Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy
In the course of one of my visits to the famous Jewish King David School in Linksfield, Johannesburg, South Africa I mentioned to the late Mr. Elliot Wolf the Director of the KIng David Schools Foundation, that I would love to have books about Jewish South African history as memorabilia to read and enjoy.

He said that the library was refurbishing and that there were some books there that I could take. One of those books has turned out to be an absolute gem, a 396 page magnum opus of South African Jewry titled: The South African Jewish Year Book 1929, 5689-90: “Directory of Jewish Organisations and Who’s Who in South African Jewry 1929, 5689-90;…An Official Record of Matters Jewish in the Southern Portion of the Continent of Africa; Compiled and issued under the joint auspices of The South African Jewish Historical Society and The South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Published by The South African Jewish Historical Society (Johannesburg)”.

There are so many angles to view and digest this book and each person with or without connections to Jewish South Africa could easily and justifiably write their own take on this veritable time-capsule preserved in print.

What follows are a few of my own reactions to this precious volume that I so enjoyed, to the bewilderment of my wife and children who are all American born and don’t share my mushy memories and feelings about the alte heim - “old country” where I grew up, South Africa.

The first thing that struck me were the many photos of very “posh” and sophisticated people living in Johannesburg in 1929. Just by looking at their self-confident faces and the success stories in their brief biographies one can tell that these are people who have come into their own and have entered into an era of success and affluence in South Africa. 1929 must have been a very good year for the Jews inside South Africa. World War One had passed them by. The bulk of the immigration was over with. World War Two was a decade away and even that would be far away, so it was indeed the opening of a truly golden era for those Jews fortunate enough to have made it into South Africa, many already born there, and enjoying all the perks of a society that granted them absolute economic, religious and even political freedom.

The “Who’s Who Section” stretches from pages 293 to 393 with an average of about twelve short biographies per page, some with accompanying photos. That makes for about 1,200 thumbnail biographies about some of the most successful and prominent Jews in South Africa at the time. Quite a collection of “power” thumbnail sketches worthy of a closer look. Let’s take a little deeper look at some of these important people and see what we can learn about South African Jewry’s development.

Take the first and last entry, for example. The first one reads: “ABELHEIM, Aaron, Physician M.D. (Kharkoff). Born in Mariampol in 1869. Arrived in South Africa in 1894. Educated University of Kharkoff, Berlin, London and Paris. Married in 1914 to Ellen Behrman, M.A. (Cape) and B.A. (Cantab); has two children. Obstetric Physician, Queen Victoria Branch of Johannesburg Hospital; Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at University of Witwatersrand.”

Right off the bat we see the high levels of education of South African Jewry in its foundational years and the status of doctors and medicine in the Jewish community. The Jewish connection with WITS university was part of the very fabric of Johannesburg Jewry from its earliest days. Who can forget Queen Victoria maternity hospital, the famous “Queen Vic” as it was lovingly called, why even my own brother was born there as were thousands of Jewish babies in the years after 1929!

The last entry is also about a doctor, as the community placed the medical profession above all others from its inception: “ZWEIBACK, Solomon, Medical Practitioner, M.D., L.M.S.S.A., L.S.A. Born in Esros in 1882. Educated at London Hospital. Came to South Africa in 1885. Married to Sophie Ettin, of Pretoria. Member of the City Council and Hospital Board; Hon. Medical Officer to Jewish Benevolent Society; ex-M.P.C. for Beaconsfield; Treasurer of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation. Postal Address: P.O. Box_ _ _, Kimberly.”

From this we see that even outlying areas of South Africa were blessed with Jews who made their home all over the country and applied both their skills and passions and were involved in local community and political affairs. In 1929 the spread of Jews across every corner of Southern Africa is remarkable because the pull of the great cities had not yet set in full force for various reasons. One reason is that many Jews were still strongly tied in with farming, trading, mining and serving the mines.

When I showed my Brooklyn-born yeshiva educated son the photos of South African Jews in 1929 in the yearbook he innocently asked if they were all Jewish. When I asked in surprise why, he said that they all looked so secular and they lacked signs of outer Jewishness like wearing yarmulkas or beards for the men. Well, that was logical enough, but I think he touched on an important point and that is that in 1929 the drive was not to look like rabbis but to get a university education and become professional and materially successful, and while religion was not altogether dumped it was not at the forefront as it had been where most migrated from in Lithuania or Russia where Judaism was more strongly practiced.

Yet rabbis and religion are actually very prominent in the book. From the start when the project is blessed by the Chief Rabbi at the time, Rabbi Landau (see inset for his blessings to the project and how he words it), to the many histories and summaries of shulls being built and how religion is growing in every community large and small.

