Durban Renewal by Joanna Smith Rakoff

January 23rd, 2006

Lynn Freed’s odd, elegant novels take place in and around the Jewish community of Durban, South Africa, where the author spent her early years. Though she once regarded the city as “hopelessly provincial, a backwater,” in her fiction Durban emerges as a fascinating hub, where four cultures intersect: British, Jewish, African, and Indian.

In Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, her salty new collection of essays, Freed discusses her “piebald” upbringing as the youngest daughter of a prominent Anglo-Jewish family. Translating her experiences into fiction has not, she recounts, been without perils: In 1987, after she published the highly autobiographical Home Ground—which begins with her alter-ego, Ruth Frank, “pulling on the garden boy’s penis“—she found her name splashed across the covers of South African tabloids under headlines like AUTHOR HAS SEX WITH SERVANTS.

You left Durban in the 1960s, but you still set most of your fiction there. Why is that?

I set them in Durban—or a place like Durban, as it’s not named ever and often inaccurately described, intentionally so—because that is the country of my imagination and it happens to be a fascinating place. Though I never thought of it as fascinating when I was growing up. It was so provincial. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Durban has the largest Indian community outside of India, doesn’t it?

Yes, it gives a huge Asian flavor to the city. But it’s also very African—the African population are mostly Zulu—much more African than Cape Town, for instance, which is more European and was always full of itself in that regard.

Though they’re set in the 1950s and 60s, your autobiographical novels, Home Ground and The Bungalow, have a lot in common with Edith Wharton’s comedies of manners. Durban’s Jewish society seems as closed and rigid—and as focused on the rituals and niceties of daily life—as fin de siecle New York society.

Yes, well, Durban’s Jewish community was always much smaller than the ones in Johannesburg or in Cape Town, but it’s a smaller town and so the Jewish community was quite tightly knit. Even when I go back now, people know exactly who I am, not just because of what I write but because they knew my parents. Many of them knew my grandparents and certainly some of my prodigiously enormous family—I had 27 first cousins, and endless numbers of second and third cousins. And that wasn’t that unusual for that community.

Durban’s sole synagogue, which is Orthodox, is central to that community. And yet your characters don’t seem all that religious.

Most of the South African Jews when I was growing up—and possibly still so—were Orthodox by affiliation rather than in terms of observance. We didn’t keep kosher, although they had kept kosher before I was born. My parents went to shul, my father more regularly than my mother. He read Hebrew fluently. He had been something of a Talmudic scholar, having won Hebrew prizes in school and so forth.

Your parents turned their back on their middle class, mercantile families and started a theater school. Were they the black sheep of that community?

My parents were odd, as I’ve rendered them in Home Ground and The Bungalow. They were what I call “Anglo Jews.” The mother country, which was always considered to be England, was the place to go.

England was the mother country? That’s odd, considering your family’s strong Zionist bent.

Yes, isn’t it bizarre? My grandfather was a concerned, passionate Zionist, as were my parents—as was much of the Jewish society in Durban. He was the head of all sorts of Jewish organizations. He didn’t have huge amounts of money, but a great portion of what he had was sent to Israel.

But both my parents were educated in England. I don’t think either of them had the slightest desire to go and live there, but they always looked to it as the arbiter of culture. My father went to public school in England, which, you know, is private school. He went to Clifton, because Clifton had a Jewish house called Pollack’s House. And then he went to Cambridge. My mother went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Royal College of Music.

Did most Jewish families in Durban send their children off to be educated in England?

No. My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side were born in England. They grew up in the East End of London, very poor. My grandfather went to something called The Jews’ Free School, which is a bit like Boston Latin, a school for clever Jewish boys.

How did they end up in South Africa?

He left school at the age of 17 and went to what was then Palestine. And then for reasons I never found out—and I’m sorry I never found out, as he’s now dead—he went down to South Africa to join his cousin, who was in business in the middle of the country in a place called Bethel. They worked very hard and made money, but not reams of it. Once he had what he considered sufficient—he was very English in that way, a very sort of middlebrow Englishman—he went back to England to find a wife and came up with my grandmother.

