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Forgotten founder: David Dainow

David Dainow in later life, still editor of the Zionist Record



avid Dainow, the only member of the original September 1929 committee to continue working for the cause, has been forgotten by the Reform movement. His name appears in none of the short histories that have been compiled by the early pioneers. Even a sympathetic biographer such as the journalist Edgar Bernstein makes no mention of Dainow’s role in the infant Reform movement. But for the first few years, it was Dainow who would play a key role, sometimes fumbling and self-defeating, in keeping the hopes of Liberal Judaism alive - barely alive - in South Africa.

Dainow was born in London in 1886, [1]one of the younger children of a rabbi who had emigrated from Russia. The family had some distinguished rabbinic ancestors, most notably his uncle, Rabbi Zebi Hirsch Dainow, known as the Slutzker Maggid, an early leader of the Russian "haskalah”, the progressive movement in Judaism.

Despite their rabbinic credentials, the family were desperately poor, and not long after his barmitzvah, Dainow was sent out to work, as an office boy to the leading Jewish banker of the era, Sir Samuel Montagu.


The moment that changed young Dainow’s life came when “a handsome, bearded stranger” arrived at the door to call on Sir Samuel, and gave the boy his card, inscribed “Dr Theodore Herzl”. Something about the man’s bearing and personality intrigued the boy, and he decided to attend a meeting in London addressed by Herzl, becoming an instant convert to the Zionist cause.


He joined some Zionist groups, enraging his devoutly Orthodox and also anti-Zionist parents. Family tensions over his Zionism caused him to run away from home and sail for North America at age nineteen, working his way across the continent by taking on any job – messenger, packer or shop-hand – that he could find. Over the years he drifted into journalism on a Canadian Jewish newspaper and worked for the Palestine Restoration Fund.

While doing relief work in Poland, he encountered Isaac Ochberg of Cape Town, who invited him to assist in bringing Jewish war orphans to South Africa, which is how he arrived in Cape Town to become manager of the Cape Jewish Orphanage in 1921. On the basis of his Zionist work abroad, he was soon hired to help organise the fund-raising Keren Hayesod in South Africa.

He was appointed the first full-time editor-cum-business manager of the Zionist Record after it moved from monthly to fortnightly publishing in 1924. He wrote poetry, a play and a satirical collection of short stories, ‘Our Shadchan’, made up of letters to a fictional matchmaker. He never married, and in one of his surviving letters, confesses to being lonely.

In a photograph taken in 1932, he is part of the South African Zionist elite around the visiting Chaim Weizman. Dressed in a suit that (to modern eyes) looks a size too large, he wears thick glasses and a moustache, is cradling a cigarette in one hand, and bears some resemblance to James Joyce.

Bernstein, who worked for Dainow for many years, describes him as “a short, stout, quiet-spoken man with none of the qualities one associates with the popular conception of a journalist. He was not a cynic, he did not have a mordant pen and he was not hard-drinking. No affectation marked his style of writing, which was simple, even trite – a workmanlike style.” But Bernstein does credit Dainow with turning the Zionist Record into “a real newspaper” and of a kindliness and generosity that helped him foster a number of important Jewish writers of the next generation.



[1] This account of David Dainow’s life is based in part on his profile in the South African Jewish Year Book, 1929, (South African Jewish Historical Society, Johannesburg.) and an account he gave, years later, to Edgar Bernstein. (My Judaism, My Jews, Exclusive Books, Johannesburg 1962).

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