 16 years.

Thank you to this great country for welcoming me with those open, misty arms so many years ago (almost half my life), for giving us a safe, beautiful place to raise our four Jewish American children, for lighting our lives with 4th of July fireworks and for offering all six of us daily opportunity to be the selves we want to be.

Happy Sweet Sixteen to Us!

Totally Californian… essentially South African

Summer rain. I miss it. The clouds scurry in – gray and heavy. The temperature drops, but only a little. Fat droplets start to fall, one at a time, and within minutes it’s raining loudly. It’s rain with a purpose. Not gentle and misty, not dreary and relentless. Thirst quenching, life-giving, happy and warm. Almost as quickly as it begins, it’s over.

Clear skies and sticky air. The trees are bright, and the birds are loud. Water drips from the leaves onto the tiled walkway. And the intoxicating fragrance of magnolia is suddenly everywhere.

I was disoriented. For a moment I was back in Pretoria, South Africa – where it rains, like this, almost every afternoon in early summer. Growing up, I would stand at the open front door, watching and waiting. Loving the steady sound of the rain on the roof and the windows. Knowing it would stop soon, the sun would come out in moments, the birds would start to call and I would breathe in that heady magnolia. Africa.

But this was Australia!

As the confused clouds blew across my brain, my heart contracted with longing. The smells and sounds coalesced into a blanket of nostalgia, lightly draping my shoulders.


Sydney, Australia is a beautiful, fun, happy city – home to the Sydney Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, magnificent water views wherever you look, cuddly koalas and fierce-looking kangaroos. Absolutely worth the 14-hour flight and crazy time change, kids in tow. It has an incredibly efficient ferry system, an amazing zoo, gorgeous parks and breathtaking beaches.

And a layer of “South African-ness” I was not expecting. Which left me surprisingly homesick.

Of course, I know that many South Africans have made Sydney their home – it made our trip even more special to spend time with old friends from elementary school and college while we were there, reconnecting, reminiscing, introducing our kids to one another.

What took me by surprise was how familiar the city felt to me. In the southern hemisphere. Chanukah in summer. Houses built from brick not sheetrock, and neighborhoods reminiscent of Johannesburg in their layout. Even the ocean felt more Indian than Pacific! Nobody asked where I was from – in California sometimes my accent sounds Australian… or Irish… or British. In Australia it’s clearly South African.

And because there is such a large South African community, typical South African foods are easily available, foods that define many of my childhood memories, and that my American children now love: biltong (puts beef jerky to shame – there is no comparison), boerewors (delicious sausage, the flavor can only be created by South Africans), chocolates, cookies and Joko tea, Nando’s Chicken (a franchise imported all the way from Johannesburg to Sydney, London, Washington DC – but sadly not San Francisco). If you know South Africans living outside of South Africa, you know how much we crave our SA food!

At the “South African shop” in Rose Bay, the owner recognized our last name – he knows my father-in-law – and the manager’s daughter went to high school with my husband. The couple staying in the apartment next door to us felt as familiar to me as my own aunt and uncle – even though I was meeting them for the first time! They hugged me when they met me, and kissed my kids, and for a minute I thought maybe I had known them somewhere before. But it was enough that we were Jewish South Africans for all of us to feel connected. She was making chopped liver for Shabbat dinner, and he cracked the same kind of jokes my dad does, and they used slang South African words we hadn’t heard in so long… and the longing squeezed my heart again. Homesick.

But I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 15 years. We left six weeks after our wedding, and my children are Californian. They have American accents, they like beef jerky and they think a costume is what you wear on Purim or Halloween (it is, but in South Africa it’s also your bathing suit). When I think “home” I see the Bay Bridge, not the telecom tower I rode my bike to as a child in Pretoria.

As we enjoyed our week in Sydney, swimming in waves that felt like those in Durban, having braais (barbecues) with old friends, waiting out the afternoon rain, those confused clouds continued to scurry across my mind.

Back home in the Bay Area, my friends understand when I reply ya instead of yes, I have found the best boerewors from a kosher South African butcher in Atlanta (they ship it next-day on dry ice!), and we have braais as often as we can. It rains in winter – sometimes incessantly – but during spring and summer I can smell magnolia and jasmine all over.

am South Africa homesick… but in the Bay Area, I am home.

Sydney, Australia November 2013

Sydney, Australia
November 2013