‘Crossing the uncrossable barrier’


In his 1985 book, “Time and Again: Autobiographical Essays,” Dan Jacobson (1929-2014), a well-respected South African and British writer, tells of growing up white and Jewish in a South African society driven by race, religion, language, and social and economic status: “All these people met in the streets, they did their business with one another, but just about every aspect of their social life was severely segregated. To sit together in the same room with anyone of a darker skin than their own was a moral impossibility for most whites.”

In 1959, Jacobson published a collection of short stories, taking its title from one of his most celebrated tales, “The Zulu and the Zeide,” which explores the social and moral absurdities of South Africa’s segregated society. At the center of the narrative is the improbable relationship that develops between “old man Grossman,” the Zeide (Yiddish for grandpa), and the young Zulu who is hired to take care of him.

“Old man Grossman was worse than a nuisance. He was a source of constant anxiety and irritation.  He was a menace. …”  The Zeide was a senile Lithuanian Jew living in a large house on the outskirts of Johannesburg along with his son Harry, his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren. Despite having two live-in Zulu servants, the family still could not manage to keep the old man safe; he was always running away, always on the verge of endangering himself and others.

At the urging of one of the servants, Harry hired a young Zulu named Paulus, whose primary responsibility was to look after the old man, to keep him out of trouble. Paulus is described as “a raw boy … a muscular, moustached and bearded African. … He swelled magnificently out of his clothing.”

Every day, Paulus dressed, bathed and trimmed the beard of the old man, whom Paulus came to call “Baas Zeide.”  But Paulus spent most of his time wandering around town with his charge, and slowly – ever so slowly – the two of them became an emotionally supportive odd couple: “The young bearded Zulu and the old bearded Jew from Lithuania walked together in the streets of the town that was strange to them both … and when the old man was tired Paulus saw to it that he sat on a bench and rested. They could not sit on a bench together, for only whites where allowed to sit on benches, but Paulus would squat on the ground at the old man’s feet.”

As Paulus, whom the old man always called der schwartzer, and Baas Zeide grew closer and closer, many in the racist South African society viewed their seemingly amiable relationship with contempt: “… when they crossed the street hand-in-hand, as they sometimes did when the traffic was particularly heavy, there were white men who averted their eyes from the sight of this degradation, which could only come upon a white man when he was old and senile and dependent.”

While it would not be fair to say that Harry viewed his father’s relationship with Paulus with contempt, it is true that “Harry persisted in regarding the arrangement as a kind of joke.”  But Harry eventually comes to see the relationship between the Zulu and the Zeide as far more than a joke; indeed, ultimately, their relationship provokes in Harry an overwhelming sense of guilt, for the two of them managed to attain a depth of communication that Harry had never achieved with his father. 

What is it that winds up binding together the Zulu and the Zeide?  They have no language in common: not Zulu, which only Paulus speaks; not Yiddish, which only “Baas Zeide” speaks; not English, which neither of them can speak. The language which both of them have learned to speak so fluently is the language of trust, the language of mutual respect, the language of tenderness, the language of that kind of love that needs no words.

John Barkham concludes his review of the stories collected in “The Zulu and the Zeide” (The New York Times, May 31, 1959) with the following appreciation: “When Mr. Jacobson is writing about South Africa and his emotions are engaged, he has no superior as a storyteller of compassion and revelation. These are brilliant, touching tales of ‘the strange, twilight people’ crossing the uncrossable barrier.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.