The Ben-Avi family were larger than life. The sound of their voices travelled ahead of them wherever they went. Blue eyed and sharp tongued, they all seemed to exist in a world slightly separate from the one the rest of us dwell in. Untouchable. I envied that. I felt as if danger of misstep lurked around every corner for me and yet somehow, they managed to march surefootedly through life never requiring the guidance or correction of anyone but themselves.
Exactly how Davit occupied his days I could never quite fathom, but he took on the appearances of an immensely busy person, always flurrying from one place to the next in a haze of bustling activity leaving a wake of disruption behind him. You didn’t call on Davit to calm the waters, that was Jesus’ job anyway. Davit wasn’t a mediator, diplomat or peacekeeper. He was a firebrand, but where would we be without the instigators and rabble-rousers of this world? These characters have a way of keeping us on our toes and pushing us to new heights, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
“Expansion, expansion!” he would declare from the pulpit with a pseudo-Spanish flair, waving his arms as if in the throes of a flamenco pageant. Gazing at him, dumbfounded, his busy flock would wonder what this great revelation held for them. He would go on to elaborate such things as, “I see us being scattered throughout the earth, as a mouthpiece for Christ.” And then tell us about the exciting developments that he was witnessing on his international travels. “The harvest field is ready! And a property, a penthouse, in Larnaca is selling for such a good price. I feel so strongly that the Lord has ushered us towards this island to use it as a springboard into the middle east. But we are waiting on him for a sure sign and provision. If anyone feels to pledge money, however small the amount, give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Sometimes the expansion would be more tangible, “People, we are going to build an Olympic size pool outside of Mosaic. This community is growing, and we need more space to accommodate everyone who wants to swim.” The flock would then ooh and aah in excited agreement sort of like the minions from Despicable Me. “It would be such a wonderful facility for the high school kids to use and imagine how beautiful when guests come to host their weddings at Mosaic and there is a beautiful pool outside, reflecting the sunset. Give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Eventually, the trust was purchasing flats, houses, properties and cars at such an almighty rate that most of us were often not even aware of many new acquisitions unless our services or finances were necessary for the purchasing or overhauling of these fine assets.
There were some principles at the heartbeat of Alon that were treated like the gospel; first and foremost was: stewardship. This was the bedrock of all we did. Being a good steward meant making the most of everything we possessed, whether that be money, food, talent or time. Nothing was to go to waste.
In order to make each penny go further, it was encouraged to find loopholes in the system such as applying for financial aid for our school fees, evading taxes and asking for discounts and freebies wherever possible. Every trip to town meant fuel consumption so vehicles were expected to be refuelled before returning to the farm and the cost was split amongst the passengers – needless to say, the more the merrier! Things like milk were regarded as a luxury item and there was a list at the breakfast counter that you could tick off every morning indicating whether you had consumed a quarter, half or whole cup of milk. At the end of the month, you could settle your milk bill.
In keeping with the idea of time being a precious commodity. The more you could accomplish in a short amount of time, the greater the slap on the back. We learned to squeeze a lot of activity into one day and function on rationed sleep. Sleep was essentially a waste of time and if you seemed inclined towards taking a nap then your social ranking took a serious blow. “Work hard, play hard!” was a phrase Davit loved to spritz from the pulpit whenever the troops seemed weary.
Preachings & Teachings
The pulpit was an interesting place, you just never knew what might jump out at you from behind that tiny wooden structure. It could be spewing with outrage at the complacency of the crowd or bubbling with glad tidings of good news. Sitting your butt down on a seat was like getting a ringside view of a human lucky packet with the added bonus of possibly being roped into the sermon of the day. Davit loved to point individuals out, be it for a public display of appreciation or an example of poor behaviour. It added a certain tinge of adrenaline to every meeting. But, apart from that, the man could ramble. I don’t know if Davit ever spent any time preparing for a sermon, but it always seemed as if he spoke off the top of his head and jumped around from topic to topic randomly interspersing his view of the world with one-line scriptures from the bible.
“As I was walking up the hill, I overheard the children playing. Just imagine a world without the sound of children’s voices. So quiet. We must be like children. You know, if the rapture took place today, all the children would be taken up to heaven and I think that the thing that would plague the unbelievers left behind on earth would be the terrible quiet because there would be no sound of children playing and laughing and shouting. I heard yesterday on the news that the pope is now blessing gay marriage. I once met the pope in my younger days. But I tell you, we must be as children unto the Lord for the signs of the times are all around us. When we visit Italy after our cruise, those of you who are joining us will get a sense of the terrible spirit of lust and perversion that is hanging over Europe. Justin Bieber was in Europe recently and he was almost arrested for drug use, but he still speaks of Jesus. Isn’t that amazing? This is what happens when you forsake your childlike ways, people, utter destruction of talent. Even my good friends in France complain about the attitude of the children walking the streets, smoking and swearing already at the age of nine.
