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 book has 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. 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. The names of people are not the true names out of desires to protect privacy and names of towns are never mentioned again to protect privacy.
Upkeep of Synagogues and Torah.
This segment is in many ways connected to “Struggles With and Of Rabbis.” As is already evident, quite a few of the stories deal with synagogue life, the struggles of and with the clergymen who served in them, Torah traditions as well as respect for Torah itself that South African Jews retained coming as they did from strong Torah homes in Lithuania centered around daily synagogue attendance. The synagogue was not just a place of prayer, a makom tefila, it was also a place of study, a beit midrash, where young and old gathered to study Torah. It was also a place where the community gathered, a beit knesset, where joyous celebrations like bar mitzvas and weddings were held.
It was and it is with great pride that no matter where they found themselves and no matter how small a community, one of the first things a small group of Jewish families did when they settled in a community in South Africa was to buy land and build a synagogue as well as a place to bury the departed with the help of a chevra kadisha burial society.
“They That Are Far Off” named from Zechariah 6:15 “And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord” is a story with a different beat. It is about the arrival of a sophisticated German Jewish couple escaping the Nazis in Germany. They are so different to the local more “heimish” [“homely”] Lithuanian-type Jews displaying typical Germanic formality and even stiffness. The community likes the German Jewish Mr. & Mrs. Wirtman who in turn were surprised by the famous South African Lithuanian Jewish warmth and hospitality that welcomed and enveloped them. Thus did East meet West in sunny South Africa, and as Mr. Wirtman observes to his wife Myra:
“To think of the way we used to speak and think of the Eastern [European] Jews! We had a picture of uncivilized, uncultured people, who could not be regarded as emancipated. But look how kind and how friendly they are. Would we have done the same thing for the Lithuanian, Russian and Polish Jews if they had to flee to get away?”
So much did this new German Jewish couple like where they were that they invited another couple to move in and soon the two German Jewish couples became the backbone of the community. Mr. Wirtman took upon himself the task of teaching the children Judaism and the prayers. The new arrival was Mr. Blatt who had studied architecture before being kicked out of Germany in the 1930s and he began drawing up plans for a synagogue and communal hall. When the time arrived and plans were needed quickly, Mr. Blatt surprises everyone when he pulls out the most detailed architectural plans and a beautiful synagogue is built. The author was invited to celebrate:
“A few months later I consecrated the hall. A small but dignified structure, it looks ordinary enough, consisting of simple bricks and mortar, timber and steel. But cementing it all is the divine force of the hope and aspiration of one person; an aspiration realized through the arrival of one innocent and an unknowing family, the Henigs [the family that was inspired enough to provide most of the financing.]
This proves that Xenophobia towards coreligionists does not pay especially among a group of Jews themselves relatively new to living in South Africa.
“The Ark Of The Lord” based on Samuel I 6:2 “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord?” is a very cute and touching story about how the author had a hunch and went on the search trail to find a misplaced Torah scroll. There is great sanctity to a Torah scroll. It is what is inside the holy ark at the front of every synagogue. One man, Mr. Pinkas kept watch over a declining community. While he was around, the synagogue had a little life in it. But as he got older and weaker he could no longer continue running his business and the upkeep of the synagogue. Turns out there was never a proper synagogue in the town, just a rented house for that purpose. When the synagogue’s belongings were moved it seems that the ark where the Torah was stored was not accounted for. It had “vanished” into thin air. But based on his research, the author had a hunch that the ark and its Torah were still hiding in the town somewhere:
“It occurred to me that Mr. Pinkas’s former business might be of help…The new owner listened carefully to my request…Finally we came into a larger storehouse where a huge quantity of bags of flour, mealie meal, sugar and salt was lined up in great heaps. Here we stopped for a while and I went to look along the gaps between the piles. My heart jumped with sudden expectation…‘There it is’ I exclaimed convincingly…Eventually the frail and completely distorted ark was uncovered. Inside the Sepher Torah [Torah scroll] was resting awkwardly on one side, resembling strongly one of the many sacks of flour.”
