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South African Literature

Biblical Influences

The Afrikaans-speaking people of South Africa are mainly descended from Dutch Calvinist and French Huguenot immigrants of the 17th century. The Bible has been an important factor in their life and thinking. The Afrikaans language (a variant of Dutch) took shape in the late 19th century, and biblical influences were reflected in it and in the early literature. Scriptural themes were common in the Afrikaans novel, and some Afrikaans verse was influenced in its subject matter and style, notably by Psalms and Ecclesiastes.

In South African English literature, with its natural affinities to the literature of England, biblical influences were less pronounced. They were to be seen chiefly in style and language in the works of the non-Jewish Olive Schreiner (1855–1920), Pauline Smith (1884–1959), and Alan Paton (1903–1988), and the Jewish writer Sarah Gertrude *Millin (1889–1968). Dan *Jacobson (b. 1929) wrote The Rape of Tamar (1970), which is an imaginative reworking of a biblical subject.

The Figure of the Jew

While the Hebrews of the Bible were esteemed by the Afrikaners, the Jews of modern times were generally less favorably dealt with by Afrikaans writers, who tended to portray a traditional stereotype of the "bad Jew," shrewd, grasping, and ruthless in his dealings with the simple Afrikaner. However, there were some instances of the "good Jew" as well. Jewish characters were frequently represented as speaking a heavily accented Afrikaans. D.F. Malherbe, Jochem van Bruggen, C.M. Van den Heever, and Abraham Jonker, who focus on the changeover that took place in the 1920s and 1930s from an agricultural to a capitalist mode of production, create Jewish characters with a mixture of grudging admiration and condemnation. J. van Melle and C.J. Langenhoven's characterizations are more sympathetic. Abraham Jonker's non-fictional Israel die Sondebok (1940) (translated as The Scapegoat of History, 1941), vigorously condemned antisemitism. Etienne Leroux (1922–1989) wrote several novels. In Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins (Seven Days at the Silbersteins, 1962) Jewish characters are more fully developed. Een vir Azazel (1964) contains biblical motifs. Onse Hymie (1982) deals sympathetically with a smous (itinerant peddler). Generally, in later Afrikaans literature, Jews seldom appear.

After the advent of the State of Israel, a number of descriptive and historical accounts of the Holy Land by Afrikaans writers usually exhibited a sympathetic approach. B. Gemser, who in 1937 had published a collection of Afrikaans translations of Hebrew short stories, issued a Hebrew-Afrikaans grammar in 1953.

In South Africa's English-language literature, in the work of non-Jewish writers, both white and black, Jewish characters invariably appear in three distinct stereotypes, of which the unscrupulous Jewish shopkeeper or businessman is the most common. The wandering Jew appears as the itinerant peddler, a typical occupation for newly arrived Jews from the end of the 19th century. A philo-semitic approach is rarer. Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope (1953) and the work of the colored (mixed-race) Peter Abrahams, are examples of portrayals of sympathetic Jews. Some writers were viciously antisemitic. A.A. Murray's Anybody's Spring, (1959) is a striking example. In later English fiction Jews often appear as leftists, involved in the struggle of the black people for freedom, a perception which reflects the prominent presence of Jews in the struggle for a democracy.

The Jewish Contribution

Jews did not reach South Africa in significant numbers until the second half of the 19th century. Most settled in towns, and Jewish writers mainly used Yiddish and, increasingly, English. The Jewish contribution to the emergent Afrikaans literature came later and was smaller, though not negligible.

Writers in English


Among the major figures in South African English fiction a number are Jewish. However, not all identify as being Jewish, nor does their writing always reflect Jewish themes. Except for some specifically Jewish social, political, and communal concerns, Jewish writers, following the general trend, concern themselves with general South African topics, not least with the issue of race and color, understandably so for a people with a history of persecution. The family saga, particularly immigration from eastern Europe and, more latterly, emigration from South Africa, is another recurrent theme. However, there is no "Jewish" school, and it is noteworthy that some Jewish writers display evidence of Jewish self-rejection. Overall, the Jewish contribution to South African literature has been contemporary in setting, realistic in mode, and liberal in political outlook. Jewish characters occur more frequently in the fiction of Jewish writers than in that of gentiles, where the Jew more often than not appears in a minor, and stereotyped, role. Perhaps because of concern with the overshadowing white-black racism, antisemitism is a theme that seldom becomes a central issue.

