Muizenberg, South Africa


Toronto Opening

from Richard Stern, November 2015

Opening speech given by Stephen Pincus

bronzed teenaged bodies jostling for space - and attention - in the snake pit

buxom Jewish matrons ambling along the Promenade to take in the “Luft”

and fortify themselves for the coming year on the Highveld

fathers and sons – and mothers and daughters - body surfing together in the turquoise waves

- and then racing across the soft white sand

children cranking the handles of the “penny machines” at the grand Pavilion,

then eating ice lollies as they compare their “blue bottle” scars

After half a century, why are these images still so powerful for anyone who experienced a Muizenberg holiday?

And what deep emotional forces catalyzed this wonderful exhibition and propelled it across the world – from South Africa to Israel to England to Australia and now to Canada and the United States?

Joy Kropman, the curator of the exhibition observed that in true “Litvak” tradition, such an exhibition would not be complete without a “faribal”.  She related the following story:  an old black-and-white photo of a tall pretty girl in a one-piece bathing suit nearly led to the Second Battle of Muizenberg - you may recall that the first was in 1795.  At the opening of the exhibition in Cape Town, a jealous 80 year old lady noticed that this photo was selected rather than the photo of herself in a more sexy two-piece.  “Who is that?” She ranted. “I was a lot prettier than her.”

In London, the Memories of Muizenberg exhibition was opened by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the famous British TV producer of the World at War, who married a Muizenberg girl.    He commented that it “offers a portrait of a thriving community - working hard, playing hard, happy with themselves, happy in their skins…”  But he goes on to say that he has “never met a group of exiles who hammer on so relentlessly about their past and their nostalgia as the former inhabitants of Muizenberg -  the mountain, the beach, the luft, the people - human and friendly, weird and eccentric - in their minds they remain in the centre of the universe.”

One family at the centre of Muizenberg life was the Sterns.   Richard’s parents Tillie and Bertie Stern were known as Arkela and Sandpiper. Their legacy to Muizenberg still stands – the Masque Theatre of which Richard is a trustee. 

Bertie was the iconic “Sandpiper Stern” who ran the Habonim Camp with a firm hand in the 1940s and 1950s.  When we were planning Habonim’s Golden Jubilee Dinner in 1980, I visited the Stern’s beautiful old home in Muizenberg, right opposite the beachfront, to invite Sandpiper as the surprise guest.   Although he had no contact with Habonim for decades, he agreed to attend the dinner, and when 1000 people had taken their seats in the ballroom, we switched off the lights. 

When we turned the lights back on, in marched Sandpiper Stern.   By then he was an elderly man - but he still had a ramrod back and was dressed in full Habonim uniform - complete with khaki shorts, scarf and woggle, and wooden truncheon - blowing his police whistle.  The room broke out into pandemonium.   

In a very real sense, tonight’s event - and the very presence of this exhibition in Toronto, is testimony to the values of the Stern family, shaped - no doubt – by their Muizenberg environment:  generosity, commitment to community, respect for tradition, and fastidious organizational discipline.  Richard Stern exemplifies these values.  He is not only responsible for bringing the exhibition to Toronto, but for ensuring that every detail has been planned and executed to perfection.  

Habonim Camp and Muizenberg were two of the great formative holiday experiences of a South African Jewish upbringing.

The well-known Canadian broadcaster, Isme Bennie, compared these holiday experiences.  She wrote: “…I walked for miles along the beach looking for a snake park. I did not realize that it was the name for a crowded triangle of beach, edged by a row of bathing huts on one side and the concrete wall of a promenade on another, where all the young people hung out. The air in Muizenberg was invigorating, full of saline, and the sea had breakers to jump into or surf upon. One could stay in for hours. But the Snake Park had the attraction that it brought girls and guys with hopes for a date, or at least a few weeks’ vacation relationship, into close quarters…

Then I went to Habonim camp one summer. If the Muizenberg experience was inadequate for my mother, so was camp for me. There were six of us to a tent we had to put up ourselves. We slept on bedrolls. If it rained, we got soaked. We had to help with food prep at the large communal kitchen. Showers and toilets were a long walk away. Even accessing the beach for a daily swim was preceded by a trek through brush. ..I came home very grubby and with a strep throat.”   [You can find more of that in Bennie’s story George or Holidays by the Sea]

This past summer, I was involved with a short pilot program in Israel for ex-Southern Africans with some Habonim connection.    For many participants, the program - called “Dreamers” – was quite transformative, seeking to re-create that special experience of feeling young again; and certainly there was a healthy amount of nostalgia involved, as there is in the Muizenberg exhibition. 

Nostalgia was once thought of as a disease, but psychological studies have shown that – to quote one – “it bolsters social bonds, increases self-regard, and generates positive affect.”  One expert comments:  “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function, bringing to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”  

In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, as you might have heard them on the Muizenberg promenade in the late 1960s or 70s coming from an eight track tape recorder on a breezy moonlit night: “A time it was, and what a time it was, it was - A time of innocence - A time of confidences.”

In short, for many of us this exhibition recaptures a very powerful sense of being young, and of going back home. Perhaps more than home – because Muizenberg was a home away from home – a place of romance, of rest and restoration. 

And, like the Dreamers program, perhaps Memories of Muizenberg has the potential to take us beyond our nostalgic longing for our lost youth.

After all, those formative summer experiences long ago at the tip of Africa nurtured the personalities, the values, and the confidences, that have enabled us to create - on these colder, quite different shores - families, careers, communities and legacies that are strong, rich in their diversity, and enduring.

As for the Muizenberg of today, it is of course a quite different place, in a very different South Africa.   Certainly we can be thankful the trappings of apartheid that make us cringe have disappeared.

So as we look at the Muizenberg of then, we can embrace what we once experienced there - and what it has become - with a sense of satisfaction rather than of loss.