When the author then reports back to Mr. Pinkas, he recalls what had happened. Fellow congregants were supposed to empty that room but somehow forgot about the ark with the Torah inside. Retrieved and fixed up, the Torah was then sent to another community for use. A day in the life of a rabbi as he rescues a Torah scroll from oblivion.
A high percentage of the stories are about love: Love gained. Love maintained. Love lost. Love kindled. Love destroyed. Some of the harder and harsher stories are in the “Forbidden Love and Intermarriage” section with sorrowful endings. But the author has recorded more love stories and that both warm the heart and bring forth tears. Tears of sadness, joy and empathy.
“This Is The Rest” named from a verse in Isaiah 28:12 “This is the rest, you give rest to the weary; and this is refreshing” is the story of a young second generation professional couple that decides to buck the trend in order to escape the rat race of city life. They are enchanted by an old hotel and decide to buy it and not just derive income from it but use it as a place for their love for each other to grow in tranquility and have peace of mind as they start the process of raising their own children.
One day a conversation took place between Mr. Laks (“a successful lawyer”) and his wife Mrs. Laks, (“a teacher of elocution and deportment to young ladies of the wealthier class before her marriage”):
“‘You know, I wouldn’t mind spending another holiday at that village again – that is if you don’t mind.’ ‘A holiday only?’ was her involuntary reply. Their eyes met, and remained glued to one another in perfect silence for quite a while. They were now sure that they longed for the same goal…When I visited Mr. and Mrs. Laks at the hotel, they had then owned the place for over ten years. They had two lovely daughters, Jocelyn and Sandra, nine and eight years respectively…Mrs. Laks took up the conversation. ‘And I think I can substantiate what my husband just now said…The children in bigger towns never learn to be creative about their enjoyments. They have no internal resources to create their own entertainment. Their palates are spoiled and their joys are artificial.’…
Mr. Laks now took up the thread of our discussion. ‘It is clear that there is something radically wrong with our modern society. I don’t want to preach – this is not my profession nor my hobby. But I do wish to say that perhaps the root of our trouble is that the younger generation suffers from being over-spoiled and under-worked, In brief from over-indulgence...’ I could not help but agree with the line of thought expounded by this delightful couple. But I had to broach one more problem. ‘What about the religious education of your two little daughters?’ ‘That is indeed a problem…the best form of life must have its snags. Tell us, Rabbi, what can you do for us….’”
And there that story concludes with many lessons to be derived. That a solid loving relationship can give a mature couple the ability to turn their lives around 180 degrees to go against the flow. From the clarity and innate sense of calm they are able to see through much that plagues modern society. They are open to suggestions and will ask a rabbi for ideas they could use for their children’s Jewish education. This is a couple that is way past the first generation immigrants’ issues and is on a quest for self-meaning and inner peace.
In “Draw Me” aptly from the Song of Songs 1:4 “Draw me, we will run after you” the author recounts how in his capacity of trusted rabbi he performed a “miracle” that brought newlyweds Miriam and Sam together through his diplomatic “marriage counseling.” After the couple had expressed their complaints against each other before the rabbi, he went to see them separately. The young husband and wife who obviously beneath it all, loved and needed each other very much. Sam was from a small town and had inherited a successful business from his father. Miriam came from a larger town and while she appreciated the house and comforts Sam had provided for her, she was lonely and frustrated with the small town mentality and that work took so much of Sam’s time.
The rabbi counseled her: “‘So the simple fact is that Sam wanted to be reassured of your true affection, and he resorted therefore to assuming an air of indifference when in reality he was yearning for the slightest sign of love from you. You, on the other hand, were waiting for him to find the kind of approach to your heart that would sweep you off your feet. I am sure, however, that both of you have enough devotion and attachment to each other to make a very happy and contented partnership for life-time.’ Miriam’s resistance was broken and she clearly understood what was expected of her. It remained for me now to speak to Sam too, trying to make him aware of what was in turn expected of him in order to consolidate the effort towards their refinding each other.”
The story has a very happy ending as Miriam and Sam open up to each other and find ways of being supportive in place of second guessing each other or suffering from any uncalled for insecurities.
“Time and Chance” from Ecclesiastes 9:11 “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” is about the conflict of taking care of sickly and aging parents versus one’s own personal growth, emotional needs with rival “love interests” -- between parents and the love of your life -- and how it can all come crashing down. A tale of love lost, but perhaps for the better, it’s a tough call.
