An eye for detail

Two paths diverged in the wood…and David Braude wound up taking both of them

By Ilan Preskovsky

Even after just spending a couple of hours with them in their home, it’s hard to deny that, as Dulcie Braude herself puts it, she and her husband of nearly sixty years, David, “are not your average couple”. Dulcie, along with proving to be an impeccable hostess, is clearly the talker of the two; quickly taking charge and – pre-empting most of my actual questions – unspooling what are, no doubt, just some of the very many twists, turns, and highlights of their life together. In many respects, their story plays out like a microcosm of the history of South African Jewry through the 20th century and beyond – but it’s one with a decidedly unique and highly personal stamp.

Both David and Dulcie Braude are first-generation South African Jews, both coming from traditional Orthodox families, and both continuing that tradition throughout their lives. David’s grandfather was Jacob Gitlin, the founder of Cape Town’s biggest Jewish day school, Herzlia, and someone who made such an impact on the city’s Jewish community that the famed library at the Jewish Museum is named after him. That level of yichus, of pedigree, continued through David and Dulcie onto their two children and many grandchildren – all of whom, as Dulcie points out with no small amount of pride in her voice, have continued in their family’s footsteps and live Torah-observant Jewish lives.

Dulcie met, got engaged to, and married David, all in very quick succession, in 1959 while David was on leave from his job as an electrical engineer at St Helena Goldmines in Welkom and was back home in Cape Town visiting family. Despite both being born and raised in Cape Town, David and Dulce would move first to Welkom after getting married and then all over the country to accommodate David’s work in various mining activities. In 1967, they even relocated for two years to London. The need to leave Cape Town meant that Dulcie, who was in her third year studying to be a medical technician, had to leave university, but she worked – and “loved working” – at Welkom Hospital’s institute of medical research.

David worked in various positions in the mining industry for thirty-seven years until his retirement at sixty-three, during which time he helped design vital machinery and would oversee the safety of countless miners. This meant that he had to be constantly available for most of his working life, often working eighteen-hour days with responsibilities that could literally mean the difference between life and death.

So punishing a schedule did not, however, keep David and Dulcie away from a communal life. Dulcie, in particular, devoted herself to spreading the observance of the laws of kashrut throughout the South African Jewish community. This was true when they finally relocated to Johannesburg and was no less true when they lived out in the proverbial sticks, joining the sort of Jewish country-communities that have been rapidly shrinking in recent years, but which were major areas of Jewish living in South Africa for much of the 20th century.

David and Dulcie came from families who were active members in several Cape Town shuls and they continued that tradition both in the country communities in which they found themselves, and when they finally moved to Johannesburg as a married couple. When they did move to Johannesburg, they lived in the then up-and-coming area of Sandton, where they helped found no less than four shuls. As Dulcie says, “We were involved in Sandton shuls even before Rabbi Suchard!” Dulcie also served on the kashrut committee for the Beth Din, self-published a kosher cookbook (with David providing photographs), gave numerous kosher demonstrations, and ran a successful kosher catering business.

Retired, But Not Deterred

David and Dulcie have been living in the JAFFA retirement home in Pretoria for several years now, ever since David was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and the couple needed help with their day-to-day living. Dulcie may no longer have a kitchen in which to practice her wares, but she still prides herself on making sure that anyone who visits doesn’t leave their cosy apartment on an empty stomach. You don’t have to be in her presence for more than five minutes to see that retirement hasn’t done much to curb her powerful personality and vitality.

She also remains as fiercely loyal to her husband of very nearly sixty years as ever. Not only in the way that most spouses support their significant others who are dealing with debilitating illnesses, but in the sense of a true life-partnership where both bring love, openness, and support in equal measure. Dulcie is also clearly incredibly proud of her husband as she regaled me with more stories of his many accomplishments than I could possibly include in a single article, while David, a demonstrably humble and self-effacing man – who never seems at all comfortable with this much praise being lavished on him – sits beside his wife, occasionally interjecting to clarify a point or to complement Dulcie’s own contributions to South African Jewry.