Louis Cohen, a half-Jewish immigrant from England, was a journalist in Kimberley during the 1870s and wrote scurrilous sketches concerning Jews. Sarah Gertrude Millin, one of the most prolific of South African writers, published 18 novels. For many years she was the outstanding personality in South African creative writing and her works were translated into many languages. Her novel God's Stepchildren (1924) was the first major South African work of fiction to deal with miscegenation and the plight of the colored people. The Coming of the Lord (1928) deals with the problems of minority groups, including the Jews. In later years her writings tended to reflect more conventional South African views on color.

Nadine *Gordimer's work and Dan Jacobson's early writing revealed an intense awareness of the currents of social and race conflict in South Africa. Gordimer's international standing culminated in the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. Her 13 novels and many books of short stories are among the finest of South African writing. Apart from in her early work, references to Jews are few, and some, such as in A Sport of Nature (1987), are depicted in stereotypical fashion. Dan Jacobson, who immigrated to London, wrote an important novel, The Beginners (1966), portraying on a broad canvas the fortunes of a Jewish immigrant family, their adjustment to South African conditions, and emigration. The Price of Diamonds (1957) and several masterly short stories, including "The Zulu and the Zeide" (1958), satirize Jewish assumptions about race and morality and interrogate the Jewish stereotypes. His non-fictional writing includes Heshel's Kingdom (1999), which deals with a retrieval of Lithuanian roots.

The works of Arthur Markowitz (Facing North, 1949; Market Street, 1959) and Arthur Segal (Johannesburg Friday, 1954) also treat Jewish South African life, as do the sketches in Millionaires and Tatterdemalions (1952) by Victor Barwin.

Lewis Sowden in The Crooked Bluegum (1955) and Gerald Gordon (1909–1998) in Let the Day Perish (1952) deal with social and racial themes. Harry Bloom's Episode (1956) is considered a classic on the subject. A pioneer in a related field was Herzl J. Schlosberg who, under the pen name Henry John May, was co-author with J. Grenfell Williams of I Am Black (1936), the first South African novel to view life from the black African's standpoint. Wolfe Miller published Man in the Background (1958).

Lionel Abrahams (1928–2004), who wrote The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan (1977) and The White Life of Felix Greenspan (2002), was one of South Africa's most eminent writers, editors, teachers, and critics, having worked with distinction in almost all genres. His great contribution to South African letters was recognized by the award of two honorary doctorates. Among lesser-known figures the following authors are those who have published at least one novel or novella. Only one reference is given in each case. Ronald Segal (The Tokolosh), Rhona Stern (Cactus Land), Phyllis Altman (The Law of the Vultures), Bertha Goudvis (Little Eden), Maurice Flior (Heralds of the East Wind), Myrna Blumberg (White Madam), Sylvester Stein (Second Class Taxi), Olga Levinson (Call Me Master), Rose Moss (The Family Reunion), Rose Zwi (Another Year in Africa), Shirley Eskapa (The Secret Keeper), Dennis Hirson (The House Next Door to Africa), Lynne Freed (Home Ground), Eddie Lurie (The Beginning Is Endless), Gillian Slovo (Ties of Blood), Maja Kriel (Rings in a Tree), David Cohen (People Who Have Stolen from Me), Tony Eprile (The Persistence of Memory), Patricia Schonstein (The Alchemist), Mona Berman (Email from a Jewish Mother), Johnny Steinberg (Midlands), Diane Awerbuck (Gardening at Night), and Ken Barris (Summer Grammar). The renowned actor Antony Sher, who moved to England, imaginatively and even grotesquely dealt with the subject of immigration in Middlepost (1988).

Collections of short stories have come from Bertha Goudvis, Barney Simon (Jo'burg Sis!), David Medalie (The Killing of the Christmas Cows), Maureen Isaacson, Shirley Eskapa, Maja Kriel, Sandra Braude, Marc Glaser, and Ken Barris. Lilian Simon, Pnina Fenster, and Marcia Leveson are among the numerous others whose stories have appeared in South African literary journals. Humorous fiction was written by, among others, D. Dainow, M. Davidson, S. Levin, and Barbara Ludman.


Jews have made substantial contributions to South African poetry. Phillip Stein published Awakening (1946) and Victor Barwin's Europa and Other Poems appeared in 1947. Lewis Sowden published three volumes of verse, notably Poems from the Bible (1960), and Florence Louie Friedman produced original verse and translations from the French and Zulu.