“Kyla, you would also have been one of those children, walking in your grungy clothes through the streets of Cape Town if your mother hadn’t brought you here, isn’t that amazing?” Blindsided, I dumbly nod in agreement. “And Maeve, she wanted to just come here and clean toilets and peel vegetables, but I said ‘No!’ imagine that waste of God-given talent and now she is going on a cruise to Italy! Yes Maeve, come up here, I will show you your ticket, it’s booked!” The crowd cheers as my mom walks up to the pulpit awash with gratitude.
Rules & Regulations
Davit wielded power over his flock in absurd yet effective methods. Our routines, as set as they were, could change at the drop of a hat when Davit was on the premises. Over the years, he and Sara frequented the far reaches of the planet more and more, travelling to Australia to visit their daughter, Bianca, on the way. With numerous connections in Europe and the middle east the pair could be found being entertained in circles of millionaires at five-star hotels all over the continent. So, when they graced us with their presence, Davit loved to spice things up and remind his jaded sheep that he was the source of cheer and festivity. “Fasting day is called off and we will have an off weekend from Thursday evening to Monday morning!” or “Pizza night tonight instead of shabbat meeting and we will watch a movie afterwards!” The real trick of the thing was that he and he alone had the authority to veto the rules because he was the one who put them in place.
Sometimes rules would pop up at the spur of the moment. One day, Davit happened to be on time for a Sunday morning meeting and noticed that a considerable amount of people dribbled in at the last minute. Outraged, he went on to admonish us about our lackadaisical ways and decreed that we should all strive to be at meetings fifteen minutes before the time to prepare our hearts to receive the word of God and at the latest five minutes before the actual time. This idea slowly trickled into meetings of every kind, including early morning prayer meetings. Needless to say, that was the last time we ever saw Davit on time for a meeting.
Some other rules included, “No toast for children.” (It was a waste of electricity you see – in fact Sara saved the bell for us once when Davit stumbled across and article on power consumption and discovered that hairdryers were greedy little appliances. He almost banned the use of them but fortunately Sara told him it would really tip us all over the edge, and she liked to blow dry her hair too). “No eating in front of the television in your own homes.” Or one of my all-time favourites, “No use of tumble dryers but also, no hanging of wet washing on clothes horses in your homes.” It’s interesting to note that Tzaneen has an average annual summer rainfall of up to 1500mm and sometimes it can rain on end for days or even weeks. “No picking flowers.” – unless it was for the shabbat table.
Many things were casually mentioned from the pulpit and then morphed into unofficial regulations. “It’s such a shame when parents use TV as a babysitter.” And you would get nervous every time someone glimpsed your kid watching a cartoon. “There isn’t really anything beneficial on the news these days, especially for children, so much negativity.” And then no children big or small were ever permitted to watch the news again. “Sometimes the biggest sign of disrespect is when a child doesn’t greet you by your name.” And then every little kid became a greeting robot.
The power of the pulpit
Another nifty trick was to address someone indirectly from the pulpit. “Isn’t it amazing that even today, despite having the funds, Sara and I still don’t own a car of our own and yet some people want to constantly trade in their cars for newer models. Just a status symbol.” And the poor soul who was hoping to upgrade their outdated jalopy for a newer model would keep bumping along the dusty roads decades behind the times.
There were moments when subtlety went clear out the window and we’d all bear witness to Davit’s ranting about someone’s transgressions, “This afternoon I went past Ruan and Kerry’s house to have a cup of tea.” And even out of the corner of your eye you could sense them beginning to squirm in their seats. “Aren’t they such a beautiful, vibrant young couple? Just like this beautiful Saturday afternoon with the sun shining and the birds singing. Well, unfortunately I had to get my tea somewhere else, because they weren’t there. I mean they were there in body – on their bed, but in spirit they were in la la land.” The colour rising to their cheeks their heads drop. “Did you have a nice sleepy Ruan? Maybe you were ministering to your wife and feeding her the word of God by the spirit, hey?” And then, the rest of us would thank our lucky stars that either we hadn’t succumbed to the urge of snoozing or that Davit hadn’t made his rounds past our houses.
Putting someone on the spot to shine a positive light on them happened too, but that sly fox knew how to do it in such a way that it would make someone else feel less than or second guess their own actions. For instance, let’s say two couples had invited Davit and Sara for a meal that week. And you have to understand that when you invited Davit for a meal it was a lavish affair because he spoke so openly about his likes and dislikes, and we were all so acutely aware of his myriad ailments and allergies.
“Nina, my girl, what a beautiful spread you prepared for us. People, people, it’s truly a treat eating at Jules and Nina’s. Such a cute couple! And the food, what was that dish called? Oh, it was superb.” And that would be it, not a mention of the other couple. You can bet your bottom dollar that the unmentioned hostess would never prepare the unmentionable meal again and would walk around for a couple of days wondering if the food she cooked was perhaps an outward display of a sinful heart that she had been previously unaware of. No, my dear, what you have is a simple case of gaslighting.
