Jock Isacowitz, 50 years on

My father, Jock Isacowitz, died 50 years ago today. He was in his mid-forties when he died and I was not yet 10. In a very real way, my life has been influenced by the absence of a father, rather than the presence. The same goes for my sister and brother; we all grew up with a void, where there should have been a father. The icon that he became after his death was no substitute; perhaps it was even a burden.

In an obituary to my father, one of his political colleagues (I forgot who) wrote that, had my father’s politics been different, he could have been prime minister of South Africa. That was stretching things a little far, I think, but it did testify to his personal qualities and the strong impression he made on many people. By all accounts, he was a remarkable man.

The politics that his colleague wrote about  would be mainstream today: a belief in socially-oriented liberal democracy that values individual rights and human dignity. But in the South Africa of the Forties and Fifties, they were dangerously subversive. His dedication to those principles (with a courage that I have always envied, due to its absence in myself) led to a string of impositions on his freedom by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment in 1960. That stint in prison was the effective end of his life; he died of leukemia within 18 months of being released.

Ironically, the legal basis (or what passed for legal in apartheid South Africa) for the actions against him by the state was his being a “named” communist. He had been a communist for a few years in the Forties, when the Soviet victories over Hitler had resulted in a strong pro-Russian feeling among the South African soldiers, but one of the things that most distinguished his activities in the latter, politically-active part of his life was a deep antipathy to communism. Jock was far too much of a liberal – in the sense of believing in individual liberties –  to submit to the ironfisted totalitarianism of Stalinist and post-Stalin communism.

The three cornerstones of his personal ideology were a belief in the right of every person to freedom and political participation, the rejection of communism and a deep commitment to Zionism, which he saw through his own democratic-socialist prism. (In  the Israeli constellation, he was close to Mapam.). He represented South African Jewry in international relief efforts for Holocaust survivors after WWII and contributed to the Israeli war effort in 1948, though I have never been able to discover in what capacity.

I was unaware of all those activities at the time, of course, and have remained uninformed about many of them until today. My fragmented memories are of visiting him in prison in Pretoria and of him bedridden during his final illness. One of the sharpest memories I have is of my brother and I squirting each other with water, using the long tubing and lethal-looking needles of his blood transfusion equipment. Otherwise, I remember very little of my father.

Icons may serve a purpose for believers, but they can be a burden – a rebuke, even – for those of us of little faith. My father has always been the dominant influence in my life, though not always a presence with which I have lived easily. One can discuss, argue, fight, even, with a live parent. As we grow up, our one-dimensional, child’s view of the parent takes human form; the parent’s failings and weaknesses come into focus. A live parent is human, both for good and for bad And when the parent eventually passes away, the love that one feels is tempered by reality. It’s an unblinkered, realistic love.

My siblings and I were denied that process with our father. Loving the memory of someone you never really knew – particularly when it has been drummed into you over the years (often by yourself) that he was the embodiment of everything that is fair and good – is more like religion. You have to take it on faith. I’ve done that; I’ve idolized and idealized him. But it turns out that religion is of scant comfort to the irreligious. I still long for something that will never happen: to get to know my father. To see him, feel him and know him in all his strengths and all his weaknesses (which my mother sometimes hinted at but never spoke about.) Fifty years on and I’m still a child who wonders why his father left him.

A few months ago, my uncle Shollie in Australia, the last surviving sibling of my father’s family, took umbrage at something I had written about Israel (critical, as is my wont.) The sense of what he wrote me in an email was that my father would never have thought or written as I did. Shol is the patriarch of the family and I have enormous love and respect for him. He definitely knew my dad a lot better than I did and in ways that I, unfortunately, will never experience him. But I don’t think that any of us could possibly know how Jock would think today.

To the best of my knowledge, my father was the antithesis of a rigid thinker. He resigned from the Communist Party in February 1946, saying that its totalitarian character “offended my conscience.” When the Springbok Legion, an ex-servicemen’s organization of which he was one of the founders and which he served as national chairman, veered towards the communist fold, he left that, too. He was not scared to adapt his commitments and allegiances to changing circumstances.

Fifty years is a long time and the world that my father knew was an entirely different place to what it is today. A simpler, more fathomable place, I think, though perhaps that’s just an illusion. It’s common to see the past as being somehow more harmonious and guileless than the present. What is undeniable, though, is that the certainties of the Fifties have been muddied in both South Africa and Israel; the idealism of those days seems innocent and almost childish to contemporary eyes.

Would my father have approved of South Africa in 2012? It certainly has universal suffrage and a black government, which no doubt would have pleased him greatly. But it also has corruption, racism, gross incompetence, Stalinist rhetoric, the glorification of primitivism and a nouveau black elite that seems to be as pigheaded as its white predecessor. That surely would not have been to his liking?