Among the most important voices in South African English poetry were those of Sydney Clouts (1926–1982) (One Life) and Ruth Miller (1919–1969) (The Floating Island). Jewish aspects were not reflected in their poetry. These do appear, however, in the work of many of South Africa's other Jewish poets. Jacob Stern's Proverbs is one such volume. Lionel Abrahams published several volumes of poetry on philosophical and political issues, love, and his home city, Johannesburg. Helen Segal (Footprint of a Fish) wrestles with moral, aesthetic, and religious issues. Bernard Levinson in From Breakfast to Madness and elsewhere draws on his experience as a psychiatrist. Sinclair Beiles (Ashes of Experience) and Roy Joseph Cotton (Ag Man) employ surrealism. Riva Rubin (The Poet-Killers) writes among other things on biblical themes, and her experiences of Israel where she settled in 1963. Chaim Lewis, an Anglo-Jewish author, wrote poetry on South African and Jewish themes during his long stay in the country. Experience of Israel is also apparent in the work of Jeremy Gordin (With My Tongue in My Hand). Among the many others whose work has appeared in their own anthologies or in journals are Robert Berold (The Door to the River), David Friedland (After Image), Lola Watter (Images from Africa), Edgar Bernstein, Elias Pater (Jacob Friedman), Jean Lipkin, Elaine Unterhalter, Mannie Hirsch, Dennis Diamond, Dennis Hirson, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Rose Friedman, Sheila Basden, Sandra Braude, Roy Blumenthal, Debra Aarons, Marc Glaser, Peter and Mike Kantey, Karen Press, Keith Gottshalk, Steve Shapiro, Terry Sussman, Adam Schwartzman, Barry Feinberg, Ken Barris, Gail Dendy, Cyril Edelstein, Jessie Prisman, and Freda Freeman. Gloria Sandak-Lewin's poetry contains many Jewish themes. Israel Ben Yosef, in collaboration with Douglas Reid Skinner, published Approximations (1989), translations into English of contemporary Hebrew poetry.


The Jewish contribution to the performing arts has been highly significant in South Africa. The Verdict (1911), written by T.J. Holzberg in collaboration with I.K. Sampson (a non-Jew), was probably the first South African play by a Jew. One of Lewis Sowden's plays, The Kimberley Train (1958), brought the color question onto the South African stage, and ran for more than 100 performances. Bertha Goudvis wrote several plays on Jewish themes, A Husband for Rachel (1926) being the best known. Sarah Gertrude Millin's novel Mary Glenn (1925) was dramatized and staged abroad, as were two adaptations of works by Dan Jacobson, notably his short story "The Zulu and the Zeide," which was staged as a musical on Broadway. The first internationally successful South African musical, King Kong, which premièred in Johannesburg in 1959, was, except for the music, a largely Jewish production with African actors, with the book by Harry Bloom, orchestration by Stanley Glasser, set design by Arthur Goldreich, and direction by Leon Gluckman (all of whom subsequently emigrated).

Internationally acclaimed Leonard *Schach was involved in every stage of the development of theater in South Africa between 1925 and 1994. He was the inspiration behind Cape Town's Cockpit Theater, and until his death, divided his time as a director between South Africa and Israel. He published his memoirs in 1996. Other influential directors in the postwar years were Celia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson, who founded "Shakespeare in the Park" at Maynardville in Cape Town and, later, the "Company of Four." Leon Gluckman, one of the country's most creative directors, was particularly interested in fostering black theater. Moira Fine, a major supporter of the Space Theater in Cape Town, also ran Volute Productions. For a lengthy period the doyenne of South African theater actor-directors and managers was Taubie Kushlick. The Johannesburg Children's Theater was the work of Joyce Levinsohn. A co-founder and artistic director of the famous Market Theater, the home of political protest theater in South Africa, was Barney Simon, who was a leading director and facilitator-playwright, stimulating his actors into creative improvisations. One of the most successful of these was the internationally acclaimed Woza, Albert! A significant book, tracing the first decade of the existence of this theater, was written by the Johannesburg journalist Pat Schwartz in 1988. The Junction Avenue Theater Company, under the leadership of Malcolm Purkey, applied workshop methods to create The Fantastical History of a Useless Man and other important plays, including Sophiatown, a recreation of a black township destroyed by government edict. Purkey became artistic director of the Market Theater. Among other Jewish playwrights whose work has been staged in South Africa are Bernard Sachs, Geraldine Aron, Sinclair Beiles, Michael Picardie, David Peemer, Gary Friedman, and Henry Rootenberg. Shawn Slovo produced a film, A World Apart, based on the experiences in political detention of her mother, Ruth First. William Kentridge, renowned artist, collaborated with the Handspring Theater Company to produce such innovative works as Faustus in Africa! which had worldwide success. In the field of satire and social commentary, Adam Leslie was for many years a household name, as are the half-Jewish and half-Afrikaans Pieter-Dirk Uys and David Kramer.

