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Esteemed judge and devoted uncle – farewell to Phillip Levinsohn

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But how do you pay tribute to a giant of a man whose heart and mind spoke volumes, even though he was often quiet and reticent?

Judge Phillip Levinsohn, a doyen of the Durban Jewish community and the South African legal world, passed away suddenly on Tuesday, 21 February.

Words fail me.

Death is always a shock, even when one expects it. But perhaps more so when one doesn’t. This time last week, my uncle Phillip was busy as usual, a pile of papers and books his constant companions. Retirement didn’t slow him down one bit. He went into hospital a few days ago – and never came out. Three hours before he died, I spoke to my aunt, who said he was due home that day, but had been given a sleeping tablet the previous night that had spiked his sugar levels. And then the call came …

Phillip was hugely respected and deservedly so. Born in Alberton, he was admitted as an advocate in Natal in 1971, and took silk in 1988. Two years later, he was appointed to the Natal Provincial Division Bench, where he served as deputy judge president from 2006 until his retirement in 2009, completing almost 20 years of service. While at the Bar, he served as a member of the General Council of the Bar Board of Examiners and on the Bench, he became the longest-serving judge moderator of the Board of Examiners. He’s the only South African judge to have been invited to continue as judge moderator after his retirement, a testament to his abiding interest in developing aspiring advocates. In recent years, he served as chairperson of the Press Council of South Africa, and it was during his trips to Johannesburg to adjudicate or mediate on matters that I’d most often see him.

Perhaps one of my cousins should be writing this. They knew just how much of a “mensch” he was and how much we all loved him. A private man, he was devoted to his family – his wife, four children, eight grandchildren, sister, and brother.

My last memory of my darling uncle was this past December, when we were all on holiday in Uvongo. He’d seated himself comfortably – for days – in front of the television set, remote control in hand, watching his beloved horse racing and only getting up to compete in his other love – online bridge competitions. He’d so successfully mastered the art of ignoring the incessant mindless chatter of six Jewish women surrounding him, we sometimes even forgot he was there – only to be reminded when he’d occasionally shout out a fact or memory that one of us had got wrong!

Uncle Phillip, how can this be true? I’ve been wanting to tell you that I finally bought, on your recommendation, Israeli journalist Caroline Glick’s latest book, and was waiting to dissect it with you. You were always so open and interested in my views – whether it be politics, law, or Israel.

And your memory! You never forgot when a few years ago, I was driving you and Phyllis around in Israel and mistakenly went up a one-way street. To make things worse, I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and a traffic cop stopped me.

“Please,” I begged him in poor Hebrew, thinking you wouldn’t understand, “Don’t give me a fine. This is my uncle sitting next to me. He’s an important judge in South Africa and I will be so embarrassed to be fined in front of him!” Israel being Israel, the cop let me go and for years, you would chuckle about the incident.

Phillip loved Jewish history and Israel. He also had a keen sense of personal history, always visiting his brother and, with him, their parent’s graves when he was in Johannesburg. At the recent funeral of his brother-in-law, esteemed Durban eye doctor Gerald Phillips, he and I walked around the cemetery musing about the meaning of life. Who would have thought you’d be next? I don’t quite recall what we said, but I remember we hugged and with a tear in your eye, you told me how much you missed Gerald. Now there are tears again, and it’s all of us missing you. The world is a poorer place with you gone.

  • Paula Slier is a seasoned journalist, and Phillip Levinsohn’s niece.

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