Centenarian Rose Norwich zooms in on a life of achievement
They say that age is just a number, but when you turn 100 during a pandemic, there’s every reason to celebrate.
Riviera resident Rose Norwich marked her centennial birthday on 2 January, and while COVID-19 prevented any in-person celebration, the occasion was a special one indeed.
“People have been so kind,” Norwich told the SA Jewish Report. “I didn’t realise I was a such a novelty. Turning a hundred kind of creeps up on you.”
Although unable to see her four children, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and other relatives, Norwich celebrated her birthday with friends and family in Zoom gatherings.
“My family all live in different places around the world, and we had three separate Zoom sessions: one for my children and grandchildren, another with my siblings, and the others with friends around the world. It was such fun and really wonderful.
“It was almost better, in a way, to have this. Most of them couldn’t have come here, regardless of COVID-19. If anything, this business has taught us a lesson that we need to stay together as families rather than be separated. At times of crisis, we need one another.”
Born in 1921 in Johannesburg, Norwich has notched up endless accomplishments. The second of five children, she completed a degree in architecture at 22, and went on to devote much of her life to Jewish communal organisations.
“I did my degree towards the end of the war, met my husband, and started a family,” she says. “My parents had both been integrally involved in community organisations, so it wasn’t new to me.
“I started at ORT Jet in the sixties. The organisation was going through a bad patch, and Richard Goldstone, Basil Wunsch, and I worked to resurrect it and see it grow. We changed what it did, made it interdenominational, and set up a system that would help all kinds of people achieve all kinds of different things.”
Norwich was subsequently invited to join the Union of Jewish Women, becoming the organisation’s president and joining the South African Jewish Board of Deputies as a result.
“They asked me if I would do an exhibition of South African Jewry for the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Israel. It was a major project that I did over two years, collecting plenty of photos for use in the exhibition. They say that 60 000 people saw it in Israel, and I visited it with my late husband, Isadore.”
Another major project to which Norwich devoted herself was a master’s dissertation, which she took up at the age of 66, 44 years after completing her first degree.
“I met somebody overseas who showed me pictures of destroyed shuls,” she says. “I knew we had shuls in South Africa which had fallen apart owing to sheer neglect, so I did my dissertation on 43 of the early synagogues of Johannesburg and the Reef.
“It took me four years, trawling through archives and discovering places that had been forgotten. It was remarkable. There are copies of my dissertation at Hebrew University, Beit Hatfutsot, and I gave one to each of my children. I’m very proud of that accomplishment.”
The last surviving member of her immediate family, Norwich spends much of her time alone these days, but has devoted herself to penning her life story.
“My husband passed away 25 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been lonely, but I can’t sit around and do nothing. I may be a little more tired than I used to, but I can still see and hear. I need to keep busy.
“I’ve learned first-hand that when push comes to shove, you need other people in your life. You can’t do it alone. You have to put your foot in the water to get going, be open to all sorts of things, and go out there to see what’s what.”
Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno
Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.
Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.
Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.
Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.
“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”
Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.
It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.
Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.
“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.
However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.
“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”
Yummy Shavuot from Yaddies
Seven hundred families in financial difficulty in the community can now enjoy Shavuot treats including cheesecake, mac n cheese, and pizza thanks to generous monetary and food donations from the community, Jewish schools, and the Rabbi Kraines Chessed Challenge (RKCC).
Their generosity made it possible for Yad Aharon to distribute these special treats, as well as healthy, nutritious food, to community members to make sure that they also have a joyful chag.
RKCC is an initiative which has challenged the community to maximise acts of good deeds and loving kindness during the 49 days of the Omer.
The initiative was formed in honour of Rabbi Kraines (zt”l), whose untimely passing left a void in the Johannesburg community. It celebrates the legacy of a man who was known to be a champion of the mitzvah of chessed.
In addition to the RKCC, Yad Aharon’s Shavuot drive has involved more than 20 Jewish schools as well as local and international donors who realise the importance it plays in alleviating nutritional insecurity in the community.
- To contribute towards the Shavuot drive, visit www.yadaharon.co.za
A portrait of PE through a life of service
As Port Elizabeth community stalwart Isaac Rubin reflects on his 90th year, his life story emerges as a portrait of this once thriving, now diminishing, but always impactful, Jewish centre of life.
Having offered decades of service as head of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Benevolent Society, as well as a vice-chairperson and member of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation Council and serving as its choirmaster, Rubin has lived a life firmly entrenched in service. His has been a contribution that has helped ensure that Jewish tradition continues to be fulfilled in this small seaside town.
