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Time travelling autobiography gives glimpse into the past

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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.

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  1. Professor Philip Lanzkowsky

    May 6, 2021 at 8:04 pm

    I was a student in the cheder in Hope street, shortly after it was built, in 1938 when Mr Levin was the principal. Mr Levine had a tough time with the pupils and their parents who were not avidly interested in the cheder education. My teachers were David Rosen and Mr Avin (who succeeded Mr, Levine as principal,. Mr Avin was a exquisite and talented teacher of modern Hebrew which has left a lifelong impression on me and has left me with a love for the language and Hebrew grammar. I am presently a Professor of Pediatrics in New York. I would love to get a copy of the book on Mr, Levine’s biography

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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