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Rare photograph of the Idelsohn family together, perhaps taken before AZ’s marriage. In the back row, Esther, Jerry (who would become the early leader of Reform in South Africa), Isaac Shamos (husband of Fanny), Becky, Avraham Zvi and Rahle (the first to arrive in South Africa). In front, Fanny (who would die in child-birth), matriarch Devorah  Lea, youngest son Joe, and patriarch Ezriel

Photograph courtesy of Basil Shamos and Darrell Segal

Reform’s accidental founder
(he also wrote Hava Nagila)

Professor AZ Idelsohn, founder of the Progressive movement in South Africa, was the world’s foremost authority on Jewish liturgical music. He was obsessive, cantankerous, a bad husband and father … and yet adored by many for his ground-breaking ideas. Among other achievements, he was the composer of Hava Nagila.


vram Zvi Idelsohn, who would come to be known to all simply as AZ, dictated an autobiography of sorts near to the end of his life. I say a sort of autobiography because it is perhaps unique among the world’s countless autobiographies that a man makes no mention of his own mother. Nor does AZ mention any of his siblings, or any friends or any childhood activities or whether he fathered any children of his own. To be fair, he does mention his wife, but only in a sentence discussing singing; not her singing (which was excellent) but that of her father.

Despite that, we know this about the man. He was born in July 1882 to a family both pious and poor, who lived in the little town of LIbau, on the frigid Baltic coast just above the Lithuanian border. His father Azriel had a beautiful singing voice, but alas, a foul temper; his son was to inherit both. Azriel was the Ba’al Teffilah at the local shul, which means that although he had no formal qualifications, he ran the services. His daytime job was as the local shochet, or kosher slaughterer, not a lucrative profession.


1-AZ mugshot.jpg

AZ Idelsohn as a young man

His mother, Devora Leah, when asked years later how many children she had, counted slowly and carefully on her fingers up to sixteen, but said only seven survived. AZ was not the eldest, but he was the eldest son, and we know what that means in a Jewish family.

AZ’s autobiography has a single-minded concentration on one topic. How at an early age he sang in the choir at the shul next door to their home, but the chazzan, the highly regarded Cantor Avram Rabinovitz, had a tenor so lacking in sweetness that it chilled him to the bone. That he tried out the chazzans at the rival nearby shuls, whom he found old and talentless. You can see a pattern developing here. AZ was already growing into that classic Woody Allen character, the neurotic Jewish kvetch.


In search of the ideal teacher

Aged 12, he was sent to study at a yeshiva in Lithuania, a first step, so his parents hoped, on a journey to becoming a rabbi. He was an excellent student, but he had a disability. His disability was that outstanding voice. A young yeshiva boy who could merely croak his way tunelessly through the prayers, would have the good fortune to become a rabbi. If, on the other hand, he sang beautifully, he was doomed to become a mere chazzan.

Over the next few years, AZ toured up and down Europe, apprenticing himself to a number of Europe’s leading chazzans, all of whom admired his talents, but none of whom seemed good enough to him. He moved to Germany, where the famous Cantor Boroch Schorr had, according to AZ, no voice at all, and then across to England, encountering such luminaries as the great chazzan Eduard Birnbaum, whose voice, said AZ, was insignificant, his chazanuth unappealing and not Jewish. The famous author Israel Zangwill looked after him in London, only to be told that AZ was returning to Russia, because it was better to suffer there amid poverty than assimilate in London. His father Azriel, growing increasingly fed up with his whinger of a son, all-but disowned him.

Then one day, AZ encountered for the first time, a chazzan he actually liked. Hillel Schneider was for forty years the lead cantor of the biggest synagogue in Leipzig. Schneider was, according to an account by his granddaughter, tall, dark and handsome with a twinkle in his eye. A sort of musical love affair followed, indeed the granddaughter described Schneider and AZ embracing upon meeting one another after a long absence, something she had never seen AZ do before.

If I may engage in some amateur Freudianism, Hillel Schneider, father of ten girls, was in search of a son; AZ was in search of a replacement daddy. Into this love affair was inserted Schneider’s beautiful eldest daughter Zilla, who was presented to AZ as a sort of trophy wife. Zilla, as eldest daughter, had received next to no education, because she was expected to help her mother look after the horde of children who came after her. But she herself was endowed with a remarkably fine voice, and - this would be her misfortune - a patient and kindly disposition.

