“Jewish life in the S A Country Communities -
Speech delivered by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft at the book launch.
Good evening Ladies and Gentleman
I am delighted to be here tonight, and to have been invited to speak at this happy event. The work of the S A Friends of Beth Hatefutzoth responsible for this volume is very close to my heart.
In many ways, my work as the 7th Country Community Rabbi, involving extensive travelling throughout South and Southern Africa, is both at the tail-end of the history contained in these volumes; and, as such, with the benefit of hindsight, is arguably a crucial link in the chain of South African Jewish history.
The stories I have heard, the lives I have been intermittently, but continuously part of for more than a decade, and continue to be part of, are the summation of the historical moments and fragments contained in this volume. Over the years of working with the researchers of this volume, I have been delighted to do my part in helping them to archive and research and reveal and, now, to publicise the people and lives and stories.
In fact, the historical project we celebrate this evening has its roots more than a century ago, in the thinking of another rabbi. Rabbi Dr Joseph Herman Hertz was the first rabbi of the early Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation.
Born in Rubrin, part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1872, he went to the United States in 1884. In New York in 1894, he earned both a doctorate from Columbia University and rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. After being appointed rabbi to a congregation in Syracuse, New York, in September 1898 he accepted an appointment as rabbi to the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation. Shortly after his arrival, he took a strong and informed position on the situation facing the Jews as Uitlanders, who were subject to the political, civil and educational disabilities imposed by the ruling Kruger regime.
Less than two months after his arrival, the Wits Hebrew Congregation celebrated the tenth anniversary of its establishment. Hertz used this opportunity to deliver a strong public address on ‘The Jew as Patriot.’ Speaking in the Freemason’s Hall in Johannesburg, he spoke about a topic that was of great concern to him – he pleaded for the removal of civil disabilities of the Jew in the Transvaal.
In 1899, he spoke at a mass meeting of Uitlanders in the Wanderers Hall. According to historian John Simon, “Hertz moved a resolution calling for ‘the removal of all religious disabilities’. He also sharply criticised the Kruger regime. His speech was widely reported both in South Africa and abroad. Not long after war broke out in October 1899, he was called on to publicly retract his Wanderers Hall speech and to apologise to the government or to leave the Republic within 48 hours. He chose to leave.
While Hertz was worried about the prejudice against Jews under the Kruger regime, in his appeal to end such discrimination he could not have anticipated what most of the next century would bring by way of racial discrimination in the country; nor that Jews would not bear the brunt of this discrimination.
He would, no doubt, however have been extremely pleased with the guarantees, finally, in the post-apartheid constitutional democracy’s non-racism and religious freedom, and with the freedoms enjoyed by Jews along with all other South Africans.
I might add he would have regarded Emeritus Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, a different man in a different time, not just as a colleague in the rabbinate but as a man committed to a similar belief in Jewish morality and commitment to social justice, a man committed to a similar vision.
While issues of social justice are, of course, of great interest to anyone concerned with what it has meant to be a Jew in this highly specific part of the world at any point over the last century, for this evening’s purposes I want to draw attention to another part of Rabbi Hertz’s vision of the society in which he found himself.
Hertz could be considered the first South African Jewish historian. His paper entitled ‘The Jew in South Africa’, written after the Boer War, has been described as “the first attempt to present the story of the Jews in all the South African colonies’.
Part of his response to the events surrounding his departure from Kruger’s Johannesburg was entirely in the spirit of tonight’s celebration of South African Jewish history and journeys on the sub-continent: Hertz wrote an account of his experiences in a letter written from Durban on 11 January 1900, which was published in the Jewish Chronicle of London. He described his exciting journey, which took him from Johannesburg to Lourenco Marques (where he initiated the establishment of Hebrew congregation in Lourenco Marques) and to Durban, during which he experienced many adventures, including a meeting with a young journalists called Winston Churchill.
He paid tribute to the excellent work being done in the embattled town of Pretoria and Johannesburg by the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Ambulance Corps and individual members of the Jewish community.
In his 1898 paper on civil disabilities facing Jews, Hertz said the following:
“It is not easy to exaggerate the share in the awakening of this continent which is due to the enterprise, the commercial instinct, the dash and daring of the South African Jews … Jewish immigration did not wait for the discovery of the diamond fields and gold fields. Jews began to come over in the twenties; and before Kimberley was, Jewish congregations were scattered over this sub-continent. And there is not a town in the interior, but owes to the Jews its foundation or its early settlement as a trading and commercial centre. From Krugersdorp to Hope Town, from the Paarl to Pretoria, you will everywhere find the Jew the pioneer of industrial progress. The halo of romance shines over the whole story. Just as the Jew started the tobacco trade in Cuba, the sugar industry in Barbados, the vanilla trade in Jamaica, to say nothing of older countries, we find that ever so many South African industries were started and developed by Jews. … The time will … come when the services of a De Pass to the whaling, sealing and guano industries; of Andrade in establishing the ostrich feather industry; of Mosenthal in establishing the wool and high trades; and of dozens of others, the importers of the Angora sheep, the pioneers of Griqualand, Matabeleland, and Mashonaland, the ‘town-builders’ … will be honoured …”
Tonight we celebrate this time that has come, when these histories and people are described, their pictures visible, the traces and trails of their journeys mapped up and down our countryside.
