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Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest

In South Africa, I did not want to be caught in the crossfire of somebody else's war. If I had to fight, I wanted the war to be my own.


"The code of the bush is the survival of the fittest," my father always said. I grew up with impala and sable antelope, burnt-amber kudu, zebra and wiry wildebeest. All of them kept a nervous watch for lion. If you studied bush-life, you learned about survival of the fittest.

I felt deeply connected to Africa, as if an invisible vine stretched upwards from the earth and through my body, binding me to the land.

The years passed, and securities from my childhood days slowly disappeared. Instead of the wild fig trees of the savannah, security companies began to sprout all over the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Wails from alarm signals replaced memories of snorting hippo bulls, and high, concrete walls with spiked electric fences grew in place of the flat-topped acacias of the grasslands.

In the wake of the New South Africa, rather than straggling hyena, we grew afraid of a different kind of being that roamed the streets of urban life. I had stepped out of childhood; into it stepped a new breed of certain black youth -- hungry, fearless, savage.

Stories of people being hijacked in their cars or brutalised in their homes became increasingly frequent. In the beginning, you read about these events in newspapers. They happened to other people, not to you. Then, like hungry wild dogs in the black night, the stories crept closer.

A friend who had recently emigrated from Australia was renting a semi-detached section of a house that was some distance from the nearest shopping center. Since she had no car I agreed to take her shopping and had left all my kids at home.

Thank God.

The Sages say, "A person on his way to do a mitzvah is not harmed." I turned into her quiet little street. It was lined with houses that you couldn't see because they were hidden, as usual, behind high walls and electric gates. As I drove towards my friend's house, I noticed two men walking in the direction of my car. One of them carried a huge radio-tape player under his arm and seemed to be singing in time to the music. It went through my head that perhaps I should drive around the block so that I wouldn't have to stop the car with the two of them in the street. But neither man seemed tense or expectant, so ignoring them, I drove up to the electronic gate that sealed off the driveway from the street and hooted for my friend.

At that moment, I had a strange premonition. Imagine if I was hijacked right now? I thought. Imagine if one of those men accosted me at gunpoint right here? The idea gave me a queasy feeling in my stomach and for a moment I regretted not having driven around the block.

As if sprung whole and alive from my thoughts, the door to the driver's seat swung open and I spun around to see a revolver pointed directly at my face.

"Get out!" a voice snapped.

A strange, intense calm swept over me. I thought about my baby who only hours before had been strapped into the car seat next to me. In one, fluid movement I unbuckled my seatbelt and slid out of the car. The hijackers, appearing no older than eighteen, were caught in a frenzy of tearing off my wristwatch and ripping the necklace from my throat.

I should have been afraid, but instead time seemed to close into a deep silence within me. The outside world smoothed into a thin, two-dimensional surface in which the aggressors flattened out into paper-cutouts. In absurd contrast, my body seemed to loom huge and full like a giant of flesh against the backdrop of this cardboard world outside. My head throbbed with the sense that there was much more going on here than met the limited eye. I felt the presence of Great Energy pulsating through these events, brandishing a message into my soul.

I stared long and deep into barrel of that gun from whose depth the words seemed to fly out as if on an invisible chain: THIS IS NO LONGER YOUR COUNTRY.

I stared long and deep into barrel of that gun from whose depth the words seemed to fly out as if on an invisible chain: THIS IS NO LONGER YOUR COUNTRY. MAYBE IT NEVER WAS, BUT IT ABSOLUTELY ISN'T YOUR COUNTRY ANY MORE.

I grew aware of the other paper-person jumping about in the driver's seat, his hands tearing at the gearbox with frantic jerks. As he caught my glance, he punched both fists against the steering wheel and swore at me.

"Turn around!"

I faced the wall, completely certain that the one with the gun was going to shoot me through the back of the head. Strangely, there was still no fear, as if this too was part of the dream projecting from the deep silence within me. Only the words of Shema Yisrael that took shape on my lips seemed real, weaving through my body.

I heard the explosion of the accelerator as my BMW roared down the street like a wild animal trapped in a great cage. I remained standing where I was, the final verses of the Shema throbbing in my head.

In the weeks that followed my hijacking, I did not experience the usual symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- I was not jittery, I remained focused and I did not have sleepless nights or recurrent nightmares. I was afraid to drive for quite a while, though, and when I did, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. But that, they say, is what you are supposed to do if you live in South Africa. You have to be on your guard -- something like the survival of the fittest.

Someone said, "I thought if you're on the way to do a mitzvah you won't harmed?"

"I wasn't harmed, thank God," I said.

I wasn't only looking for a place that was physically safe. I was looking to live for issues that were mine.

