Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
Chief Rabbi Professor Israel Abrahams
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2006 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 23 May 2006
CHIEF RABBI PROFESSOR ISRAEL ABRAHAMS
MY FATHER OF BLESSED MEMORY
by Rosalind Romem ©2005
Searching for ways to describe my father, the words that first come to mind are kind and gentle, fatherly, wise, sincere, generous, tolerant (of others), self controlled and hard working. He was a wonderful father and he and my mother were a deeply loving couple during their 43 year marriage, until his death, far too young, at age 70.
My father was born in Vilna to Zecharya and Rochel Leah Abramovitch on 12th March 1903. My grandfather grew up in Rakeshok, a strongly Chassidic town in Lithuania. The family were Lubavitche Chassidim and my grandfather’s uncle Bezalel Katz was the Chassidic Rabbi of the town until 1939. My father corresponded with him throughout the years. Bezalel Katz was also the great grandfather of the Chief Justice of Israel, Aharon Barak.
In 1907 my grandparents and my great grandmother and other members of my grandmother’s Sherman family immigrated to various parts of Britain. My father grew up in Great Garden St., London, where my grandfather was very active in the Great Garden Street Synagogue.
My father himself began to prepare boys for their Bar mitzvah when he himself was only 11 years of age. I have no doubt his father taught him well. He attended the Jews Free School where he obtained the Hollier Hebrew scholarship and the Hester Rothschild Prize. He later attended Jews College where, in 1933, he completed his Minister’s certificate with distinction in his Rabbinical diploma.
He attended the University of London where he received his B.A. in Semitic languages with distinction in 1924 and his M.A., also with distinction in 1931. In 1928 he was appointed Visiting Tutor in Rabbinics to the University of Cambridge and that year he also became minister at the Shepherd’s Bush Synagogue in London. He was called to Manchester in 1933 to the Great Synagogue and soon after he was elected to the Manchester Beth Din.
In August 1937, my father accepted a call to the Great Synagogue in Cape Town, South Africa. On 30th of June 1945 he was appointed the Chief Rabbi of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregations and his duties covered the Cape and South West Africa and the Sephardi Congregation of Northern Rhodesia. The remainder of South Africa was under the jurisdiction of the Johannesburg Rabbinate.
From 1938 to 1968 he was Head of the Hebrew Department at UCT (University of Cape Town) . He began to translate the scholarly biblical commentaries of Professor Umberto Cassuto into English in the 1950’s. He would do this work in the early hours of the morning and late at night. Although he had a very extensive private library at home, every two years he would spend several weeks in Jerusalem where he continued this work and used the National Library for the books he did not have in South Africa. In 1968 he chose to retire and make Aliyah to Jerusalem, Israel.
When he settled in Jerusalem, he completed the translation of Cassuto’s works and continued to translate works by Prof. Urbach. He was appointed the chief English editor at the Israel Academy of Sciences. He was also appointed a consulting editor to the Encyclopedia Judaica.
He was translating writings of the late Prof. Gedalyahu Alon when he died of a coronary thrombosis in October 1973, just three weeks after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
He wrote Birth of a Community, which describes the history of the Jews of The Western Province (Cape), South Africa from the earliest times to the end of the South African War in 1902, which was published in 1955.
Other titles include Remember the Days Past (1943), War and Peace (1943), Tragedy and Hope (1944), Fundamentals of Judaism (1945), A survey of the Jews of the Eastern Province (Cape) from 1879 to 1902. Two books of his sermons, Living Waters and Pathways in Judaism were also published.
My father was many different things to different people. To me he was my parent, who despite the tremendous pressure of his work would always find him to listen to me, to help with homework difficulties and who could do even matric and university math and physics with the greatest of ease when I struggled. With scant time for hobbies he loved to read the occasional detective novel and amazingly, books on calculus. He was an autodidact and when he needed to translate Italian to English he studied the language himself.
He was my friend with whom I loved to take walks down the Avenue into town in the evenings or up Molteno Road to the very top on a Shabbat afternoon. He introduced me to The Baal Shem Tov and to Chumash at a young age and had me recite the Kiddush ahead of him on Friday evenings and Shabbat lunchtime. Having an only child, an only daughter, he encouraged this “modern” outlook with the comfortable knowledge of what was correct and permissible and what was merely tradition.
With the same modern outlook he insisted that Hebrew prayers at the Great Synagogue Cape Town be read with the Sephardic pronunciation. At the time most Shuls used the old Ashkenazi pronunciation. At a time when many girls were not allowed a Bat mitzvah, he encouraged it . Today it is accepted in orthodox circles that girls study and have a religious ceremony in their Synagogue, without the non orthodox copying of the male Bar mitzvah ceremony.
My parents taught me many things, including charity. One did not accept gifts for officiating at weddings and fulfilling other duties. One instead looked for opportunities to give. They believed that the Rabbi and his family should be the first to give to charitable funds, to lead his congregation in this also. They both were on numerous voluntary committees. Their home was frequently the venue of meetings, at which, until I reached the age of rebellion, I was roped in to pass the biscuits and scones. And then there were the Shabbat afternoon teas for brides and their grooms and anyone else who popped in.
My father was one of the founding fathers of Herzlia School in Cape Town. Today Jewish Day Schools are taken for granted as a basic part of a Jewish community. In the 1940s there was a battle between those who believed a Jewish Day School would prevent little Jewish children from integrating into the larger general community and those that believed that a sound Jewish identity would stand these children in better stead. My father and Mr. Jacob Gitlin and others prevailed and founded Herzlia and gradually the school added on classes and classrooms until, finally there were matriculants. I remember to this day, with awe, the grief of my father when Mr. Gitlin passed away.
My father’s biography is a history of the times in which he lived. Few Jews could live comfortably with the concept of apartheid. Some South African Jews were first and second generation citizens in those years but many knew all too well about fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, of fleeing Nazi Germany, and all knew of pro Nazi activities within South Africa . It was his task, an impossible task for most people, to be the Jewish diplomat, the liaison between government and Jewish community, while being true to his own beliefs.
In my childhood, I remember Prime Minister Malan portrayed as an anti-Semite, yet the two men met many times and eventually became friends, and PM Malan wrote the forward in my father’s book the Birth of a Community. In his later years Malan was no longer an anti-Semite. I remember his two adult sons having a Shabbat meal at our home.
My father was an ardent Zionist, supporting the Zionist movement in South Africa, and repeatedly visited Eretz Yisrael, attending Zionist Conferences and in course of his scientific research.
Of course Israeli diplomats were welcome guests as were strangers spending a Shabbat in the city.
When my parents made Aliyah to Israel they explained to well wishers among the South African authorities that they were fulfilling the Jewish commandment and dream of returning to their homeland, a concept approved of and readily understood by the devoutly Christian, largely Dutch, Reformed Afrikaners.
The happiest years of my father’s life, I believe, were those he spent in Jerusalem. His working day did not shorten but was spent translating, editing and meeting with other scholars, as well as occasional groups such as gentile tourists from South Africa and elsewhere. At Shabbat Kiddush in my parents home there would often be diverse guests including ex-Cape Town friends and visitors from the South Africa as well as new friends from the Yeshurun Synagogue he now attended , where he had his seat next to Minister Burg. Chief Rabbi Prof. Louis Rabinowitz would sometimes drop in.
I am happy that my father lived to see his older three grandchildren. Our fourth child is named after him Yisrael (Israel). I regret that neither of my parents are here to see their many lovely great grandchildren.