I’m positive

Some points to ponder before making a hasty exit for seemingly greener pastures

By: Robert Sussman

As an American residing in South Africa, it’s certainly interesting living in a place where everyone has an “exit plan” – an idea of where to go when things reach the point that it’s “time to leave”. After nearly 14 years of living here, I still haven’t gotten used to this very foreign attitude. In America, if something’s broken, we work on fixing it, not jumping ship.

Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, z”l, used to say that South Africans are the only people who can find themselves on a glorious summer day, sitting on lounge chairs on their manicured lawns, alongside their glistening swimming pools, sipping Chivas that was brought to them by a domestic servant, and manage to complain about how bad things are!

Why do I choose to stay?

I live in South Africa by choice (and I’ve made significant sacrifices to do so, especially in regards to being far from my family and limited career opportunities). Whenever people find out that this is the case, they look at me like I’m crazy for staying here and I wind up giving a list of reasons why I truly believe South Africans are absolutely mad to live anyplace else. I’ve been asked many times to write something on this topic and, seeing how fast numbers here appear to be declining, I’ve decided that it’s now or never.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I can speak to the economic or political realities that people are facing (for example, just this week we’ve seen terrible rioting in the CBD). I don’t claim to be an expert in either business or politics (although I will note that I’ve never been in a place with so many entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial opportunities). If you want a positive perspective on those areas, then I suggest you Google some of Discovery CEO Adrian Gore’s many comments and articles on these topics, most recently: “Here’s Why You Are Wrong About South Africa” (on www.businesstech.co.za). Also, my points are almost entirely based on my experiences living in Johannesburg.

A unique brand of Orthodoxy

Although the points that I’m about to make are really in no particular order, that’s not true for this first point, which is, for me, at the very top of the list: There is simply no better Jewish community in the world. Full stop. South Africans like to think that they’re the best at a lot of things, but this is one area where I think they’re absolutely correct.

For one, I don’t think that there exists a more united Jewish community in the world. There are certainly different groups and different approaches here to religious observance, but we all manage to get along; even the unobservant and the observant mix within the same shuls and organisations. In fact, to my knowledge, there is not another Jewish magazine in the world like Jewish Life that caters to all Jews across the religious spectrum. It’s simply unheard of.

But all of this changes when South Africans move overseas. Ask anyone. Overseas the differences and divisions are quite extreme and insurmountable and a person has to choose a narrowly defined box in which to put himself. So much of the religious nonsense that exists overseas, and which makes observant life there feel rather oppressive, just doesn’t exist here – even a little bit. While living in South Africa, unobservant Jews can feel comfortable attending an Orthodox shul (where people will even turn a blind eye towards things like driving on Shabbos) and affiliating/identifying as Orthodox – but this just isn’t the case overseas, where people are forced to conform if they want to attend an Orthodox shul, with many choosing otherwise and winding up so distanced from Yiddishkeit that they no longer bother having kosher food even at simchas like a bar or bas mitzvah.

Quality of life

Let’s face it; one of the biggest perks of living in South Africa is the affordable help. Overseas, unless a family is fabulously wealthy, people simply cannot afford full-time help. Even getting in help just a few hours a week can be a tremendous, and often unaffordable, expense. The result: life overseas is beyond stressful and absolutely exhausting because of the constant, non-stop, relentless, and endless washing of clothes, linens, and dishes; shopping for and putting away of groceries; making meals; cleaning the house; cleaning up before and after Shabbos each week; and on and on and on. And the horrifying reality is – and I know this is sort of unimaginable for South Africans: people even clean their own toilets and take out their own rubbish. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The entire work ethic is different in places like the US. Things don’t close down for weeks in the summer. People are perpetually exhausted there – and with very good reason.

Moderate climate

We don’t get extreme temperatures and seasons here. During winter, there is barely a night where the temperature drops below zero for more than an hour or two at most. During summer, there’s hardly a day that gets above 26C. In many places that South Africans typically relocate to, winter means endless days of snow, sleet, ice, and freezing temperatures, with little, if any, relief during the day. And you can forget about the glorious sunny days that we get in winter, where one doesn’t even need a jersey to stand outside; winter in most places means saying goodbye to the sun for days and even weeks. And summer means temps that can be 10 or more degrees hotter at times than the highs we typically get here, coupled with humidity so bad that you honestly can’t even imagine it (try this: smear some Vaseline on your forehead and walk around all day like that…for weeks on end).

The times they are a changin’

You also don’t get the extremes in day length here either. For example, when we lived in Chicago, the earliest Shabbos came in was 15h50 in the winter, which meant leaving downtown no later than 13h30 (and sometimes even earlier due to weather conditions) to make sure I could be home in time (and which meant that all of those hours lost had to be made up on other days of the work week)! And the latest Shabbos came in was 20h30 (like here, people do make early Shabbos), which meant that Shabbos didn’t end, by the time you finished davening and arrived home from shul, until close to 22h00.

Some odds and ends

● Although traffic isn’t great here (with Cape Town being the worst of all), it’s almost certainly worse in most major cities around the world and, practically speaking, we’re talking about literally doubling the length of your commute in most cases.

● I remember when I was describing the house that we currently rent to my parents. They thought that I was joking when I said it had a pool. In most places, having a pool is quite a luxury, but in South Africa, it’s quite normal.

● Health insurance is expensive, but it’s expensive almost everywhere (and although such costs seemingly don’t “exist” where these things are socialised, you just wind up paying higher taxes instead!). The difference is that here, things like dental work, glasses, and even allied health benefits such as physio and bio are covered. Dental work overseas is so cost prohibitive that many people go without it, only doing what is absolutely necessary and delaying treatment for as long as possible. Oh, and by the way, for those of you who swear by biokinetics – it’s a uniquely South African profession. And while we’re on the subject, healthcare here – at least for now – is absolutely first world: the doctors, the training, and the equipment are all top notch. Overseas, you see a nurse or a physician’s assistant for almost everything and you’re lucky if you get ten minutes of face-to-face time alone with the doctor himself.

● There’s nothing like getting close to nature here in South Africa. When we lived in Atlanta, someone found a dead bat and the next thing you knew, the CDC was called and men in hazmat suits were there to remove it. We went to a farm in Chicago, but couldn’t get anywhere near the sheep for fear that they might step on our children’s feet. I could go on and on.

Some final thoughts

They may exist (and my gut says that you’ll find them almost exclusively in Israel), but I have never met a South African living abroad who did not pine for his home country and the life that he knew here. I miss my family very much, but I just don’t have those kinds of feelings for my homeland.

Every country has problems; different problems, but problems nonetheless. Leaving here for somewhere else means trading the problems that we have here for the problems that exist there – the known for the unknown. There is no perfect place.

And, just remember: the grass may seem greener on the other side, but that’s only because they use lots of fertiliser.

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