David may be struggling with a notoriously difficult chronic illness that makes performing even the simplest of physical activities a real challenge, but, no doubt with Dulcie’s endless support (and, of course, the support of a full-time nurse), he doesn’t let it define him – certainly not on the evidence of my short time with them.

With a Bachelors of Science degree in physics and applied mathematics, a Masters in electrical engineering, and an additional mechanical engineering degree in recognition of his extensive work in and contribution to the field in the mining industry, David has never been what anyone would confuse for a fool – and even as he celebrates his ninetieth birthday this March, he still comes across as intimidatingly intelligent and is able to recall the details of his past with remarkable lucidity.

A Passion Rediscovered

Parkinson’s or no Parkinson’s, David’s retirement has proven to be what Dulcie calls “a true gift from Hashem”. Along with being able to spend far more time with family (even as his one daughter and her family live in Australia) after decades in a highly pressurised and time-consuming job, David has also returned to something that was a passion for him in his youth, but one that he had to largely abandon through his years of raising a family and holding crucial positions in the mining industry: painting.

Well before heading off to study the sciences in university, David showed himself to be a very talented artist; certainly one good enough to join UCT’s art school from grade three! Art was not to be his vocation, but it was something that informed his professional life in surprising ways, and, after finally retiring from the work that took up much of his time for thirty-seven years, he would return to it later in life too. Even Parkinson’s Disease couldn’t stop that.

People who are this skilled in both art and the sciences are undeniably rare, but his artistic instincts were to play an important role in his designing often quite ground-breaking (if you pardon the pun) mining machinery. His innovative approach to design would ensure that he influenced not only the South African mining industry, but worldwide mining as a whole. Conversely, even as his art informed his science, science has also greatly impacted his art as he employs what is known as the “Golden Mean” in his paintings.

The Golden Mean – or, as it is otherwise known, the Golden Ratio, the Golden Section, or, most evocatively, the Fibonacci Number – is a mathematical ratio found throughout nature that, when applied to art, architecture, or design, results in works that are particularly pleasing or “natural” to the human eye. It’s a method that was and is used by a number of great artists, not least of which was Leonardo Davinci, whose Last Supper is a classic example of Golden-Mean-derived artwork. It’s no doubt just one of many reasons why the beautiful landscapes painted by David are so immediately appealing and eye-catching.

Here’s the kicker, though: Parkinson’s didn’t put an end to David’s art. In the three or so years that David and Dulcie have been living in JAFFA, David has painted eight separate pieces, including ones on display in JAFFA itself and included in the JAFFA calendar. With the help of an occupational therapist at JAFFA, David has been able to work on his art, creating the beautiful watercolours that you see on these pages.

By making use of pointillism – a painting technique where small strokes of the paintbrush come together to form a complete picture (think of how a computer monitor forms “solid” images) that was used by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh – and timing his sessions with when his medications are at their most effective, David hasn’t just been able to continue to paint, but has been able to create beautiful works of art that look entirely uncompromised by his physical condition.

At the same time, being able to paint has proven to be extremely therapeutic for David – at least, it has according to Dulcie; David, quite understandably, is slightly more sceptical. It’s hard to imagine that it isn’t, though. There’s something immensely soothing about just looking at his depictions of Cape Town and Namaqualand; I could only imagine what it’s like to create them. According to Dulcie, for a few hours at a time at least, the focus and will that David pours into each and every brush-stroke actually holds the symptoms of the disease at bay, however momentarily.

Living Miracles

As South African Jews who just narrowly missed the Holocaust by having their Lithuanian parents and grandparents move to South Africa in the years prior, Dulcie calls herself and David “nissim” (miracles), and you get the sense from talking to them that they have lived their lives as a response to that. Whether it’s through their on-going commitment to Jews and Judaism or the way they have stuck together through thick and thin, refusing to let adversity drag them down, David and Dulcie’s sixty years of marriage is a shining example of not taking the gift of life for granted.

Thank you to Chana Sifris and Rivka Goldberg (the Braude’s granddaughter) for this story idea.

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