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The operatic Caroline Mendelssohn at centre, husband Emanuel, their six children and four maids in 1896

Orthodoxy’s forgotten liberal wing

South Africa’s Reform movement did not start out of nowhere. Attempts to ‘modernise’ Orthodoxy can be traced back to the nineteenth century.



pponents of Reform have described it as an alien implant in the South African landscape, ‘a movement that had hitherto been foreign to the Jewish community”.[i] But in fact there was always a liberal wing of the South African Jewish community. It is little acknowledged these days, because it was ultimately defeated, but in its day it was influential. At the root of the numerous and often petty squabbles that split the early Jewish community, particularly in Johannesburg, was the mutual incomprehensibility between the Anglo-German Jews, who had arrived earlier, become settled and relatively wealthy, and the impoverished new immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Despite a common belief these days among South African Jews that the community is solidly of pious Lithuanian stock, it was the Anglo Jews with the money and connections who dominated the early synagogues, the Board of Deputies, the Zionist Federation and other major institutions of Jewish life.[ii] As late as 1930, the executives of both the Cape and Johannesburg boards consisted almost entirely of Anglo or Anglo-German Jews.[iii] Indeed the very notions of a “Board of Deputies” and a “Chief Rabbi”, still the dominant forces in South African Jewish community, have no Talmudic roots and are direct borrowings from nineteenth century Britain.

A number of commentators have described the hostility between the two communities, in particularly how the Anglo Jews snobbishly put down the Litvaks, were deeply ashamed to be associated with them, and betrayed them on several occasions in negotiations with government.[iv] Of the 24 000 Jews in South Africa at the outbreak of the Boer War, 7 000 were Anglo Jews, 3 000 were German Jews, many of whom had also lived in England; most of the rest were East Europeans.[v]

To understand something of the Anglo Jews, one needs to look briefly at the amorphous nature of Jewish religious life in the UK in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Despite the UK’s history of anti-Semitism, which tended to be oblique rather than brutal, Jews enthused over things British, mimicking the accents, dress codes and manners of their Anglo neighbours, for which they were on occasion rewarded with knighthoods, baronetcies and seats in parliament. Their rabbis dressed like Anglican clergy, their lay leaders wore the top hats and tails of gentlemen, and their extravagantly panelled synagogues were intended to announce: “We have arrived!” There was a class division there too, between a Sephardi upper class, known as “the Portuguese” and Ashkenazi newcomers, known as “the Germans”.[vi]

A reform movement, not to be confused with Lily Montagu’s later Liberal movement, had begun in fits and starts in the mid nineteenth century. Unlike the USA, where Reform had made a loud and emphatic break with Orthodoxy as early as 1824, the British reformers wanted no more than some tweaks to the Orthodox services. Discussions meandered on politely for years until in 1840 a breakaway group formed the West London Synagogue, ostensibly to unite the Sephardi and Ashkenazi under one roof. But West London also introduced modest changes to the services, for example moving them to more convenient times (they had sometimes begun as early as 5.00am on icy English mornings.) The practice of shnoddering (public offering of money for honours) was stopped, a regular sermon was given in English, and second day observance of Festivals was dropped. An organ was later introduced, as well as English reading of the Haftorah. Over the years, other synagogues around the country borrowed some of those ideas. West London did not describe itself as “Reform” and it remained within the body of the general Jewish community.

Members of the Orthodox elite openly discussed such issues as whether to excise sections of prayers that were “repugnant” to modern sensibilities, for example those advocating animal sacrifice. In 1891, services for girls and young women were begun, for which the Chief Rabbi himself wrote a prayer – in English. A new synagogue opened in Hampstead in 1892, its debut presided over by the Chief Rabbi, even though this congregation’s most prominent feature was a mixed choir and a 23-piece orchestra. (The women did not sing in the Chief Rabbi’s presence). West London only finally professed itself a Reform congregation in the early 1930s, and even that did not deter Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz, previously of Johannesburg, from kindly opening a new wing in the presence of many senior Orthodox rabbis.