One day AZ received a letter from his older sister Rahle, who had immigrated to South Africa and lived in Springs. She wrote to tell AZ that there was a vacancy at a new synagogue in Fordsburg. On the basis of his CV – trained by some of the finest chazzans in Europe – and the splendid account his sister had given of her brother’s talents, they were willing to hire him, sight unseen.

The young Zilla, photographed in her home town of Leipzig Photograph: Courtesy Ruth Morgan

The young Zilla, photographed in her home town of Leipzig

Photograph: Courtesy Ruth Morgan

AZ arrived in Johannesburg with his wife Zilla, their first child and another on the way, just in time for the opening of the new Fordsburg Mayfair synagogue, a rather splendid looking building that, sadly, was bulldozed to the ground many decades ago. I have found a history of the synagogue, which contains an entire chapter on the opening ceremony, attended by every important person in town, Jewish or otherwise. Finally, near the end of the ceremony, we reach one sentence: “Afterwards, Reverend Idelsohn tastefully intoned the prayer for the Royal Family.”

How did the super-fastidious AZ enjoy South Africa and its Royal Family? Not much. In his own non-biography, AZ has this to say about his South African experience. “I received a call from my relatives to come to Johannesburg, Africa, to become a chazzan there, which I accepted. I hoped to be able to live there a genuine Jewish life and to sing the Jewish song, but I soon realized my disappointment.”

Idelsohn’s descendants, some of whom still live in South Africa, provide a somewhat different version of the event. According to family lore, AZ formed a covert relationship with a priest at the local Catholic church, who happened to have a piano at his house. AZ would quietly slip out and use the piano, making sure not to be spotted. In due course, the inevitable happened. This was, after all, still a very small town, and a nosey one too.

Someone spotted AZ hanging around the priest’s house. Further inquiry revealed that he spent a lot of time at the priest’s house. Even in an age before Twitter, you can imagine that the gossip shot around the neighbourhood in no time. It became apparent to the congregants that their chazzan was in the process of secretly becoming a Christian.

In the unkind words of Rabbi Moses Weiler, writing many years later, the congregation were 'kleinstetldik' (small town, small-minded) and ‘did not appreciate that a giant of the spirit was in their midst … Wrongly accused, as if God forbid, he strove to alienate members of the community from the fold, things became too hot for him.' We have no idea what transpired, or whether the piano was a handy pretext to get rid of an annoying whinger. We know only the result: AZ was hauled before some kangaroo court and fired. It may have been a good thing: it changed the course of his life, and also the course of Jewish music.


AZ begins his life’s work

On the boat back to Europe in 1906, he encountered David Wolffsohn, successor to Theodore Herzl as president of the World Zionist Organisation, who had just made a successful 15 day tour of South Africa. Wolffsohn persuaded AZ to go and live in Palestine instead.

The Idelsohn family went to Jerusalem, where AZ went into the business of training barmitzvah boys and would-be chazzans and singing on invitation at shuls around the city. The family remained poor, living in a tiny apartment close to Mea Shearim. Then, as AZ himself put it: “About that time, the idea dawned upon me to devote my strength to the research of the Jewish song. This idea ruled my life to such extent, that I could find no rest.”


There were some 300 congregations in Jerusalem at the time, large and small, Jews from every part of the world, from Yemen, from North Africa, from Baghdad and Russia, all with their own communities and local traditions. It was therefore the perfect laboratory for the study of Jewish musical traditions. Every Shabbat, AZ would visit a different synagogue, and listen closely to the liturgy. He had a prodigious memory, because on Saturday nights, after the Shabbat had ended, he would write up what he had heard, writing at astonishing speed, as fast as someone else might scribble down a shopping list.

By now he had four children, three daughters and a son. The youngest daughter was called Yiska, and she was her father’s favourite. We are rather fortunate that some 20 years ago, Yiska, then aged 86, who had spent many years living in Durban, where she gave Hebrew lessons, perhaps to some of you, was persuaded by her nephew, Jonathan Morgan, to record the family history by speaking into his pre-digital tape recorder. Without Jonathan’s foresight, much of this history would have been lost.

Yiska’s most important memory was about how her father acquired “a machine” as she put it, by which she meant one of those early gramophones with the huge trumpet-like horns attached. Sound recording had actually been invented some three decades earlier, but it was still a rather temperamental technology. The early machines recorded using a needle to inscribe grooves into a rotating wax cylinder. This gave them the marvellous advantage over the later record player in that they were both recording and playback devices. The problem was that every time the sounds were played back, the needle would gouge deeper into the wax, and ruin the original.

