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South African Jews Get Their Master Storyteller—and Their National Narrative

The debut novel ‘The Lion Seeker’ is the kind of representative Jewish epic Herman Wouk used to write

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Kenneth Bonert (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; photo Richard Dubois and map David Rumsey Map Collection)
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Reading about the Jews of South Africa is like seeing the history of American Jewry in a funhouse mirror: The outlines are similar, but the individual features are either heightened or shrunken. In terms of population, South African Jewry is nowhere close to American Jewry: Currently there are about 75,000 Jews in South Africa, as opposed to 5 million here. But both populations were formed at about the same time, during the exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920 (the vast majority of South African Jews came from Lithuania). Both communities clustered around a major city—New York City here, Johannesburg there. Both waves of immigration were cut short by xenophobic, partly anti-Semitic legislation between the wars. Both communities were pro-Israel and politically liberal, with Jews supplying leaders of both the American Civil Rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement. Yet ironically, both American and South African Jews benefited, in terms of assimilation, from the existence of an even more stigmatized caste of black citizens, which allowed Jews to be considered generically “white.”

Despite all these parallels, however, it’s safe to say that most American Jews have little knowledge of South African Jewish history. That blank space is an opportunity for the right storyteller—and now Kenneth Bonert has come along to fill it with The Lion Seeker, a big, richly detailed novel set in Johannesburg in the 1930s. The Lion Seeker is the kind of Jewish story Herman Wouk used to write, a natural best-seller in which a carefully rendered, realistic setting frames a melodramatic and romantic plot. It quite deliberately sets out to be a representative epic—the story of how the Jews came to South Africa and what they had to do in order to make it their home.

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The novel opens with a prologue set in the 1920s in Dusat, the village in Lithuania from which, we learn in the acknowledgments, Bonert’s own family came. Here we meet Gitelle Helger, a mother of two young children, who is saying farewell to her sisters as she prepares to join her husband, Abel, in South Africa. Deftly, Bonert plants the seeds of a mystery that will exfoliate through the whole book: We learn that Gitelle has a facial injury that requires her to wear a veil, but we don’t know exactly what it is, or how she got it. What we do know, with the history of Eastern Europe in mind, is that Gitelle is pretty certain never to see her relatives again, since most of them are doomed to die in the Holocaust. By moving to South Africa, she is saving her own and her children’s lives.

Millions of Jews broke with their past in this way, starting life in a new country. But Bonert emphasizes that this kind of emigration required a toughness that could easily turn into ruthlessness. That is certainly the case with Gitelle, as we see when the prologue’s scene shifts to Doornfontein, the slummy Jewish neighborhood of Johannesburg where the Helgers reunite. There Gitelle finds Abel, a poor but honest watch repairman, surrounded by a group of jobless cronies from back home. These men are doing nothing worse than keeping Abel company while he works, but to Gitelle, their nostalgia for the old country and their inability to make a success of life in the new make them contemptible and a dangerous influence. Finally, in a rage, she takes an axe and chops up the couch where the friends like to loaf, telling them never to come back.

Gitelle’s young son Isaac witnesses this scene, and it soon becomes clear that the central question of The Lion Seeker is what will happen to a boy with a mother so ferociously ambitious, and so dead-set against the past. Like many immigrant parents, Gitelle lives for the next generation, and she drills into Isaac the sense that his purpose in life is to justify her sacrifice. “I want you should be awake,” she lectures him. “Life is good but it is very hard. Where we are is no playground. Give a look. This is like a jail, but hard work escapes.” Her dream, which becomes Isaac’s task, is to move up in the world, to buy a house in a good neighborhood: “Who can buy this house? Can you buy this house for your mame?” This is emotional blackmail at its most effective, and Isaac internalizes the message—as it will turn out, all too well.