All that civility might be termed tolerance or it might be termed apostasy. But it does help explain the behaviour of the Anglo Jews of the early Transvaal, a group who have not been treated kindly by Jewish historians. The founder of the first Johannesburg synagogue was a German Jew named Emmanuel Mendelssohn, who dabbled in a multitude of businesses, some more successful than others, some more honest than others. Most notably, he published The Standard and Diggers News, which for a few years was the town’s leading morning newspaper.

Of interest here, however, is his wife Bertha, after whom he named a street in Hillbrow, a suburb he helped develop. Madame Mendelssohn as she preferred to be called, was an opera singer of some accomplishment, or to put it another way, she was the most accomplished singer readily available to early Johannesburg. Bertha was happy to sing in a variety of venues, one of which was her husband’s new synagogue, opened in 1889. As Richard Mendelsohn describes it: “Madame Mendelssohn too, played a conspicuous part in the consecration of the new synagogue. She sang the splendid soprano aria “Hear Ye Israel” from her namesake Mendelssohn’s majestic oratorio, Elijah. Her husband’s newspaper dutifully recorded that this was “excellently rendered and … very impressive.” She also led a mixed choir consisting of young men and women, who sang a selection of the Psalsm of David … The use of a mixed choir was in itself controversial … one again it demonstrates the modernist spirit and diluted orthodoxy of Mendelssohn’s Anglo-German congregation.”[vii]

The mixed choir does not seem to have been a one-off event. When the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation appointed Rabbi Joseph Hertz nine years later in 1898, his very first act on his arrival was to ask “that ladies’ voices be removed from the choir”. Challenged to demonstrate that Jewish law forbade women singing, “Hertz replied that there was no such positive law, ‘but prejudice and other considerations were against it.’ “

No more than six months later, following much agitation from the ladies of the congregation, “it was unanimously resolved by the committee that the ladies be reinstated in the choir and the Rev Dr JH Hertz be politely informed of this decision.” The choir must have become a fixture, because years later, it was reported that Hertz had reprimanded a female member of the choir, resulting in a protest walkout by the rest of the female singers. Three years after Hertz’s departure, in 1914, the congregation invited his great rival, Rabbi Judah Landau, to give a sermon on Shavuoth, but he declined to speak unless “the service be conducted without the aid of the lady members of the choir.” By that point, the mixed choir may have been in action for 25 years. Even Landau, who presided over a more conservative congregation, noted that he “had a hard struggle against a movement set on foot by (Hertz’s) old members to introduce a ladies’ choir in my new Synagogue. The fact that such choirs exist in synagogues of the US under the late Dr Adler’s jurisdiction greatly strengthens the hands of the agitator.”[viii]

Some twenty years later, references to females in choirs can still be found. Writing about the post-Boer War Jewish community around the time of Union, Rabbi Gerald Mazabow, no friend of liberal Orthodoxy, notes: “A considerable bone of contention was the manner in which both major synagogues went to a great deal of trouble and expense in maintaining mixed choirs at the highest point of efficiency obtainable.” And he adds: “During this period, some doubt was expressed as to the religious “Orthodoxy” of the English/German language speaking congregants of the two major Johannesburg synagogues.”

