Read of the Week

Edited by Carmel Schrire and Gwynne Schrire

UCT Press

Review: Brian Joss

It’s astonishing what “the big cupboard” can hold. In this case, it was a hand-written diary and autobiographical poem belonging to her great grandfather that Carmel Schrire found.

Her cousin, Sea Point resident, Gwynne Schrire, had the reminiscences of his son, and it was the discovery of these three original manuscripts that eventually led to the book, The Reb and the Rebel, being published.

Sub-titled “Jewish Narratives in South Africa 1892-1913”, it is a fascinating insight into life in Cape Town and Johannesburg by Reb Yehuda Leib Schrire (1851-1912) who was well versed in Jewish law: he was a cantor and a shochet – a kosher slaughterer.

He arrived in the City of Gold from Lithuania in 1892 and, in his diary, describes his journey from his birthplace, Oshmanye, through Germany, Holland, the Canary Islands to his arrival in Cape Town on the Dunbar Castle and then to Johannesburg.

His description of the long trip is so lively that you feel you are on the ship, on the train and on the mule cart with the Reb, Yehuda Leib.

He also devotes a chapter to the “customs of the inhabitants” and if you think that deaths after ritual circumcision are a modern phenomenon, they’re not. “Many of them die at the hut and only those who survive and heal will be accepted as men,” he writes in his diary.

After a few months, he returned to Cape Town intending to go back to his wife in Russia, but he was persuaded to stay, and, as it was winter at home and summer in Cape Town, he remained before he decided what to do.

In the poem, the Reb, who is reunited with his wife and family, waxes lyrical about his life, through triumph and adversity, with one thought in mind: returning to the Holy City. However, that was not to be.

The memoirs of the District Six-born rebel, his son Harry (1895-1980), are just as compelling and explain much about the Reb.

However, Harry’s amusing reminiscences about District Six and Jewish life in Cape Town will intrigue many. Harry Nathan describes his school days, the social life of the Cape and what today would be called a start-up business, the Great Saccharine Venture.

There is also an engaging story about a cantor who “adopted” one of Reb Yehuda’s compositions as his own.

Harry also recalls his “gang” – the Harrington Street Loafers – and the mischief they got up to.

Another amusing anecdote is about a Polish Jewess who was charged with keeping a brothel. The three memoirs give an unusual insight into a way of life long gone. You will have to keep referring to the footnotes that accompany the three memoirs, even so, it does not detract from what is a compelling read.

It is not only a valuable addition to the history of the Jews in this country, but also that of South Africa.