For over 50 years, one of South Africa's most influential theater and film critics was Percy Baneshik. Percy Tucker wrote his memoirs as the creator of a theater-booking agency. Among promoters of the arts in general in South Africa is Phillip Stein, who was director of the Vita Awards made annually for distinguished work in the performing, literary and visual arts.


Jewish writers have been greatly concerned with the recreation of the past – the general South African past, their own life-stories, and the history of immigrant families. In this field Sarah Gertrude Millin was prominent. She wrote the lives of Rhodes (1933), General Smuts (1936), and two autobiographical volumes, The Night is Long (1941) and The Measure of My Days (1955). Nathan Levi, a Dutch-Jewish journalist in Pretoria, produced the first biography of General Smuts in English (1917). The memoirs of Lionel Phillips, Randlord, first appeared in 1924. Henry Raymond, Richard Lewinsohn and S. Joel each chose Barney *Barnato as a subject (1897, 1937 and 1958), and Felix Gross wrote Rhodes of Africa (1956). Manfred *Nathan wrote a standard biography of the Boer leader, Paul Kruger (1941). The memoirs of Sir David *Harris, South African pioneer, soldier, and politician, appeared in 1930. The explorer Nathaniel *Isaacs was also a literary pioneer with his Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa… with a Sketch of Natal (1836; reissued 1935–36). Sir Harry Graumann published a review of the gold industry in 1936. Enid Alexander wrote the life of her husband, Morris *Alexander (1953), and Morris Kentridge's published reminiscences of his public career. The historian, Phyllis Lewsen, produced an authoritative edition of the letters of the South African statesman John Xavier Merriman (4 vols. 1960–69). Her own memoir is titled Reverberations (1996). Bernard Friedman wrote a biography of J.C. Smuts. Bertha *Solomon's memoirs, Time Remembered, appeared in 1968. Martin Rubin wrote on Sarah Gertrude Millin. The mercantile Mosenthal family was researched by D. Fleischer and A. Caccia. Isie Maisels, a leading advocate in human rights cases, wrote his memoirs. Eric Rosenthal recaptures the spirit of South Africa in the 20th century. Lola Watter evokes the literary and artistic life, particularly of Johannesburg. In Strange Odyssey (1952) Betty Misheiker wrote of an immigrant group, and Geoff Sifrin's To Gershn (1995) is a recreation of his widely spread family from their days in eastern Europe. Richard Mendelsohn wrote on Sammy Marks: The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal (1991). Phyllis Jowell documented the life of her father-in-law, a key figure in Namaqualand, in Joe Jowell of Namaqualand (1994) and, with Adrienne Folb a pictorial history of the Jews of Namaqualand. In 2000 Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris recorded highlights of his ministry. Others in the autobiographical field include Lyndall Gordon, eminent scholar and biographer who immigrated to England and wrote a memoir of life in Cape Town during the 1950s titled Shared Lives (1992). Helen *Suzman, long-time sole representative in parliament of the Progressive Party under the Apartheid government, wrote memoirs, as did Jack Penn, Ali Bacher, David Susman, Pauline Podbrey, Hilda Bernstein, Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe, Ben Turok, Benjamin Po grund, Norma Kitson, Ronald Segal, Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein, Baruch Hirson, Joel Joffe, Rudy Frankel, Ronnie Kasrils, and Alfred Honikman, former mayor of Cape Town. Benjamin Pogrund also wrote on activist Robert Sobukwe and Paul Clingman on the Hon. A.E. Abrahamson. Ruth First and Albie Sachs wrote of their experiences in an apartheid prison. Joe *Slovo, the renowned South African communist, recorded his life; and Mendel Kaplan, industrialist, former chairperson of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, and later chairman of the World Jewish Congress produced several books chronicling Jewish immigration and the Jewish contribution to the economic development of the country. Julian Roup, in Boerejood (2004), contributed a different slant with the point of view of the sometimes intermarried community of Afrikaner-Jews.

Included in the memoirs of survivors of the Holocaust are those of Levi Shalit, Beyond Dachau (1980), Henia Brazg, Passport to Life (1981), Maja Abramowitch's To Forgive… But Not Forget (2002), and Madeleine Heitner's Breaking through Buttonholes (2004). Gwynne Schrire edited a selection of the memories of Cape Town Holocaust survivors, In Sacred Memory (1995).


In belles lettres, Jewish writers included Joseph Sachs (Beauty and the Jews, 1937; The Jewish Genius, 1939); Wulf Sachs (Black Hamlet, 1937; later published as Black Anger); George Sacks (The Intelligent Man's Guide to Jew-baiting, 1935); and Adèle Lezard (Gold Blast, 1936). Bernard Sachs wrote a miscellaneous collection of essays on Personalities and Places (2 vols., 1959–65). Contributions to literary criticism were also made by Edward Davis, Phillip Segal, and many others not collected in volume form.


