ESRAmagazine

A Shared Interest in Reading

A sketch of Ronny Golding drawn 60 years ago by Jock Leyden, whose cartoons appeared in the Natal Daily News for more than 60 years

It started more than twenty years ago. Nick and I had a regular weekly game of squash. After the game, over drinks, and particularly in the showers, we discovered that we had quite a few common interests. The first interest was English literature. As avid readers, we exchanged news and views of our favorite authors and new books.

After a few months we decided to go one stage further: why not look for like-minded friends who would be ready to meet on a regular basis to engage in organized discussions of books. We were both approaching retirement, we knew that there was a range of academic lectures available in English, but our idea was to provide the challenge of having the members themselves give the lectures. These would be the basis for the discussion of the book. Our hope was to hear different reactions to the books, and to see if other people saw things in the books that we missed.

We soon found ten acquaintances who agreed to give the Book Club a trial. In our excessive ambition Nick and I decided to discuss two books, each presented by a different member, at each monthly meeting. We invested considerable time in choosing books worthy of discussion. The emphasis was on new books, including translations of prominent Israeli authors. Within a few months there was a revolution, and the members argued that reading two books a month was too much. Since then only one book is discussed at each evening.

The members were educated in many different countries ranging over four continents. Australia, New Zealand, England, America, South Africa and others. Thus, there was a wide range of views and tastes and over time we were able to read literature originating in each of these countries.

From literature to history

A year after starting the Book Club, we decided to attempt to form a group based on another subject that interested the two of us: History. Again, we knew that numerous academic lectures were available, but the principle of the members themselves giving the lectures had shown that it could work. An historical subject was, however, more complex, and it required a few months in the showers to develop the concept. Firstly, it would require a team of three or four to work on each subject, preparation would require a few months, and the team would need a leader to decide on the points of importance, divide up the subject, ensure the availability of books and other sources. Teams meet a few times before each evening, among other things to prevent overlapping.

We decided to cover the widest possible range of subjects, starting with Jewish and Israeli history, but to include world history both ancient and modern. I remember clearly the first meeting at my house eighteen years ago. As we did not have a team or a subject, each of the twelve curious participants was asked to talk for five minutes on any historical subject of their choice. The subjects ranged from Churchill`s strategic decisions of 1940, Micky Marcus, The Singer Jewish Prayer Book… and more. The following is a selection of the subjects we have covered in the more than one hundred meetings which followed:

Israeli History: Ben Gurion, the War of Independence, the British Mandate, Kastner, Kibbutzim, Jabotinsky, Dayan, Sharon.

Jewish History: The Rambam, the Jews of Holland in World War 11, the Warsaw Ghetto, Herzl, the Jewish Immigration to USA between 1880-1920.

World History: Bismarck, The American War of Independence, Ataturk, Slavery, McCarthy, the Jesuits, De Gaulle, Lincoln, Smuts, Athens and Sparta, The Rise and Fall of Communism (In two consequent evenings).

As far as I know, this is a unique attempt to organize a group of history lovers who without outside help continue to research and discuss a wide range of subjects. In most cases books and the internet provided adequate sources. However on a number of occasions I worked with teams which sought additional information, two of which I particularly remember. The history of the Jesuits, although detailed, did not contain answers on ranks, promotions, leadership selection etc. I looked for an expert in Israel and discovered that one of the leading Jesuit training institutes was in Jerusalem. I called them, asked for the director and was most pleasantly surprised to find him ready to meet. Walter and I travelled to Jerusalem to meet the director (he received us in jeans, saying that the meeting was informal) and spent two hours answering all our questions. The former Chancellor of a Catholic university in Europe, he told us of his meetings with the Pope, how promotion was never formally canvassed for, and even touched on how the Conclave selects a Pope…. A fascinating encounter.

Another subject that required elaboration was the events leading up to UN Resolution 181 on November 29 1947 which enabled the establishment of Israel. The fact that three days before the vote on the Resolution we lacked the necessary two-thirds majority is well known. How some ten countries were persuaded to change their votes, literally at the last minute, was not explained in any of the leading histories, biographies of participants or other sources. In a little known history of the Jews I found an answer: Ben Gurion sent Reuben Shiloach to blackmail Nelson Rockefeller, who used his influence in South America. In fact, eight South American countries at the last minute changed their votes in our favor. The problem: the book gave no sources. I consulted the heirs of the Jewish Agency delegation to the UN, a number of pensioners from the Mossad, and a leading biographer of Ben Gurion. Not finding real confirmation, or an alternative explanation, maybe one of our ESRA readers can help.

The Third, Fourth and…

The third club is a luncheon history book club. It too meets once a month and a member talks about a history book or a biography of a historical figure he or she has read. Here, too, we range over Israel and Jewish history, war books and other subjects.

The fourth club is an intimate group that meets over breakfast every three weeks. Subjects cover everything except politics. The seven of us have been meeting every three weeks for more than six years. Nick and I chose the members carefully, looking for strong personalities, ready to be frank and not inclined to gossip. The frankness lead to mutual trust and we all enjoy ourselves enormously.

All these groups are still going. I have resigned from all the leadership roles in the clubs but still participate enthusiastically and particularly enjoy presenting. Last month, I led the team at the evening History Club which presented the events leading up to UN Resolution 181 outlined above and presented a biography of Lenin to the Luncheon Book Club. I come home enriched by each meeting, realizing how much more there is to so many good books, and appreciating the insight I gained to the enormous horizons of world history.

If you would like to join any of our book clubs please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

 

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Monday, 18 January 2021

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