Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy
Consider this a partial book review, a partial periscope into South African Jewry, and about truths concerning Jewish life anywhere in the modern English-speaking world that run deeper than words.

The work 'With Ink in the Book" by Rabbi Dr. J. Newman has 20 stories or vignettes that are remarkable for their insightfulness. The place is obviously the Union of South Africa until 1960, with some flashbacks to the alte heim “old country” of mostly Lithuanian Jews.

In part one of this series the themes of 1. Ignorance of Judaism and 2. Child-rearing in a new land were explored. Let’s continue with the stories by general themes:

Forbidden Love and Intermarriage.

These are the saddest and toughest stories and they really happened.

Out Of His Place” is an apt title, derived from the verse in Job 27:23 “Men shall clap their hands at him, and shall hiss him out of his place” for the tragic drama that unfolds when a small community looking for a High Holidays Cantor settles on the best candidate, who sings beautifully and knows all the prayers, but on the night of the meeting to confirm his appointment, another man who knows him turns up, and in full confidence calls the leader of the community aside and tells him a dark tale that he has stumbled upon:

It seems their candidate for cantor lives in total isolation where he runs his own business. He never married but the man who knew him came to see him on business a number of times and noticed that some of the local Black African children had lighter skins and seemed to relate to him as a “father figure” - that turns out is true. The man had been left a business by another Jew before him who had fathered a child from another Black African woman. The child was pretty and had lighter skin. In taking over the business he was asked to take care of this young Black African “love-child.”

As she grew older he fell in love with her himself and had children with her. He even taught them some Hebrew and she wanted him to help convert her to Judaism, but it was impossible. He was too much of a hermit cut off from all formal Jewish life. His application to rejoin a community to be its Cantor was his attempt to rejoin his fellow Jews, but now that the leader knew of his background, they turned him down and he was never heard from again.

In “The East Wind” also well-named from the verse in Job 27:21 “The east wind carried him away, and he departs; And it sweeps him out of his place” an older man comes to confess to Rabbi Newman that he is married to a White non-Jewish woman and that he has children with her who are obviously not Jewish since she is not Jewish, because in Jewish law being Jewish is determined by the mother’s status.

The man speaks matter of factly and tells his tale about how he arrived as an impoverished young teen in South Africa. Alone with no family he moved to a no man’s land and began to work hard. Eventually he earned enough to find board and lodging in a place at a time when a young White girl who had helped serve his meals also eventually became homeless. The two realized that they needed each other and fell deeply in love, eventually having children together. The woman wanted to convert to Judaism but the man had so determinedly cut himself off from Judaism he did not even know when the Jewish holidays were.

Eventually as a Jewish community grew around him, he met the local Jews and when they wanted to build a synagogue it was he who played the key role in getting all the permits and making sure that all the building was paid for and completed. Now late in life he comes to ask impossible gut-wrenching questions:

“‘Today we have a nice little community, and all is well with us here. Yes, all is well with everybody except me. I am left with my personal problem. What am I to do? Must my wife remain the outcast she is today? Must my children remain living in no-man’s-land? Are they to be punished for what I did, whether it was right or wrong?...Please remember that it concerns not only my own life but that of my wife and three children.’”

Set On Edge” could well be part of the “Child-rearing in a New Land” section but there is a deeper dimension of how not creating the right bonds with children and then pushing them strongly into directions and in ways they may not have appreciated can backfire for the parents big time.

Mr. Isaacs was a simple but successful trader in a small town. He had a devoted wife that passed away. They had one son who was brilliant and they pushed him to become a doctor, but he had then fallen in love with a beautiful and kind non-Jewish nurse and was about to marry her. The father was enraged at his son and wanted to take him to a din Torah Jewish court case, to be summoned before a Jewish religious court not to marry the gentile woman.

This is how Dr. Isaacs the son of Mr. Isaacs the shopkeeper responded, fulfilling the chosen verse for this story’s name from Ezekiel 18:2 “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”:

“I too have a claim against my father. My father, it is true, did try to provide for all my physical needs and even comforts. Yet from my earliest childhood I wanted to know where I belonged. I wanted to find out my anchorage in life. When I asked my father about it, he always brushed my questions aside…but my father never made any effort to provide for me that necessary training which I have now come to regard as basic of every person. I demand from my father that which he has denied me: my portion in the Jewish heritage. Why did he withhold it from me?”

Moral of the story: Make sure to give your children a good Jewish education and do not brush aside or make light of their needs to know their Jewish identity based on education and not just on vague feelings of group or ethnic “loyalty” that may have worked in the old country but do not work in the modern world, especially with one as sophisticated as a brilliant doctor.

Child’s Longing For a Grandfather.