Non-fictional literary prose of a very high order, in the form of scholarly, journalistic, historiographical, biographical, and polemical works, has been produced by many distinguished Jewish South Africans. Not only have books and studies appeared, but there have been innumerable contributions to newspapers and journals and important editorships, not only in the Jewish field but also in the general world of scholarship and letters. For Jewish scholarship and historiography, the influential Jewish Affairs (started in 1941 under the editorship of Edgar Bernstein, and for 16 years under the editorship of Amelia Levy, once secretary of the Society of Jews and Christians) is crucial. The Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town currently produces outstanding work in this field.

Sidney Mendelssohn compiled a monumental South African Bibliography (1910) and wrote Jewish Pioneers of South Africa (1912). Bernard Sachs published several volumes of autobiographical, political, and other essays, as well as a study of H.C. Bosman, writer of Afrikaans extraction connected with the South African Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s. He has been the subject of a biography by Valerie Rosenberg, Sunflower to the Sun. Rosenberg and Lionel Abrahams edited several volumes of his writing, which, until recent scholarly updating, have been authoritative. Edgar Bernstein published a collection of essays titled My Judaism, My Jews, while Neil Hirschson has published some polemical work on Jew-hatred and Shakespeare. Michael Wade and Steven Clingman published major studies of the novels of Nadine Gordimer. The Cape Town IntellectualsRuth Schechter and her Circle, 19071934 (2001) was written by Baruch Hirson, a political activist who immigrated to England. Reuben Musiker has published six books and 150 articles in the field of South African bibliography. Among the many Jewish scholars directly engaged in academic work on South African Jewish historiography and writing are Louis Herrman, who wrote A History of the Jews in South Africa from the Earliest Times to 1895 (1935), and Gustav Saron and Louis Hotz, who were the editors of the influential The Jews in South Africa: A History (1955). Marcus Arkin edited South African Jewry: A Contemporary Survey in 1984. Among several other surveys of the South African Jewish community are those of L. Feldberg, N. Berger, N.D. Hoffman, D.L. Sowden, M. Konvisser, T. Hoffman, and A. Fischer. Marcia Gitlin's The Vision Amazing (1950) and the work of the prominent scholar now living in Israel, Gideon Shimoni (Jews and Zionism, 1980), analyze the strong bonds between the South African community and Israel. R. Musiker and J. Sherman edited Waters out of the Well, a collection of articles and essays on Jewish themes. Memories, Realities and Dreams, with international as well as local contributions, edited by Milton Shain and Richard Mendelsohn, is an important documentation of more recent thinking responses to and construction of a new identity in the light of political change in South Africa. In recent years a team of volunteers working for the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth has been producing handsome illustrated books as part of its ongoing record of the dwindling Jewish country communities. Joseph Sherman made available in translation much of the neglected Yiddish writing from South African authors in From a Land Far Off (1987). Milton Shain produced a great deal of ongoing research on the South African Jewish community and a seminal work, The Roots of Anti-semitism in South Africa (1994). Jocelyn Hellig, who wrote The Holocaust and AntiSemitism (2003), lectured and published on issues such as antisemitism and comparative religion. Marcia Leveson published on the image of the Jew, including People of the Book: The Image of the Jew in South African Fiction 18801992 (1996). Immanuel Suttner's collection of interviews with South African Jewish activists, Cutting through the Mountain (1997), is an important repository of research material. A.A. Dubb, Shirley Kossick, John Simon, Gwynne Schrire, David Saks, Franz Auerbach, Rose Norwich, and a host of other scholars published original research into the many facets of the wide Jewish contribution to the development of South Africa. Claudia Braude published a collection of contemporary Jewish writing in 2001. Veronica Belling compiled a Bibliography of South African Jewry (1997).

In other fields, Martin Orkin published Shakespeare against Apartheid (1987) and Clive Chipkin Johannesburg Style (1993). Esme Berman, Steven Sack, Neville Dubow, and Mona Berman made significant contributions in the field of art and art history. Mona de Beer wrote on an aspect of Cape urban history, Joel Mervis on South African newspapers, Ellison Kahn on law, Rod Suskin and Alexandra Levin on esoteric matters, and Raymond Ackerman on his life and business. Arnold Benjamin was a long-serving journalist on The Star and produced a book on graffiti. Elaine Katz wrote on trade unions and disease in the South African gold mines. Adam Levin wrote on travel in Africa, and Matthew Krouse, assisted by Kim Berman, co-edited a book on gay and lesbian writing. Shirli Gilbert wrote on South African music and music in the Holocaust. Numerous handsome cookbooks have been published by Jewish writers, and Geraldine Mitton and Linda Friedland publish on health issues. The Jewish Report has since 1998 been a popular national Jewish weekly newspaper, and several well-known Jewish journalists are active in the media world.