But for our purposes, the most interesting – and enigmatic – figure in the early Jewish community was Rev Mark Louis Harris, appointed by Mendelssohn but soon to fall out with him. Little is known about him, but sketchy biographical details tell us that he was educated at the Jews Free School in London, and was minister to some English congregations, one of them in Sutherland, before immigrating to South Africa with his family to become minister in Kimberley, then was lured to Johannesburg in 1888. He remained until the outbreak of the Boer War ten years later, when he was taken prisoner by the Boers.[ix]

After the war, in 1905, he founded and became minister of the Doornfontein congregation, now better known as the Lions Shul in honour of two bronze lion statues at its door. In 1915, he and his wife were appointed to run the Jewish Old Age Home. Harris died in 1932; his son Morris Harris, an architect who designed the Lions Shul, would one day become mayor of Johannesburg.[x]

In Richard Mendelsohn’s account of the early Johannesburg community, Harris figures prominently among the villains, “a man not untouched by the acquisitive spirit of early Johannesburg … rapidly embroiled in a series of petty scandals and financial irregularities.” Harris was accused of breaking promises, charging outrageous fees for Hebrew lessons, defrauding his congregation out of money and property and being the central trouble maker behind various community splits. [xi]

Harris’ general notoriety may have masked another reason why he is of interest: he made various attempts at religious reform. It was Harris who seems to have been the one to introduce female choirs. He experimented with services on Sundays; the intention was to reach out to men who were obliged to work on Saturdays. He was embroiled in a row over “proselytising”. When the first Jewish men arrived in Johannesburg there were few women, and even fewer Jewish women. A number of such men married Gentile women. Now that a Jewish community was established, they wanted their wives converted to Judaism. This met with considerable resistance, but Harris was alone among the religious authorities in favouring conversion. Despite a ban on conversions, he officiated over the conversion of a Mrs Frankenstein, and also over her subsequent Jewish wedding, then laid himself open to attack by pocketing half the fees. It is difficult to assess his popularity. At one point, threatened with dismissal by Mendelssohn, he forced a vote by the congregation, and his supporters won by a substantial margin. Their voices are not recorded, but those of his enemies are: they accused him of rigging the vote.

In 1898 he was appointed minister of the Rand Modern Hebrew Congregation (note the word Modern) which Mendel Kaplan describes as “anticipating Reform Judaism by a number of years.” [xii] Harris was not the initiator; the congregation was formed by a breakaway group led by one Arnold Lipman with the aim of providing more modern services. Indeed the Chief Rabbi in London reprimanded Harris for taking the job, accusing him of doing it for the money. The congregation was founded at a meeting in the Hotel Victoria on 5 June 1898. Saron and Hotz in their history of South African Jews describe it as “largely attended”. The group held services in the Masonic Hall on Jeppe Street, a favourite venue for the lectures and plays of Johannesburg’s cultural classes. Certain English prayers were introduced so as to make them more easily understood. Long prayers were shortened, music was introduced “for nothing was so essential and better calculated to make their services appreciable than good music.” There would be equality among members, with no special privileges for the wealthy or connected, and the distribution of seats would be by ballot. There would be no “schnoddering”. In short, the congregation could be described as Reform in all but name.

Very little is known about it, but it appears in the records of a minor squabble over burials. When the town council invited Harris to consecrate a Jewish section of a new burial ground at Rietfontein in 1898, the rival Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation moved swiftly to have the grant of land transferred to the Chevra Kadisha, and consecrated by their own rabbi.[xiii] Whether this was for religious reasons, reasons of jealousy or because Harris himself was unpopular, is not clear. Harris also made an attempt to seduce the mixed choir from his old synagogue, but failed. The Rand Modern Hebrew Congregation did not last long: the Boer War broke out soon after, and most of the Jewish population fled Johannesburg for the Cape. Harris was taken prisoner by the Boers in August 1900. [xiv] When the Jews trickled back after the war, the Rand Modern Hebrew Congregation had been forgotten.[xv]

But mixed choirs were not forgotten. Three decades later, the Yeoville Synagogue had a mixed choir of men and women – from its beginnings in 1924 to 1934, according to Rabbi Gerald Mazabow[xvi] - although his account suggests that it may have continued even longer. A conservative element in the congregation made strong objections to the women, prompting a general meeting. The meeting voted in favour of women choristers by a four to one majority, suggesting that the liberal element were by no means an anomalous fringe.