Back to the thumbnail biographies in the “Who’s Who Section” there are rabbis whose Torah and Talmudic education would make any modern yeshiva bachur envious with both curiosity and desire to learn who these men were and to even learn Torah from them simply because they were the products of the greatest Lithuanian yeshivas at the time, yeshivas known for their unsurpassed standards of Talmudic studies. Here are three examples, and although they are in the minority by far, it does show the respect and admiration that Torah clergy still had even though the majority was moving away from formal Judaism:

One is: “KAPLAN, Aaron L., Minister of the La Rochelle Hebrew Congregation. Rabbinical Degree of the Mirer Yeshiva. Born in Malecz, Poland, in 1894. Educated at Slabodka Yeshiva. Married in 1921 to Thama Cohen; has two sons. Came to South Africa in 1922. Chazan, Shochet and practicing Mohel.”

Anyone familiar with the Talmudical world knows that the “Mirer Yeshiva” and the “Slabodka Yeshiva” were the major Talmudical institutions in Lithuania. In fact the Mirer (now spelled Mir or Mirrer) Yeshiva is today the largest yeshiva in the world with about ten thousand students located in Jerusalem and there is also a major branch in Brooklyn, New York. And the Slabodka Yeshiva has continued as the renamed Chevron (Hebron) Yeshiva in Israel as well as many Slabodka alumni who became the Torah leaders of other famous Yeshivas in the twentieth century to the present.

The second example of a rabbi in the book - there are others, just this one catches my eye - is: “MANSCHEIN, Isaac Leib, Rabbi and Minister, Boksburg North Hebrew Congregation. Born in Jerusalem in 1895. Educated at Yeshibath “Etz Chaim” Jerusalem. Married in 1911 to Chaie Blume Heisler; has three daughters. Came to South Africa in 1922. Marriage Officer; Executive Member, Boksburg Zionist Society; Committee Member, Hebrew Order of David.”

Here already is a rabbi who came from then Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. In 1895 Jerusalem was still under the Ottoman Turks and by 1922 it was under the British, yet this young rabbi came to far-off South Africa to serve its Jewish community in Boksburg. The yeshiva he attended, referred to here as “Yeshibath ‘Etz Chaim’” was and still remains one of the most important yeshivas in Jerusalem that only the most pious and very religious attend.

The last example of a rabbi in those days has a personal meaning for me because even though I never met him, yet upon his passing in around the 1960s, he was subsequently succeeded by another young rabbi, Rav Moshe Kurtstag who became the head of the Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court) in South Africa, and was my own mentor and life-long guide. Here is the biography of that older rabbi who contributed to South African Judaism:

“ROSENZWEIG, S., Rabbi. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1898. Educated at Tels Yeshivah. Came to South Africa in 1922. Married in 1927 to Bessie Spiz. One of the three Rabbis of the Ecclesiastical Court (Beth Din); Founder of Chalukath Hashas Society; Founder of Hebrew College; at age of 21, received semicha from the greatest European Rabbis; possesses a wide knowledge of European languages, and Culture, and is an ardent Communal Worker. Postal Address: _ _ Davis Street, Doornfontein.”

Significantly the “Tels Yeshivah” is mentioned (also known as Telz Yeshiva or Telshe Yeshiva) that would eventually re-establish itself in Cleveland Ohio in the USA and from where three of its latter-day notable alumni would emerge to serve South African Jewry: Rabbi Dovid Saunders who helped found Yeshiva College and the Johannesburg Kollel, Rabbi Tanzer (1935–2020) who headed the Yeshiva College complex in Johannesburg (see the article about Rabbi Tanzer in INN), and the late Rabbi Azriel Goldfein (1935–2007) who founded and extended the Yeshiva Gedolah and its network in Johannesburg (see the article about Rabbi Goldfein in INN). So the connections with the “Tels Yeshivah” go back a long time. Also, the “Hebrew College” referred to would become the “Ministers Training College” of the Federation of Synagogues where some of the earliest homegrown rabbis were first trained in South Africa, itself a remarkable achievement as time would go by.

There is an interesting essay in the book written by the famous Rabbi J.H. Hertz (1872–1946) that is actually quite prophetic. Rabbi Joseph Hertz had been the first informal Chief Rabbi of the Transvaal and was a fierce critic of the Afrikaner Boers. He was deported to Cape Town by the Boers when the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901 broke out for his staunch pro-British views. By 1929 he was already the first official Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. So whatever he had to say is fascinating given his history and personal experiences. He chose to write about “The Educational Value of South African Jewish History” wherein he says:

"As I have repeatedly urged in and out of South Africa, such self-knowledge is vital for the Jew’s self-defence…What is wanted is Knowledge…It invariably leads to self-respect…there is little need to stress the importance of Worship to South African Jews, as its array of beautiful synagogues amply testifies. Not so in regard to Religious Knowledge…It is my earnest hope that in South Africa at any rate there is general understanding that Jewish education is the training of the Jewish child for Judaism, by filling his soul with reverence for his Maker, and preparing him for a life of loyalty and beneficence unto Israel and Humanity…South African Jewry has, I trust, thoroughly learned this uniform lesson of all Jewish history…It has it in its power to become a pattern to other Jewries in rearing its children as God-fearing Jews and Jewesses, in whose souls resound both the thunders of Sinai and the glad tidings of Israel’s rebirth amid the hills and valleys of the Holy Land. With the help of God, South African Jewry will rise to the full level of its spiritual possibilities. London. Erev Shavuos, 5689 [1929].”