Writers in Afrikaans

A significant contribution to Afrikaans literature was made in the early 19th century by a Dutch Jewish convert to Christianity, Joseph Suasso de Lima (1791–1858). In 1844 he wrote the first booklet of its kind on the subject, in which he championed the developing Afrikaans language. He also wrote (in Dutch) the first history of the Cape of Good Hope (1823) and a number of other works. Another convert to Christianity, Jan Lion Cachet (d. 1912), who came from Holland in 1861, published Sewe Duiwels en wat hulle gedoen het ("Seven Devils and What They Did"). Written in serial form, it appeared in one volume in 1907. There are several Jewish characters, chiefly unsympathetically drawn. Cachet ranks as one of the founders of literary Afrikaans. Sarah Goldblatt (d. 1975), a writer of Afrikaans children's books and short stories, was the literary executrix of C.J. Langenhoven (1873–1932), a foremost Afrikaans writer. Another Jewish pioneer of Afrikaans literature, best known for his stories and sketches of animal life, was J.M. Friedenthal (1886–1959).

In later years, South African-born Olga Kirsch, who settled in Israel in 1948, published highly acclaimed collections of Afrikaans verse, including Die Soeklig ("The Searchlight," 1944), dealing with racial issues, Geil Gebied (Fertile Territory 1976) and four other collections which dealt with general Jewish and Israeli themes. Peter Blum, an immigrant, won an Afrikaans literary prize for his first collection of poems (1955).

In Judaic studies, links between Hebrew and Afrikaans were established by Rabbi Moses Romm, in his translations of the Jewish prayer book and the Ethics of the Fathers; and by Roman B. Egert, who published an Afrikaans version of the Haggadah (1943). Israel ben Yosef wrote Nofim Reḥokim. ("Verre Landskappe"), translations of Afrikaans poems into Hebrew, in collaboration with S.J. Pretorius (1985), and Olyfwoestyn. Poësie uit Verre Lande. ("Poems from Far-off Lands," 1987), Hebrew poems translated into Afrikaans in collaboration with Johan Steyn. The Yiddish writer Jacob Mordecai Sherman was extremely interested in Afrikaans, publishing several essays on its literature.

Writers in Yiddish

From 1881 onward, the influx of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants enormously increased the size of the existing South African Jewish population. And of these many laid the foundations for the development of an indigenous South African Yiddish literature.


The pioneer of Yiddish journalism in South Africa was the professional belletrist, Nehemiah Dov Ber Hoffmann (1860–1928), who in 1889 brought the first Hebrew-Yiddish typeface to the land. Moving from the Cape to the Transvaal in 1890, he founded South Africa's first Yiddish weekly, Der Afrikaner Israelit, which lasted six months. Returning to the Cape, Hoffmann started a second weekly – Cape Town's first – titled Ha-Or, which lasted from April 1895 to July 1897. David Goldblatt's weekly, Der Yiddisher Advokat, which appeared regularly from 1904 until 1924, was recognized by the government as an official newspaper. Hoffmann's volume of memoirs, Sefer Ha-zikhroynes (1916) was the first full-length Yiddish book to be printed in South Africa. It describes the author's experiences in Europe, America (in Hebrew), and Africa. He was the first writer to record the eastern European immigrant response to life in South Africa. His account of the hardships experienced by the traveling Jewish smous was the first appearance in South African Yiddish literature of what was to become one of its major themes. His Yearbook of 1920 contains important information about country communities.

Yiddish weekly newspapers before World War II were short-lived. In Johannesburg between 1920 and 1948, six books of short stories and essays and four volumes of poetry were published. Solomon Fogelson founded a Yiddish weekly, Der Afrikaner, in Johannesburg in 1911, and at least three Yiddish periodicals were being published at the same time. Fogelson's newspaper survived for over 20 years until it was amalgamated with the Afrikaner Idishe Tsaytung in 1933, directed by Boris Gershman. After his death in 1953, the newspaper was bought by Levi Shalit in partnership with Shmarya Levin; it closed in 1983. At its peak, it had a weekly readership of 3,000 and carried regular contributions from distinguished overseas writers. Shalit exerted a powerful influence on local Yiddish writing through his finely wrought prose.

