A big heart, a good person, and occasionally a pain in the …

Roy Isacowitz looks back over his six decades of friendship with Jeremy Gordin

 Jeremy Gordin, journalist, poet, author and long-time Politicsweb columnist, was killed at his home in Johannesburg over the weekend.

It was the summer of 1965. I was at Temple Shalom synagogue, next door to the Doll’s House on Louis Botha Avenue, which, despite its vocation, was the regular scene of Saturday night socials.

I was at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the hall. At the top of the stairs, a fight was going on between one of the Lebs – a pugnacious gang whose parents hailed from Lebanon – and some other guy.

I didn’t know the other guy and his name wasn’t important. The Lebs beating up other kids, more often than not Jews, was a regular occurrence. I suspect it was one of the reasons we went to the socials in the first place.

After a bit of jabbing and parrying, the Leb head-butted the guy right between the eyes. He rolled down the stairs, coming to rest at the feet of the guy standing beside me.

I turned to the guy. “Nice shot,” I said.

“Exquisite,” he replied.

That’s how I met Jeremy Gordin – not the guy who got smacked but the guy at whose feet he landed up. (There must be a metaphor hidden in there somewhere.)

Jeremy told me he was from Brakpan – which was fine by me; I was a liberal – and had previously lived in Pretoria. That was stretching things a bit far, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

He also went to Damelin, which was a major plus in my eyes. Guys from Damelin, a sort of matriculation cram college, were either too stupid for the state school system or too naughty.

Jeremy was definitely not too stupid.

He was a poet. His hair was much longer than was acceptable in the state school system and he dressed as I imagined a Parisian philosopher-poet would dress, complete with neck scarf and pipe. He quoted John Betjeman, Nietzsche and Maimonides, while the rest of us were humming, “Love, love me do.”

If anything, he was a little too smart for his own good. That, plus a Latvian Jewish skin that was prone to thinness, resulted in a certain prickliness that could sometimes come off as abrasive.

One night in Joburg, many years ago, he and I befriended a barmaid (probably a totally unacceptable term these days) who, to our utter surprise – and trepidation – agreed to come home with us. The three of us were fully clothed on the bed when Jeremy started coming on to her.

She rejected his advances.

“Why?” asked the priapic Jeremy.

“Because you’re a truck driver,” she said. “He,” she continued, pointing at me, “is a poet.”

The irony, of course, is that Jeremy really was a poet – and I wasn’t – but he was beefy and tough enough to come off as a truck driver. Unsuspectingly, the barmaid came up with the dichotomy that was Jeremy throughout his life.

He was an intellectual who loved the brutality of rugby (playing hooker for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) A poet who became a newspaper executive with a flair for realpolitik. A Jew who was disenchanted with Israel and a South African patriot who was disgusted with what the country had become.

Soon after finishing the South African army I left for Jerusalem, courtesy of the SA Zionist Federation. Jeremy remained behind a year to have another crack at matric – if I remember correctly, his single digit biology mark was the lowest in recorded history – but joined me in Israel the following year.

Neither of us was a Zionist; we went to Israel because someone else was paying and it gave us the freedom to pretend that we were whatever we wanted to be. In my case that was a hippie. Jeremy took it a little deeper.

Not that he didn’t subscribe to the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll ethos, but, as always, he did it with a bit more kop. He read voraciously, wrote brilliant poems and had at least two serious (as in live-in) relationships while in Jerusalem. He never sufficed with the conventional.

Towards the end of the Seventies, Jeremy returned to South Africa. He served in the army and then joined a cub reporters’ program at what was then South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN).

When I washed up in SA a few years later, he was already a relatively senior staff member at the Financial Mail. He got me a job interview with the editor, the notoriously irascible Steve “Muldoon” Mulholland.

“So you’re a friend of Gordin’s,” Mulholland began.

“Yes,” I said.

“Not exactly a recommendation, is it?”

I wasn’t sure. I certainly hoped that it was, but knowing Jeremy as I did, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn otherwise.

It turned out that Mulholland was messing with me.

Jeremy was smart, efficient, personable and a fine journalist. I got the job and spent a few years working with him, Peter Wilhelm, Carolyn Raphaely and several other people who remain very close to my heart to this day.

The FM was a weekly, along the lines of the Economist. After putting the paper to bed on a Wednesday night (I think it was), we’d hang out at the so-called Pram Factory, a white shebeen close to where we worked which was frequented by drunken journalists and even drunker – and much rougher – print workers.

Jeremy got along with the less than sophisticated print guys just fine. It was the truck driver in him. For a guy who could quote Ezra Pound and Saul Bellow at the drop of a hat, he had no problem getting down and dirty. He used to say it was his Baltic peasant roots; Jeremy was feisty, but there was nothing weak or pretentious about him.

It was at that time that a close friend of both of ours nicknamed him Bullfrog ( “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a good friend of mine,“ from Joy to the World by Three Dog Night.) It never caught on, except among the three of us, but for me he will always be the Bullfrog.

About a decade later, on another of my sojourns in South Africa, Jeremy and I again worked together at Times Media, the successor of SAAN. At one point, he was appointed editor of the South African version of Playboy, which had been legalized by the post-1994 government.

His stewardship of Playboy led to the Charlize Theron episode, which Jeremy wrote about on a couple of occasions. I won’t comment on my own role, other than to say that it was the sort of stuff we white, patriarchal, cis males got up to before we became aware of our baneful contribution to society.

At around the same time, Jeremy’s boss at Times Media referred to the two of us as “pushy, little Jewboys” in a private conversation that didn’t remain private for long.

He and I didn’t disagree with her description – though I was somewhat taller than him and he was definitely a lot pushier than me – but thought her expression out of place in the (very) new South Africa.

So I lodged a formal complaint against her on behalf of both of us and won. She was cautioned and we were vindicated.

A small step, perhaps, but a giant leap for Jewboys everywhere.

Being a wandering Jewboy, I wasn’t around for large chunks of Jeremy’s career. Luckily, by then we had email and WhatsApp, in addition to phones, so I experienced his tenures at the Independent, the Daily Sun and the Wits Justice Project vicariously.

If what has been written by his former colleagues on social media since his death is anything to go by, he was as tough, caring, witty, pugnacious and hard-assed as he had always been. In the Yiddish he resorted to so often in his writing, he was groys hertser, a mensch aun teylmal a nudnik.. (Big-hearted, a good person and occasionally a pain in the ass.)

Late last year, he and I were discussing a book I was thinking of writing about a former South African who became an international dagga kingpin. Let’s do it together, he said. So we did.

He secured us a publisher and we started writing. The book is now about 50% done. Two days before he was killed we spent an hour on the phone, discussing book stuff. We were both excited about doing a skiet en donder, in contrast to the more serious stuff we usually wrote.

Jeremy’s last column for Politicsweb was about the current turmoil in Israel. The “pretty good authority” he mentioned in the piece was me. Likewise, when I, in Israel, wrote pieces about South Africa, he was the authority I quoted. There was no need for the “pretty”.

Other than his last piece, just about everything he wrote in the past few years was about South Africa; about the crumbling of the society around him. It weighed on him heavily. He even published an open letter in which he told his children they should leave South Africa.

Jeremy was 70 when he died and diabetic. He didn’t think he had the strength (or the finances) to pull up and start again elsewhere. More’s the pity. He was by no means a stranger in his own land, but it had grown exceedingly strange to him.

He will be sorely missed.

(Reprinted from Politicsweb)