Similarly with Israel. My father died several years before the Six Day War, an event which, with hindsight, represented a U-turn for the young state; one which diverted it from state-building to colonial aggrandizement. You can be for or against the occupation, but it’s difficult to argue that the current, theocracy-inspired obsession with occupying biblical lands was ever part of mainstream Zionism – certainly not the socialist-Zionism to which Jock adhered. Would he have made the switch from a-home-for-the-Jews to Jewish hegemony over other people’s homes? Neither my uncle not I can answer with any certainty, because the reality post-dates his death. But, in my gut, I believe that he would not have tolerated it.

Certainly, it’s not something that I find tolerable. I was grew up believing that Jews fought for justice. The white opposition in South Africa was populated by people named Bernstein, Goldreich, Sachs, Slovo and, yes, Isacowitz. They may not have been believing Jews and many of them were definitely not Zionists, but they had a Jewish abhorrence for injustice and they fought the good fight. For me, the Israel of today (though by no means all of its people) is an aberration; a mutation of the genetic code.

Is that wide of my father’s mark? I’ll never know. I feel him with me constantly, like a parrot perched on my shoulder, but he’s not a talking parrot. For twenty, thirty, forty and now fifty years, I have had to try to read his mind and then do what seemed to be right. The thing about icons is that they’re always right; it’s the rest of us who are mortal. So, dad, the little good that I might have done, has been thanks to you. The mistakes – and there have been many – are entirely my own.

17 replies on “Jock Isacowitz, 50 years on”

As an admirer of your writing, I loved this very touching piece. However knowing you, and watching you over the last 20 years, I object you saying that the little good that you have done has been thanks to him. And the mistakes are all yours. Being the son of your father, you know that he fought for ones freedom of choice in any way. One has the choice to choose. There for
you like all of us made choices.
Some were good( thanks to you) some were bad(again thanks to you.)
The beauty of bad choices is, the challenge one can take in correcting them.
Some how it is not the case with good deeds.
Once you have done them, they are off the shelf. .
A wise person, will take the challenge time after time.
A victim will look to see who saw his shelf.
I suggest you take the stand and decide what would you do next ,
Based on the assumption that Jock would have done the same.
All my love

Hi Roy
You have encapsulated many feelings that I have felt repeatedly, but couldn’t express, and also feelings which we have clearly shared. So much of what you have described has rung true for me as well. This is a great piece.

Hi Roy
What a beautifully written , moving, piece of writing. Your dad must’ve been quite a presence sitting on your shoulder. One giant of a parrot. My main memories of him are also from when he was sick, lying on that bed in the front garden of your house, and then all the stories about him from my dad, who I think also had him sitting a lot on his shoulder.
Maybe some of the good you’ve done is also thanks to Dodik. Now don’t take this personally.

Beautiful piece Roy. It gives amazing insight into an uncle I have also loved and admired for all these years, and yet never truly knew, other than a few fleeting memories. As importantly it gives me more understanding of you, another person I have loved for many years, shared great experiences with, and even partaken a few very heated arguments with. I share Dudik’s sentiments (well expressed Dudik).

So politics aside, I loved reading your piece (found only one typo), shed a few heartfelt tears, and will certainly read it again and again. Much love to you and wishing you many years of inner peace and more great writing.

You’re a son whatever happens. I had a dad who was a kind of disgrace. My late friend Jonathan Paton had a dad (Alan) who was so ethical he never left Jonathan any room to manoevre. Nelson Mandela’s grandson is a disgrace: the ANC insists that he reform to protect the family name!

Too true, Pete. I’m lucky that mine is a parrot; he could have been an albatross!

Thanks to all of you for your comments. I appreciate them.


What an amazing piece of writing. Your piece brought tears to my eyes.

Love to you, Dods and the kids

Hi Roy, as always, this is another beautiful piece of writing. Thanks for sharing it with us. As you know, we were lucky enough recently to gain a small insight into your dad when Jenna studied his life and wrote an essay about him. It was a truly touching journey for all of us as we learned so much, not only about his life but about the whole family and life in South Africa. He truly was an amazing man. As one can never see one self as others do, I believe that you are actually a chip off the old block in many ways. Having lived with and amongst Isacowitz men for the good part of 30 years now, I can say for certain (and I know Dodik will back me on this one), that all the Isacowitz men I know are stubborn and extremely hard on themselves when they make mistakes (we won’t even touch on the ‘never wrong’) – it’s in the genes! Please continue to enlighten and entertain us with your ‘kibbitzing’!