The heart of the novel is the story of how Isaac Helger tries, and mostly fails, to make good in South Africa, in the years leading up to WWII. Gitelle drums into him early on that there are two kinds of people, “the Stupids and the Clevers,” and that he had better learn to be a Clever. This has nothing to do with book-smarts: Isaac is a terrible student, but his mother doesn’t care, since she wants him out in the world, earning money and looking out for the main chance. Bonert describes Isaac’s successive jobs and money-making schemes: He goes from being a mover to a salesman to a mechanic’s apprentice. There he would be content to stay, since he loves the work of repairing wrecked cars, seeing it as a kind of art form. But being a workman means following in his father’s path, and Gitelle demands more. Largely to please her, then, Isaac goes into business with the shady Hugo Bleznik, who has a scheme to make a fortune selling used auto parts, which will be scarce once the inevitable war begins.

Being a Clever, in South Africa, also means learning to negotiate the country’s racial hierarchy—an equally significant part of Isaac’s education. At the bottom of the heap, of course, are the country’s blacks, who must be treated with ostentatious contempt, so that the rest of the world will see that Jews are white. At the other end of the spectrum are the Dutch-descended Afrikaaners, the first white South Africans, who in this novel appear viciously racist and anti-Semitic. As the danger of Hitler increases—Isaac learns about current events from cinema newsreels, giving Bonert a method for filling the historical background—the Jewish community begins to worry about Nazis closer to home, the mainly Afrikaaner members of the fascist Greyshirt organization. And then there are the English, whom the Jews trust more, since at least they support the British Empire against the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

Isaac’s attitudes toward these three groups are rather programmatically illustrated by his relationships with individual characters. The girl he falls in love with, Yvonne Linhurst, is English and upper-class, a dream of social advancement, like Daisy Buchanan for Gatsby. On the other hand, his nemesis is a giant Afrikaaner named Oberholzer, who beats him, humiliates him, and torments him at work until Isaac finally turns in the tables in a graphically violent, almost Tarantino-esque fight scene: “The side of Oberholzer’s mouth caves: teeth and tooth splinters in a pink spray squirt out of the far side.”

Even then, however, the native South African gets the advantage of the Jew: Oberholzer frames Isaac for robbing the cash box and easily convinces the other workmen to gang up on him. The new homeland, which Gitelle hoped would be a refuge from hate-filled Europe, is turning out to be just as dangerous for the Jews as Lithuania: “They come at you not for what you do but what you are, a Jew. Like the peasants down the hill in Dusat, singing and drinking. You are marked from the word go, boy, never forget it. … What people are underneath. Take away the laws and the cops that stop them and you know what it is they will do to us.”

Bonert skillfully braids these three plots—Isaac’s love affair, his business scheme with Hugo, and his troubles with Oberholzer—so that their denouements come in quick succession. Staggered, Isaac is left to cope with one last challenge, which will turn out to be the defining problem of his life, and of The Lion Seeker. Out of the blue, about halfway through the book, we are introduced to a character named Avrom Sutter—ostensibly a long-lost relative from Dusat, who came to South Africa penniless and has made himself a tycoon.

This deus ex machina can provide the funds and the contacts needed to smuggle in Gitelle’s sisters from Dusat, despite the legal ban on new immigration. The war has already begun, and unless Isaac acts fast, we know—though he convinces himself he does not—what their fate will be. But at the same time, Isaac’s business with Hugo Bleznik is on the brink of failure. Should he use Avrom’s money to help his relatives or make his own fortune? Which would be truer to his mother’s lifelong advice, to be a Clever and not a Stupid? Does immigration mean severing one’s ties with the past, or do family loyalties always come first?

Clearly, The Lion Seeker puts its big questions front and center: Plot and theme are welded together in this book, which often gives it a didactic feeling. The prose, too, can be a blunt instrument. Bonert does not get into and out of scenes quickly, but stolidly describes each step of, say, a visit to neighbor: the knock at the door, the opening of the door, the greeting, the walk up the stairs, the look of the bedroom, and so on. This is partly responsible for the novel’s length and slow pace. But these problems, not unusual for a first-time novelist, are offset by Bonert’s zest for description, his attention to social nuances, and his eagerness to tell a large story in a large way. American readers looking to understand the history and texture of South African Jewish life will find The Lion Seeker a perfect introduction.

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To read more of Adam Kirsch’s literary criticism and book reviews, click here.

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South African Jews Get Their Master Storyteller—and Their National Narrative

The debut novel ‘The Lion Seeker’ is the kind of representative Jewish epic Herman Wouk used to write

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