The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple.

There are two Preface messages in Rosenthal’s book on the Cape Jewish Orphanage: the first written by Dr Hendrik. F. Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. He was the principal architect of Apartheid in South Africa; the second, written my Professor Israel Abrahams, the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town (from 1937 to 1968). Here were two people, so different in some ways, yet so alike in others. Rabbi Abraham’s Bible says that the Jews are God’s chosen people out of all the nations of the world; Dr Verwoerd’s Bible said that the white race was the chosen people out of all the nations in South Africa. Both of them have a message for the dispossessed.

Here is an excerpt from Dr Verwoerd message:

“It is well known that the Jewish community is outstanding in its attention to the needs of these from its ranks who need a helping hand. This feeling of mutual obligation between members of the same religion should not only be admired, but also encouraged. The best people to lift up the fallen or help the needy – whether they are the aged, or orphans, or unprotected children – are always those of  the same nation and those with a spiritual affinity. Salvation comes best from those who are the nearest in blood and religion, since they find it the easiest to give love and devotion and since it is received from them with the least feeling of humiliation.”


Jewish care for its own is unique. Dr Verwoerd says that the “salvation” of the Jew comes best from a Jew, not only because of ties of blood and religion, but because salvation by one’s own people is less humiliating than salvation from outside the fold.

When I recently told someone I was a Jew, she ooed and ahhhhed about how God had blessed the Jews with so many gifts, which has put them at the top of every field: the sciences, music, and business. It’s not only the Jew that glories in his achievements and his possessions’ it’s the rare soul that loves nothing less.  But the Jew does it on much grander scale. Many false Christians despise the Jew, not for killing Christ, but for the Jew’s remarkable talents: everything he touches turns to gold. (But hang on, I know of at least one – boggy – exception!). No orphanage can keep a Jew down; most past residents of the Cape Jewish Orphanage (and the Arcadia Jewish Home in Johannesburg) – broken homes and all – became  doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen,  giving such naches (blessings) to a Yiddishe mama’s heart. Your Tsorres (sorrows) will turn to simche (joy).

But what do these achievements achieve? How does blood and religion figure in the Jew? Does the salvation of the Jew come from the Jews alone? Can the love and devotion of a Jew save another Jew? Save him from what? Do not the proud achievements and the love of money disqualify the Jew from finding God, disqualify us all from finding God. One of the reasons given by defenders of the Pogroms is  that the Jew’s love of money destroyed his humanity. Last night (12 January 2009) I watched a documentary on the “Ochberg Orphans” (which I mentioned earlier). One Polish Jew explained it this way: “The Jew is eager to lend you money. He lends you 100 slotis and writes down 300. Then he hounds you until you pay up.”

I mentioned Professor Israel Abrahams.  He was born in Vilna, Lithuania in 1903 (a year after Izzy) and the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town and also Head of the Hebrew Department at the University of Cape Town from 1938 to 1968. I studied Hebrew in his Department in 1961. He a was rotund, diminutive Toulouse Lautrec figure in goatee and spectacles. But more than that, whenever I saw him, I felt a longing and peace. In his daughter’s words: “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.”[4] . Upon retirement, he went to live in Israel where he died in Jerusalem in October 1973. He translated “The Documentary Hypothesis: And the Composition of the Pentateuch” by Umberto Cassuto.

Here is an excerpt from Professor Abrahams message in Rosenthal’s book: (I highlight a few phrases for comment):

“Jewish standards of philanthropic endeavour generally and the loving care lavished on orphans in particular are proverbially praiseworthy. Of Oranjia it can be said that it has maintained that tradition at the highest level.  The very name is characteristic: we do not speak of the “Orphanage,” with all the unhappy Dickensian nuances attaching to such a name. We call it “Our Children’s Home” or simply Oranjia (the name of the original house); because the little inmates are our children and their dwelling-place a home in the noblest sense of the term….it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray.


“Orphanage”, as Abrahams says, does evoke the image of tormented starving Oliver Twists. Not so in Oranjia, where “inmates” are “lavished with loving care.” If “orphanage” is an unhappy term,  “inmates” is bleak: a prisoner, a hospital patient –  a concentration camp! Professor Abrahams was a mother tongue English speaker who grew up and studied in Britain. His English was perfect, if, in this case, inept.