How could she have known what the experience would alter in my life? How could she know that the invisible vine stretching upwards from the South African earth through my body had been severed, and that I felt free for the first time to leave my homeland forever?

Others asked, "Do you really think it's any safer in Israel with all those Palestinians?"

They completely missed the point. I wasn't only looking for a place that was physically safe. I was looking to live for issues that were mine, issues that united me with the klal, concerns that struck at the heart of the Jewish people. I did not want to be caught in the crossfire of somebody else's war. If I had to fight at all, I wanted the war to be my own.

From my home now overlooking the Judean Hills, I often think about those long-ago days on an open land rover in bumpy quest for the heartbeat of the bush, or the grace of crocodiles swirling through the rush of the Olifant's River. In the bush, survival of the fittest means physical strength. But true survival is about spiritual fitness -- the ability to see beyond the smokescreen of natural, social and political worlds to the One in charge of them all. We must cling to that knowledge through the seeming chaos -- through the terrorist attacks, through September 11, through Bin Laden.

"Ke'ayal ta'arog al afikei mayim" -- as the deer entreats by the springs of water -- "Kein nafshi ta'arog elecha Elokim"-- so does my heart entreat you, O God… (Psalms, 42)

October 18, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 18

(18) David, August 26, 2015 9:10 PM

Nice article. As a passionate martial artist, I say that as a Jew and a South African you should have known the first rule of self defense ie awareness of yourself and your surroundings. You should have avoided the situation when you first recognized it rather than being put in a position with a gun to your back when prayer is your only hope. A good start is to take up krav maga - very good for untrained people.

(17) Marion I. Lipshutz, November 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Apartheid - A Chilul Hashem

I am sorry that Ms. Shain was violently attacked, but her ahistorical account ignores the historical context -- the radical evil of apartheid that robbed Black citizens of their rights and dignity for decades.

I salute those Jews of South Africa -- secular and religious -- that had the courage to stand up against apartheid's radical evil.

(16) margaret graham, November 5, 2003 12:00 AM


why didn't the writer lock her car door? because there are so many detractors who question everything, we should clear the obvious questions first.

(15) melanie, November 4, 2003 12:00 AM

no anger just truth

There's no anger directed at Malka personally from what I see. Malka did what we abhore from folks like the Palestinians. She made a big deal of her own feelings of victimization while deciding to not mention her culpability in living in a society that created those boys.
The society of South Africa during Apartheid was such that a grown black man would have to call a young white boy sir and never look a white person in the eye.
As for training those boys to be what they are? The white 10 percent of S. Africa did teach them violence. The history of S. Africa is riddled with incidents of mass murder and rape of Blacks by Whites. Villages being burned down at the whime of WHite officers. Black people being denied education and even the freedom to move about as they would like. There were curfews and restrictions on where to live for Black people.
Black South Africans could be kept in slave like conditions unable to leave the diamond mines or farms where they worked and only paid at the whim of their "bosses" and only allowed out at their whim. No such thing as worker rights. I'm sure motivation often came at the end of a whip and goodness knows if you were lucky enough to get medical care.
It is unfortunate that Israel is accused of Apartheid. This accusation is untrue of Israel and it belittles the horrors of being Black in South Africa. The accusations are the same, but the truth of the accusations are different. And Doris unfortunately does not realize that.
Ms. Shain, unlike her Black countrymen, had the money and means to leave. But she chose to stay and only left once things got uncomfortable for her. She drove around conspicuously in an expensive sports car while the people who made that expensive car possible could barely feed their families.
Those boys were denied an education and were denied safey and security. They grew up seeing violence from the White power structure and as a result believe violence is the only way to gain in the world.
And without the options that an education or vocational training might have given them they now (like their parents) have the choice of either violence or back breaking slave labor as the means to support themselves.
The most important part of analyzing this article and also the claims against Israel is knowledge. Knowledge of what is going on. I know what I know about South Africa because I took the time to look it up. I also went to school with a young woman whose family by virtue of luck came to America to escape their position as third class citizenry in South Africa.
If people knew that Israel trys to educate and provide health and infrastructure for the Palestinians and takes great care in avoiding civilian casualities then perhaps they would not accuse Israel of Apartheid. But until then we who know the truth about Israel have a duty to know the truth about other places before we pass judgement on them and pass judgement on those who do know what is really going on.

(14) Doris Snyder, October 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Why is the anger directed at Malka?

How awful that so many comments defended the brutalizers, and critized Malka Shain. It is the same rational that defends the homicide bombers, and chastizes Israel (Israel has opressed the Palestinians so they are justified in murdering Israelis). We in America heard,after 9/11, that the attack was because we didn't understand the opression of the Muslim world. Now that the Africans are running their own countries, they are brutalizing and killing each other. Now whose fault is it? Please don't tell me it is because the whites never taught them otherwise.

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