Mine was the last Bar Mitzvah in Lusaka — then in Northern Rhodesia, today the capital of an independent Zambia.
The event was a highlight of an idyllic youth in Africa, surrounded by a loving community.
I was born in 1956 in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia — now known as Zambia — to Nathan and Phyllis Folk (née Saacks). My father was born in Hopetown, South Africa, to a father from Lithuania and a mother from South Africa. It is believed by some in my family that the original family name was Folk-Spatansky and that an immigration official made my grandparents drop the hyphen and "Spatansky". I can't verify that, but I like the story!
My mother was born in Cape Town, South Africa. Her parents were also born in Cape Town, but their parents came from Poland and England.
My parents married in Cape Town and came to Lusaka for their honeymoon. They immediately fell in love with the city and decided to move there. My father worked as an accountant for an electrical firm; my mother had multiple jobs, including one as an assistant at the Israeli embassy. The ambassador became a close family friend.
My brother Michael (who now lives in Australia) and I enjoyed a privileged childhood with family trips and outdoor play. My world was populated by many surrogate aunts and uncles with thick accents who I eventually learned were Holocaust survivors. I have a vivid memory of one "Auntie Lotte", a fabulous baker who wore weighted shoes. I later learned she lost her toes in a concentration camp. These were my first encounters with the horrors of the Holocaust.
We sent to shul most Friday evenings to an Orthodox synagogue and enjoyed Shabbat dinners. For Rosh Hashanah, the entire 200-family Jewish community would gather at one particular family's house for a true community celebration (their son still lives in Zambia, one of the last Jews in Lusaka).
I studied piano as a child and lived for our long family beach vacations in Muizenberg in Cape Town (playfully known as "Jewzenberg" because many Jews vacationed there). We would spend weeks on end with our extended family, eating lychees on the sand and enjoying each other's company. In Zambia itself, my parents took my brother and me on boat trips down the Kafue and Zambezi Rivers where we often sighted hippos, elephants, and crocodiles. Other favourite trips included visits to Victoria Falls and Harare, then known as Salisbury, South Rhodesia.
I attended an American international school in Lusaka. At age six, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. At the age of 13, I remember reading a headline that Dr. Christiaan Barnard had just performed the first heart transplant in history at the Groote Schuur Hospital in South Africa. This fuelled my inspiration and cemented my desire to study medicine and become a physician at Groote Schuur Hospital.
We moved to Cape Town when I was 16. After high school, I earned my bachelor's degree in physiology and then fulfilled my dream of becoming a physician at Groote Schuur. I then moved to London for three years for a residency in pediatrics. The work was gruelling and, at the time, you had to re-apply for work every six months. It was an exhausting grind and I knew that this was not how I wanted to practise medicine and I was very open to a change.
A friend who had moved to Saskatchewan phoned to tell me of an opening for a family doctor in Uranium City. I said yes and in 1985 I became the community's 196th resident. I was only there for six months, but it was a glorious experience that fuelled my passion for rural medicine.
I then moved to Gillam, Manitoba, to work in family medicine and First Nations health. A toothache I had in Gillam changed the course of my life. I searched the Winnipeg Yellow Pages for a dentist and stumbled upon the name of Walter Bloch. I figured he sounds Jewish. Not only did he solve my toothache, he and his wife Susana opened up their home to me.
I returned to Cape Town for a Rosh Hashanah visit and, while there, Susana called from Winnipeg to say "we have a girl for you!". The girl was Laurel Malkin who sat near Susana at Herzlia Synagogue. When I returned to Manitoba, I met Laurel at a Shabbat dinner hosted by the Blochs and we went to the opera later that night. Thirty-nine days later we were engaged and then married on August 18, 1988. I was immediately welcomed by Laurel's parents, Sheila and Charles Malkin, and their extended family.
After we were married, my career took me to Russell, Manitoba, where Laurel and I expected to spend one year. One turned into ten. It was a beautiful community, an outstanding place to work, and a good place to raise our children — Alexandra (Alli) and Josh. I worked very hard in the hospital there, and we strived to keep a Jewish life and a sense of Jewish identity there by keeping kosher and celebrating the holidays. We experienced no anti-Semitism and still stay in touch with many good friends.
As the years passed, we were looking for a more Jewish environment for our kids. An opportunity arose in South Bend, Indiana, where we lived for a few years. I practised rural medicine, commuting from South Bend every week, and became active in our shul. After 13 years in South Bend, our children had moved away to college in the United States and we decided to move to Winnipeg. I now work exclusively in isolated First Nations communities in Northwest Ontario and Northern Manitoba.
Life is full. I love my family, extended family, being Jewish, Winnipeg, and my work. While our children live in the States, Laurel and I see them often. In my spare time, I enjoy music, travelling, playing the piano, cooking, Jets games, and recently learned how to canoe. I have also joined the Boards of the Manitoba Opera and Jewish Child and Family Service.
My life has been an unbelievable journey and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had and for meeting so many incredible people along the way — Laurel's remarkable family, friends, and colleagues.