Benny Levin tries to explain to the author why he remained a bachelor. He was an only son and after his mother took ill, Benny’s father could no longer run the mom and pop shop on his own. The successful little business was the sole source of their livelihood and the direct source of Benny’s tuition fees at university. What was really hard for Benny was taking leave of the young and beautiful Thelma with whom he had fallen in love, head over heels. They promised to wait for each other, but when Benny finally returns to meet Thelma in the hope of winning her over as his future wife he gets the shock of his life from her as she proves herself to be a complete cold fish. Thelma’s response to Benny was brutal as he naively tries to convince her to come with him and live in the small town where he has his own business:
“Having reached town, he drove automatically to Thelma first. He was quick to notice her confusion…She was not prepared to foster a friendship at great distances. She did not like long, awkward journeys to the country…her words fell like hail upon a blossoming tree…her voice was harsh, cool, distant. The tone of her speaking had the ring of finality about it. Benny felt too weak and too dejected to argue. The gentle, considerate friend of the past, whose voice had so often quivered with emotion and noble sentiment, had changed into a defiant, calculated opponent…A bitter, inexplicable and deadly painful smile hovered over his mouth as he left her for ever.
When Benny reached the hospital he was just in time to receive the last instructions of his father…‘You will never have a better friend in life than a mother,’…The soft spoken words hit him with a great force, the vibration of which echoed within him for the rest of his life. Shortly afterwards his father died. Benny and his mother returned to the country. He never saw or heard of Thelma again…He never wished or longed for Thelma. He never returned to the University, or in fact, to live in town. ‘Now you may perhaps understand why I never married,’ Mr. Benny Levin concluded his tale.”
“No Comforter” from Ecclesiastes 4:1 “And see the tears of the oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter” is a very sad tale of love lost and in some ways not so surprising given the variables unique to Jewish emigration from old motherlands and home lands then immigration to new lands and fatherlands. A newly-wed couple in Lithuania, Shea and Malka decide that they must part company for a while as he travels to far off South Africa to start making a basic living and set up home so that he can bring Malka to join him. When they part, he shouts out “Malka, remember that you are mine and I am yours. That is how it is and that’s how it will remain.”
Unfortunately two factors will conspire to destroy their long-distance marriage in a few years, the fact that Malka’s family hates Shea and conspires to hide the last encouraging correspondence from Shea telling her he has finally overcome his suffering and is now able to earn a good enough living. Her family trips her up and tells her to ask Shea for a get a Jewish divorce. She very reluctantly agrees because after a few years of separation she is worn out. It shocks Shea when he gets the telegram requesting the divorce, but he very reluctantly consents to send one.
The other factor was the toughness of the work conditions in South Africa for young people with no skills and who were not helped enough by their established relatives already in South Africa for a while. Shea was forced to become the arch-typical Jewish smous an itinerant Jewish merchant selling trinkets and other small items travelling by foot loaded up with his wares on his back or hitching a ride on an ox wagon to get to Black Africans or White Boere who wanted to buy some of his stuff. It took a few years and Shea was even robbed at one point, but he made it through and wanted to bring Malka out but by then her family had poisoned her mind and manipulated her to ask for and receive the divorce. She does not remarry, but one day she finds the missing letter at her brother’s home and she is shocked to discover that her husband had never wanted to divorce her and had asked her to join him in South Africa. Enraged at her own family, she moves to South Africa alone in search of Shea: “Malka arrived at Shea’s home about two months after her ex-husband had remarried.”
That was a story of love lost by both by Shea and Malka as their marriage was destroyed. He regains it when he marries another woman, and he partially regains it in the sense of a moral victory when Malka decides to “return for him” once she discovers the truth that he had still loved her and that her own relatives had betrayed her. But it is a bitter-sweet tale as the author concludes it, performing some good therapy as he helps to bring closure to the sad and stupefying events:
“Epilogue. I met Malka nearly fifteen years after her arrival in this country. I met her because Shea asked me to look her up in the town where she now lived. With tears in his aged and sad eyes he asked me to befriend her. She told me her side of the story as conscientiously and truthfully as Shea had related it to me from his angle. As they concluded their stories, individually and separately, frankly and honestly, one remark, one question, was left unspoken. Perhaps it was too terrifying for either of them to utter. ‘How can one re-live and undo happenings of the past?’”