Nonetheless, it was conceded that on Saturday mornings “when the more Orthodox attend” there would be a male-only choir. This in itself is interesting: it suggests that a majority preferred to attend on Friday nights, more typical of Reform practice than Orthodox. Certainly, when Jerry Idelson was setting up the Temple Israel choir in the mid-thirties, he appears to have recruited his more experienced choristers from Yeoville. This prompted some minor squabbles between the congregations, with the choristers playing off both sides to improve their conditions. It also became apparent that some choristers were performing at Yeoville at sundown, then dashing over to Hillbrow to perform at Temple Israel’s late service which started at 8.00pm. [xvii]

At least some leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community continued to be willing to make public remarks which would be unheard of today. In May 1932, the United Hebrew Congregation, the more liberal of the rival Orthodox organisations, issued an annual report which confronted some difficult questions. One was conversion, on which there had long been a near blanket ban. “On the one hand, unless these applications, which come chiefly from Christian women married to Jews, are granted most sparingly, it would mean the dangerous encouragement of the ever-increasing intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles with obviously disastrous consequences. On the other hand, to reject all applications indiscriminately would frequently result in a cruel injustice being inflicted on the innocent children of these mixed marriages …” The report welcomed a decision by the Jewish Board of Deputies to study the matter, and regretted only that its deliberations were taking too long.

The second was the need to make concessions in the face of the threat from Liberal Judaism. “Repeated attempts have been made by a small section of the local Jewish community to introduce a mild reform movement into the Jewish religious life of this city, approximating the Liberal Judaism movement in England.” If this movement were allowed to mature, it could result in “completely alienating a number of our younger members from Judaism.” The Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Shrock had therefore asked to meet with the organisers of this movement, and reached an agreement that the Yeoville Synagogue would introduce popular sermons and English prayers into the Friday night service as well as a series of lectures. They had stuck to their side of the agreement, but “this particular section of the community, which was supposed to be attracted by the arrangement is conspicuous by its absence …”[xviii]

In June 1951, the Jewish Herald reported on an unexpected speech by a Johannesburg Orthodox lay leader. Mr SL Sive had been a community leader all the way back to the post-Boer War period, when he was among the founders of the Johannesburg Zionist Society in 1904. Now he was addressing one of the first Orthodox batmitvah ceremonies in South Africa, held at the Hebrew High School, in the presence of several rabbis. He began by saying that the failure of the Orthodox congregations to adjust themselves to such innovations as batmitzvah ceremonies, women’s choirs and the teaching of portions of the Law in English were the direct causes of the appearance of the Reform movement in South Africa. He described how, years earlier, he had appealed to Chief Rabbi Landau to introduce batmitzvah services and women’s choirs, and that Dr Landau had conceded to these innovations for a while, but “they were soon done away with”. This was years before Rabbi Weiler’s arrival in South Africa, he said. Mr Sive seemed to be acquainted with Rabbi Weiler.[xix] He said that after Weiler had been here nine months he was about to “take a return ticket home” because he could make no headway. But when the Orthodox movement rejected innovation, Weiler’s group began to grow. “Mr Sive recalled how Dr Landau had requested Rabbi Weiler that in his Reform Temple, hats should still be worn and that no proselytes would be allowed. Rabbi Weiler had agreed to those conditions.”[xx]

Sive ended: “The Jewish community should be tolerant to Reform and realise that it was now a part of Communal life. Tolerance meant understanding and understanding often brought Reform Jews back to Orthodoxy.”[xxi] The latter may seem no more than polite sentiment. But there was a sting behind it. Sive’s remarks, which made reference to the late Chief Rabbi Landau, but not to his successor, could be read as a rebuke to Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz for the frequent public attacks he had made upon Reform since his arrival.

