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Hero’s words found in lost Yiddish letters

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Harry Lipschitz grew up knowing he was named after his heroic uncle, Tzvi (Harry) Lipschitz, who fell fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. But he was never told more about his life and death, which remained a mystery until he uncovered a trove of long-forgotten letters written by his late uncle in Yiddish to his family back in South Africa.

“When my parents passed away, all their documents were kept at my niece’s home. About two years ago, she was tidying the storage unit and uncovered 108 letters, all written in Yiddish, by Tzvi to his mother, Frume Alte Lipschitz, while he was in Israel,” says Lipschitz, whose Hebrew name is Tzvi.

“The newly discovered letters have unlocked parts of history for a family and a kibbutz in Israel,” says an emotional Lipschitz. “These letters are from a young man who wrote to his mother and family on a weekly basis. He emigrated from South Africa to assist in building the fledgling nation of Israel. In his dedication to seeing that the state of Israel became a reality, Tzvi paid the ultimate price when all 300 residents of the kibbutz were slaughtered, even those that tried to surrender. It is thought that this massacre was one of the factors that prompted Ben Gurion to make his declaration on the formation of the state of Israel the following day.

“The discovery of letters not seen for 75 years means we uncovered a link to our past that we never knew existed. As children growing up, we asked our bobbas, zaidas, parents, aunts, and uncles to tell us the story of what happened to our uncle, Tzvi, but the subject was taboo. The adults clammed up, and all we were told was that Tzvi fell heroically in defence of Israel.

“The letters prompted me to begin in-depth research into what actually occurred at Kfar Etzion,” he says. “It revealed, to my horror, that when the kibbutz was overrun, all the inhabitants were killed and mutilated beyond recognition. Their bodies lay there for 18 months before being interred in a special burial ceremony at Mt Herzl. I realised why the story was hidden for all those years. The letters have also revealed Tzvi’s deeply religious beliefs, and his talents as an orator, poet, and journalist.”

His uncle was born in 1921 in Kerson, Ukraine. “In 1925, the family moved to Jasvan, Lithuania, and 10 years later, they came to South Africa,” says Lipschitz. “Tzvi’s formal education was at a yeshiva in Lithuania and he then attended school in South Africa. Tzvi’s outspoken belief in Torah v’avodah [Torah-labour ideology] soon had him speaking at all religious or Zionist functions, and no Barmitzvah or wedding was complete without a speech from Tzvi.

“He rose to the rank of vice-chairperson of Hapoel Hamizrachi [Bnei Akiva]. The Lipschitz family were members of the Bertrams Shul, where Tzvi conducted Torah reading classes every Shabbat.” In 1945, his uncle left South Africa to help build the state of Israel. On his arrival, he was offered the position of ambassador for the fledgling state in the United States to help raise funds and recruit people to come to Israel. In his determination to build up the country from the inside, he declined the offer.

“Tzvi was also asked to attend a seminary to become a rabbi, and after a long deliberation, also declined that offer. He decided to assist with the building of Kfar Etzion,” says Lipschitz.

Meanwhile back in South Africa, Lipschitz’ late father, Jack (Yankel) Lipschitz, singlehandedly kept the Bertrams Shul going for many years in honour of his brother. “He used to send taxis to all the aged homes to ensure that they could have a minyan. My mom, Sarah, used to cater all the brochas. Eventually, members had either passed away or moved away, and the shul declined. In honour of his brother, Tzvi, my father organised that three of the Torahs were sent to the shul at Kfar Etzion, where they remain to this day.”

As for the letters, “We needed to translate them from Yiddish to English,” says Lipschitz. “I discussed this with my lifelong friend in Israel, Eileen [Zakheim] Fridman, who suggested that we scan a few letters and she would try to translate them. Her painstaking translations allowed us to uncover a treasure trove of information.”

The letters are filled with enquiries about home, family, and shul, discussions about the fledging state of Israel, and animated stories. In one letter dated 7 June 1947, Lipschitz tells a wonderful anecdote that captures the highs and lows of that time, when Israel represented hope for the future. “This week, one of the bachelors got married, that is, one of the older boys of the kibbutz. He is a quiet and well-read person. There was something mysterious about him. Two years ago, he left Poland for eretz Israel. There, he left a bride. This wasn’t just a bride. This was a love. Maybe a childhood love. He arrived in eretz, and worked and waited for her arrival.