Living with a genius

Nonetheless, this is what AZ had available to him, and this is what he used. According to Yiska, he would persuade Yemenite Jews and Samaritans and the like to come into the apartment and sing for him their songs. When they saw the intimidating machine, they said it was the devil and refused to sing. So he had to tempt them with either money or food, causing some bitterness to Yiska, who remarked that “we often went without supper, because father had given it away.” He would also leave the family behind for long periods, touring throughout the Ottoman Empire and Eastern Europe, recording the different liturgies of communities which had no contact with one another for hundreds of years. It was the image of this single-minded man going from village to village, country to country, dressed in a black bowler hat and black suit, accompanied by this enormous trumpet-like device, all in a mad pursuit of his private musical fetish, that made me realise I had to write about this.

Yiska’s recorded biography is of course about the flip-side of living with a genius. How difficult it was for her mother and her siblings to be either abandoned entirely, or uprooted at unexpected random intervals and shuttled back and forth between Jerusalem and Europe. How terrible his temper could be.

Why was AZ’s work incredibly significant? Firstly, he was, quite by chance, pioneering an entirely new discipline, which is now called musical ethnology. In other words, live recording the ancient musical traditions of vulnerable communities before modernity swept them away. Lots of other researchers would follow, recording African, Native American, Asian, etc folk traditions, but AZ was out there at the start. Indeed, various encyclopaedias of music, written by non-Jews, acknowledge his importance. But what was particularly fortunate for us is that he recorded the musical traditions of communities which would be wiped into oblivion by the Shoah only a generation later. That we know anything at all about the liturgical traditions of vanished communities in the Ukraine and Belarus and the like is thanks to AZ Idelsohn. And finally, one might say that AZ invented multimedia. His dream was to create books accompanied by recordings of the actual music. You read his notes, then played the songs. The technology to accomplish that would have to wait another century, but with his written notes and his wax cylinders, he had already assembled the basics.

What was his work about? A superficial summary of the labour of a lifetime that ended up consisting of more than a thousand recordings and ten volumes of notation and analysis, is that he identified a great diversity of musical traditions among the Jews, yet discovered recurring motifs that were not to be found in the music of any other ethnic group. This suggested that there was a single point of origin for Jewish music that could be traced all the way back to the temple period. He also identified the Yemenite tradition as likely to have been the one least changed by outside influences and closest to the original.

And then the First World War broke out. Unluckily for him, AZ was promptly recruited into the Turkish army, which was fighting a losing battle on the side of the Germans. Many a Jew found himself suddenly entrapped in the Turkish army, as did AZ, serving first as a clerk in the military hospital, then as a member of a military band, finally as the Turkish efforts got more desperate, in the trenches in Gaza from whence he emerged only after the armistice.


The wordless niggun that became Hava Nagila

During 1915, two years into the war, AZ paid a visit to a group of Sadigura Hasidim, who had recently arrived in Jerusalem from Sadigura, a little town on the border of the Ukraine and Romania. The Sadigura court was known for a certain flamboyant lifestyle, which also coloured their music, and a particular niggun, or wordless bim-bam mystic chant caught AZ’s attention and he noted it down and put it in a file.

At the end of 1917, the Turks were driven out of Jerusalem, General Allenby’s troops arrived and the British made their promise of a Jewish state with their Balfour Declaration. The yishuv, or Jewish community, who had feared that they might be purged in the same way as the Albanians, were ecstatic and wanted a giant celebration. AZ was tasked with putting together the music. Barry Cohon, who had been one of AZ’s pupils, describes it this way, “Idelsohn needed a good crowd-pleasing number to end his concert, and he didn't have one. But he had a file. So he browsed, and as luck would have it his hand fell on this Sadigura Nigun. He arranged it in four parts, put some simple Hebrew lyrics to it, and performed it. The rest, as you know, is history, as this became the best-known Jewish song in the world.”

