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Tikkun Olam – the Dark Side

Aron Turest-SwartzFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

Why are we here? What is our purpose? What difference does my little life make? What am I here for? These are questions that plague me every single day of my life; burning, calling, confusing, driving, challenging, inspiring - and sometimes, even - depressing questions. The only answer that has ever really made sense to me is that when I die, this place should be better than it was when I was born. But this is not as straightforward as it might appear. How do we know we are doing what’s needed, not just what we need?

Aron Turest-Swartz is a musician, producer, TV presenter and social entrepreneur from Cape Town, South Africa. In 2002, he started a band called Freshlyground – one of the most successful multicultural bands to come out of post-Apartheid South Africa. Aron was recently appointed as Deputy Director of the United Jewish Campaign in Cape Town, and is passionately committed to creating and sustaining a vibrant and thriving global Jewish community.

So, why are we here? What am I doing here? What difference does my little life make? These are questions that I ask myself every day. Every single day I wake up and I ask myself, “now what?” And the answers change all the time. Sometimes they are inspiring, sometimes they are depressing, sometimes I find myself lost and sometimes I find myself. One of the answers that seems to be consistent though is that when I die, I want this place to be a better place than it was when I was born. But what does it mean, this place? What is this place? So I think of this place as my sphere of influence. Which I will talk about a little bit later. What I can do to make an impact. And when I say better, what does better mean? Well I don’t know. I am still learning, still searching. But one of the answers that has come to me, that I have learned a little bit about over the past few years is this idea of tikkun olam. Some people understand tikkun olam to be repairing the world. That’s the literal translation. There’s other ways of understanding it. Meaning, elevating the sparks of divine light that are all around us and inside us for maybe there are parts of us that are broken just like there are parts of the world around us that are broken.