“My best saying is, ‘Zeh hayom asah adonai, nagila v’nismicha bo.’ (This is the day that G-d created; let us be happy and rejoice in it.) To rejoice and be happy, you have to have your health, financial resources, a partner, a family.”
He hopes that he has been able to assist in making this a little more of a reality for those around him.
“It’s a blessing that Hashem has given me, to have the strength to do mitzvot,” he says.
The history of Port Elizabeth can be traced back to a group of at least 16 Jewish families that came with the 1820 British settlers. Later, a wave of German immigrants also arrived. Rubin’s family, from the town of Ludza in Latvia, were part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in the latter part of the century into the 1900s. His uncle came first, followed by his father. Later, his mother and oldest brother, Solly, arrived – both speaking only Yiddish.
Rubin, born in 1931, was one of four siblings born in Port Elizabeth itself. Building a life in this foreign country was difficult for the family especially as they hit the Depression years; yet his parents, both tailors, persisted throughout.
When it came to Rubin’s first day of school, he remembers how his father couldn’t come because of work and his mother because she didn’t speak English. A friend came with to help settle him in.
During the war years, he recalls having bomb drills at school where “we had to duck under our desk and put a cork between our teeth in order to prevent our jaw breaking in the event of an explosion”.
Rubin also attended cheder from the age of eight until matric. He was inspired by his studies there to complete Hebrew as a matric subject at school.
His family, in spite of financial struggles, persisted in maintaining cultural traditions. “Hard as it was, every Rosh Hashanah, we would get a new suit of short pants and a jacket. My father would close the shop on all major Jewish holidays, and we would go to shul. We kept a kosher home.”
Community life flourished in these years, with a Jewish population of about 5 000 people. “I was a troop leader in the Jewish Boy Scouts in the 1940s,” Rubin says. Always a keen sportsman, he established a Maccabi Jewish cricket club in the city which eventually had so many members, it played across three leagues. He also played in Port Elizabeth’s Jewish rugby team.
Rubin remembers some antisemitism at one school he attended – where the Jewish children were called “porkers”. Yet, he recalls proudly how when his own grandson attended the same school decades later, the outcome of such provocation was very different.
“My grandson’s teacher made a remark about how ‘you must look after your money, and be like the Jews’, and my grandson went straight to the teacher and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to say that.’” A meeting was held with the principal and family, and the teacher had to make a formal apology.
Meanwhile, after his own schooling, Rubin went on to become a pharmacist and travelled around the world, working at one time at a catering facility for the American army in the Arctic Circle. “I had a contract as a dish washer, and graduated to become a waiter,” he laughs.
Later, he married and settled back in Port Elizabeth with his wife, Shirley. They had a daughter who sadly died at age 37, as well as two sons and four grandchildren. Rubin opened his own pharmacy and his one son has followed in his career. Although Rubin retired at 67, he went back to work part-time 12 years ago.
Once a keen runner who completed 11 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans marathons, Rubin swims in the sea, does yoga, and walks. Both he and his wife are keen bridge players. Over the years, he also volunteered for Lifeline and Hospice. Yet, even this wasn’t enough for Rubin – at the age of 72, he decided to improve his musicality, and learnt to play the piano.
Always a committed member of the synagogue, over the years, he became increasingly active in communal leadership. Twenty years ago he became a member of the council of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation and then adopted his roles in the Chevrah Kadisha, Benevolent Society, and shul choir.
His love of liturgical singing stems from his father who also loved Jewish and Yiddish songs, and would “sing softly”.
Rubin decided to join the Chevrah Kadisha “when I saw what it had done for my mother, father, and daughter” on their passing. In his role, Rubin would respond to calls night and day, going to the homes of the deceased, comforting the mourners, and organising all the logistics of burials. It was only at the age of 80 that he stopped even helping to dig the graves.
Earlier this year, Rubin stepped down as chairperson, although the organisation then elected to appoint him honorary chair for life.
Gidon La Grange, his successor to the position, recounts once being with Rubin when a call came through from a family who had tragically lost a loved one. “He couldn’t speak. For at least three minutes, he just sat. Silent. He took out his hanky, and wiped tears.” They then began discussing the practical arrangements.
“I remember thinking, this is the quality you should have in responding to people’s loss. This compassion is the way he deals with everybody. The whole community loves him because he carries everything close to his heart.”
Rubin stills heads up the shul choir and the Port Elizabeth Jewish Benevolent Society, whose role is to ensure that the basic needs of all members of the community are met. Although the community has shrunk drastically, its needs have increased.
While Rubin laments the diminishing numbers in the community – the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation now has 182 members – he says the community can hold its head up high. “We have a community that we can be proud of – we’ve upheld our yiddishkeit throughout.”
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