Hava Nagila as it was originally composed in Idelsohn’s hand-writing

Hava Nagila as it was originally composed in Idelsohn’s hand-writing

Yiska herself recalls that “within a week it was being sung all over school and within a month, all over Europe.” We will not dwell too long on a certain irony. That the gloomiest man in Palestine was responsible for a song so cheerful that it has been a wedding and barmitzvah staple around the world ever since, the most recognisable Jewish folk song, recorded even by some famous non-Jews such as Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, Glenn Campbell, Four Jacks and a Jill (for those with long memories) and Bob Dylan whose current religious affiliations are unknown. If you search for Hava Nagila on Google, you’ll find that the most popular version is by Harry Belafonte, who was at least semi-Jewish down his father’s side. The only people who were really, really, upset were the Sadigura Chassidim. They saw this as an appropriation of their tune by Zionist modernity and stopped singing their niggun ever again.

The words that AZ penned to accompany the wordless niggun were very simple, based on Psalm 118, verse 24, “This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” or “Ze Hayom asa (adonai) nagila vinishmicha bo”. The song Hava Nagila essentially repeats over and over the sentiments of “let us rejoice and be happy, let us sing and be happy, awake my brothers with a happy heart.”

It is at this joyous point that a dark shadow descends across the silver lining. For this we have to jump a few decades into the future, when up popped another claimant to the title of having composed Hava Nagila.

Cantor Moshe Nathanson, was a very famous New York cantor, who composed many of the tunes that are sung today by people who imagine that the tunes are 2000 years old, including what is now the standard tune for Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals. Nathanson, aged 12, had been a pupil of AZ’s in Palestine. He says that Idelsohn gave them a homework assignment, to take the Sadigura niggun and turn it into a folk tune with music. It was his idea, says Nathanson, to use Psalm 118 as the basis.

Which one of them is right? There is no argument that Idelsohn was the one who spotted the Sadigura niggun in 1915, or that he presented Hava Nagila for the first time at the victory celebration after the war, or even that he was the first to produce a record of the song, in 1922. The question is whether he stole an idea from a 12-year-old boy. There is no evidence either way. Nathanson did not hold on to his homework, nor did his proud mother. The music scholar Sheldon Feinberg comes down on Nathanson’s side. Barry Cohon supports his old teacher, as does the Israeli scholar Eliyah Cohen. Roberta Grossman, who made a documentary on the subject (Hava Nagila, The Movie), chooses to be agnostic, making the point that it is quite possible that a 12-year-old boy had an idea that his teacher later perfected.

9-street Idelsohn. A street in Jerusalem named after AZ Idelsohn, his name misspelled in the English

One of Nathanson’s cohort of devoted supporters in the US managed to persuade the US Congress to pass a patriotic resolution recognising that the popular folk song Hava Nagila had been composed by an American. But this has meant nothing in Israel, where Idelsohn alone is considered the rightful composer, and has had a street in Jerusalem named after him.


A great work, but who will publish?

But back to AZ’s work on the history of Jewish music. His great work had now turned into an encyclopaedia, the Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. His autobiography records in somewhat embittered detail the failed attempts he made in cities across Europe to interest either this important person or that great sage, this institution or that foundation. But he was way ahead of his time. His endeavours seemed incomprehensible and there was no rush of enthusiasm.

Finally, no less a luminary than the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik agreed to publish the first volume. When AZ delivered the second volume, he got a note from Bialik saying that hardly any copies had sold, and that he did not have the courage to publish another volume.

Someone suggested that he visit the United States. He toured that country, coast-to-coast, and for the first time, was met with great enthusiasm. He was offered a post at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, with the task of cataloguing the recently arrived music collection of the great Eduard Birnbaum. There were two large ironies here. One was that Birnbaum had been one of the chazzans who had invited AZ under his wing, only to be rejected because AZ considered him mediocre. The other irony, for the strictly Orthodox AZ, was that Hebrew Union College happened to be the very epicentre of the Reform movement in America. But it was a job, they were very welcoming, and he took it.

Within a few years, he had been promoted to Professor of Hebrew and Liturgy. The Americans loved him. The president of the college, Dr Julian Morgenstern, was an historian of Jewish culture himself. He was also one of the most powerful figures in the international Reform movement. And he managed to secure the funding to ensure that ten volumes of the Thesaurus would be published, an English version and a German version, and five volumes entirely in Hebrew.

Hebrew Union College was a sort of Oxford University of liberal America. It was upper-crust and intellectual. AZ loved it. His wife Zilla, an uneducated girl from a modest and observant family, hated it. Furthermore, her social inadequacies were an embarrassment to her increasingly important husband. AZ solved the problem by packing his wife and daughters off to Johannesburg, into the care of his relatives. He kept only his favourite daughter, Yiska. Separated from the rest of the family, her job was to look after her father. The family suspected there might be another motive, that AZ was having an affair with the wife of a professor who was one of his closest friends. Indeed, years later, they discovered that they had even had a child.

