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A diary, a poem and a memoir: The Reb and the Rebel: Jewish Narratives in South Africa 1892-1913

The Reb and the RebelComing soon from UCT Press: The Reb and the Rebel: Jewish Narratives in South Africa 1892-1913, containing three previously unpublished autobiographical works:

The origin and development of the South African Jewish community is one small part of a vast and varied literature on the formation of 19th-century diasporic communities, worldwide. Records include ships’ passenger lists, transit placements, immigration papers, memoirs, reminiscences and letters home and abroad. However, unedited, unbowdlerised memoirs that purport to tell how it actually was are few and far between. Such are the manuscripts of two members of the Schrire family.

The Reb and the Rebel contains three previously unpublished autobiographical works mainly covering the period 1892-1913: a diary, a poem and a memoir. The first two were written by Yehuda Leib Schrire (1851-1912), and are set in a number of countries including Lithuania, Holland, England and South Africa. The third is by his son, Harry Nathan (1895-1980). Few of the early immigrants to South Africa were writers, let alone poets, and the social history provided in these documents embellishes and enlivens the picture of South African Jewish communities at the turn of the 20th century.

Neither was ever intended for wide distribution nor for the discipline of an editor’s pencil. Two manuscripts literally penned by Yehuda Leib Schrire, in pre-Ben Yehuda Hebrew, were intended as memoirs, reminders of his struggles to help his children understand his picaresque life. The account by his son Harry was written as a family memoir. Both writers chose their words carefully and neither script could be called hasty or even informal. Yehuda Leib transcribed his original diary into a neat, readable record and he embellished his epic poem with lavish scholarly allusions; Harry, on the other hand, deliberately wrote as he spoke, and with such intentionality that he forbade the transcriber to change the original in any way whatsoever.

The voices of these two men differ. One is a foreign immigrant and the other, a Cape-born native of South Africa. Threads of his European Talmudic learning are braided tightly into the travels of Yehuda Leib, while Harry’s words are studded with turn-of-the–century Cape Yiddish such as once echoed through the alleys and parlours of District Six. You might catch an indignant yowl as Yehuda Leib recalls his former colleagues, and sense his wife patting his arm as he stamps his stick. You might hear the rattle of tea cups as his wife Lily interrupts Harry’s recollections of the old gang commandeering the corner of Harrington and Commercial Streets almost a century ago. These manuscripts are the stuff of which history is made. Their publication represents a labour of love by their editors, translators and donors.

See also: The local non-fiction to look forward to in 2016 (Jan – June)

… a vivid insight into the travails of new Jewish immigrants to South Africa, in particular, Johannesburg and Cape Town … the authors have produced a work that satisfies all scholarly criteria while being accessible to a wider public.

- Dr David Scher, Department of Historical Studies, University of the Western Cape

The original documents are worth their weight in gold. They are rich and so revealing of an important piece of Jewish history. I think that the project of exploring the histories of the places to which Jews immigrated and settled is one of tremendous value.

- Professor Hasia Diner, Professor of American Jewish History, New York University

About the editors

Carmel Schrire is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She has directed archaeological excavations in South Africa, Australia and Poland, and has published widely on the impact of colonialism at the Cape.

Gwynne Schrire is the Deputy Director of the Cape branch of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. She is an independent researcher who has published on numerous topics relating to the history of Jews in South Africa.

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