You describe Ruth Frank, the heroine of Home Ground, as a Jew among Gentiles and a Gentile among Jews. Was this true for you, too?

I think it’s fairly common for Jews growing up in an Anglo world—and certainly in a strongly colonial world—to feel this way. Had I gone to the government school with the other Jewish girls and run around in a heap with them, I’m sure it would have been quite different. But my sisters and I went to this very British English girls’ school. There was a Jewish quota, not ever spoken about, usually of two girls per class. I was miserable and, at one point in adolescence, desperately wanted to be shifted to the government school.

We had Friday night dinner with the whole family, 12 or 15 people, and we were never, until we got married, allowed to go out on a Friday night. We went to Hebrew school three afternoons a week, for years and years, together with most other Jewish children, and we had Bat Mitzvah. And we had to go to shul on Saturday.

And you never felt comfortable in either place?

No. I feel the same way now. When I’m with gentiles, I feel very Jewish. When I’m with Jews, I want to run for the exit.

You live in northern California. Is this feeling compounded by that fact that you’re a South African among Americans?

Probably. When I go to services in Durban, it’s nostalgic to me, all the old tunes and the choir. Of course, they’re terrible choirs, all-male choirs. The women sit upstairs. It’s absurd. And I know in every intellectual way possible that it’s an absurdity. But it’s familiar to me.

But if I go, say, to a Conservative or Reform temple here for a Yom Kippur service or particularly for a Kol Nidre service, it is so alien to me to be standing about chanting in unison in English and so forth. I really think, These are not my Jews. I’ve been to Orthodox services here, and these are not my people either, these are fanatics. I totally disapprove of the whole thing. And I couldn’t possibly align myself with them. So I’ve just given up going.

You first arrived in the United States in 1963 as an American Field Service volunteer. Were you overwhelmed by the differences between American and South African Jews?

The AFS placed me with a Jewish host family in a place called Far Rockaway, near Coney Island, because they thought that I, being Jewish, would feel comfortable with them. I lasted about six weeks. (I actually fictionalized—quite fictionalized—that experience in a story called “Foreign Student.”) They took me to Grossinger’s and I was horrified by their world, especially the services. There were these rabbis coming down the aisle looking like plump brides. It was bizarre and alien to me.

Because they were—

To me, vulgar. There were certainly vulgar Jews in South Africa, but I hadn’t had much to do with them. We had this odd piebald life. On the one hand, Anglo. On the other hand, Jewish.

Where did AFS send you when told them you were miserable in Far Rockaway?

To a family in Greenwich, Connecticut, who had very little to do with Jews and I was quite happy there. They were unfamiliar to me, too, but were more familiar than this other, very strange group of Jews. They were cultivated people. They read books. They went to plays. They knew music, or pretended to. They found it rather amusing that I was Jewish, but I played that.

So it was a class difference.

Yes, it was class. Although the father in the first family was a doctor. It was just that they were a kind of Jew I had never met in my life. Now, of course, I know it’s a whole genre.

In your most recent novel, House of Women, the protagonist’s mother has a horror of vulgarity that verges on madness. She’s also a Holocaust survivor.

She’s peculiar, to say the least. And controlling, to put it mildly. She was clearly never a run-of-the-mill person to start off with. She’s warped in the way that such a person would be warped by that experience. I mean, I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, so this was not out of nowhere.

Yes, in Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home you write about discovering a cache of your parents’ Holocaust books as a small child.

Both my parents—and my grandfather, particularly—were obsessed with the Holocaust, with the horror of anti-Semitism gone mad. This was the Fifties and they had some of the early books that came out about the Holocaust, like The Scourge of the Swastika, which had pictures. But even before I found the books, I had awful nightmares about the Holocaust. As often happens with children, it seemed contemporaneous, like it could happen at any minute. I had some sense that it was a narrow escape historically. I mean, had my mother’s parents remained in Vilnius, I wouldn’t exist. I didn’t know that, and I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but children absorb things extraordinarily without understanding them. I felt completely open to that kind of annihilation, really.

Joanna Smith Rakoff