Yiddish machzor finds its way back to family
When Shelley Harari read that a Yiddish machzor originally printed in Vilna had been uncovered in Cape Town, she couldn’t hold back the tears, realising that the owner, Jacob Dick, was her late grandfather.
“After reading the article, I was overwhelmed with emotion. A flash of more than 140 years of my family’s history passed over me,” says Harari. She attributes the connection to “the power of journalism, which led to a series of events that unravelled within two weeks in September 2021”.
The original article, published in the SA Jewish Report on 13 August 2021, explained that the machzor, printed in Yiddish in Vilna in 1876, had resurfaced in Cape Town just before the high holidays. The address of the owner was written inside, and was the same address that now houses a section of Cape Town Torah High (CTTH).
“The book was given to me by Peter Greenberg, who found it in a box of old Jewish books belonging to his late grandfather,” says Rabbi Levi Silman, who collects old books and connected the dots between the machzor’s owner and CTTH’s address. He noticed that the owner had written his name, J. Dick, and his address, 29 Maynard Street, on the machzor. The address jumped out at Silman because his daughter spends much of her school day at CTTH Girls Campus at that address.
Silman was thrilled with the discovery, and gave the book to CTTH Principal Avi Shlomo to house in the school. That is, until Harari contacted him from Israel. Says Harari, “My sister, who lives in Johannesburg, received a call from our cousin who had read the article. She mentioned that Jacob Dick was written inside the machzor. On hearing this, it filled me with an eagerness to know more about an amazing, important, and historical find belonging to my late grandfather.”
She immediately sent a message to the SA Jewish Report’s Facebook page, asking for further information. The SA Jewish Report responded with all the information and contact details of the people involved.
Says Harari, “My late mother, Julia Dick Ostilly, passed away 50 years ago. This machzor was a wonderful link to her and to my grandfather, who passed away in 1941. Jacob Dick was born in Lithuania in 1876. He settled in the Western Cape on his arrival in South Africa in 1903. My mother and her siblings were born in Calvinia. Sadly, they have all passed away.
“In the 1920s, they moved to Cape Town. One address I remember my mother speaking about was in Gardens. As a young girl, I remember my mother would tell me how her father would go down to the docks during World War II and invite British sailors for Friday night dinner. My mother described her father as a generous, simple, kind, and pious man. My uncle, Eli Dick, who lived in Oranjezicht, was a very well-known and respected member of the Jewish community.”
Harari reached out to everyone involved, including Greenberg. “Peter enabled me to join the dots. He had an old suitcase filled with Jewish books which belonged to his grandfather, Jacob Potashnik. He recalled that his grandparents were very friendly with the Dick family. The Potashnik family also lived in Oranjezicht. Before making aliyah in the 1970s, Eli Dick, I assume, gave his friend, Mr Potashnik, the suitcase of Jewish books which he inherited from his father, Jacob Dick. Thus, the story unfolded, and came full circle.
“After corresponding with Rabbi Shlomo and proving that this machzor indeed belonged to Jacob Dick, it was returned to my cousin, Percy Choritz. Percy knew the Dick family for many years. I’m pleased that a relation of the Dick family received the machzor instead of it being sent in a package. Things are meant to be. On his return to Israel in February, Percy will give me the machzor.”
Greenberg was delighted to hear that the machzor would be given to Harari. “It seems right that it’s being returned to the Dick family and also to Israel,” he says.
“It was a beautiful ending to the story,” Shlomo says. “Percy Choritz [who is the nephew of Eli Dick] and his wife Irene came and collected it. We put on tefillin together, and it was beautiful. The machzor has facilitated many good deeds and we used it in school to study from its unique commentary. So it’s only appropriate that the story ends with another mitzvah – that of returning a lost item to its rightful owners.
“While there was definitely a sense of loss in sending it away as we felt so connected to it, we were thrilled it was going to the grandchildren of Jacob Dick who now had this priceless memento of their grandfather and his bygone world,” he says. “We photographed the front pages and will frame them in a display at 29 Maynard Street, Jacob’s home, and now part of Cape Town Torah High School – connected by Torah and tefillah for more than 100 years.”
Silman was also deeply moved. “I always think that books, especially historical ones, should be where they have the greatest impact or where they can make the greatest difference,” he says. “So if it goes back to family where they will cherish it and it will inspire them to use it more, then that’s definitely where it should be. And it’s always good that things find their original place and go back to their roots.”
Writing to Shlomo and the staff of CTTH, Harari said, “ In honour and blessed memory of my late mother, Julia Dick Ostilly, and her late father, Jacob Dick, I thank you for returning this meaningful, religious, and historic machzor, which belonged to my late grandfather, Jacob Dick. There is one place in the world to which you don’t escape nor immigrate – you come home to the land of Israel. As I live in Israel, I feel a relic of Jacob Dick has come home. My family will preserve this piece of heritage for generations to come.”