Time travelling autobiography gives glimpse into the past
He was the very first headmaster of Herzlia School in Cape Town, and a pioneer of Jewish education, but when Alexander Levin died in 1960, he took with him a wealth of wisdom and knowledge in spite of the fact that he had written a book in Hebrew about his life.
Levin’s recently rediscovered, translated, and published autobiography, titled Education – My Life: Memoirs of a Hebrew Teacher gives us insight into who he was and the historic events he witnessed.
Levin was born in Lithuania in 1882, and grew up in the shtetl of Pilvishok, part of the vibrant Jewish religious world that was destroyed in the Holocaust.
After early religious studies in a yeshiva, he became a teacher, specialising in modern Hebrew. He witnessed pogroms and how Jews grappled with choices and challenges at the time, including the early Zionist movement. He even witnessed the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 as he was walking down the streets of St Petersburg the moments that events unfolded.
Arriving in South Africa in 1928, he immediately became a pioneer in Jewish education in Cape Town, going on to become the founding headmaster of Herzlia School in 1940, eight years after he originally proposed the idea.
Says Michael Belling, who recently translated the book, “Published in 1954 by the Histadrut Ivrit, his book was soon forgotten, apart from a mention in a much later bibliography published by the Kaplan Centre [for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town].” Belling says the manuscript was rediscovered about four years ago. Levin’s family then decided to have it translated and get it published in English.
“They weren’t just interested for themselves, but realised its value as a source of first-hand Jewish history in a time of change and upheaval,” Belling says . “This includes the Zionist revival, a portrait of a lost Jewish world, and descriptions of Jewish life in South Africa in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“Alexander’s first-hand, rich, and unique experience of travel, events, and people is on multiple levels: Eastern Europe, Herzlia, and wider South African Jewish history,” says his grandson, Mervyn Levin.
For him, the book is important first because it has superb recollections of the diverse range of people he met throughout his life across many countries. It also has Levin’s in-depth and fascinating observations and perspectives on education, community, and Jewish life. Finally, “The autobiography is a unique and authoritative contribution to the establishment of Jewish education in South Africa,” Levin says.
The book is published in collaboration with United Herzlia Schools (UHS) and the Kaplan Centre. Says UHS Director of Education Geoff Cohen, “It’s incredible to think that while European Jews were being slaughtered, people such as Alexander Levin had the vision and foresight to establish a place of Jewish learning at the tip of Africa. In the 80th year of Herzlia’s existence, it’s interesting to see how it all started and who the early pioneers were in creating a Jewish system of education.”
Professor David Benatar of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town was one of the earliest readers of the English translation. “Although it’s an account of one person’s life, it provides an insight into a bygone era,” he says.
“The reader is transported back in time, and given a taste of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, the hardships there, the disruption of emigration, and Jewish life in Cape Town from the 1920s. As such, the book is an historical resource.
“There are too many highlights in the book to enumerate, but for me they included references to such people as Joseph Homa (after whom Herzlia’s Minyan Yosef Shul is named), as well as Zalman Avin and other colleagues at the Cape Town Talmud Torah, out of which Herzlia grew,” says Benatar.
“The description of Mr Levin’s arrival by ship in Cape Town and the sight of Table Mountain is a poignant reminder that the natural landscape is much more enduring than we inhabitants of it. Usually our stories die with us. Autobiographies preserve memories, of which this book contains many – both happy and harrowing. It’s a fascinating read.”
Former Herzlia educator and principal, Solly Kaplinski, worked hard behind the scenes to ensure the book made its way out of obscurity. Writing from Jerusalem, he says, “To be a pioneer is daunting and intimidating. It requires immense bravery and courage in the face of enormous odds. Alexander Levin was the first in an inhospitable climate in South Africa and in the shadow of the Shoah, to take the reins of a fledgling and untested school and to take the plunge [in establishing a Jewish school]. All who followed stood on the shoulders of a giant who deserved more credit and recognition in subsequent years.
“The book sheds light on a little-known period in the development of Jewish education, Hebraic scholarship, Zionism, and communal life in South Africa, and it begs the question: why should parents decide to send their children to an untried and untested school of modest means? This was also a time when the cheder was the option of choice. It says something about those pioneering parents who put their trust in Levin. And it says even more about Levin. His relevance as an outstanding educationist is of value to students, teachers, researchers, and communities. I believe the book will be a driver for further research, exploration, and community engagement.
“Finally, the book also sheds light on the impact of distinguished academic graduates from Lithuania on Jewish education, studying the Hebrew language, and being connected to Israel,” says Kaplinski. “The ‘Litvak DNA’ – Jewish community, Jewish education, Hebraic studies, and Zionism – runs strong through the South African Jewish community and expats abroad thanks in the main to the influence of Alexander Levin and his peers from Lithuania who emigrated to South Africa.”
Writing in the foreword, Kaplan Centre Executive Director Adam Mendelsohn says, “South African Jews often describe two features that lend a distinctive air to Jewish life in this country. The first is the common Lithuanian origins of a significant portion of the Jewish population. The second is the elaborate school system that educates the majority of Jewish children in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“This memoir connects these two features of South African Jewish life. His account roots the history of Jewish education in South Africa into a much longer and larger story. In doing so, Alexander Levin offers us a new way to understand and appreciate the cultural legacy of Lithuanian Jewry on these shores, and how strands of this legacy are still enmeshed with us in the present day. It’s a fitting tribute to all that made the present possible.”
- ‘Education – My Life: Memoirs of a Hebrew Teacher’ is available for purchase from the Herzlia uniform shop at the high school campus, and from Kollel Bookshop in Johannesburg.
- The contact for payment and distribution is Geoff Cohen, Director of Education, Herzlia School, email email@example.com. The price of the book is R299 plus applicable courier charges.