Turn The Heart” from the verse in Malachi 3:24 “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” could also be classified under “Child-rearing in a New Land” but it has a special dimension that the other’s do not and is deserving of its own perch. Grandparents are important and powerful people in the life of a child, even when that grandparent is an elderly immigrant they provide their grandchild with elements of unique love and nurturance that parents do not and cannot. In this instance it is a connection to the past, to tradition and to Judaism, especially when the Passover holidays come along, that little Selwyn misses his zaida grandfather, and is hurt when his father mocks his longing and need for that which the grandfather was able to transmit so well:

“During the Festival days, as in fact on any other Festival, Selwyn did not go to school. His parents were at business…he felt lonely and lost during the long days without school and without company…but the real burden of those lifeless days, called Jewish Holydays, he started to feel only when his grandfather had passed on. For, when he was alive, it happened quite often that he took Selwyn for long walks with him, and then he would explain to him the meaning of the particular holiday and would also tell Selwyn a few stories about Jewish life in the past… ‘It is true that my grandfather was an old-fashioned type of person. He never learned to speak English well. He never became adapted to the local mode of life. But in his own way, he was a truly worthy and noble person.’”

Struggles With Rabbis and of Rabbis.

“And You My Sheep” is the story of a small community and its leaders that manages to antagonize and force a break with not one, but two of its spiritual leaders. The events portray some individuals convinced of their own self-importance, imagining they are “leaders” when they are, as the title of the story directly implies, just mere leaderless sheep, as in the verse from Ezekiel 34:31 “And you my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are men.”

The story opens with an obsessive compulsive community leader getting the letter of resignation from the first minister, which enrages him, and then he blurts out to his neighbor Mr. Gimbel:

“‘The chutzpeh; imagine the chutzpeh! He is giving us the sack!’ He shook his head, raised a hand upwards and dropped it again in despair….he would call an emergency meeting for the next evening…’ Ladies and gentlemen… our minister, the Rev Goldstein, has notified us that he wants to leave… I don’t want to say that he didn’t do his duty, but he did it somewhat reluctantly. I maintain that he has not got the spirit of idealism which a real minister should have…Now, after putting up with him for so many years he dares to come along to us and say he wants to leave. Let him go I say…”

Firstly, the goodly Reverend had asserted himself, he did not need permission to go. Secondly, typical of a control freak not used to being confronted, the poor community leader sinks into badmouthing the Reverend when he could and should have let the matter rest and let the Reverend be gone. What is absurd is that they go ahead and decide to look for another Reverend whom they will also grow to despise for being too proactive while they claimed the first Reverend was not active enough. This just proves that when it comes to hiring and firing of rabbis, it is more an expression and projection of the congregants’ attitudes than it is about the real characteristics of the rabbis or ministers they choose.

“The Prudent” is the story of a clever and patient itinerant teacher/rabbi who teaches six young children of a village once a week. One or two of the children grow up and leave and the parents decide they “cannot afford” the pitiful salary. So they decide to send a series of “pink slip” letters telling him he is no longer needed. But he kept on showing up and they were too embarrassed to confront him directly. This went on for many months until the rabbi himself decided to quit. A while later the author met the rabbi and asked him what happened:

“I told him about the community’s unsolved mystery. He did not say a word, but led me by the arm into his study. There was a suggestion of amusement on his strained and timeworn face, as he bent down to open the bottom drawer of his desk. Delicately he unwrapped the covering sheets of a neat little packet. The packet contained a few letters… ‘I had children to educate, and an old mother to support at the time,’ he said gravely. ‘I could not afford to receive these letters.’”

Proving that “silence is golden”: “Therefore the prudent does keep silence in such time, for it is an evil time” from Amos 5:13.

“A Thing Of Nought” from Isaiah 29:21 “…And turn aside the just with a thing of nought” a Jewish minister confronts a new lay leader who is set on cutting his already low salary to a pittance. The minister decides to rally the community to his side, which only enrages the new lay boss. The atmosphere becomes so tense and hostile that the minister secretly finds another position and then leaves with his wife in the middle of the night.

The community is astounded and they decide to accuse the minister of theft because he did not return one of the synagogue yarmulkes [head-covering worn by men, also called a kippa]! They send him a lawyer’s letter demanding that he return “stolen property” so he comes back and ties the yarmulke to one of the synagogue’s clothes hooks, where they left it tied as a “memorial” to what transpired. A number of years go by and the community dwindles to the point where only one or two Jews are left. One day, the author requests to take a look at the ghostly abandoned synagogue and he is mystified by the yarmulke tied to the hook. Only when he meets the minister to whom it happened is the mystery finally solved, as the minister explains:

“‘The truth is that I did take it with me, because I understood that it was given to me for my personal use. Now I found myself in a dilemma. If I were to send the yarmelke back it would mean an admission of guilt. If I did not, no doubt the president would be delighted with the prospect of accusing me of theft. I took counsel’s advice and was told to hand over the cap personally with an oral explanation of what had happened. I prevailed upon a member of my new congregation to accompany me, having arrived at my old community, I asked a few local members to meet me at the synagogue, where I deposited the cap, and fixed it there permanently for all to see…So you say the yarmelke is still hanging there. Very interesting. The yarmelke is still there, ei . . .’”

The struggles of Jewish clergy who were treated like dirt are legendary. Hiring and firing rabbis has continued as a favorite sport of congregations who get to exercise their power urges and act them out in ways that bring them no honor, satisfaction or reward from Above.

To be continued...

Entire Series:

* Torah Education and Outreach in South Africa

* What I learned from the 1929 Jewish Year Book

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, Part 1

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, Part 2

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, part 3

* Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Tanzer of South Africa

* Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Azriel Goldfein of South Africa

* Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz of South Africa

* Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper of South Africa

* Judaism and Rabbis in South Africa

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.

Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]