Well, this one is certainly going to stain your image as nattering nabob of negativism. It is a superb piece of writing, and commemoration. It reminds of how – despite it all – we remain our fathers’ sons (and mothers for that matter). And the bundle of expectations, mostly self-imposed, that keep the bar too high. I shared it with my Dad, who is about to mark his 98th birthday! And, though a lifetime spent mostly in America, had his own battles against discrimination and anti-Semitism, sharing that Jewish abhorrence of injustice You may not have had Jock as a physical presence in most of your life. But the genetic imprint, especially to speak truth to power and oppression, is unmistakably there.

Roy, your article resonates strongly with me. My father also died when I was young – I was 12, a little older than you. While I think his political views were at least somewhat aligned with Jock’s, he was not politically active. In my adult life I’ve never really had anyone who could tell me much about what he was really like – I was far away from SA and the majority of them died before I realized what knowledge and insight was missing. So I thank you for articulating a feeling that has been lurking at the back of my consciousness for many years.

Dad, it’s wonderful to see you express yourself so subjectively! It’s a hidden side of you, or at least it’s been hidden from me most of the time. I was also moved by all our friends’ and family’s comments. It’s so interesting to realise that despite the many differences, we both have similar early experiences of the absence of a father. I’m happy to have met and been adopted by you along the way and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to know my dad better and better with time, in a way you never got to know yours: through his writing, his politics, and his concerned look when he tells me I’m pale and asks if I’m feeling well. I love you.

Just read this a few minutes ago (couldn’t seem to do so earlier). I remember the day Jock died and I was tasked with going to tell Dora Love at school. I remember my father hiding a bunch of his boxes of books and papers in the workshop behind our house. I remember sitting at the dining room table, all of us, and your dad being there. I remember remarkably clearly your barmitzvah without your dad and I cried for you. I remember what the family said about him over the years, but it wasn’t very substantive. What you have written is thought provoking in every way and I wonder, too, what Jock would say about South Africa and Israel as they are today. And about what’s going on in the Middle East and about the Berlin Wall coming down and on and on. Funny, we just found a copy of Albie Sachs’ “The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter’ in a used bookstore. It has an epilogue in which he writes about the formation of the new govt. and his role in the TRC. And he also asks, about his own family (the oft posed dilemma when one makes these kinds of choices), was it worth it?
Thank you for sharing this stirring piece. Love you.

Dear Roy, Ren forwarded your essay to me. I just wanted to add my comments, not that they are equal in eloquence to your piece or some of the beautiful comments above. However, long life to you, Tessa and Stevie on this 50th Yahrtzeit. Your piece has put flesh on the bones of the memory of Uncle Jock. Your dad really had an almost mythical stature in our family. My single memory of him was of one time when we visited from Witbank, and I stood at the door of your parents’ bedroom, hanging back, shyly, perhaps afraid, but in all these years I have never forgotten that he called to me and invited me to come in and visit with him, and I sat on the bed. I have no idea what we talked about, but I’m sure it was about the important events in the life of a 5 year old. As I got older, I realized what a huge space was missing in your family, the unfinished business and emotional deprivation caused by his untimely death which robbed your mom of her life partner, you of a father and South Africa of a great man who courageously tried to bring justice to a world of institutionalized brutality. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, they are very meaningful and insightful. Love, Teresa (Auntie Betty’s daughter).

Wow!!!! At last I got to read this incredible piece. You know Roy I remember Uncle Jock so clearly, but I remember the strangest things. I remember sitting at the dinner table together on a few occasions and your Dad used to love eating tomatoes but used to pop big slices into his mouth and I just loved how he so enjoyed each bite. I interestingly enough don’t remember hiss illness , I only remember himalways smiling.
Another memory I have was at a birthday party ,but it is too complicated to write about the game he played with us all ,that I will tell you when I see you.
Roy , whatever your Dad’s views would have been , a few things I know .
1)He was a deep thinker and so are you.
2)He was not afraid to swim against the stream and neither are you.
3)He was never afraid to be out spoken and neither are you.
4) He was so obviously a brilliant man , and as hard as this is for me to say about my little cuz—–so are you.
5)From what I remember he had a great sense of humour and personality———-sorry to be repetative but ditto.
So Roy boy, whether his views and beliefs would have been the same as yours I don’t know, but I do know that he would have been proud of his son who is a free thinker, who is not afraid to be contraversial and questions everything.
THank you for allowing us to have a little glimse into that amazing head of yours

Linus, what can I say? I think age is catching up with you (as with us all) and you’re confusing me with someone else. Or perhaps you’re judging me by the intellectual standards set by the less rational residents of Bet Protea? Either way, I’ve always been quick to accept praise on the few occasions that it’s been given, justified or not. So, thank you. And thank you for reminding me about the tomatoes; I had forgotten about my dad’s love for them. Now we have to get together soon, because I want to hear about the birthday party game.

Comments are closed.