Remembering Mandela’s first boss
Rabbi Dov (Barry) Sidelsky, the eldest son of Lazar Sidelsky, remembered his dad’s experiences and relationship with Mandela at a Telfed engagement in Jerusalem this week in the build up to the High Holy days.
Lazar Sidelsky, then a partner at the Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman firm, pioneered the employment of black people when he agreed to hire Nelson Mandela in 1942. He was remembered during the evening, sponsored by the Telfed South African Zionist Federation, World Mizrachi Movement, and Wits University Alumni.
Mandela never forgot Sidelsky’s deed, mentioning it in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, and meeting with Lazar Sidelsky several times after becoming the President of South Africa. He also referred to Sidelsky’s cousin, Nat Bergman, who was also a clerk at the firm and who introduced Mandela to the Communist Party, as his first white friend.
Sidelsky, who reminisced about his family’s connection with Mandela, documented the relationship between his father and Mandela in a book he co-wrote with his brother, Colin, in 2011.
He recalled how he had got to know Mandela as a child. He had become a rabbi around the time Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the state following the Rivonia Trial. Sidelsky told how he would amend a traditional prayer for Mandela’s safekeeping and release in his weekly prayers. The prayer was on behalf of “our brothers and the whole house of Israel who are in distress or captivity”. Sidelsky believed the prayer should be more encompassing, and so added, “And amongst them [the] righteous of the Gentiles of the world, including Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela was overcome with emotion when Lazar Sidelsky told him of his son’s regular prayer during a visit to Victor Verster Prison, recounted the rabbi.
“Unlike every other freedom fighter who has come to power and sought to take revenge on their former oppressors, Mandela called for a process of reconciliation,” Sidelsky said. “One of the greatest aspects of Mandela was his huge compassion and desire to build a united rainbow nation.
Sidelsky told how Mandela drove his wedding entourage (on marrying his first wife, Evelyn Mase) in front of the Sidelsky home as a sign of respect. Later, when the elder Sidelsky was ill and dying in hospital, Mandela came to visit his old employer, still calling him “boss”.
“My father was so amazed, and felt so blessed,” he said. When his father died a year later, Mandela came to pay his respects at the shiva house.
In his 1999 visit to Israel, Mandela, who was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, met then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Rabbi Sidelsky, who by then was already living in Jerusalem.
“It was quite something. It was the first time I had seen Mandela in many, many years, and it was a special occasion,” recalled Sidelsky. “Barak did not know that Mandela had served his articles with a Jewish lawyer, that my father was the only white lawyer prepared to take on a black clerk.”
Speaking at the event, Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline noted the significance of the date in the Jewish month of Elul, which in Hebrew can also be understood to be an acronym for the phrase, “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine) from the Song of Solomon.
“We are all descendants from one being. The challenge for us as Jews is do we remember we are all descendants of one being, or do we remain insular and closed off? We should think wider, our ‘beloved’ should be members of all mankind.”
In apartheid South Africa, Lazar Sidelsky was one such person, able to surpass the narrow meaning of the passage, even in difficult times, Kline said.