“Tzagate De Hart” The Salber Sisters: Charlene Cohen and Ilana Benson

by | May 17, 2013 | Other News

Just before Purim, Charlene Cohen and Ilana Benson, sisters as well as friends, attended United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Ezine program, “Who is your Esther?” Moderated by Farideh Goldin, director of Old Dominion University’s Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, the event’s goal was to engage participants in a dialogue about their Jewish mentors. With hand gestures accompanied by South African adjectives and nuances, the two women described the matriarchs in their family with great love and respect.

Again, Cohen portrays their “Bubbah” while Benson nods her head in agreement. “Our grandmother was a strong character. She lived with our Aunt Chavie and Uncle Davey and on Fridays, she would cook for our weekly family Sabbath celebration. ‘Come and vatch me’ she’d call to the two of us. ‘A couple of schpoons’ she’d point out as she added the ingredients to our favorite traditional recipes. With the dogs underfoot, Bubbah would kvech, ‘Getz a vey’.” Benson interjects with a giggle, “Charlene and I would be doubled over in a fit of laughter from her Yiddish, Lithuanian accent.”

“Every Sunday, our parents would take Bubbah for a drive and bring her to our home to have dinner and play rummy,” Benson continues. Cohen finishes her sister’s thought, “She loved to listen to the music of the Chazzanut-the Cantors. She would close her eyes and whisper in Yiddish, ‘Tzagate de hart-It makes my heart melt.’”

A Lithuanian immigrant, their grandfather’s true passion was helping the new arrivals settle in South Africa. “Our grandparents went down to the Cape Town docks and offered housing to the newcomers. When our father, Israel Salber, was a young boy, he and his three older siblings were forced to adjust their sleeping arrangements despite the fact that they lived in a very large house. Our grandfather was an enterprising butcher, raising chickens.” Benson explains.

Harry, the oldest son, left South Africa at the age of 19 to join the Haganah, fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. He was one of the halutz (a pioneer) who founded the kibbutz, Mayan Baruch in Northern Israel where he met his Moroccan wife and raised four children. Israel’s sister, at age 24, moved to Israel after she attended college in Cape Town to become a teacher. The Salber sisters’ cousins became paratroopers and officers in the Israeli army.

With family members in Israel, the news of the Middle East travelled by letters, cards, air grams and radio between relatives. The family remained close despite the geographical distance. Cohen offers, “We regarded Israel as our Jewish homeland, and it was of all importance to us in South Africa. We were isolated from so many other countries, we felt connected to Israel. We believed in its centrality, and we wanted to keep it strong.” Benson adds, “We were Jews first and then South Africans. We knew it was the land of milk and honey, and we felt an obligation to support it.”

Their father, a founder of the neighborhood synagogue, Hebrew Congregation Camps Bay, took great pride in its expansion. First in a very small house, the congregation quickly outgrew its original accommodations. Cohen likes to call their observance, “Conservadox.” The men and women sat separately during services, and there was never any English spoken, only Hebrew. Their life revolved around the synagogue. Families attended Friday night services, and were back again on Saturday morning and Saturday night for Havdallah and social gatherings. Both sisters, although seven and a half years apart, remember sneaking out of schul with their middle brother to meet others at the glen to catch tadpoles while the rabbi gave his sermon.

Each week, instead of Sunday school, the students of Hebrew Congregation Camps Bay met in social clubs. As early as nine years old until age 15, Cohen and Benson stayed involved in the youth group, “Habonim.” Cohen shares, “We wore uniforms, did community service, attended seminars, learned outdoor survival skills and loved it all because it was fun. There were Friday night activities, seminars and campfires. Yet, there was no religious component.”

Studying two days a week in Cheder after public school, the girls never resented the hours that they spent. They were each given a test before their Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Unlike the boys, they were not permitted to read from the Torah, however, they did chant Hebrew prayers. Both remember having a party after their Sunday service. Benson recalls that all the girls wore variations of a light blue dress. Summertime, brought three weeks of Jewish camp.

“There were 80 to 100 kids from all of the different suburbs who came to the ‘open parties’ where 95% of the teens were Jewish. It seemed as if there was an unwritten law among the teenagers that all of us would congregate at a designated spot on the beach or the boardwalk,” says Benson. “It was incredibly exciting. In South Africa, we lived in divided ethnic communities: The Jews; Christians and Muslims. No matter your age or affiliation, if you were Jewish, you participated in Jewish life.”

The men organized the Allied Jewish Appeal fundraising campaign, relying on the structure of the neighborhoods. Emergency drives unfolded based on their urgency. “The women worked together as members of WIZO: The Women’s International Zionist organization,” Cohen emphasizes. “They handled many of the fundraising events for the community: Debutant balls, auctions with antiques and jewelry and huge marketplaces. Because the activities were humongous, everyone participated. Our mom, Bernice, was in the Sisterhood, Ladies Guild and Bnoth Zion WIZO, taking on leadership positions in each organization.”

Cohen became passionate about WIZO by the time she was 24 years old. In 1972 when her oldest son, Anton, was born, she was involved in the weekly meetings. A lot of their information about Israel came from relatives.

As the political climate of South Africa began to change, Benson’s friends became fearful that their children would not stay in the country to raise their families. Conversations at parties always started with a list of questions: Where are you going? When are you leaving? Do you have a container yet? Their friends were immigrating to Texas, San Diego, Toronto, Sydney, America and Israel. Only one couple out of 12 had chosen not to emigrate.

Benson and her husband, Nathan, decided to move to the United States and stay on the East coast because the extra five hour flight to Los Angeles, where Nathan already had family, made the trip for visitors much longer. Their friends, the Turoks had already decided to relocate to Virginia Beach. Vivian Turok was employed in Cape Town by the Divaris family, which was immigrating to Tidewater.

As a professional, Nathan was able to come to America on an H1 work visa instead of waiting for a green card. He looked for a job in June, and by January, 1987, they moved when Benson was 30 years old. Although many of their friends had been thrilled with their transitions, the Bensons had no idea what to expect.

To their sheer delight, the family felt welcomed and immediately included in Tidewater. Within two days, they found a home at Hebrew Academy of Tidewater, with Glenn entering first grade and Carla in the four-year-old preschool class. Although, Glenn knew no Hebrew, Mrs. Baer gave him private tutoring lessons to teach him the skills to catch up to his classmates. The teachers were accommodating and nurturing. “The passion of the staff was palpable,” according to Benson. Soon after arriving, Benson was offered the opportunity to substitute teach and in September, she was given a permanent teaching position.

Benson adds, “I don’t know what we would have done without the warmth and kindness of the HAT family. I was like a robot, just getting through each day. I wrote eight-page letters home, never once mentioning how I felt. I just told everybody what I was doing. To this day, I continue to feel a deep sense of gratitude to the school.”

Unlike her sister’s friends, Cohen’s peers were not emigrating. She had no thoughts of leaving South Africa three years prior to arriving in America in 1990. “However when Ilana and Nathan left, there was such a void in our lives. My children were devastated. And then, Anton, our oldest, was graduating from 12th grade, and his papers for mandatory enrollment in the army arrived. There was a lot of fighting on the borders for causes that we could not understand. It was a scary time even in our neighborhoods. Government officials went knocking door to door to monitor the Black workers, checking for authorized passes. I hated the intrusions and felt that they were an invasion of my privacy,” Cohen states emphatically.

Life had been good up until this point, but the family realized that leaving made more sense for their future. Although there were seven Hebrew Day schools at the time, anti-Semitism was becoming more prevalent. It took two years for David to receive his green card. The day that they left in February, 1990, the papers’ front page read, “Nelson Mandela released from prison.” There was a change in government. David was 43 years old.