“A year passed and then two, three, and four years, and then the war broke out, she was lost, and he didn’t hear from her for a long time. Three years later, [after] he didn’t hear from her, and it became known what happened to Polish Jews, he received a letter from her from Siberia. Thank G-d she is alive! How do they get together, how do you get out of Russia? His heart was burning full of love and hope. Something must happen so that they can end their lives together. Miracles really did happen. After 12 years of waiting, she arrived in eretz Israel and even legally. After a week of being with us, the kibbutz arranged a huge wedding and handed over their oldest member. The guests were dancing, singing, and blessing the couple with mazal and children because they are both in their fifth decade (mid-forties). Let’s hope for simchas.”

Fast forward to the present, and the Lipschitz family approached the museum at Kfar Etzion to see if it would be the custodian of the letters. “But it felt that the letters should be archived and displayed at the National Library of Israel. The head of archives, Matan Barzilai, saw their historic importance, and offered that the letters and their translations be placed on display at the National Library. Eileen has professionally and diligently managed to translate more than 80 of these letters to date. They have now been transferred to the National Library, and they may form a book in the future with the title, Letters to my mother [A brievele tzu der mammen].”

The story comes full circle in an extraordinary way. “When my eldest son, Warren, went on ulpan to Israel, they were assigned to spend a few weeks on a kibbutz,” says Lipschitz. “On arriving at the kibbutz, Warren was asked how he was related to Tzvi Harry Lipschitz. Warren replied, ‘That’s my father.’ They said that that couldn’t be as this Tzvi Harry Lipschitz had fallen in defence of that kibbutz. They took him outside to show him the memorial to all the fallen. Warren ended up on the kibbutz where his great uncle, Tzvi, had fallen. Hashem works in wondrous ways.”

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Trevor Pogroske

    Nov 4, 2021 at 2:49 pm

    Fantastic story, commendable effort by Harry and Eileen to commemorate Tzvi’s legacy.

    Harry is my cousin and Eileen was my next door neighbour in Johannesburg.

    It is indeed sad that the older generation never shared the stories of their tragedies and challenges because of the pain and heartache the memories brought back.

  2. Leon lipschitz

    Nov 5, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    Incredible
    Thank you for sharing
    More background to our family.history

  3. Paula Seligman

    Nov 10, 2021 at 2:40 pm

    What an amazing history you’ve been fortunate enough to discover. My Dad, Meier Gidish z.l came from Lithuania to South Africa at the age of 16. He hardly spoke about his wretched life there.
    He bought S&S Trading in Johannesburg and when he saw the “writing on the wall” we moved to Springs, where he ran a most successful engineering company, Delmas Engineering.
    I grew up in Forest Town and Mike knew Leo? Lipschitz, where we went to swim in the summer.
    My husband, Norman is the CEO of the SJM.
    Regards
    Paula

  4. Harry Lipschitz

    Nov 15, 2021 at 4:21 pm

    Trevor, many thanks for your message.
    Of course yes, Eileen lived a few doors away from you.
    You are so correct, our grandparents and parents never told us major portions of our history and like my situation, it took 75 years old letters to discover the true story.
    My best wishes, your cuz in SA

  5. Harry Lipschitz

    Nov 15, 2021 at 4:24 pm

    Paula, many thanks for your comments.
    I think every Jewish family in SA has a similar background story.
    My best wishes,
    Harry

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East London rabbi fails in bid against Beth Din

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The dispute between Rabbi Chanoch Galperin and the East London Hebrew Congregation (ELHC) that has kept this coastal community in limbo since 2018 continues to have a negative impact on it and on the authority of the Beth Din.

The rabbi was accused of forging the will of a community member, and was fired by the ELHC after a disciplinary hearing which found him guilty of more than 10 counts of misconduct.

He then went to the Beth Din, asking it to adjudicate on the fact that he had been fired. But, because of possible irregularities at a previous hearing at the Beth Din regarding the disputed will, the ELHC refused to submit itself to another hearing.

The Beth Din ruled that it couldn’t adjudicate the labour dispute without both parties consenting to its jurisdiction. Galperin refused to accept this, and in June 2021, he brought an application before the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court to review and set aside the decision made by the Beth Din.

On 18 January 2022, the High Court handed down its judgment, finding that the rabbi’s application to review and set aside the Beth Din’s decision had no merit, and accordingly dismissed it. The rabbi was ordered to pay the legal costs of the ELHC, which had opposed the application.

The story started when the East London Chevrah Kadisha (ELCK) accused Rabbi Galperin of forging the will of an East London community member, the late Israel Bayer, in order to benefit from it. The ELCK was originally a beneficiary, but this was changed to the rabbi in a will that is also being disputed in court.

The rabbi has since admitted that his wife drew up the disputed will, which would automatically disqualify him from benefitting from it. Notwithstanding the disqualification, Galperin is asking for an order that the court declare him competent to receive the benefit in terms of the disputed will.