Changing demographics

By the nineteen thirties, the demographics of South African Jewry had changed in ways that might have favoured a more liberal spirit. A number of commentators have pointed out that the Litvak immigrants came in separate waves with different characteristics. The earliest wave were frequently single young men, many still in their teens, brave and adventurous and largely unskilled. Many lived in the extreme poverty, some turned to crime, some married Gentile women. An artisan and small tradesman class followed after the Boer War, often complete families with women and children. The First World War interrupted immigration, and those who arrived in the nineteen twenties – before Litvak immigration was abruptly halted by Government decree -  tended to be older and wealthier, the products of social changes in Lithuania including improved education and increased secularism. This last wave included a smattering of professionals, academics and artists.[xxii]

A survey of Johannesburg Jews in 1935 by Dr H Sonnabend showed that the percentage of Jews aged under 30 and born in South Africa was almost 80%. The next year, the official census revealed that almost half the country’s Jews were born in South Africa. From the 1940s onwards, the Board of Deputies, hitherto the preserve of Anglo Jews, was dominated by Jews born in South Africa. [xxiii] Indeed, from that point onwards, the distinctions between Litvak, German and Anglo Jews melted away; the vast majority of Jews were locally born, spoke with the same accents and largely shared the same outlooks.

Jewish education was a problem right from the start. By and large, Lithuania’s famed Talmudic scholars and rabbis stayed away. In a survey of 1 237 immigrants between 1904 and 1906 whose details had been preserved by the newly formed Jewish Board of Deputies, Gus Saron found just 17 in a category of synagogue officials, Hebrew teachers or ministers of religion. The Kruger Government’s policy of providing state education to Protestants alone, meant that both Catholics and Jews were obliged to make other arrangements. The Catholics founded schools; the Jews attended them in large numbers, often outnumbering the Catholics.[xxiv] It was common for Jewish boys to attend Marist Brothers or Jewish girls to attend End Street Convent. Less common was attendance at Anglican schools, but Victor Brasch, for example, one of the major leaders of the Reform movement, attended St Johns. Even the poorer Litvak parents were more concerned that their children mastered English than Hebrew.

The long-term result was a high quality secular education, but a plunge in the quality of Jewish education, a cause for frequent complaint from the Jewish authorities. The education system produced hundreds of Jewish doctors, accountants and lawyers … but only a handful of rabbis. “Such indifference on the part of the newly arrived East European immigrants to the Jewish education of their children, remains one of the great enigmas of South African Jewish learning,” writes Mazabow. [xxv]

The first Jewish primary school was opened in 1890 – the principal was none other than Rev Mark Harris, who was soon accused of neglecting his duties. Over the years, a great many other experiments were tried, including Jewish classes for the boys at Catholic Schools, and, remarkably, “confirmation classes” offered to girls by Rabbi Landau himself. Disputes between different institutional interests, lack of funds (most Jewish philanthropy went instead into synagogue building funds, the Chevra Kadisha or to Israel appeals), snarled up progress until after the Second World War. But whatever the reasons, the net result was the same: a generation of young Jews who had largely lost touch with the religious traditions of their parents, who enjoyed a more worldly outlook and education, but who were, in Orthodox religious terms, functionally illiterate.



[i] The opinion of Chief Rabbi Julius Landau, as reported in Mazabow, op cit.

[ii] Nor was the Anglo-German vs Litvak fracture unique to Johannesburg. As described in the chapter in the Mavericks book about burials, much the same tensions within Orthodoxy played out in faraway Port Elizabeth.

[iii] Gideon Shimoni, Jews and Zionism, the South African Experience, P17. (Oxford University Press, Cape Town 1980).

[iv] Riva Krut quotes an example from the SA Jewish Chronicle, a voice of Anglo Jewry: “It is the Jews of the Rand who … will be the first to be affected by the levelling process going on between white and coloured … The Raw Russian Jew is of all Europeans, the one who has the least of the European and the most of the Oriental about him.” (Riva Krut, The Making of a South African Jewish Community, P150 in Class, Community and Conflict, edited by Belinda Bozzoli, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1987).