Rabbi Hertz’s words are so piercing and visionary because it would take another half century for a new renaissance of idealistic Torah observance to take root in South Africa as starting from the 1970s tens of thousands of its youth responded to the call of a return to their spiritual Torah roots to reclaim and practice Judaism while still attaining success in academic and professional life.

On another personal note, I finally got to see and read about someone who had a Jewish day school named for him but I never knew anything about him. His name is Bernard Patley and he is one of the official sponsors of the book. When I was a young child I attended the “Bernard Patley Junior School” a Hebrew Jewish Day School named in honor of Mr. Bernard Patley. The school was located in Yeoville, Johannesburg one of Johannesburg’s most Jewish areas at that time, and was next door to the Yeoville shull that served as the official religious home for the school.

As a boy I would often go to the Yeoville shull in the mornings before school to hear the shofar being blown during the month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah. Here is what the year book has to say:

“PATLEY, Bernard, Merchant, Principal of firm, Patlansky Bros & Patley, Universal Oil Co. Born in Neinstadt, Lithuania, in 1872. Arrived in South Africa in 1889 after a residence in America of two years. Married in 1906 to Clara Goodman, of Glasgow; has two children. P.D.G.D., Scottish Constitution; P.M., Zion Lodge 891, S.C.; President, Hebrew High School; Vice-President and Trustee, United Talmud Torah Schools; Treasurer of South African Jewish Historical Society; Vice-President and Trustee, United Hebrew Congregation; Delegate, Board of Deputies.”

One sees a typical pattern from the history of Bernard Patley, that he was an involved and motivated lay Jewish communal activist. A successful businessman and entrepreneur, he devoted much of his time and energy to building up the South African Jewish community and its institutions. There were thousands of good Jewish men and women like Bernard Patley who, while not personally religious to the full extent of their parents in Lithuania, gave tzedaka (charity) and created a model Jewish community all over Southern Africa and I am proud to have attended a Jewish day school named for him that symbolized his pioneering efforts in Jewish education and communal life when it might not have been that popular, as most Jews understandably struggled to gain more professional and material fame and growth, while few sent their children to full-time Jewish day schools in those early days.

There is so much to write about! We have only scratched the surface of the memories. So many emotions, thoughts and ideas evoked by this “time-capsule” from 1929 Jewish South Africa. Perhaps one last, somewhat serious observation is in order.

It is well known that the numbers of South African Jews reached its official peak of about 120,000 to 130,000 known Jews by the 1970s. But since then, due to the political turmoil and the transfer to Black majority rule, the official figure of South African Jewry stands at about 65,000 according to local Jewish South African sources, down to half of what it was a mere fifty years ago as tens of thousands have migrated to mostly English-speaking countries like Canada, Britain, USA and Australia and to Israel as well.

When one looks through the 1929 year book, there is a section: “A Survey of the Jewish Population in South Africa. By L. Hotz, B.A.” where this South African historian and record keeper reports about the growth of the Jewish people in South Africa mainly coming as emigrants from Lithuania and Russia. He reports that in 1904 there were 38,101 Jews in South Africa; in 1911 it’s 46,919; in 1918 they’re 58,741; by 1921 it’s 62,103, and by 1926 a figure of 72,169. Quite a big pattern of growth and increase so that by 1929 he safely concludes that there were about 80,000 Jews in South Africa, who reach quite a positive critical mass for any Jewish community of that size.

Therefore it is quite sad in many ways to realize that today’s Jewish community has shrunken below the 1929 numbers of South African Jews to the level of the 1921 statistics, meaning that ninety years of growth has been rolled back in terms of Jewish population decrease due to migration from South Africa because of the negative political and security climate, the very opposite of what had been a pattern of migration to South Africa as a haven of safety until the 1920s when immigration was blocked by the white South African government as it was also blocked in the United States at that time and in most other Western countries.

In the interim, as everywhere else, life goes on for the Jews in South Africa as they live in its volatile security and political climate striving to live their lives as loyal South Africans in the new South Africa while aspiring to ever greater growth and commitment to Judaism and Jewish communal life.

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]