So I have been driven by something. I don’t know what that is sometimes but there are other sides to tikkun olam that aren’t so exciting and inspiring that I learned about by doing what I could to try and make a difference in my community. And I’m going to share some of the shadows that I learned about myself on that journey. But first I want to take you back to when I was 17 and I saw U2 playing a concert in the Cape Town stadium and it was amazing, it blew me away. My dad asked me after the concert, “so what did you think?” and I said, “I can do that” <laughs> chutzpah right? And 9 years later, I did. In 2002 I started a band called “Freshly Ground” in my living room and we became the most successful band to come out of post- Apartheid South Africa, so of course, when Robby Williams came, remember him? He came to South Africa and we were his opening act. And there I was, standing on the same stage as U2 had been when I was 17, playing to the same sold out audience in the stadium and I thought, “wow you really gotta be careful what you dream about”. After seven years of travelling around the world, playing the same songs over and over again, as musicians do, I decided to leave the band. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after that, but I knew that I wanted to do something that would really make a difference, something that would really be a contribution to my community, to South Africa. I asked myself often, am I a South African Jew or am I a Jewish South African? I haven’t found the answer to that yet. But I am very much a South African and I care deeply about my community, not just the Jewish community but my country. And, one of my last concerts with Freshly Ground was in a tiny town in the middle of the Karoo, a semi-desert in the middle of South Africa and it was World Aids Day and the government had bused in about 3000 people into this little stadium, well actually not a stadium but this field, and it was 42 degrees that day, and we were doing our sound check, we were setting up and doing all this plugging in stuff and it was taking quite a long time and the people were starting to get restless so the MC came on to the stage and said, “esiya chaliyat falari”  which means, “are you ready for larry?” And I thought to myself, “Larry? Who’s Larry?” And on walked this tall, skinny man with a guitar and he didn’t get any special treatment. I thought well he’s obviously not a celebrity and he started to play and sing his songs. He sang one song in Xhosa and another song in Spanish and Portuguese and everyone was screaming, going crazy and singing along and I actually felt a little bit left out. I was like, “who is this guy?” I’ve never of him, I’ve never heard these songs before, everyone’s singing along. So after he finished playing his two songs he came to pack up his guitar next to where I was standing with my keyboard and I quickly said “hey bre, what are you doing here? Who are you? He said, “My name is Larry Joe, I’m an inmate in the Douglas Prison and sometimes the government brings me out to play for the people.” I said, “what!?” He said, “yeah”. He showed me on the side of the stage there were four wardens waiting for him. Normally musicians roll with body guards, first time I’d seen wardens but….. so he walked off stage and I just couldn’t stop thinking about this. I left the band and for a year I started communicating with Larry on the phone. We were allowed to speak for five minutes every month while he was still in prison. And it turned out he had written over 40 songs, in 5 different languages sitting in a prison cell in the middle of South Africa. I found it very inspiring, I thought, “wow! If I can work with this guy and record his music and actually create an opportunity for him to become a successful musician, so he can walk out of prison and be a musician, be an artist”. He had this dream of performing in Madison Square Garden. Now this is someone who had been a fugitive for 7 years running from the law. He had been in prison 9 times, he had been a drug addict, he had been a gangster and I thought, “imagine if he could come out of prison and be a role model for especially the young south African kids, many of whom look up to gangsters because gangsters are the only people with cars and fancy jewellery and smart clothes and money”, and this was somebody who had been that. And I thought, “imagine the impact that could have on my community if I could support this guy to come out and follow his dream. So, that’s what I did. I worked with Larry Joe, we recorded his album in this prison cell, we put old blankets on the floor and old mattresses on the wall and the album was released on the same day that he was released from prison. He came out of prison and we started working together doing workshops in communities and schools and prisons around South Africa, and what I thought I was doing was the 8th degree of Maimonides’ degrees of tzedakah. There it is at the very bottom, “creating an opportunity for somebody to be self-sustainable, to be independent.” So I thought I was really just doing great stuff and I was very inspired and we were doing amazing things. We did workshops with over 100,000 high school students around South Africa one year, we performed for the queen of the Netherlands in the Hague, we performed alongside Desmond Tutu, Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, Larry Joe was on the front page of the LA Times. Things were going great and we developed not only an amazingly close connection but also a partnership that was a very very powerful one. It was also very complex. Here I was a young guy with a vision, an idea to make a difference and to make an impact. Was it the same vision that he had? Was Larry Joe sitting in prison thinking to himself, “Oh I really want to make a difference, I really want to be a role-model.” And as we went along, I started to see more in hindsight, that actually there were other things that were driving me. Things like, expanding my sphere of influence because if you just go back to traditional communities when we lived in places that were surrounded by a wall and that was our community, our sphere of influence would be ourselves, our household up until the perimeter of the city. And our sphere of concern, what would concern us would be the same; ourselves, our household up until the city wall. Now I suddenly found myself with my sphere of concern being everything. The whole world, the whole of South Africa, the whole world, solar flares, global warming, I was just overwhelmed by everything that concerned me and I felt like my sphere of influence was so small. I didn’t even really know my neighbours and so I realised that that was one of the driving things that I didn’t know was driving me but I felt safer being with Larry. I felt safer knowing that I was doing this kind of work, but not only that. It bolstered my sense of self and my ego. I’ll be honest, I was sitting on airplanes and I would be sitting next to somebody and the inevitable question would come up, “so what do you do?” and I’ll say, “oh well I’m doing this” and I’d tell them the whole story and its very inspiring and they’d go, “wow, I’m just a doctor” or “I’m just a lawyer” or whatever it is they were doing and it made them feel like they were doing less and me like I was doing more and that was actually quite a good feeling. So quite a challenging realisation and one of the places Larry and I really got stuck was over here. So this is a South African image, we’re playing this out constantly in South Africa, changing the roles of the perpetrator, the victim, the rescuer. So before I met Larry, you know stereotypically I would have been the victim of crime, he was the perpetrator then when we met I came along I was the rescuer and we just kept on going around, around, around. At some point unfortunately the project couldn’t carry on, as I said our visions weren’t aligned really, he wanted to support his family, he wanted to do whatever he needed to do to survive and that wasn’t really the same as what my vision was and I realised that we have to be very careful when we have visions of what tikkun olam can mean and what we should do for the world around us. It needs to be based on what is needed not what we need or what we think is needed. And so we cycled around and at some point I became the perpetrator and he became the victim and then we switched and I was the victim and he was the perpetrator and it was just a bit of a balagan and unfortunately we had to go our separate ways and many lessons have come from that and many songs have come from that journey and I realised that tikkun olam maybe doesn’t mean some big grand endeavour or a massive project or to have it written up in neon lights. Maybe it’s just something small, that each of us can do. Maybe we are broken? Maybe tikkun olam starts within us? So there are endless opportunities to elevate the sparks of life, endless. And as you all walk through this beautiful space you will find endless opportunities for tikkun olam both within us and around us. I’d like to end with a song that I started writing in 2002 and it goes back to the first question that I asked, which is as I said a question that I ask all the time, is, “why am I here?” What are we here for? And this song was stuck half way through for about a decade, I couldn’t find the rest of the song and finally it found me.

< Music plays >

Aron singing:

I’m still smiling while the roof’s caving in

There are things that can’t be cured by modern medicine

Like a rich man who’s alone everyday

‘cos it’s not what he wanted anyway

I’ll be smiling while currencies collapse

Sit back while stock exchanges crash

I just relax

‘Cos it’s unhealthy to be anxious every day

And it’s not what we’re here for anyway

And you will never know exactly how it feels

Unless you’re walking in these shoes

The views from up here in the clouds seems pretty clear

And now its time for us to choose

And how long must this game go on

And how will we know who has lost or won

You say you’ll open up your heart some other day

But isn’t that what we’re here for anyway

Isn’t that what we’re here for anyway.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License