I just read a book (this was in 2014) The Traveling Rabbi by Moshe Silberhaft. It was loaned to me by Pauline Shapiro, Montclair character of note. We got chatting – instead of doing her eyeballs – about how Durban had lost most of its Jews and Harrismith had lost all of its Jews.
Rabbi Moshe went around the country from 1995 to small dorps where the ever-diminishing number of Jews allowed them to live in peace and eat whatever they wanted till he came to give them a skrik and some guilt feelings. He tells me in his book that Bethlehem comes from Beit Lechem, which means House of Bread. His book has three pages on Bethlehem and the main talk is about Rabbi Altshuler, who died in 1983, and the de-consecration of the synagogue, which was converted into offices by attorney Gerald Meyerowitz. Then converted again: car parts shop. That’s pretty hefty de-consecration! That’s like being smote!
With the closing down of the Bethlehem shul Rabbi Silberhaft did the rabbi stuff: “The three Sifrei Torah were removed from the Ark and carried out of the shul by Syd Goldberg, Saville Jankelowitz and Sam Jankelowitz, then aged 90, assisted by Dr Harold Tobias, who had a bad back, in a very solemn procession.”
Shockingly, Moshe didn’t mention my mate Steve Reed as an honorary Jew and extra son of Harold Tobias! Obviously he hadn’t heard Stefanus spin his yiddish. Even more shockingly, he leaves out my whole town! He writes of Parys, Brandfort, the metropolis of Phillipolis, Bloemfontein, Bothaville, the ‘Hem (ahem), Sasolburg, Marquard, Marseilles (Marseilles?!), Heilbron, Winburg, Senekal, Ficksburg, Kroonstad, and other no-name-brand towns, but no mention of that jewel of the Eastern Free State – Harrismith!
Amazing. He writes about all those flat dusty nothing-dorps and he omits the one shining-light green-oasis in the Vrystaat!
I suspect Harrismith “died” before the others? We grew up with the Woolf Chodos’, the Cohens, the Shadfords, Mrs Schwartz, Fanny Glick, the Longbottoms, Randolf & Bebe Stiller and others whose faces I can see but names . . my Mom and Dad, Barbara and Sheila will remember . .
But by 1972 we were dancing to Creedence Clearwater Revival at discos put on by Round Table in the already de-commissioned synagogue – at least fifteen years before Bethlehem’s was closed. So Harrismith’s shul got elevated in its deconsternation – unlike Beflehem’s descent into legal then commercial ignominy!
Sigh! But once again Harrismith got smoked by Bethlehem in the fame stakes. Something to remember: A possible cause for our C-rating in the progress stakes post-1948: Harrismith was a big verraaier-dorp in the Anglo-Boer War: Its citizens that did so well for themselves (my ancestors included) in an independent Republic, WELCOMED and aided and abetted the invaders!! Not good. One of my ancestors was principled, fought for the Boers and was sent to Ceylon as a POW. The others benefited even more after the war from money the British army spent in the town. ‘War is hell, I’m not to blame’ –
The book has plenty amusing snippets. As the last few Jews die in the dorps, Silberhaft buries them, sometimes in cemeteries that haven’t had burials in them for yonks and decades. “Gave the cemetery a new lease on life,” he says . . .
One oke’s Dad was scared of flying and specified: “Don’t you dare send me in a coffin in an airplane hold”, so his son rented a kombi and drove the body to West Park cemetery in Joburg. Silberhaft then buried him and wrote to the son “I know your Dad liked to jol, so I buried him near the fence in case he wants to get out and hit the town.”
Some okes had long given up the faith, so when he tried to visit them in their little dorp some skrikked and quickly – and maybe briefly? – became kosher again! Others were way past all that and “voetsekked” him! Sent him packing.
Seems Silberhaft had a big thing about strict kosher living and – especially – eating. He would make a big thing if people were kosher and a bigger scene if they had slipped off the strict and narrow – and slippery! – path. Even though to stay kosher meant you had to have your meat brought in from outside, or have a kosher slaughterer come to you to slit your animals! He would take kosher meat in his boot to give to people – which suggests that in between his visits they probably ate pragmatically? Hey! Bacon. Some things are forgivable. Pigs have no chance of amnesty cos of bacon; I even have a best man who will occasionally wobble off the straight and narrow and into a bacon sandwich and that’s what forgiveness is for.
Pictures of the Bethlehem shul by Jono David at jewishphotolibrary.wordpress.com. It’s now a car parts shop, but check the lovely pressed-steel ceiling and the chandelier.
The Bethlehem cemetery picture is also Jono David’s. He’s also at jewishphotolibrary.smugmug.com
Steve Reed, Bethlehem Boy, wrote:
Thanks Koos, interesting stuff. We lived across the road from the Bethlehem shul. In a flat which was the subject of great intrigue to my school friends, all of whom had huge family homes in Oxford street and Cambridge street. The Tobias residence was in an even fancier part of town, along with the Meyerowitz residence, the Goldberg residence and others, high on the hill. Here you found swimming pools and things called “rumpus rooms.” I was an adopted member of the Tobias family, yes. From the wrong side of town, near Kraay’s Bakery. The Mann brothers, the paint magnates who lived even higher on the hill, referred to them as ‘Kraay the Beloved Baker.’ Once again, the bread connection!
For Les Tobias’s bar mitzvah, I pitched up in my school (shul?) uniform as there was no way we could afford a suit. Having been a St. Andrews boy before moving to Bethlehem, this was an OK thing to do – presumably with the Saints fees, it was understood there was no money for suits. Must have got a few tongues wagging. Surprised we didn’t start getting food parcels from the Jewish community after that.
Brauer wrote: The travelling rabbi’s old man is my mom’s neighbour in JAFFA – the Pretoria Jewish old age home.
skrik – frighten them; put the fear of G_d into them; see that? I wrote the Jewish god G_d
dorp – village; dusty; not Harrismith
voetsek – bugger off; voetsak’d – sent packing
verraaier – traitor
Me: Wrote a little blog post about that book on Bethlehem where they battled to find three wise men.
Brauer: So the shul is a car parts shop? They probably sold the shofar as a much sought-after retro hooter (or horn).
Me: Couldn’t there be a market for a mobile Jewish wedding car – with removable roof and twin shofars, with a floor to dance and smash things on? I have to think of something to make cash post-optometry. Could I be the rabbi, or would I have to use a rent-a-rabbi?
Brauer: Conditional. We’ll let you be the rabbi if you have the snip.
Me: Eish!! It just shrank and retreated to only eleven inches in the shade at the very thought. What the rabbis don’t know is my definition of minor surgery: Minor surgery is Surgery On Someone Else.
I’ll have to stick to driving the mobile wedding car – you could say, ‘being the shofar . . ‘
Here’s a lovely old picture taken inside the Harrismith synagogue!
Dec 2020: I learnt today from big sis Barbara that the occasion above was Ivan Katz’s bar mitzvah. He turned 80 this year and has spent most of the year COVID-trapped in New York (state or city, I don’t know) with his daughter. He was matric 1957 in Harrismith. His Dad owned a bakery next door to my gran Annie Bland’s Caltex garage. Barbara found more old Jewish friends and wrote to them – an extract here.