Back in Johannesburg, the entire extended Idelsohn family had by now gathered, siblings, children and also AZ’s parents, who took the last of the children with them when they arrived in 1912. They settled in Doornfontein, where Azriel once again failed to make a living as a schochet. A contemporary account of Doornfontein at the time might explain the problem. It tells how Doornfontein housewives would give live chickens to their maids to take to the shochet, but the maids would go around the corner, wring the chickens necks themselves, then pocket the money. AZ’s mother Devora Leah made the bulk of the family earnings by taking in boarders fresh off the boat. Still, Azriel with his fine voice managed to install himself as the Ba’al Tefillah at the Lions Shul in Harrow Road. And AZ’s other siblings made good, moving first to Yeoville, then north to Oxford Road.

Struck down by the wrath of the Lord?

Comfortable in America, AZ wrote the first Hebrew opera, called Jepthtah. It is based on the biblical story of the Israelite judge who, in a reversal of the Abraham-Isaac scenario, sacrificed his daughter to thank God for victory in battle. AZ once again had great difficulty finding a publisher, and nobody who was willing to actually perform it. Yiska said that he dedicated the opera to her, and that after his death she tried hard to sell it, but failed. It may never have been performed, but it is, by general consent, the first Hebrew opera to be written.

Perhaps it was the wrath of the Lord, as in the opera, that struck down AZ. In 1928, he became semi-paralysed by what doctors described as coronary vascular disease. His grandson Joel Joffe, an accomplished attorney but admittedly no doctor, was of the opinion that this was the beginnings of a disease that would not be understood until years later, the same motor neuron disease that afflicted Steven Hawkings. The ever-generous Hebrew Union College gave AZ a year’s sick leave to recuperate, in the care of his daughter.

During his convalescence, he underwent something of a change in attitudes. He became an enthusiastic advocate for the Reform Judaism of his new American peers. He left no explanation of his decision, which leaves us to speculate on two possible reasons. The first is that it was Reform that fell in love with AZ; he took a little while to reciprocate. While Orthodoxy had been largely uncomprehending about the value of AZ’s research, his findings about the evolution of Jewish music accorded with Reform’s own notions of Judaism as an evolving tradition.

Secondly, Reform was then on the ascendant as the religion of triumphant modernism. It was an age when human endeavour seemed capable of almost anything: the aeroplane, the motor car, radio, gramophone records, antibiotics, movies, fridges, were all recent inventions, women had just won the vote, the theories of Einstein and Freud had turned old ideas upside down. Orthodoxy, like much else that was old, suddenly seemed bigoted and superstitious and stale. AZ used his convalescence to entirely rewrite the Shabbat service music of the Reform movement. Whatever it was that the doctors were doing, his new faith in science must have been much buoyed by the fact that he did indeed recover.

AZ pays a visit to South Africa

In September 1929, AZ’s parents in Johannesburg celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. The new-look AZ became sentimental about the family he had abandoned, and decided to return to Johannesburg for the celebrations. To reach Johannesburg, he had to travel via London, where he spent a few days dining around town with the great and the good of the Jewish community, based upon his new reputation as a famous American professor of Jewish music.

14 LilyM. Not second class. Lily Montagu was the real driving force behind the Liberal Jewish movement

He also paid a visit to the Honourable Lily Montagu, daughter of the banker Samuel Montagu, also known as Baron Swaithling. Lily Montagu came from a deeply religious home but broke with Orthodoxy as a teenager over what she considered the second-class status of women in Judaism. Years before women got the vote, she became the driving force behind the British Liberal Jewish movement. She was also largely responsible for spreading the liberal movement throughout Europe and the Commonwealth. When Idelsohn came knocking on her door, she had just received a letter from an Englishman recently arrived in Cape Town, advising her that the town was attracting more and more young open-minded Englishmen like himself and was ripe for a Liberal movement.

So Lily Montagu, who had never visited Africa and never would, gave to AZ, a man she had not met before, an assignment: While you are in South Africa, find these enthusiastic and open-minded young Englishmen, and help them set up a Liberal Jewish movement.

