'South African Jews Didn't Know How Nelson Mandela Would Treat Them. So They Left for Israel'

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Sabrina Spark Schneider
Sabrina Spark SchneiderCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sabrina Spark Schneider, 64; lives in Kibbutz Kfar Blum, flying to Johannesburg

Hi Sabrina, where are you flying to?

To South Africa. I’m from there originally, but I’ve been in Israel 30 years. I came here after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was clear that he was going to be prime minister, and the Jews didn’t know how he would treat them, so many of them decided to leave. The flight on which I was supposed to come to Israel was so full that I was on waiting list, and the flight I arrived on, a few weeks later, was almost empty. People saw that there were no demonstrations or problems [in South Africa], and they understood that they didn’t have to leave immediately. In the end they did leave, but it took them more time.

Was that also the reason you left?

I left because the country was very dangerous, there were a lot of robberies and violence. I walked around with a gun. When I drove, every time I came to a traffic light I put the gun on my lap, because there were people who would try to open the door. When I stopped for gas, I left the car with a gun, and when I walked around in the city it was with me in my bag. At 6 P.M., everyone went home and locked the door, and everyone had gates that were locked all the time. When you walked in the street you had to look around, see what was happening all the time. Living like that was very dangerous and stressful.

Did you think you would feel more secure in Israel?

My brother moved to Kfar Blum, where he’d been a volunteer many years earlier. I went for the birth of his son and stayed for two months. I was so amazed that it was possible to come and go without any problems that three months later, I came on aliyah. Since then I’ve lived in Kfar Blum.

When were you last in South Africa?

I haven’t been there for 20 years. I went a few times at the beginning, because my other brother was in a very serious car accident there. I went to be with him. Then at some point he came with me to Israel, and since then I haven’t gone back.

Why did you decide to go now?

I don’t know. With coronavirus, you couldn’t go anywhere, and when this window of opportunity opened up, it “spoke” to me, and I thought I needed to go. I have some good friends there that I haven’t seen for all those years, so I’m going for a week, to reconnect with people I haven’t seen for such a long time.

How do you envision it?

I’m a bit apprehensive about some of the meetings. I’m going to see people who were my friends when I was between 12 and 16 years old. I decided that the time had come to update and renew ties with all these people who were very close to me.

Now you certainly won’t have to walk around with a gun.

That’s another good reason to go. There have been many international sports competitions there that helped to bring down the robberies and the violence. It’s become a different place, people feel a lot freer to wander about and are more involved with the Black population. There’s a train from the airport to the city center, and a friend told me to take it. I asked him if it’s safe and he said it is. I’m not worried, I’m excited to see the place and the people. A lot has changed, some people I know are divorced, some lost their spouses, some have children and grandchildren.

What do you do in life?

In South Africa I was an accountant. The kibbutz has a factory that makes irrigation systems, and thanks to my English and my knowledge of accounting I began working in exports. Besides that, everything having to with English in the plant was part of my work. There’s a large Anglo-Saxon population in Kfar Blum, so it doesn’t matter all that much if you know Hebrew.

Do you feel that you don’t know the language?

My Hebrew isn’t very good. Today I work for another company, on Kibbutz Yiron, which has a lot of Arab workers. I don’t have amazing Hebrew, they don’t have amazing Hebrew, so we get along pretty well.

Future plans?

I’ll be retiring in another few months. Another reason I wanted to travel now is that I don’t know when I’ll be able to go again, because the kibbutz pension isn’t so good. I don’t want to retire so much, but it’ll be nice to work less. I plan to work four hours a day in the plant, and then have the rest of the day to myself. But I haven’t thought yet what I’ll do with all that free time.

Andrey KorsakovCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Andrey Korsakov, 38; lives in Mitzpeh Ramon, arriving from Basel

Hi Andrey, what were you doing in Basel?

I have a son and a wife there – they are Swiss and I’m Israeli. We were married last year and our son was born a year ago, so this is only the second time I’ve visited them there. It’s been very extreme, very difficult for the three of us.

Was it hard for you to come back?

Absolutely. It’s a small catastrophe. I was there now for three months, the longest period that I’m allowed to be in Switzerland, and I had to return. Our baby is growing, I give help and support, and it’s great for us to be there together. The separation feels like we’re being torn apart: It’s not forever, but it’s hard and it’s heartbreaking.

How did you get along during the whole coronavirus period?

I went there in the summer for the birth. No one could leave [Israel] then, but I got special authorization from the embassy in Switzerland. The birth was in the Alps, in a hospital that looks more like a health resort. What I remember from there is the mountain landscape. It doesn’t matter what happens or how you feel – you can always just gaze outside, and it’s calming. I fell asleep before the birth. When the baby was born, they woke me up and told me that I had become a father.

Where do you think you son will have it better – in Switzerland or in Israel?

In the place where, above all, we feel most at home. If things are good for us, they’ll be good for him. If we’re uptight, he’ll grow up under pressure. Where exactly that will be on the map is another question.

How did you and your partner meet?

We met in Israel 10 years ago. I live in Mitzpeh Ramon and she came to the Adama Dance Art Healing Center there – a lot of tourists and dancers come from all over the world. She came to dance, she’s a dancer in her soul, and I was also studying dance. We met and the relationship gradually developed.

What brought you to Mitzpeh?

I’ve been living there for 14 years, it’s an amazing place where right off, you can find a simple job that suits you and get along. After I got out of the army, I asked myself where I wanted to live, and decided I wanted a place where there’s tourism and movement, but also a small place in the periphery. At first I did what every Mitzpeh person does: go for local odd jobs, jobs in large tourism companies and desert jobs like teaching tourists archery.

What’s it like living in the desert?

It’s a sad place, but you always have the hope that one of these days maybe everything will bloom. It’s not a wasteland, because the wasteland exists in our heads, but it’s a place where there’s nothing. It doesn’t dazzle your eyes like the green in Switzerland. But it gives you hope that one day things will be green here, that nature will be all right and the animals will return.

What do you do today?

I’m a desert gardener. From childhood I was always trying to grow things and was tending the neighbors’ gardens. I grew up in Katzrin [in the Golan Heights], and I liked to work with flowers, in vineyards – doing pruning in the winter, harvesting grapes in the summer. Five years ago, I understood that while I’d been looking for a job all my life, I’ve always actually been a gardener and that’s what I need to do. I work with nature, and nature is very sensitive, like every man and woman, and that’s how I treat my work. A process of healing develops in me, a feeling of unity with the place I’m working in, and then I’m pleased. I feel good and that influences the surroundings. I can say that almost everything can grows in the desert, you just need to create the right conditions.

Did you become a more spiritual person in the desert?

I don’t know if my spirituality isn’t the same as everyone’s. If I pay attention to something, then it starts to happen. If I pay attention to my feelings, I become more sensual and sensitive. If I pay more attention to material things, then I become a materialist. We choose where to focus our attention.

So where is your attention now?

Now, when I went to do the coronavirus test, I gave myself an order to collect myself at the point that’s found between the consciousness and the heart. I don’t know where that point is, but if consciousness is what rules emotion, and the heart is what accompanies emotion – then let them just hold me and not break apart. So I will be collected and sensitive to everything that is happening around me, and be alive.

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