There were many short-lived journals, the most robust of which came from socialist groups. Between 1912 and 1939 organizations such as the Gezerd [ Gezelshaft far Erdarbet ], Po'alei Zion, and the Yiddisher Arbeter Klub produced several periodicals. The literary journal that did most to stimulate local creative writing at this time was Dorem Afrike, the organ of the Yiddisher Literarisher Farayn, which appeared first in nine issues between 1922 and 1923 and reappeared as a monthly from July 1928 to January 1931.

At a national conference called in Johannesburg in May 1947, Di Dorem Afrikaner Yiddishe Kultur Federatzie was established, and its monthly organ, a new Dorem Afrike, the first issue of which appeared in September 1948, was edited by Melekh Bakalczuk-Felin. In 1954 the editorship passed to David Wolpe, who ran the journal until 1970 and was succeeded by a committee chaired by Zalman Levy. It closed in 1991.

In 1949, Pacific Press and its ancillary, Kayor Publishers, were founded by Nathan Berger and Joseph Borwein. Between them, Kayor and the Kultur Federatzie inaugurated the most productive era in local Yiddish publishing. South Africa became an important center of Yiddish creativity. From 1949 to 1962, Kayor, in association with the Kultur Federatzie, published six collections of essays and short stories, six volumes of poetry and one novel, together with all the journalism and most of the Yiddish and Hebrew occasional publications in South Africa.

The horrors of the Holocaust were movingly chronicled by two survivors, Levi Shalit (b. 1916) and A. Peretz, who lived in South Africa before they emigrated to Israel.


A normative figure in early South African Jewish life was the old bachelor, who stayed single because he could not afford to bring over a bride from the Old Home. For some, brides were sent out from Lithuania. Married men often could not afford to bring their families to join them. There was also considerable intermarriage with Afrikaans, black, and colored women in country districts. Sensitively treated, all these matrimonial complexities, common in the immigrant experience, became recurring subject matter. Many immigrant Jews went to work in the exploitative stores-cum-eating-houses which the mining companies granted by concession to entrepreneurs, mostly Jewish themselves. There they lived solitary lives, working long hours in unhygienic conditions. To describe these places and those who worked in them, Yiddish speakers created two neologisms which entered the language as unique South Africanisms: kaffireater, the place, from the pejorative English title "kaffir eating-house"; and kaffireatnik, which became one of the stock figures of South African Yiddish literature. The problem of adaptation and the ensuing conflict between traditional ways of Jewish life and the demands of accommodation are understandably another chief focus of the writing. The love-hate relationship between Afrikaners and Jews recurs in different forms, but the alienating and bitter gulf between black and white most profoundly touches sensitive observers.

The earliest, most important figures in South African Yiddish literature were Hyman Polsky (1871–1944), Morris Hoffman (1885–1940), and Jacob Mordecai Sherman (1885–1958). Polsky, a journalist on Fogelson's Yiddish weekly, assumed its editorship in 1933 and remained its chief contributor. A selection of his best stories was published in Warsaw under the title In Afrike in 1939, republished in 1952. Morris Hoffman spent most of his life as a shopkeeper in the Little Karoo and published a major anthology of poetry, Woglungsklangen ("Songs of a Wanderer"), in Warsaw in 1935. After his death, his widow published a selection of his stories titled Unter Afrikaner Zun ("Under the African Sun") in 1951. Apart from contributing extensively to all the country's Yiddish publications and editing several periodicals himself, Sherman worked in almost all literary genres and produced South Africa's first Yiddish novel, Land fun Gold un Zunshayn ("Land of Gold and Sunshine"). His fiction, which was often autobiographical, depicted the relationships in farming communities between Afrikaner and Jew and between black and white. He also concentrated on the problem of marriages outside the faith.

Black-white relations, and the hardships of black people, were powerfully drawn by Richard Feldman (1917–1968), prominent in Transvaal labor movements. His volume of short stories, Shvarts un Vays, was published in South Africa in 1934, and republished in America 20 years later.

Der Regn hot Farshpetigt ("The Rains Came Late"), short stories by Nehemiah Levinsky (1901–1957), showed insight and compassion concerning the interrelationships between Jews, blacks and coloreds, and a deep understanding of African tribal customs. The most prolific Yiddish humorist was Hersh Shisler (1903–1978). Hyman Ehrlich published a book of satirical sketches in 1950, titled Ot Azoy ("That's the Way"), and a book of childhood reminiscences, Dankere, in 1956. A gifted short-story writer was Samuel Leibowitz (1912–1976), a regular contributor to all the local Yiddish periodicals. Other talented writers were Leibl Yudaken (1904–1989); Wolf Rybko (1896–1955), who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish; and Chaim Sacks, who published in 1969 a series of vignettes of life in his father's rabbinical household in Poland titled S'Iz Geven a Mol ("Once Upon a Time").