What began as a semi-circle of seating facing the pulpit eventually fanned out into a tight arc of multiple rows in front of the stage – eventually constructed as a permanent fixture in our place of worship. Every additional row of seats was like the rings on a great tree, marking its steady growth towards the light. We were likened to trees, and its true that we were rooted, only I’m not sure we were branching out so much as we were crowding together to form a tightly knit canopy that cast deeper shade with every passing year.
Meetings were an integral part of our life as a Christian community. Most were held according to a relatively predictable schedule but like all other societies ours too was impervious to the influx of the smart phone. WhatsApp meant that we were on 24hour beck and call. With the convenience of broadcast messages and WhatsApp groups, meeting times and locations could be adjusted at the drop of a hat. To switch your phone off at night was to commit spiritual treason, if there was need for an impromptu prayer meeting in the middle of the night, then hallelujah for the modern miracle of cell phone technology.
Praying for the sick
Davit was preoccupied with health and wellbeing – his health and wellbeing specifically, because the man endured health issues that a lesser being would have perished under. Joyce, his wayward mother was the cause for all of this because she had deigned to feed him milk and sugar instead of allowing him to suckle at her breast. But tit for tat I suppose…
The amount of times I have heard the phone buzz in the night and the tired shuffle of men’s feet passing by, making their faithful trek to Davit’s house or some allocated meeting place in an effort to pray off an allergic reaction of some sort is impossible to count.
Let me tell you, that a bigger baby I have never encountered. Sniffing and snorting and yelling for “Saaaaarrrra!” begging for another cup of her special ginger tea to wash away the allergens. Hours he would spend poring over medical journals and health blogs. Adjusting his diet until all he could consume was the fat of the land, free-range, organic, pricey fare purchased at the finest health shops and delicatessens our country could provide.
The man was a bloody medical marvel as far as I could tell. Allergic to wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, preservatives and anything that didn’t taste good, he still managed to consume an enormous helping of colourful food – at least he never lost his appetite and survived countless scoops of ice cream.
To his credit, Davit loved to share with great enthusiasm, not only the word of God but also health tips from his pulpit. Cayenne pepper was glugged down in the mornings, there was a long spell of oil pulling with half the community going about their morning routines with a mouthful of coconut oil sloshing around in their mouths. Turmeric was suddenly added to the list of vegetables that grew in our huge veggie patch and we were all encouraged to consume mountains of it. Kefir, kombucha and honeycomb was readily available. At one stage we were advised to increase our vitamin D uptake by exposing 80% of our skin to pure sunshine for 20minutes every day. Where he thought we’d find the time to all strip down to our bathing suits and loll around in the sunshine, God alone knows. It was moments like these that I became more firmly convinced that he and his kin lived in a parallel universe.
As with many large organisations, the management becomes more and more out of touch with it’s employees and there came a time when I think many of us suffered under Davit’s inability to keep tabs on all his spur of the moment decisions. And like any good dictator, he had created a barrier between himself and his subjects that consisted of nothing else but fear. The fear would keep anyone from speaking up and reminding him that perhaps some of his mandates were out of date. Did he know how little we had to survive on when he encouraged us to buy expensive vitamins and buy sheepskin slippers? Was he really so oblivious to our financial standing that he assumed we could sashay into Europe on a cruise trip and happily make ends meet?
Oh, how he did love to cruise the high seas. I suppose there were many reasons for taking groups of his congregation onboard MSC’s majestic fleet of ocean liners. For one, you get a good discount when you make group bookings. It’s also easier to justify your lavish lifestyle if you make it available to others. And, for those who couldn’t afford to pay their way it was a handy tool for blackmail.
Subtle blackmailing was one of Davit’s trademarks. It’s a dangerous thing to allow yourself to feel indebted to others. A potent exchange of power.
Sara was more direct. Not one to mince her words, she simply cut you down with her quick and blunt assessments of your actions, attitude and personality traits. Like the moral loudspeaker of the community, Sara didn’t draw you aside and quietly counsel you in the hopes of moulding your character, honesty was her policy. Or so I thought.
That’s the thing about this power couple. They were nothing alike besides the way they rolled their R’s and projected their voices. Besides their sky-blue eyes and permanent tans they looked very different, Davit was tall and lanky, Sara short and stocky. Where Davit was an avid researcher on all things health and apocalypse related, the only reading material Sara ever got stuck into was her daily devotional bible. Davit was obsessed with healthy eating and Sara loved to graze on junk food. He extended his eagerness with a wholesome diet to his immediate family and his grown son would hide his coca cola under the table if his dad walked by, Davit seemed to be the only other living being capable of evoking any glimmer of trepidation in Gad. But Sara was immune to the haze of healthful living that encompassed the rest of her kin and happily drank coke and ate chocolates in full view of her manic husband. She seemed to be the only person he was willing to back off from.
But if Gad feared his father he made up for it in asserting himself in the lives of everyone else in the community and like an avalanche that picks up velocity and power as it thunders down a mountainside, Gad’s clout and sovereignty was growing insidiously until one day it was beyond the jurisdiction of even Davit and Sara.
But until then, this happy trio blazed a trembling trail through our little community perched atop a hill in the shimmering forests of sub-tropical Tzaneen.