Weeks after Mandela’s death, Tucson family visits South African homeland

(L-R): Karen, Lionel, Danielle and Ariella Faitelson at the Spice Route Winery near Cape Town, South Africa. Paarl (“Pearl”) Mountain can be seen in the background. (Courtesy Karen Faitelson)
(L-R): Karen, Lionel, Danielle and Ariella Faitelson at the Spice Route Winery near Cape Town, South Africa. Paarl (“Pearl”) Mountain can be seen in the background. (Courtesy Karen Faitelson)

From changes at a South African Jewish day school to the transformation of a country, Karen and Lionel Faitelson have seen it all. In December, the Faitelsons returned to South Africa with their two adult daughters for the first time in 14 years.

Growing up, Karen attended the King David elementary school and high school in Johannesburg. “This time, we couldn’t see the school because of the 20-foot walls and high security,” she told the AJP. But the family did get to spend two hours in the home where Karen had spent her childhood. “It was emotional to be there with my two girls,” she says. Lionel was born in Pretoria but also grew up in Johannesburg, where his mother still lives.

Much has changed since the family was last there. “One thing is clear — at least on the surface, the melting pot concept in South Africa appears to be present and working much of the time,” says Lionel. “In Cape Town integration appears to be working well, but according to locals, Johannesburg is more of an integrated society. Citizens have to be more vigilant in Jo’burg, though, as the crime rate is extremely high. It doesn’t feel as safe as it does in Cape Town.”

“Not only is South Africa one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to,” says Ariella, the Faitelsons’ 22-year-old daughter, “it was also a powerful experience seeing where my parents grew up, as well as having the unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the political difficulties that the country underwent during the apartheid era.”

Lionel and Karen emigrated to the United States in 1983. Lionel went for post-graduate medical training at Boston University Hospital, while Karen received a master of arts in teaching degree from Simmons College in Boston. After living in Houston from 1985 to 1988, the family settled in Tucson. Lionel started his medical practice in cardiology in 1990.

“We returned twice [to South Africa] with the kids when they were little to show them where we came from and to visit family,” says Karen. On their most recent visit, “our perspectives were as tourists,” says Lionel, adding that in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, “everyone was very welcoming.”

As for the South African Jewish community, “it’s now much older. It’s a struggle to find any younger people left,” says Lionel. With an 1886 gold rush similar to California’s in 1849, he says, “The history of Johannesburg is the history of gold; 90 percent of the Jews were Ashkenazi who came from Lithuania in the late 1800s. My dad came from Lithuania as a teen in 1933 when Hitler came to power. He couldn’t speak English or Afrikaans.”

A highlight of the Faitelsons’ trip was exploring the South African Jewish Museum, which was opened by Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 2000 and contains a model of a Lithuanian shtetl. They also visited the Great Synagogue or Gardens Shul — known as the “mother synagogue” of South Africa — which stands on the museum grounds and is home to the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, founded in 1841.

For the Faitelsons, it was moving to be in South Africa so soon after Mandela’s death. Mandela — the anti-apartheid revolutionary who went from 26 years in prison to serving as president of an integrated South Africa — died two weeks before the Faitelsons’ trip.

South Africa had been run by “Afrikaner Nazi-esque white politicians who were terrified there would be a bloodbath” when Mandela left prison, says Lionel. “Violence had started to erupt before Mandela was released. But Mandela gave them the opportunity to surrender. He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to kill you’” to the white government that had conducted apartheid.

“I didn’t realize the number of Jews involved in [Mandela’s] struggle,” says Karen. “He received tremendous Jewish support.” Being in South Africa following Mandela’s death, “we didn’t read anything negative about him,” says Lionel. “There was tremendous respect for him from whites, blacks, Jews and others.”

The transition to a new stage in South Africa’s future “may not be as peaceful,” says Karen. “Everyone’s concerned about what will happen next without Mandela. The level of corruption in the current government is problematic.”

Still, their recent family trip “reminded me of the sheer beauty of the country,” she says, although “there was a sense of sadness, a resignation that Mandela ­wasn’t going to live forever. There was so much love for him. He was very alive to us.”