Leaders to us, parents to them

Chief Rabbi Moshe Dov Casper, z”l, by his daughter, Batya

I have been asked to write about my father, Moshe Dov (Bernard Moses) Casper, z”l, which means ignoring the soft, nurturing love of my mother’s influence. So that is what I will do. My dad was the uber nurturer in our home. It was he who checked that the front door was locked at night, who read bedtime stories to my brother and me before lights out (when he was home), who said our nightly shema with us (again, when he was home), who read shema with me again later when I woke him crying after a bad dream. On Friday nights, when my brother and I were quite small, he’d sit me on one knee and my brother on the other and read parshat hashavuah to us from our little beige book of Bible stories.

My fondest memories are of him sitting behind his desk, reading, writing little notes on the margins of his books, pausing to think. The house was quiet during those hours. His reading made me feel calm; deeply, profoundly, safe. He was civilisation at its best. I grew to share his appetite for books. My dad was a deep thinker and a man of love, song (he had a beautiful voice), and laughter. More than anything, he was gentle. People gravitated to him both for his charm and his gravitas.

We knew when he’d been to the abattoir (to supervise the shechita), or to a funeral, because he always washed his hands immediately upon entering the house. We knew when he’d visited convicts at the jail because he’d cloister himself in his study upon his return. Occasionally, on weekdays, I guess when school was closed, my dad would take me to shul with him. I’d play behind the corners, under the desks, absorbing the musty smell of the wood and the shadows lurking in the corners. I loved being there during my dad’s “work hours”, loved all the men and women who came to talk with my dad. Still today, I feel most at peace sitting in shul – on weekdays.

My dad taught, unconsciously, by example. As a child, walking in London with my dad, we witnessed a young, somewhat scruffy African man knocking into a broad bosomed, well-dressed woman who was carrying a bag of oranges. The oranges fell from her grasp and rolled all over the sidewalk and into the road. The woman was furious with the man. My father bent down and scrambled, with the man, after the woman’s oranges, returning almost all to the woman. I remember my dad’s hand resting on the back of the African man. I remember my dad looking angrily at the woman. We left the scene. I made some comment about how clumsy the man was. My father said the man had simply not looked where he was going; the woman had no right to humiliate him by shouting at him on the street. “It is against the din (Jewish law) to humiliate anyone, at any time, for any reason.”

My aunt, a doctor’s wife, was visiting one day. She told my mom how angry and put out she and her husband had been the night before, when a woman knocked on their door—after hours – to ask for pills for her sick husband. “Imagine her nerve?” my aunt had exclaimed. “Of course, we sent her to the pharmacy.” That night, before I recited my shema, I told my dad that story. “Imagine how worried that poor woman must have been about her husband,” he said. “Think how much kinder it would have been, had they given the woman the pills.”

I so wanted to learn to play the violin. My parents recruited a teacher. My job: to practice. Each night, I scratched away at my fiddle till the neighbours clamoured at our door begging me to stop. One evening, my dad played a few bars to show me how to use the bow. His playing was so beautiful the neighbours came again, in amazement. They couldn’t believe my transformation.

When I grew to adolescence, it was my father who taught me biblical Hebrew and the Tanach. He was the best of all teachers. I’d sit in his desk chair; he’d sit or stand opposite me. We had an imaginary map on his wall so he could clearly delineate where Assyria-Babel, Syria, Judah and Israel, and Egypt were. That’s how I learned what it meant that evil would come from the north; it’s how I was introduced to the ever turning tide of history and nations. He taught me about the prophets till I could see them, till I could hear them talk. He taught me the syntax and rhythms, the repetitions of biblical poetry. He taught me the rules of biblical grammar. I remember every word of what he taught. I loved studying with him, just as I loved listening to his drashot (sermons) on Shabbatot. I remember so many of them, too. Like most adolescents, I was profoundly disturbed by G-d’s relationship to humans, sorrow, pain, and evil. I recall at least two or three times when my dad stayed with me through the night, talking, discussing, and pondering. He never ran out of time or patience.