There have been other times when these stories have been traced. The work of journalist Arthur Markowitz was perhaps the key moment between this evening, between the commitment of the team who have researched this volume, and Rabbi Hertz that night in the Freemason Hall over a century ago.
Markowitz wrote a series of articles between 1947 and 1948 in the Jewish Times newspaper, in which he documented his travels and meetings with Jews throughout the country.
In the spirit of Hertz, he paid tribute to the men and women who made up the community at that time. He described prominent community leaders and unknown folk who touched his own humanity in particular ways, as a Jew, a Latvian immigrant, and a writer of fiction. As the Beth Hatfutsoth researchers can tell you, his articles have been a major source of information for this project.
It is, in my view, most unfortunate that my rabbinic predecessor were not themselves writers and did not themselves produce volumes about their experiences and insights and thoughts. With the exception of a booklet entitled “with ink in the book” by Rabbi Dr Newman of “maiselach”, no such book or record exists.
Tonight provides an excellent opportunity for me to admit that I would consider my own work incomplete if it did not include a comprehensive account of the incredible people I’ve met, the events I have been privileged to witness, the life moments I’ve shared, that can bear testimony to the probably last period of significant Jewish presence in the rural and non-urban parts of South Africa.
The senior politicians and African heads of state who have opened their offices and hearts to me, and through me to the South African Jewish community.
Such a book would share with you, for example, a description of the final day of Mannie Mamulis, who died in Victoria West the evening after our morning meeting. That day, he spoke to me about his concerns for his old age, and reminisced about the Jewish community that had been in the area. At five o clock, he took his daily whisky, and died. His end was the end also of an entire community, a way of life, a world view. Like many other Jews in the rural areas, he was a highly respected member of the community, his heavy Lithuanian accent no impediment to his involvement in many areas of the community’s activities. He was known for his honesty, integrity and for doing good for less privileged people around him, all in keeping with the Lithuanian Jewish tradition he learnt from his parents.
Such a book would share with you a description of Robert Rudansky, in De Aar, who while no longer living the lifestyle of his parents, the lifestyle he learnt in the years leading up to the bar mitzvah he enjoyed in the De Aar shul, he could not bear to see the effects of the demise of the community. When I visited him in his furniture shop on the main drag across the road from the shul, I noticed one of the shop front display windows was painted over white. He explained: he couldn’t bear to sit in his shop and watch across the street, the shul that had been sold to another community and had been renovated into a church. That window painted white marked the irretrievable loss of even the symbols of a childhood and life linked to a rich communal past.
Such a book would have to include the unforgettable line of Jos Kahn, in Prince Alfred Hamlet, who in deep sadness summed up the transition in South African history when he told me that, in contrast with the reality in Hertz’s time and for the next half century and more, “today the average gentile in a country community does not know what a Jew looks like.”
Such a book would have to include one person who lived in Mafikeng, who, while choosing to live his life in a context broader than just the Jewish community, having married a gentile woman, surprised even his Jewish contemporaries by the extent to which he never forgot the values and traditions of his father and mother before him. [story of Levitan’s funeral]
Such a book would have to include my visit to Pieter Dirk Uys in Darling who told me that after his mothers death he discovered that she was Jewish. He then quipped, “Rabbi, I am fortunate to be a member of both chosen people, the Afrikaaner and the Jews”.
Earlier I described the history contained in this volume as fragments. There are many ways to think about and represent the past. These volumes have been organised in a specific form, which is necessarily fragmentary. It would be impossible to tell a comprehensive account of each of the people and families recorded in the book.
Fortunately, this volume is the initial, entry point, the gateway, into a much more layered project – a database which will be available at the offices of the S A Friend of Beth Hatefutzoth.
I’ve had a preview of the database, and I can tell you it will be fantastic. The fuller histories of the fragments in the book will be in it, and I have no doubt it will be a significant resource for anyone interested in South African Jewish history, wherever they are in the world.
I might add that last week the website of the African Jewish Congress was launched detailing the activities of the AJC in 15 African Countries. The website is www.africanjewishcongress.com.
In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to the dedicated team of researchers, Lana, Ilona & Lee and the steering committee.
Ladies and gentleman, we Jews don’t live in the past, we live through our past. I therefore encourage you all to purchase copies for yourselves and your children.