Rhona's joy at seeing Mandela celebrate with family's wine


IT wasn't until Rhona Beck was in her 70s that she turned her hand to writing.

Rhona and husband Graham spent a lifetime dedicated to philanthropic activities, as well as pioneering work in the South African wine industry.

But, nine years ago, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her author sister Shirley Eskapa and write The Glass Sky.

Her latest book, The Gratitude Cradle (Wilton 65, 14.99), tells the story of Chaim, who is nearing the end of a life scarred by his experiences in concentration camps, but transfigured by his capacity to forgive and to love.

The story moves from post-war Europe to London, India, Israel and Africa.

South African-born Rhona, who lives in Chelsea, told me: "I realised how tremendously grateful I am to be Jewish and that we, as Jews, should - or ought to - be, too.

"The story kind of wrote itself, as it is a tale of what has happened to many Jews throughout history. They don't call us 'the wandering people' for nothing.

"Being Jewish makes my life worthwhile - it deepens my understanding in so many ways and brings me happiness in so many ways."

Happiness, over the last few years, seems to have been in short supply for Rhona.

Her beloved husband died in 2010 after a battle with chronic lung disease. And her sister Shirley died a year later.

Johannesburg-raised Rhona first met Graham in their native South Africa in 1959.

The 78-year-old recalled: "It was an extremely hot day and one of my friends was playing golf with Graham and his friend.

"Graham's friend said, 'if only there was somewhere we could go for a swim'. So they came to our house, which had a swimming pool. We swam together.

"I had a date that night, which I went on, but somehow I knew I would not be going on any more dates with anyone else ever again.

"He was a lovely human being and extremely masculine.

"I do not cope well since he died because I loved him with all my heart - and I still do."

The couple had children Anthony, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and Clive, who was killed in a car crash 18 years ago at the age of 35.

Graham went into the coal mining business.

"He chose that profession because he knew he would be able to do it well," Rhona said.

"Graham was a fascinating man in that, when there are those who throw up their hands in a state of woe, he was the opposite.

"He would see the possibilities and he dived in. That is how he made his fortune."

Life in South Africa - where apartheid was ruthlessly implemented - was not easy for the Becks, however.

Rhona recalled: "We had many black friends. We were friends not because of work interests, but because we were drawn to one another as human beings."

Many Jewish South Africans - such as Albie Sachs and Helen Suzman - were involved with the-then illegal African National Congress.

Rhona said she and Graham were involved with the anti-apartheid organisation peripherally. But the final straw was when Clive came home from school with a report which demonised non-whites.

Rhona explained: "The report said that, 'although black people are our servants, we must treat them politely'.

"As I read that, I thought, 'we are leaving'.

"It was not the worse thing that could be said, but what it intimated was immediate to me."

The family moved to the UK and settled in Hampstead, north London.

In South Africa, Graham had bought Madeba, a farm located outside the Western Cape town of Robertson.

And its success led to him acquiring a second property in the Franschhoek Valley.

The Becks' prosperity in that area saw the establishment of Graham Beck Wines, which still exist today.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela enjoyed Graham Beck Brut at his inauguration as president of South Africa.

"I cannot express the joy that I was alive to see that," the grandmother-of-five explained. "I was so proud.

"I met Mandela at a dinner party - 16 of us had been invited.

"He was the most charming man I had ever encountered - he could charm the leaves off the trees.

"At the dinner party, everyone was invited to ask a question, but I could not shoot one question at him. I was enamoured of him and in awe of him.

"Afterwards, he came to me and noted I hadn't asked a question.

"I started stammering like a shy 15-year-old, but he smiled at me in such a kind way. It was a remarkable experience."

Barack Obama also drank Graham Beck Brut to celebrate being the Democratic Party nomination for president of America.

The Becks' philanthropic work led them to establish the Graham and Rhona Beck Skills Centre, near Madeba.

It aims to facilitate skills development for the long-term upliftment of the farming community in the Breede River Valley.

They also established the Beck Science Centre, a space for rental to high-tech companies, in Jerusalem, as well as setting up a number of Chairs at universities in the Jewish state.

"We first went to Israel in the 1960s - it is a wondrous country," Rhona said.

"I remember flying over the desert, looking out of the window and, all of a sudden, green land appeared.

"It was one of the most moving and tremendous experiences of my life.

"With regards to the philanthropic work in Israel, many people think that no poor Jews exist.

"It is a misconception and I knew that. Wherever we found a need in Israel, we fulfilled it."

Rhona is hoping to write another book.

She said: "Nine years ago, I suddenly found myself wanting to write.

"I still have that feeling, but then think to myself, 'don't be silly - you know how hard it is'.

"I have the characters in my mind and then they start to develop.

"Graham encouraged me to write my first book. I think he would be so proud - he was a very strong and proud Jew."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph