“In the course of my duties as rabbi to the country communities in South Africa I had occasion to do a great deal of talking…Yet I did a fair amount of listening, too…I listened patiently and carefully to many tales of woe or exaltation, or just reminiscences…about the struggles of the early Jewish settlers in country places…I found myself emotionally more absorbed by present-day communal and personal affairs that agitated and disturbed the lives of so many with whom I came in contact.” Rabbi Dr. J. Newman – From the PREFACE of “With Ink in the Book: A Collection of Stories and Sketches of Jewish Life in Rural Centers in South Africa” (1960).
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 themes of what I have to say relate perfectly to the theme of the Exile of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt mirrored in the exile of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants who sailed from their already far-off exile, mostly from Lithuania, into another exile in far off South Africa from about the 1880s to the 1920s.
There is also the theme of growth and success, just as the Children of Israel grew great in ancient Egypt, the tens of thousands of Jews who came to South Africa, who by 1960 officially numbered more than 120,000 souls if not more, became fabulously successful.
Then there is the time of the great Exodus and maybe even the beginning of the Redemption as mentioned in the Torah. Likewise too, as modern South African Jewry has migrated ceaselessly out of South Africa, we can relate to the theme of Exile by the tens of thousands, of a real new "Exodus" and therefore, hopefully, of anticipating and praying for an ultimate Redemption.
This essay begins in South Africa when I was there for a family simcha rears ago, a wedding of my niece. I went to visit the late Mr. Elliot Wolf, director of the King David Schools’ Foundation that helps the King David Schools in Johannesburg raise funds. I asked for and went to pick out some books that were no longer wanted by the library and were going to be shipped out for archiving elsewhere.
One of the books that caught my eye and that I plucked out was what seemed a very thin volume of 125 pages titled “With Ink in the Book: A Collection of Stories and Sketches of Jewish Life in Rural Centers in South Africa” published by L. Rubin circa 1960. The title is based on a verse in Jeremiah. It’s written by one Rabbi Dr. J. Newman, a rabbi who was raised in Bratislava in Europe and came to South Africa via England. He served as the official “rabbi to the country communities” in South Africa at a time, before 1960, when the small country communities were very full with Jewish life in every conceivable geographic location of Southern Africa, when for Whites and the Jews among them it was safe living among a generally friendly indigenous Black African population, without reference to apartheid.
The stories are short and written brilliantly, in my view. I do not know anything personal about the author, except for what I heard from some of his contemporaries, but his son Dr. Hillel Newman is presently the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles. A search on Google shows that this book and a few others he wrote are still for sale. The stories are all true, but he has changed the names.
As I look at the book it tells its own tale. I read the book carefully not once, but twice as I found it to be so evocative and moving. It consists of 20 stories or vignettes that are remarkable. The place is obviously the Union of South Africa until 1960, with some flashbacks to the alte heim “old country” mostly of Lithuanian Jews.
From 1960 to 2022 is 72 years! The book looks back another 50 years earlier than that!
The close to 120 years of Jewish life in South Africa recede from the present into the past in one long unbroken chain of tradition and South African Jewish continuity to anywhere
South African Jews may all find themselves today a part of this unique and inspiring real life historical saga starring probably almost any South African Jew living in South Africa now, or who has ever lived there.
So the time-frame is roughly between the early 1900s when South African Jews were digging into life in South Africa and making it big, and 1960 when many had reached wealth and comfort, but at the cost of abandoning much of the serious Judaism they had known back in the old country of Lithuania and Russia.
Each story contains various themes that crisscross the pages, but everything has been well thought out and weighed carefully by Rabbi Newman the author. It is important to note that these stories are written from the point of view of a very learned Orthodox rabbi, an obviously very compassionate and infinitely patient man, but an Orthodox rabbi nevertheless. Perhaps understood deeply only by another Orthodox rabbi, or someone finely attuned to all the complexities of Jewish life and who has shared and experienced the burden of communal and educational work with people either ignorant of formal Judaism or practicing it sparsely sometimes only on the holidays.
My appreciation for Rabbi Newman’s book is doubled greatly, by virtue of the fact that I was in many ways raised among of the types of people he describes in his book, while later in life I myself became an itinerant Kiruv (Jewish Outreach) rabbi, which allows me to read his coded messages and insights that a non-religious person might miss or simply not care about. I will try to shed light on all the stories and situations from the varying points of view.
So let’s deal with the 20 stories divided into 7 general themes that I have chosen for this essay. The stories could easily be divided under other types of themes, but these will do.
Theme I: Ignorance of Judaism
The opening story of the book is the source of the book’s title, “With Ink in the Book” derived by Rabbi Newman (the author) from a verse in Jeremiah 36:18 “He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” This means that the author undertook his task seriously and that these are not just casual tales, but essentially a written record of the heart and soul of Jewish life in rural South Africa.
In the opening scene the rabbi has arrived in a small town (names of towns are never mentioned by the way) and is being warmly welcomed in the home of a local Jewish man, who tells the rabbi about his own long-gone history when he studied in a yeshiva and still knew enough to conduct the prayers on the High Holy Days. He bewails wryly the utter lack of Jewish knowledge of the other Jews in town..
“They know nothing, absolutely nothing. But Gabbaim [deacons] they all want to be. Even if they don’t know the difference between the Lulav [“palm branch”, used for Sukkot] and the Afikoman [last piece of matza eaten at Passover Seder]. As someone said once: ‘My father was a very pious and learned Jew. When Shavuot [festival of the giving of Torah] came he took the Lulav [used only Sukkot], and turning it around his head he read from the Chumash [books of the Torah, and not done that way] the prayer of the Megillah [“scroll” perhaps Scroll of Esther, but not done with a Lulav, ever.]’
"You see, that’s the type of baale’bos [“layman”] you get here. Now you can understand what I mean by ameratzus [“ignorance”]. I have nothing against them. If they didn’t study then they ought to be pitied, and I must say that I really have pity on them. But what amazes me is why they should want to be leaders. Why don’t they come to me and beg me to be the gabbai. I am not even sure whether I would accept it. What do I need it for? It is no yichus [“pedigree”/privilege], no privilege for me to be a gabbai over them…But what is the use of talking. They just don’t know a thing, and they don’t want to know.”
These words are shockingly true even if conveyed somewhat light-heartedly. In those days before there were Jewish day schools in South Africa and before there was even an afternoon part-time cheder, Jewish supplementary school, there was no formal Jewish education, just itinerant teachers who were hired for very low wages, if at all.
In a later story titled “Astray” based on Psalms 119:176“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant; For I have not forgotten Your commandments” what transpires is that a small community that once had enough Jews to fill its synagogue could not get more than five people for the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year services because people had moved away over the years. One of the congregants felt very forlorn that they could not muster more than five Jews to come for services.
Mr. Stein, the leader of the group confided in a curious gentile who wanted to know what the services meant and Mr. Stein explained as best he could what this Jewish holiday meant. The man went and told his pastor, a Reverend Venter about it who promptly decided that he must help out the Jews with a sermon about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah. Reverend Venter shows up for services. Everyone is shocked. He is asked why he is there. They cannot evict him. He offers to give the sermon. They agree.
And they are so thrilled that the story ends with Mr. Stein asking Rabbi Newman, the author, who was hearing him out at a later time: “As I was about to leave, Mr. Stein called me aside and whispered in my ear: ‘Do you think we could have the services, at least once a month, of a minister like the Rev. Venter…?’”
How bad the situation is if Jews love a sermon from a Christian minister on their holiest days. Look how he has lit a fire under them so that they want someone just like him, a tall order, and perhaps they would like a dispensation and have s Christian minister be their “surrogate rabbi” for the times when he’s needed by the few local Jews who come to synagogue. Truly like the “lost sheep” that are implied in the opening verse from Psalms attached to this story.
Theme II: Child-rearing in a New Land.
There are three stories that stand out with great poignancy. “Fail With Longing” is about a wealthy elderly widower who lives alone in a small town and whose six grown children have recruited Rabbi Newman to convince their father to come and live in the larger town nearby. The man gets angry and tells Rabbi Newman why. He relates that when the children were growing up in the smaller town they were very friendly and happy, but when they moved to the larger cities they became harsher and less caring. As it turns out he had already once moved in with one of his daughters who offered to take care of him following a serious operation. The widower thought that his daughter was doing this out of pure love but as he got better she got very nasty and adamant that he must sign over the lion’s share of his valuable estate to her because she was his main caretaker. She harassed him to the point that one day when he was well enough he went back to the small town to live alone, happily.
This then explains the meaning and moral of the opening verse to this story: “Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all the day; and there shall be nothing in the power of your hand.” Deuteronomy 28:32. The rabbi concludes:
“When I returned to the local Jewish friends, they inquired whether I had succeeded in persuading the old man to leave. ‘Will he go to town?’ they asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘he very nearly succeeded in making me move away from town’; and we changed the subject.”
There is a certain female magic at work in the story “The Cry of the Daughter” about a brilliant Jewish girl named Jocelyn. The names are typically evocative even if they are not the true names out of a desire to protect privacy. Jocelyn attends a government school. She is pretty and an excellent and devoted daughter and student. She is well cared for and well-balanced so that the parents are mystified why one day she falls into what seems like a depression. The problem turns out to be that Jocelyn was being secretly persecuted by a gentile female teacher in a subtle way for not living up to the teacher’s impossible expectations.
The solution to Jocelyn’s dilemma? She found and cultivated a friendship with another Jewish girl her age whom she had met and with that came a special satisfaction and happiness that she was lacking in her thoroughly gentile environment in government school. She then decides to go to school where there will be even more Jewish pupils:
“‘Next term,’ Jocelyn informed me with a beaming face, ‘I am going to a boarding school where I will meet many Jewish girls. Isn’t it wonderful?’ ‘It certainly is,’ I said quietly, absorbed in thought. I asked myself how that something can be defined which linked Jocelyn so entirely with Norma [her Jewish friend] and prevented her from coming closer to her [gentile] school-mates. But there was no reply in Jocelyn’s eyes; only a happy, very happy smile.”
So the verse from Jeremiah 8:19“Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people from a land far off” seems so appropriate and evocative.
The story of “All The Flocks Gathered” derived from the verse in Genesis 29:3 “And there were all the flocks gathered” is very funny. A collection of people in a small community decide to become a group of nosy busybodies. They gather like a proverbial flock of silly sheep. Perhaps that’s the way it is in very small towns. Everybody believes they are perfectly entitled to voice an opinion, be heard, and have it enforced concerning a private matter of a child’s education. Of course, the parent instigated this by allowing a meeting to be held, but in a way it shows the “family spirit” and how such things were both confusing to them and part of their evolving identity as far as they wanted to impose it on their children.
Twenty people come together to react to the decision by 15 year old Barry Kaplan who sends a letter home from the hostel [dormitory] that he would like to become an actuary. The story takes on Fiddler on the Roof dimensions, when the simple townsfolk who have never heard of the profession have a fit and come together to decide that Mr. Kaplan must write back to Barry to tell him what he is allowed to become. There is a debate among them:
“Mr. Isaacs:…‘You must write to Barry to give up such new-fangled ideas. Actuary, bactuary! [sic] Barry must become a doctor or dentist like all the other decent chaps’…Mr. Segal intervened: ‘A boy should study for the profession, or learn the trade which he likes, and not what his father wants.’…Mr. Feller: ‘Forget what Segal said. You remember that you told me a long time ago that you would like your Barry to be either a lawyer or a chemist [pharmacist]. You stick to your idea….Go down to town on business, and incidentally visit your son…take him out to a chemist [pharmacy] or go to see your lawyer on some pretext, and you will see that Barry will want to be a chemist or a lawyer’… The gabbai, Mr. Halbert, knew the responsibility of his office:…‘we all, the whole community, are concerned with Barry’s future…We should tell him that we have reached this decision for his sake as much as ours. And then it will be up to him.’”
And this comedy of errors has an inconclusive ending as the crowd goes through the motions of a kind of “group therapy” with fuzzy notions of what modern day professions are about and how to evaluate the pros and cons of a suitable profession for their sons and daughters. Usually what it indeed boiled down to was children following their parents’ dreams and orders to become doctors and lawyers as well as dentists and chemists. Few became actuaries, if they did they may have become very successful in the insurance business, but we know that many men became accountants while many women went into teaching.
The importance of being on the same frequency of your kids as much as you are able to is born out in the “Turns About” story which at 10 pages is the longest in the book and quite a satisfying tale of a young man who brings his delicate bride to live in a very rural setting. She is at first horrified at living in [rural South] Africa with the strange Africans all around her. But with the arrival of her first baby she makes peace with her surroundings. In all, three lovely children are born, who turn out to be popular and ambitious. But as they get older it becomes obvious that the children need to move away to attend schools in the larger town.
At that point this family makes the unheard of decision to transfer their home and business to the big city so that their children have a home and they can share life together. When the children reached adulthood and married, one goes overseas to become a doctor, and the by now elderly parents decide to relocate again and spend their retirement in a smaller town once more. \
This flexibility and adaptability saved their family and even though they lived apart from their children in old age, they had the pleasure of knowing that they had been together for many of the critical years and had raised a wonderful family.
This flexibility is alluded to in the verse from which the story’s name as derived from Ecclesiastes 1:6 “The wind goes toward the south, and turns about to the north; it turns about continually in its circuit, and the wind returns again to its circuits.” Indeed. Truly a “commercial” for how far parents should go for the benefit of giving their children a warm and supportive environment and share in the joys of growing up. The sacrifices are worth it.
To be continued...
Inspired by “With Ink in the Book: A Collection of Stories and Sketches of Jewish Life in Rural Centers in South Africa” by Rabbi Dr. J. Newman.
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 College–Columbia 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 1988–1995, a Trustee of AJOP 1994–1997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 1995–2015. 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]