The Beth Din didn’t oppose the rabbi’s application against it, but the ELHC decided to do so. It contended, inter alia, that the rabbi was obliged, in terms of Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.

The Beth Din granted its permission (known as a heter arkaos) for the rabbi to take his case to the secular courts. But the rabbi refused to abide by the decision, contending, inter alia, that the Beth Din had failed to “apply their minds” to the matter. He said its decision wasn’t properly or correctly taken and was fatally flawed.

The judgment highlighted the fact that both parties to a dispute have to agree voluntarily to submit matters to the Beth Din, and then the decision of the Beth Din will be final and binding.

The High Court, therefore, found that there was no basis for the court to interfere with the decision of the Beth Din, whose decision had been made in accordance with Jewish law.

The advocate acting on behalf of the ELHC, Stanley Pincus, commented that the judgment was important in that it upheld the principle that in accordance with Jewish law, the Beth Din wasn’t entitled to determine disputes between parties where one of the parties didn’t agree to submit themselves to its jurisdiction.

More importantly, the Beth Din granting the rabbi its blessing to proceed to the secular courts actually obliged the rabbi, in accordance with Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.

In this regard, the judge stated, “the applicant [Rabbi Galperin] in accordance with Jewish law is bound to accept the decision of the Beth Din” and further stated “the applicant hasn’t committed any sin or acted contrary to his religious beliefs as he has the blessing of the Beth Din to approach secular courts”.

As for the Beth Din’s thoughts on the matter, “We believe that the judgment of the High Court has vindicated and endorsed the position of the Beth Din,” said Steven Weinberg of Moss Cohen & Partners, representing the Beth Din.

“The judgment is respectful of the Beth Din and Jewish law,” he said. “It has confirmed that the Beth Din is entitled to decline to hear disputes if either of the parties don’t consent to its jurisdiction. The judgment has further confirmed the Beth Din’s authority to grant permission to a claimant to pursue a claim in the secular courts if the respondent refuses to submit to the Beth Din’s jurisdiction.

“The Beth Din is hopeful and confident that other communities will respect the authority of the Beth Din,” he said. “The Beth Din doesn’t foresee that this judgment will have an impact on future community disputes being referred to the Beth Din in accordance with Jewish law.”

Finally, “the Beth Din has again urged both the East London Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Galperin to withdraw all of the High Court litigation and finalise their disputes in accordance with Jewish law by way of a private arbitration under the authority of the Beth Din,” Weinberg said.

But Rabbi Galperin plans to appeal the judgment. “Our client is convinced that the judgment is incorrect, and we have received instructions to file a notice of leave to appeal,” said Brin Brody of Wheeldon, Rushmere & Cole, representing the rabbi. “If the judgment is correct, which is not conceded, then it means that any member of the Jewish faith can simply ignore a dispute before the Beth Din. This can never be the case in accordance with halacha and Jewish law.”

The ELHC and ELCK have said they will submit themselves to Beth Din adjudication on all matters regarding the rabbi as long as there are trained legal professionals present. However, according to Pincus, the rabbi has refused this request.

Meanwhile, the ELHC has brought an application before the East London Circuit Local Division of the High Court to evict Rabbi Galperin and his wife from the community property, which he refuses to vacate. The application has being set down for argument on 10 February 2022.

A community member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they remained in limbo as the rabbi was refusing to vacate the accommodation needed for a new rabbi. “Nothing is happening. There’s no one to do services. We cannot bring anyone down easily as he is in our [community] house. It’s a real, never-ending nightmare.”

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Judge slams censure of Mogoeng’s pro-Israel views

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A trailblazing judge has emerged as a lone voice defending former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s support of Israel.

As one of three judges who reviewed his appeal, Judge Margaret Victor said, “muzzling judges is a slippery path that leads away from, not towards, democracy, and it leads in a direction from which there may be no road back.”

Victor said she would have upheld Mogoeng’s appeal in its entirety, but was outvoted by her fellow judges on the Judicial Conduct Appeals Committee. All three judges, however, decided to amend the original sanction as they all found issues with the original judgment. Mogoeng still needs to apologise for his comments supporting Israel in a 2020 webinar. However, this apology has been “severely curtailed”, says Chelsea Ramsden, senior legal researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Victor called out the double standards within her fellow judges’ arguments and those of the organisations that took Mogoeng to court. “As I read the comments made by Mogoeng in the context in which they must be read, I cannot see that the plea for peace and love for Jews and Israel and the love for Palestinians and Palestine, and any other utterances made in that context, can be construed in such a way as to undermine the dignity of his judicial office. Clearly, Mogoeng was expressing concern for love and peace globally, locally, and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that he was entitled to do.”

