Brooklyn Heights

From South Africa to Brooklyn Heights: Local author discusses apartheid and Mandela

Brooklyn BookBeat: Ellie Levinson speaks, signs books at Brooklyn Heights Branch Library

December 18, 2013 By Samantha Samel Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Ellie Levinson is a well-rounded Brooklynite. Known around Brooklyn Heights for her volunteer work with the Promenade Garden Conservancy (and for the delicious baked goods she contributes to the PGC’s bake sales), Levinson is active in her residential community and values her Brooklyn friends and neighbors. Yet in spite of her enthusiasm for local affairs, Levinson’s history reaches far beyond Brooklyn. At the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library’s monthly event on Tuesday, Levinson spoke to a crowd about her upbringing in South Africa, discussing her recently published memoir “Let’s Play Hopscotch, Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa” (Tate Publishing & Enterprises).  

Betty Scholtz, another South African-turned-Brooklynite who has also made a name for herself in the community as director emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, introduced Levinson. The two women are great friends; Scholtz, who has now lived in Brooklyn for 53 years, told the audience she was delighted when Levinson and her husband Ivan moved into her apartment building. Scholtz spoke of Levinson’s great energy, showing off Brooklyn Heights Press clippings featuring Levinson’s baked goods and her gardening work, and noting that the author introduced a book club into their apartment building.

Levinson began her discussion by acknowledging the late beloved South African leader Nelson Mandela. “It seems fitting that I steer my talk toward politics in light of Nelson’s passing,” she said. Levinson grew up in a small, conservative town called Welkom in the 1950s, where, by the time she was born, apartheid was entrenched in South African society. Levinson explained that while politics were not openly discussed in her home, her parents “were a great example when it came to tolerance…we didn’t need the lecture on ‘respect for everyone’ – they pretty much showed us the way, and for that, I am very grateful,” she said.

Levinson remembers that she was 11 years old when she first became aware of the conflict in her country. She read a moving passage from her book, told from her point of view as an 11-year-old: “Nelson Mandela has been arrested for treason. I don’t exactly know what that word means. They say he is a terrorist (I also don’t know what that means), so we should feel safer with him in prison.”

Levinson went on to describe the first year during which she became politically involved. When she was 18, she moved to Johannesburg, and though she recalls being terrified to move from a small town to a big city, the experience opened her eyes to what was going on politically. “I’m beginning to understand what evil our government is doing by enforcing apartheid,” Levinson read from her book. “I register as a voter and belong to the Progressive Party. A large majority of the voters don’t advertise which party they belong to. Perhaps it has something to do with guilt. But amid the politics, there is fun.”

The author went on to speak of meeting Ivan, her husband of 36 years. She was teaching while he was in medical school, and though the two hit it off, there was a “hiccup: he was Jewish and I was Catholic,” Levinson explained. While at one point the couple decided to break up because of their religious differences, Levinson, upon informing her parents of the breakup, was met with her parents’ undying tolerance. “We love you, we love Ivan – if this is what you want, we’re backing you,” Levinson remembers her parents’ words.

Levinson circled her discussion back to Mandela, sharing a quote that exhibits the leader’s humor: “In my country we go to prison first and then become President,” Mandela famously said. Levinson described her excitement waiting in line for hours to vote for Mandela in the first free election in South Africa.

Written in the present tense, “Let’s Play Hopscotch” is an engaging and intimate text. The immediacy of the narrative – with photos and hand-drawn maps interspersed throughout – enables the reader to feel a sense of familiarity with Levinson and her experiences. And while her worldly adventures are dear to her heart, Levinson is happy to call Brooklyn home. She told the Eagle on Tuesday that though she and Ivan moved here when he landed a job with a pharmaceutical company and did not expect to stay, “we love it here.” The happy Heights couple has four children who are spread across the U.S., the United Kingdom and South Africa. 

For additional information on Brooklyn authors and literary events, visit Brooklyn Eagle‘s literary blog at If there is a writer or event you would like us to feature, or to send news of impending projects or accomplishments of Brooklyn writers you know, email [email protected].

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