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Ties that bind: SA and Ireland linked by Litvak roots

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“Our culinary delights are the same. No English Jew knows of perogen or taigel, but Irish and South African Jews do,” says Yanky Fachler. He discussed the fascinating similarities between the Irish and South African Jewish communities in a recent article titled Two Litvak Communities: South Africa and Ireland, published on DafkaDotCom, a platform hosted by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after the publication of the article, he says, “Linguistically, too, there are Yiddish words and expressions that seem to be unique to the South African and Irish Litvak community, like ‘ferible’, which is like ‘broigess’.

Fachler visited South Africa in 2017, met several lay and religious leaders of the Johannesburg Jewish community, and gave a talk about his South African connections. “I was impressed with – and not a little jealous of – the degree of communal solidarity, something that’s much less prevalent in Ireland today,” he says.

He’s the chairperson and founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland, and a member of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. He lived in England for the first 25 years of his life, then Israel for the next 25 years, and then Ireland for the past 25 years.

“Moving to Ireland a quarter of a century ago suddenly made me mindful of my own – and Ireland’s – Litvak heritage,” he wrote in the article. “When I was researching my book, Kaleidoscope: Key characters who helped shape the Irish Jewish community, something that Dublin-born Max Nurock [a former Israeli ambassador to Australia and New Zealand], once said resonated. Nurock stated, ‘Ireland’s Jews are a community founded largely by an incomparable generation of Litvak pioneers.’”

One could say a similar thing about South Africa’s Jewish community, which has always had a pioneering spirit. “About 90% of South African Jews are of Lithuanian descent. Although a significantly smaller Jewish community, the equivalent figure for Ireland is about 80%. In both Ireland and South Africa, the Litvak newcomers – who mainly came after 1881 – essentially swamped the existing Jewish communities, giving them a distinctly Litvak feel,” wrote Fachler.

Asked why he thinks it’s meaningful for communities to identify similarities with other communities, he says, “It’s natural to want to belong. The fact that any Jew in the world can walk into any synagogue and be familiar with the liturgy has always been a great source of comfort. Irish Jews living in London or Israel tend to create mini Irish Jewish communities. I’ve observed the same phenomenon with South African Jews living in London, Australia, and Israel – they often tend to seek one another out. I don’t think that many Irish Litvaks are aware that the country with the biggest concentration of Litvaks is South Africa.”

Fachler has several personal connections with South Africa. “At the turn of the 20th century, my maternal great-grandfather, Yakov Yehoshua Becker, left his family in Lithuania to explore whether he could make a living in South Africa. After a year there, he decided that he could, so he went to the South African (British) authorities and received a fistful of passports for his wife and children.” Fachler is, in fact, named after this great-grandfather.

“He returned to Lithuania, the family packed up their belongings, and were about to leave for South Africa when Yakov received a telegram from his cousin who lived in Pretoria, ‘Your partner has run off with all your money, don’t bother coming back.’ So Yakov and his family joined his oldest son, David, who lived in Frankfurt, Germany,” says Fachler.

“When it came to World War I, the Germans wanted to intern the Beckers, but they explained that their British citizenship was a sham. All except my maternal grandfather, Sam, who asked to be interned as a South African citizen. In 1938, my Frankfurt-based grandfather, by now married with two daughters (my mother and my aunt) whom he had registered at the British consulate, was able to use his passport to waltz into Britain with no quotas.

“So, in my family history, Yakov Becker’s South African passports eventually saved every member of the family from the Holocaust. Without these passports, who knows whether I would have been born.”

Another connection is that his late younger brother, Rabbi Mordechai Fachler, “spent more than 25 years in Johannesburg, where he was rabbi of several leading synagogues. I visited the family twice in Joburg, once for the Barmitzvah of one nephew, and once for the wedding of another nephew. My nephew, David Fachler, in Israel is writing his doctoral thesis on the phenomenon of Johannesburg’s Jewish community having become more religious in recent decades.

“The Irish Jewish community has shrunk from its heyday [about 70 years ago] of 5 000 to less than 1 000 affiliated Jews today,” he says. “In its time, being a Litvak and being a Zionist were synonymous. There were maybe a dozen Zionist societies. Today’s ageing Irish Jewish community is less committed to Zionism. Though several dozen families have children living in Israel, many families have no organic connection. In general, the Litvak identity in the community has been much diluted.”

Another similarity is that the core Zionistic characteristic of Litvak Jews has been challenged in Ireland, just like it’s being challenged in South Africa. “Ireland is known as the European country most antagonistic to Israel,” says Fachler. “This political antagonism may not necessarily be reflected in the general public, but the mainstream media are quite virulently anti-Israel. For a few diehards like myself, this is very distressing, but most Jews in Ireland don’t give this too much energy.”

Fachler wrote that Ephraim Mirvis, now the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, was born in Cape Town, where his father and grandfather were communal rabbis. Mirvis spent a decade in Ireland, first as rabbi of Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin, and later as chief rabbi. He always claimed that as a South African, he benefitted from sharing Litvak ancestry and values with many of his Irish congregants.

Commenting on the article, independent researcher Juan-Paul Burke noted, “Another connection is that Rev. Alfred Philip Bender was an Irish Jew who came to minister in Cape Town.”

Fachler started the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland about 10 years ago. “Until COVID-19 struck, we held live meetings in Dublin’s Irish Jewish Museum. In the past two years, I have delivered more than 200 Zoom talks, as well as a couple of dozen guest talks on other Zoom meetings (in Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Two collections of my talks have appeared in print in self-published books.”

He suspects that within a few short years, “there will be very little memory of the Litvak Zionists who played such a big role in building the Irish Jewish community in the late 19th century and the early 20th century”.

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