Cohen wrote long faxes home to her parents in South Africa. Her father’s first words, each morning were “Where’s the letter?” Cohen insisted that her parents come to America instead of going to England to live close to her brother. According to Benson, “The process for their emigration was arduous. At the time, there were no computers. Our contact in Washington, D.C. was no longer available. We searched for somebody locally. Eventually, three years later, our father at 71 and our mother at 63 years old, arrived.” This time, Cohen and Benson, together, settled their parents at Freemason Harbor, unpacking the last of the containers. The Salbers became congregants of B’nai Israel.

Cohen, in the meantime, had also become involved with HAT. Her youngest daughter, Donna, was just six years old when they arrived. Lori, 14, went to Kempsville Junior High, hoping to be immersed in the American culture immediately. Very soon after emigrating, she joined BBYO and became extremely involved, quickly holding office regionally and attending the national seminars.

Anton, although he had already graduated 12th grade in South Africa, needed training for the SAT’s, so he went to Norfolk Collegiate. Playing tennis for the school, he then went on to ODU until scouts from the University of Maryland came to recruit him. For many years, Donna spent her summers at Camp Ramah, eventually becoming a CIT and then a counselor. All three children easily assimilated into the American lifestyle.

The South African contingency brought an energy and an entrepreneurial spirit to HAT, arranging Casino nights, dances and big fundraisers to include the rest of the Tidewater community. Under the leadership of then director, Ada Michaels, Benson and Cohen wanted to share their love for the school and raise money for its wellbeing.

They also found a home at Beth Sholom Village for their parents. “It was our saving grace,” both sisters agree. While living at the Terrace, their father was able to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming Shomer Shabbas. The Chapel services, overseen by Cantor Elihu Flax, were on the premises. “Cantor Flax is marvelous,” Cohen enthuses. “He brings such compassion to the Home. The residents come in their wheelchairs and rolling beds to pray. With joy, he brings the Torah to them. He makes everyone feel special, because he treats them with respect and dignity. Our father was able to go to minyan every day. As a Levi, he enjoyed having an aliyah. Ilana and I went on Kol Nidre and the service was beautiful. Our father was so happy there.”

“Our mother died in 2003 at the Home while our father was still living in Norfolk,” says Benson. “A year later, he moved in, residing there for five years. We decorated his apartment to help him feel comfortable. And then he met Elsa Chapel Bonnevey, and the two of them became inseparable. They spent two wonderful years together, never wanting to leave each other’s side. It was beautiful to watch their relationship blossom.” The two women agree, “Although our father passed away earlier this year, we continue to help fundraise by running events for Beth Sholom Village. It is the best way that we know how to give back.”

When Benson decided to leave her teaching position at Hebrew Academy of Tidewater 12 years ago, Cohen was working part time for her husband. She had also been an interior decorator. David had co-owned an antique store in Cape Town that dabbled in jewelry. The two sisters launched, “Windsor Antiques,” building its success from their love for the social side of their business, their customers and shoppers, as well as their passion for jewelry. The two women sell imaginative, estate, signed one-of-a-kind Victorian, deco and retro treasures. As a gesture of gratitude, they give a percentage of their proceeds to a charity.

Always close, the two women have raised their families as if they are one. Their spouses, children and grandchildren know that if they cannot find “their mother,” all they have to do is call the other. Holidays are shared. Their joy of family is contagious, and it has filtered down through the generations. The Salber sisters continue to give their time and attention to HAT, Beth Sholom Village, Congregation Beth El, Women’s Cabinet of UJFT and participate in community missions. Benson is one of the co-chairs for this summer’s UJFT mission to Budapest and Prague.

Beyond the golden links and locket of their jewelry collection, Cohen and Benson have created an even stronger unbroken chain. They have lovingly passed on to their children and grandchildren the joy of their Jewish heritage and the memories of their lives in South Africa. Now as American citizens, with a sense of sincere gratitude and pride, they graciously work to ensure that Tidewater’s Jewish community stays vibrant. Witnessing their passionate involvement makes the heart melt.

by Karen Lombart