The problem was that AZ had no plans to stay in Cape Town. When his ship docked, he did not tarry to admire the mountains or the wine route or the girls on the beaches or the Castle or the penguins, but shuffled aboard the first train to Johannesburg. The golden wedding anniversary was a huge success, with 150 people in attendance and Devora Leah ecstatic at her wayward son’s appearance, boasting to everyone who would listen about her son the famous American professor.

AZ was asked to give a lecture on Jewish music at the Jewish Guild in Johannesburg, then the cultural hub of Jewish Johannesburg. Here was the great professor of Jewish music, whose lectures were a hit from coast to coast across America and Europe, but in Johannesburg, on what was admittedly a cold night, almost the only people who arrived were his own extended family. The editor of the Zionist Record, the major Jewish newspaper of the era, penned a long editorial reprimanding his fellow Jews for their lack of culture, and the chairman of the Jewish Guild apologised profusely. AZ in turn asked them for a favour. Would they organise a meeting at which he could address the audience on the subject of Reform Judaism.

And so on 11 September 1929, at the Saxonwold home of Dr Morris Cohen, chairman of the Jewish Guild, AZ addressed a meeting where he spoke at length about Reform Judaism and its tenets. Some two dozen people were present, and none of the questions they asked related to religion: they were almost entirely about whether Reform Judaism was as anti-Zionist as they had heard. AZ assured them that he himself was a life-long Zionist and that the two best-known leaders of the Zionist movement in America, Stephen Wise and Abba Silver, were both Reform rabbis. This seemed to satisfy them, and a committee was formed there and then to launch a Reform movement in South Africa.

For four years, this movement made very little progress. But then AZ, back at Hebrew Union College, identified one of his pupils, Moses Weiler, leader of the Zionist Society at the famously anti-Zionist HUC, as the ideal person to lead the Liberal movement in South Africa. AZ wrote a letter to Lily Montagu asking her to pay Weiler’s salary for six months, which she agreed to. The newly ordained Rabbi Weiler, 26 years old, sailed to South Africa in July 1933 to take charge and lead the movement for the next 25 years. See our profile of Rabbi Moses Weiler.

The disease returns


In 1931, AZ’s disease returned, and this time it did not go away. Over the next few years, he became progressively more paralysed. Perhaps it was at this time that he dictated his non-biography to his daughter Yiska, a bitter tale that ended this way: “In 1931 I had a paralytic stroke on my left side. This repeated several times, so that I could not teach any more, nor write, nor move about, nor read much. The Board of the College granted me a pension for the rest of my life. I can do nothing, but waste my time in reflection.”

Then he called for his wife Zilla to come and join him. Some of the relatives in South Africa, fed up with AZ, urged her not to bother. But, the ever-loyal wife, she went back to Cincinatti to nurse him. There was something of a reconciliation. He dedicated the next volume of his thesaurus, volume nine, to her. There was a photograph of the two of them on the beach in Miami, where she took him in the hope that sunny weather might help him recuperate. She found him one day with his tie around his neck, attempting to hang himself, but too weak to carry it through. He deteriorated to the point where he could no longer speak, and could move only his finger.

Yiska and Zilla brought him back to South Africa. AZ lived long enough to be told that Weiler had opened the first Reform temple in Hillbrow, in 1936. His father, Azriel, took his place on the platform during the opening ceremony. On his 57th birthday, Zilla baked him a cake. He managed, with his one good finger, to stab at the icing and get the number seven stuck to his finger. A few weeks later he was dead.

His funeral was conducted by his protégé, Rabbi Moses Weiler, and was attended, according to the Rand Daily Mail, by “a large and representative gathering.” Rabbi Weiler said: “When a sage passes away, each man should feel as if he had sustained a personal loss … Professor Idelsohn will be missed by Jewish scholars and students the world over, because of his original contributions and painstaking and persistent research into the science of Jewish music. Likewise, he will be missed by numerous non-Jewish scholars and students, who were privileged to catch a glimpse of the soul of Israel by his interpretation of Jewish music to the outside world.”


This article has been based on a speech delivered at different times to Limmud conferences in Johannesburg, Durban and the UK. I am grateful for the help from AZ Idelsohn’s descendants, Jonathan and Ruth Morgan, who also gave me access to family photographs. My research was initiated by the late Lord Joel Joffe, Nelson Mandela’s attorney during the Treason Trial and later a British philanthropist, who first told me the story of his remarkable grandfather.

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