She emphasised that “South Africa is a vibrant democracy and is still growing. Mogoeng asserts that judges, as citizens with fundamental rights and freedoms, shouldn’t be ‘censored, gagged or muzzled’. In my view, this is correct, for if we muzzle and gag a judge, justice, or chief justice from speaking out about world peace and stating on a public platform that nations shouldn’t hate each other, then we are dispiriting democracy instead of deepening it.”

According to Victor, “South African democracy has been hard-won, and Mogoeng’s emulation of the model adopted by President Nelson Mandela to be a mediator and game-changer is no random choice. The lifeblood of his comments was the successful Mendelian model of peace-making coupled with his deeply held convictions based on his Christian faith.

“This combination isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that Mogoeng became involved in a political controversy.

“Ultimately, ours is a nation that believes in the public exchange of ideas and open debate. Whilst I agree that judges and officers of the judiciary, by virtue of the sacrosanct positions that they occupy, are called upon to exercise caution and restraint in expressing their constitutional rights, these are still rights that are extended to them,” wrote Victor.

She said the chief justice’s comments were “no different from saying that the internal wars in Ethiopia and Afghanistan should come to an end by mediated peace solutions. A plea for peace is not itself political.”

To suggest that Mogoeng entered a “political dispute” sets a dangerous precedent, Victor said. “To find that a judge calling for peace among nations, and in particular between Israel and Palestine, has entered the realm of ‘judicial politicking’ leaves one wondering whether judges can comment at all or ever on peaceful solutions to global conflict.

“Judges in South Africa have over time, expressed extra-judicial thoughts and input and these leave behind a legacy of rich thought and wisdom. Our democracy should encourage this, not merely tolerate it – particularly [not tolerate it] from some whilst not from others.

“There was a time in our jurisprudence when judges had to remain silent,” Victor said. “With the arrival of the constitutional era, this changed. Even prior to it, judges have spoken out against immoral laws such as apartheid.”

To her, “Judicial officers, as guardians of civil liberties and freedom, aren’t barred from engaging in extra-judicial activities in which they speak out. Indeed, they have a duty to speak out when these rights are violated because, in doing so, they preserve the integrity of the bench. Judges frequently speak out on topics such as gender-based violence, sexual orientation, poverty, homelessness, and other socio-economic issues. They do so through their judgments and often in public addresses. If this is to be construed as political interference, political controversy, or a transgression of the separation of powers, then the limitations placed on a judge would be extreme and draconian indeed.”

Local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, has written extensively about the double standards applied to this case. “If Mogoeng had ventured a political comment on the Myanmar or Ukrainian/Russian conflict, it would have been met with silence,” he says. “We have seen judge after judge entering the political field in the past. Judge Desai, for example, has spoken up on behalf of the Palestinians without so much as a peep from those who challenged Mogoeng. When one country is regularly singled out, and when that country is the only Jewish state, this is antisemitism in effect if not in intent.”

“The Helen Suzman Foundation is of the view that the minority decision [Victor’s] was persuasive in that it considered the comments made by former Chief Justice Mogoeng in their whole context,” Ramsden said. “Silencing a judge may lead to a situation where our democracy isn’t enhanced but actually degraded.”

She said the only other legal option open to Mogoeng at this stage would be to review the decision. “A review isn’t an appeal, and he would have to motivate why the decision reached by the majority was irregular and irrational. If he feels strongly enough, he would most likely use every option available to vindicate himself.”

Asked about its impact on the case against retired Judge Siraj Desai, she said, “The complaints against Judge Desai are distinctly similar. Both are accused of having breached the code by engaging in political controversy. The Judicial Conduct Appeal Committee’s decision in respect of former Chief Justice Mogoeng will likely be extremely persuasive in any deliberations in respect of Judge Desai.”

South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) National Chairperson Rowan Polovin said, “The SAZF is dismayed at the ruling against former Chief Justice Mogoeng which effectively censures comments made in the public discourse that are deemed to be pro-Israel. This is an attempt to silence any public figure in South Africa who expresses ‘balance’ or support for Israel by making him or her out to be a pariah.

“The former chief justice’s comments weren’t in themselves politically controversial, but were made so by the antisemitic BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement. The consequences of this ruling may have a chilling effect on our judiciary and serve to embolden extremist groups wishing to make politically motivated accusations. We welcome the minority opinion from Judge Victor.”

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‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions

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Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.

No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.

Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.

The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.

His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.

According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.

Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.

The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.

“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.

“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”

He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”

The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.

Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?

The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.

Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.

“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.

“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”

She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.

Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.

There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.

Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.

Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.

Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.

Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.

“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”

Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.

“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.

Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.

“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”

The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.

“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”

She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.

Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.

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