Indeed, how? Obviously in this case it cannot really be done!
“Flashes Of Fire” is a good and basically inspiring story to end with, from the verse in the Song of Songs 8:6 “For love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave; The flashes of it are flashes of fire” is about three men competing for a dream girl. In this case, three young immigrant brothers who had been brought out to South Africa by their uncle Abraham: Zanvil, Alter and Leib Shapiro, are thrown into a tizzy as their hormones start racing when Julie Brenner a young Jewish female teacher comes to work in town and stops by their shop often enough to set off an internal race to see who would finally have the gumption to pursue and try to win her over and get her hand in marriage.
In the end it is the most unlikely of the three, the shy brother Alter who secretly woos and chases after her even when she leaves town in fear of getting into this “triangle of love” with the three brothers. That is because one of the brothers Leib is more interested in taking control of the business they inherit from the boss who eventually retires, and the other two eventually leave it all to him as they strike out on their own to set up new businesses and families of their own while Leib is left to remain a controlling but very wealthy bachelor.
The catalyst for all the sudden changes was that Miss Julie Brenner couldn’t stand and come to terms with the inner passions and with the not so dormant rivalries she had aroused within the three brothers. The most touching moment in the story was when Alter the eventually successful suitor plucked up the courage of his convictions when he had snuck out of his store to meet up with her:
“One day as she came out of the school, Alter came up the road. She met him with a surprised smile, asking him what he might be doing there at that time of day. He was too agitated to handle the question, and instead he mumbled something about the strange coincidence and cut short the subject. Would she like to come for a little walk with him? She did not mind at all. Shaking inwardly as if after fever, Alter laid bare his heart before Julie. He described how much she had come to mean to him; to his whole life. There was nothing in life he now wished for more than to be forever united with her…All he asked for was her consent.
Julie was deeply moved by Alter’s simple words and deep emotions…she appreciated his sentiments…in a few days time they could meet again and have another walk and talk matters over…It devolved upon Julie to make the all-important decision…She was not ready to face it. Obeying a sudden urge to escape the fateful decision and its consequences, she one day disappeared as unexpectedly and dramatically as she had appeared on the scene. Leib…felt greatly relieved. But to Alter and Zanvil the light of their hope and salvation had suddenly been extinguished…Alter…was determined to trace the movements of Julie…Eventually he followed her to her new abode, and they were married shortly afterwards.”
This is the last story in the book and the author ends it with an “Epilogue”:
“”Uncle Abraham took great pains in relating to me every detail of the story of the Brothers Shapiro. His own concluding comment was: ‘Alter and Zanvil…were prepared to forego riches for more important values. Leib worships the golden calf. His life will remain void and purposeless with all his fortunes.’”
It is appropriate to come full circle and quote the observations of the author of this charming short 125 page book “With Ink in the Book” from its opening “PREFACE” that sum up its themes:
“There were the anxieties which parents felt for their children away from home from a very early age onward. And there were the problems which congregants had concerning their aged parents who lived alone, uncared for in the larger towns. There were the fathers and mothers deeply perturbed at not being able to inculcate a religious spirit into their children because they had been denied that upbringing by their own parents. These and a host of other problems, becoming more involved through a number of varied complications…Not less varied were the issues encountered by communities on a wider basis…”
Now in 2022, more than sixty years after those words were written in 1960, with South African Jews scattered even further afield across the globe, the issues and challenges have become even more complex and sometimes almost impossible. But just as the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and even earlier generations found the courage and inner strength and sought out the wisdom of Judaism to leave far off Lithuania, travel by boat to South Africa, spend years establishing themselves in business, communally, building families and raising next generations of good Jews, this process now continues as South African Jews move to newer host nations where they will with the help of God keep the flame and visions of Judaism alive as did their pioneering ancestors by again fulfilling the patterns of history since the Exodus from ancient Egypt of Redemption from Exile and dreaming of going to the Promised Land in Israel.
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]