My dad never spoke about what he did, but when he passed away, during his shiva, hundreds of people showed up to tell us of the acts of kindness he had performed for them. Old men told how they’d known my dad since their earliest days in the shtibbel of my father’s grandfather. Others told us how he had helped them escape Europe after the war; a group of men came saying they were my father’s brothers in arms—from the Jewish Brigade. They told us so many stories of how my dad had sent them from the gates of hell to Israel. I can remember at least six women – widows – who came to the shiva to share with us how my dad had looked after them since the death of their husbands, how he had called them every week to ask how they were, and what he could do for them. He was the most wonderful man I have ever known. Other than my brother, I will never know another like him.

Norman Nossel, z”l, by his son, Murray

My father, Norman Woolf Nossel, was widely known as a patron of the arts, innovator of social projects, and as the brilliant businessman who transformed Adcock Ingram from near bankruptcy to the number one pharmaceutical company on the South African stock exchange.

My father started out his professional life as a medical student. When illness prevented him from completing medical school, he studied pharmacy and became a traveling salesman for the US-based Richardson-Vicks Pharmaceuticals, selling medicines to doctors and hospitals. As his friend, Harold Kimmel, puts it, “Your father had a winning combination of wonderful connections with the doctors, and a remarkable ability to close a deal. He was a fantastic salesman.”

In addition, my father’s skills as a chemist led to him creating the formula for Syndol, a best-seller in South Africa, the UK, and Australia. As the company leadership in the USA watched their profits escalating, my father was swiftly promoted to sales manager, then managing director. By age 40, he was appointed chairman of the entire Richardson-Vicks operation in South Africa. Like a modern day Medici, he used his position to support South African artists and musicians, and invested hundreds of thousands of Rands on medical research, including ways to improve the health care conditions of South African urban blacks.

Having reached the top of the ladder in Richardon-Vicks’ South Africa operation, my father’s certain next step was a promotion to the corporate headquarters in Connecticut, USA. Our family would thus join the throngs of friends, mainly doctors, who left South Africa after the Soweto riots in search of greener and safer pastures. For me, the promise of emigration was crucial since it meant I wouldn’t have to serve in the army – the theme of a great many nightmares since childhood.

One Sunday late in 1979, during a customary lunch with my grandparents, my father received a phone call from Rudy Frankel, the head of the Tiger Corporation. Rudy had recently acquired Adcock Ingram, a South African pharmaceutical conglomerate that was showing poor results and was on the verge of bankruptcy. He wanted my father to take over as chairman. My father said he’d only consider it if he had free reign on how he ran the business. There could be absolutely no interference from the parent company. “That’s pretty typical of your dad,” says Benny Krengel, my father’s lifelong friend, “He was absolutely fearless.”

Before I say what happened next, I need to digress and tell you about the regular drives with my father to fetch my grandfather, his father, from his concession store in the Village Deep mines. As we drove along the highway, passing the mine dumps glistening golden in the late morning sun, my father would dispense his wisdom about life and give me guidance for my future. “Man does not live by bread alone,” he would say, “people need meaning, something deliberate to believe in.” Another favourite saying was: “Without vision, the people perish.” Especially when times are tough, people need to be provided with a vision of a future in which there is hope and possibility. But his most oft repeated advice was, “Never work for anyone else, my son. Make sure that you are your own boss; and that no one can tell you what to do. Be your own man.”

While I can’t count the number of times he said this to me, I never quite understood what he meant. He drove a Mercedes Benz, flew first class, stayed in the poshest hotels, and dined at the most exclusive clubs in London and New York City. Not a week went by that his face wasn’t in some newspaper or magazine. As far as I could see, my dad had made it. Despite these trappings of success, he regretted that he didn’t work for himself. He had a boss, albeit one who lived 10 000 miles across the ocean. Perhaps this would explain why my father chose to move to Adcock Ingram. The chance to be his own boss, do things his way.

“How can you do this to me?” I chided, as the prospect of going into the army landed on me like a ton of bricks. “How can you give up a job in America or Australia (another transfer he’d been offered)?” For one thing, my father argued that he didn’t want to abandon my elderly grandparents, but more importantly, he was choosing the wholly South African-owned Adcock Ingram because he wanted to increase his contribution to South African society. This is where he belonged. This is where he wanted to stay. “One day, my son, you can make your own decisions.”