[v] Shimoni, op cit, p12.

[vi] The discussion of liberal tendencies in the UK that follows is based upon “Liberal Judaism. The First Hundred Years” by Lawrence Rigal and Rosita Rosenberg, Published by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London 2004; Philipson, op cit; and Lily Montagu, the Faith of a Jewish Woman, op cit.

[vii] Richard Mendelson in Founders and Followers, edited by Mendel Kaplan and Marian Robertson, Vlaeberg Publishers, Cape Town 1991.

[viii] Mendelson and John Simon in Founders and Followers, op cit.

[ix] Harris is mentioned briefly in passing by various authors; this section is based on details pulled together from an Eric Rosenthal article (Jewish Gold Pioneers) in the 1929 Jewish Year Book (op cit); on a mention in the London Jewish Chronicle; by John Simon in “Founders and Followers” (op cit); in Mazabow (op cit) and in a history of the Lions Shul in Doornfontein.

[x] Morris Harris, (1875-1950) was President of the Transvaal Institute of Architects. As mayor, he was responsible for creating the city library. He made his name as a designer of religious buildings, most of them churches, but he also rebuilt the President Street Synagogue which had been destroyed by fire. (Artefacts, a database of South African architecture).

[xi] Gus Saron and Louis Hotz in their history, “The Jews in South Africa” (Oxford University Press, Cape Town 1955) explicitly attribute the splits in the early Johannesburg community to “dissatisfaction with the modernist and reform tendencies of the minister, the Rev ML Harris.”

[xii] The Formation of the Johannesburg Jewish Community, 1887-1915 in Kaplan and Robertson, Founders and Followers, op cit, P28.

[xiii] Marion Robertson and Denis Diamond, “Chemists, Doctors and Lawyers” in Founders and Followers, op cit.

[xiv] According to a brief biography of Harris on JewishGen.

[xv] Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz made passing reference to Harris in a history of the Orthodox congregations which he wrote for the Jubilee Supplement of the Jewish Times in June 1956. Rabinowitz used Harris as an example of the poorly qualified ministers sent to South Africa in the early years. He ascribed the splits in the community to the unorthodox religious practices of Harris rather than corruption. He also claimed that the Doornfontein Synagogue was begun by Harris as a Reform congregation, but quickly changed after his departure.

[xvi] Mazabow, op cit, P170.

[xvii] Rev Abe Shrock, the minister at Yeoville Synagogue, later the rabbi at the Green and Sea Point congregation in Cape Town, was the first South African-born Jew to be sent abroad for training as a minister, at Jews College in London. He was also one of the few Orthodox rabbis to be relatively well disposed towards his Reform counterparts. It was he, for example, who, during the period before Rabbi Weiler was recruited, offered Jerry Idelson a compromise of more “user-friendly” services, including some English prayers. As described in Chapter 1, the deal was scuttled by Chief Rabbi Landau.

[xviii] For Jerry Idelson’s very different account of these meetings, see Chapter One.

[xix] SL Sive and Co appear on the records of the Temple Israel Building fund. It appears that he donated £50.

[xx] An interesting claim. Nothing in Reform records confirms this, but if Weiler did indeed make a private arrangement with Rabbi Landau on proselytes, it would explain his insistence, despite considerable opposition, on resisting conversion for his first five years.

[xxi] Jewish Herald,

[xxii] “The Making of South African Jewry”, Gustav Saron in South African Jewry, Yearbook 1965, Fieldhill Publishing, Johannesburg 1965.

[xxiii] Shimoni, Op Cit, p17.

[xxiv] Mazabow quotes a Catholic newspaper report that a majority of children at the Marist school were not Catholics, that Jews invariably came top of the class and that 13 out of 15 boys who played the violin were Jewish. (Mazabow, op cit.)

[xxv] Op cit, p37.

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