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July 2017, vol 13 no 2

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Aron Rothstein

You're Not Jewish, Are You?

After a meeting at the Environmental Ministry in Windhoek, we were offered a ride back to our pension. On the way we stopped at some hardware and supply stores to get an idea of prices on equipment we'd need if we pursued our project on black-faced impala. One store, Gorelick's, had a window full of camping equipment; I asked our driver if we could stop and look.

"Oh, you don't want to go there. It's run by Jews, and it's very expensive."

The silence that followed must have alarmed him. He said softly, "You're not Jewish, are you?"

winter sun
an icicle forms
above us

At a bed & breakfast in Windhoek, Wendy and I were walking across the backyard when a woman stopped us. "Are you Jewish?" she asked. I was nonplussed, and must have looked it because she immediately took my arm and said, "It's all right, I'm Jewish too."

It turned out she was a doctor with the Ministry of Health, and her daughter ran the B&B. Over tea, we learned that there were seven Jewish families in Namibia, and that they formed a tight community. Having grown up non-religiously in New York City, I did not see Jewishness as central to my identity. In Namibia, I was reminded of a Mel Brooks line about Jews in Kansas City: "I bet they all get together for pogrom . . ."

Namibia had been a German colony until the end of World War I. We heard rumors that in Swakopmund, a resort town on the Atlantic, there were shopwindow displays celebrating Hitler's birthday. I did, in fact, stop patronizing an auto electric shop in Windhoek when I noticed a sign in the office that read "We love AIDS. Next to Hitler second best."

war stories . . .
sometimes they're told
in present tense

Later in the study, we did some work with impala living on private game farms. At one of these, we were eating a late supper of home-made sausages and brown bread. Helmi, our host, said, "I hope you're not Jewish, because there's pork in all of it." I told him that although I was, I did not keep kosher and did like pork. There was a short pause, but then we enjoyed the meal and the conversation about wildlife. The next morning as we were leaving, Suse, our hostess, said, "You know, you were my first Jew, and I enjoyed it very much." I told her that I was happy she felt so, all the while hoping Wendy did not get the wrong idea.

bitter herbs . . .
I've come to love

The Namibians we met, both black and white, were keenly aware of their tribal identity. Thus, I was never clear on whether being referred to as "the American Jews" by one of our Afrikaner acquaintances was as disparaging as it seemed, or simply an identification of my group as he would call someone English, German, Ovambo, etc. Fearing what I would find, I never pursued an explanation.

savanna dreams
through lions' eyes
I become prey