My father worked wonders at Adcock Ingram. Reflecting his belief in the workplace as a core venue for political and social transformation, together with Dr Melvin Sorcher, an American industrial psychologist, he created the Interface Project, a vision for dismantling Apartheid involving the breaking down of racial barriers in corporations, including the mines. Perhaps it was growing up on the mines, witnessing the impoverished lives of migrant mineworkers, which ignited my father’s compassion. Perhaps it was the awareness of his own vulnerability. Whatever the case, he had a keen feeling for the suffering of others, even in the most extreme of circumstances.

When my parents were carjacked in 2006 and held hostage for three hours, the perpetrators asked them if they had children. “Yes,” said my mother, “we have three in America.” “I suppose they’ll be telling you to come to America now. South Africa is too dangerous,” offered one of the carjackers. “No,” said my father, who’d been sitting silently until then, “We are South Africans. This is our home. We are here to stay.”

Indeed, as I watched my father’s coffin lowered into the red earth of Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery and recalled the Sunday mornings he and I climbed the ridges at Linksfield and Kensington, there was a sense of tremendous poetry about his choice to stay, in the land he loved so dearly. Were it not for us who live to tell their stories, our grandparents and parents and all who came before us would be quickly forgotten. It is only through our stories that they come alive again, so we can remember their wisdom and love, appreciate the opportunities they gave us, understand their choices, and, if we are lucky, find compassion for their human frailties.

I would be remiss not to mention the last twenty years of my father’s life, during which he fell into a deep depression from which he never recovered. For me it was profoundly painful and difficult to witness the decline of my hero father, as his visionary creativity gradually disappeared from my view. In the myopia of self-centred anger and disappointment, I failed to see the obvious: that like so many brilliant individuals, among them Beethoven, Mozart, and Winston Churchill, my father was typically manic depressive. It was only on his seventieth birthday that he revealed to me the truth of why he never completed his medical studies – that he had suffered a mental breakdown in his second year, and was not accepted back. So great was his stigma and shame that he kept it secret even from his own son.

I asked him why he never spoke about it. “I ran a public company,” was his reply. “I didn’t want people to lose faith in me or the business.” There was another sadness he confided in me. Immediately after taking over Adcock Ingram he realised that the business was failing because it was too cumbersome. His strategy for increasing profits required consolidation. He closed down inefficient factories, leading to hundreds of job losses. The front page of the Financial Mail declared: ‘Nossel takes over Adcock. Heads roll.’ Despite the fact that he gave generous lay-off packages, he could never get over the image of men and women going home to their families without jobs. This he felt is what triggered his depression. “For me it was always about the people who worked for me,” he told me. Sadly, in his depression, my father could not appreciate the beneficial effects of his leadership of a workplace with over 4 000 employees.

I can’t help wondering how differently my father’s life would have turned out if he’d been able to talk about his mental illness, get the treatment he needed, and inspire others to talk openly about their own challenges. I have devoted the last 25 years of my life to working with people to talk openly about issues such as physical and mental illness, sexuality, bullying, addiction, and conflict. I am sharing my father’s story with the aspiration that it will give courage and permission to others to speak openly about their silent battles, without fear of stigma, shame, and rejection. I tell this story to acknowledge those, particularly my mother, for their devotion to my father during his many years in the dark, and for remaining able to see the brilliant spark of light that shone deeply inside him.

I know that his light lives in me and I am ever grateful. I am happy to say that I do work for myself, and am inspired to continue my father’s quest to view and use the workplace as an important venue for social transformation.

Murray Nossel, PhD, is an Oscar® nominated documentary filmmaker, teacher, and performer.

Nossel previously practiced as a clinical psychologist in his native South Africa. In the USA, he received a PhD (social work/ anthropology) from Columbia University, where he now serves on the teaching faculty of the Department of Narrative Medicine. Nossel is co-creator/performer in the internationally acclaimed storytelling performance “Two Men Talking”. Nossel is co-founder of Narativ (www.narativ.com), a company which creates media based on its own listening and storytelling method for organisations such as Disney, Time Warner, UNICEF, Open Society Foundations, and The International Transport Worker Federation. He is currently creating a film series called The Mother Project, which includes stories of surviving genocide (USA), violence (South Africa), and overcoming religious prejudice (Mexico). Nossel was featured in an article titled “How to Succeed by Telling Stories” which appeared in the November 22nd 2010 issue of Forbes magazine. His book on storytelling in business will be released by McGraw Hill USA in 2017.

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