Dan Ja­cob­son

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - GLO­RIA TESSLER

BORN JO­HAN­NES­BURG, SOUTH AFRICA, MARCH 7, 1929. DIED LON­DON, JUNE 12, 2014, AGED 85

AWRITER who evaded lit­er­ary anal­y­sis, Dan Ja­cob­son pre­sented many styles to fit the cur­rent artis­tic mood. His child­hood in South Africa de­vel­oped his cre­ative in­sight, but af­ter his first five nov­els sub­se­quent themes dealt with moral and eth­i­cal is­sues. His non-fic­tion work grap­pled with his com­plex re­la­tion­ship with his Ju­daism.

Heshel’s King­dom (1998) was a mem­oir of his visit to Lithua­nia, birth­place of his rab­bini­cal ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther Heshel Me­lamed, who had re­turned to Lithua­nia from the USA dis­ap­pointed at the sec­u­lar­ism of Amer­i­can Jews. Af­ter he died in 1920, Dan’s mother Liebe Me­lamed left for South Africa in a bid to es­cape both her au­to­cratic her­itage and the on­com­ing Nazi era.

Dan was one of four chil­dren born to Liebe and Hy­mann Michael Ja­cob­son, a Lat­vian. When he was four years old his fam­ily left Jo­han­nes­burg for Kim­berly a de­clin­ing di­a­mond min­ing town which wel­comed Jews.

Dan’s back­ground was lib­eral and at school he saw black men mow­ing the cricket grounds and white­wash­ing the boundary mark­ers, which struck him as bizarre, even satir­i­cal. Is­sues of race, re­li­gion, eco­nomic and so­cial sta­tus fil­tered through his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Time and Again. At the age of 11 he was os­tracised by his class­mates – sim­ply for hav­ing dirt on the back of his legs af­ter help­ing an­other boy res­cue his bag from a bin. The in­ci­dent – not the bul­ly­ing but the mob men­tal­ity – af­fected him for the rest of his life.

He later dis­cov­ered that his Jewish ac­quain­tances were more in­clined to em­pathize with South African blacks than non-Jews. It may have re­flected the strength of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Kim­ber­ley with its larger in­flux of Lithua­nian Jews in the early 20th Century than from any­where else, dis­count­ing the USA. Many hoped to make their for­tunes in the di­a­mond mines. But with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, stronger links were forged with Jewish com­mu­ni­ties else­where. The young Dan at­tended syn­a­gogue and stud­ied He­brew, some­thing alien to his non-re­li­gious fam­ily, but his fa­ther, con­cerned about an­tisemitism, thought it treach­er­ous, to ig­nore his her­itage. No bi­b­li­cal scholar as a child, Ja­cob­son’s in­ter­est in the Old Tes­ta­ment ex­pressed it­self through such­books as The Rape of Ta­mar, and The Story of Sto­ries: The Cho­sen People and its God, al­though this lat­ter in­fu­ri­ated many Jews for its ref­er­ences to God as an “imag­i­na­tive cre­ation”.

Ja­cob­son won the top de­gree in English at the Univer­sity of Wit­wa­ter­srand, fol­lowed by sev­eral months on an Is­raeli kib­butz, and then a year in Lon­don where he worked in a Jewish boys school. While at­tuned to the spirit of Lon­don and its ec­cen­tric­i­ties, he also ex­pe­ri­enced lone­li­ness, el­e­ments of which ap­pear in his novel The Won­der­worker, pub­lished in 1973.

Con­tro­versy fol­lowed when he in­no­cently told his stu­dents at the Jewish boys school, reared on a diet of Gen­e­sis, that the uni­verse was mil­lions of years old. He was sacked.

Re­turn­ing to Jo­han­nes­burg in 1951 he worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and be­came a jour­nal­ist. He be­gan pub­lish­ing short sto­ries in Amer­i­can lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and mar­ried Mar­garet Pye, a teacher and chil­dren’s writer from for­mer Rhode­sia (Zim­babwe) in 1954 which her­alded his re­turn to Lon­don. In ad­di­tion to Mar­garet’s son Ju­lian, they had three more chil­dren, Si­mon Orde, Matthew Lind­say and Jes­sica Liebe. His first novel, The Trap was pub­lished in 1955. fol­lowed by A Dance in the Sun.

Ja­cob­son be­came writer in res­i­dence at Cal­i­for­nia’s Stan­ford Univer­sity, dur­ing South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal up­heavals in the 1950s. A lighter com­edy mys­tery, The Price of Di­a­monds ap­peared at this time, set in South Africa. The theme of these first three books was racism.

In 1977 he won the JC Award for The Con­fes­sions of Josef Baisz, the John Llewe­lyn Rhys Award for a short story collection, A Long Way from Lon­don, in 1959, and the Somerset Maugham Prize for a collection of es­says en­ti­tled Time of Ar­rival in 1964. One short story, The Zulu and the Zeide be­came a Broad­way mu­si­cal. Fur­ther lit­er­ary ac­claim fol­lowed the pub­li­ca­tion of his com­pre­hen­sive novel The Beginners, deal­ing with Jewish emi­gra­tion to South Africa.

Ja­cob­son ac­cepted sev­eral in­ter­na­tional vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor­ships and fel­low­ships,in­clud­ing the vice chair­man­ship of the Bri­tish Arts Coun­cil’s Lit­er­a­ture Panel in 1974 and a pro­fes­sor­ship in Lon­don Univer­sity’s English depart­ment. He was elected a Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture in 2007.

Some of his Jewish themes are satir­i­cal. In his 1992 novel The God Fearer, Jews are the ma­jor­ity re­li­gion and per­se­cute the Chris­ters (sic). In the mid 1990s he turned to non-fic­tion, pub­lish­ing The Elec­tronic Ele­phant: A South African Jour­ney which con­sid­ers the changes in the cul­ture of his home­land. A re­cur- ring metaphor in Ja­cob­son’s writ­ing is the abyss, a dark, post-mod­ern im­age partly de­riv­ing from the black holes left by the Kim­ber­ley di­a­mond ex­ca­va­tions. Seared into his sub-con­scious, they mark him out as a writer never far from his roots.He is sur­vived by Mar­garet, his chil­dren Jes­sica, Si­mon and Matthew and five grand­chil­dren.

PHOTO: COLIN MCPHER­SON

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