Mendel Tabatznik (1894–1976) produced South Africa's second Yiddish novel, Kalman Bulan, a family saga which shows a realistic appreciation of the inexorable processes of assimilation. His stories, one-act plays, two volumes of memoirs and two volumes of poems sensitively examine all aspects of Jewish life in South Africa. Memoirs have always been a chief feature of all Yiddish literature, and 15 volumes have appeared in South Africa. Some writers never really adjusted to life in the African environment and looked back with sadness to the world left behind in eastern Europe, forever obliterated by the Holocaust.

Foremost among the writers of non-fiction was the polemicist and researcher, Leibl Feldman (1896–1975), a passionately committed Yiddishist with strong historicist leanings, who became the earliest chronicler of South African Jewish life. He published five books of history, providing indispensable documentation of early Jewish settlement in South Africa, particularly in Oudtshoorn and Johannesburg. He was also interested in the history of the Indians in South Africa and wrote a controversial essay of impressions after visits to Israel. David Wolpe (b. 1908) produced two volumes of literary criticism and a substantial book of short stories, and in 1997 and 2002 two volumes of his autobiography. Published in Argentina under the series title Musterwerk fun der Yidisher Literatur ("An Outline of Yiddish Literature"), volume 50 was dedicated to South African Yiddish Literature: Dorem-afrikanishfragmentn fun forsharbrtn tzu der kharakteristik un zikhrones ("South African – Fragments of Research Works, Literature and Memoirs," 1971).


Yiddish in South Africa found its most profound expression in poetry. Here women made an impressive contribution. Anthologies came from Chaya Fedler (d. 1953), Rachiel Levin-Brainin (d. 1980), and Leah Benson-Rink. Sarah Eisen (d. 1981) wrote poetry in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Her subjects ranged from memories of eastern Europe to impressions of Israel and pictures of African life. Hyman Ehrlich (1908–1981) wrote children's verses before moving to more somber lyrics of two later volumes.

Outstanding among the introspective lyricists were Michael Ben Moshe (1911–1983) and David Fram (1903–1988). While Ben Moshe explored the anguish of personal pain in anthologies like Opris, Fram changed his style from the lyrics that had established his reputation in Lithuania to incorporate some of the vibrancy of tribal Africa. Fram's epics, published in 1947–1948, were Efsher ("Perhaps") and Dos Letste Kapittel ("The Last Chapter"). His last anthology, A Shwalb Oifn Dakh ("A Swallow on the Roof"), appeared in 1983. South African Yiddish verse continued to achieve international distinction in the work of David Wolpe, whose substantial modernist anthology, A Wolkn un a Weg ("A Cloud and a Way," 1978), was awarded the Itzik Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature in Jerusalem in 1983. Among other volumes Krikveg, liderpoemes ("The Way Back – Poems") appeared in 1991 and Iber meine vegn, lider, poemes, dertzaylungen ("Above My Ways, Poems and Stories") in 2002.


Yiddish plays, mainly written by overseas playwrights, were staged in South Africa from 1895. Most of the local work produced between 1916 and 1954 was light entertainment, performed from typescript, sometimes appearing in ephemeral local journals. Only Hirsch Brill (1891–1925) attempted to deal with serious dramatic themes and published two collections. Steadily declining communal interest and commercial competition slowly forced all Yiddish theater from South Africa's boards.

There is growing interest in Yiddish literature and in keeping Yiddish alive as a spoken language in South Africa. In 1983 the University of the Witwatersrand established a Yiddish library.


The most remarkable South African achievement in Hebrew came from Judah Leib *Landau, who arrived to assume a rabbinical position in South Africa in 1903. Between 1884 and 1923, he published overseas eight five-act epic dramas on mainly historical themes. Two were staged in Johannesburg. Only one dealt with African issues, the rest were concerned with the problems of westernization and assimilation, which he treated in the many essays he contributed on South African Jews during the period when he was chief rabbi of Johannesburg. A volume of his poetry was published in Warsaw. N. Levinsky and Z.A. Lison published in Israel fiction concerning South African life.

S. Aisen, M. Hoffman, and I. Idelson also published poetry in Israel. B. Beikenstadt published an anthology of translations from the Hebrew and Yiddish in 1930. I. Ben Yosef 's Links of Silence was translated by Rachelle Mann and appeared in Tel Aviv in 1983. Azila Talit Reisenberger published poetry in both English and Hebrew. Her volume Maḥazor Ahavah ("Cycles of Love," 2002) appeared in Israel, as did her volume of short stories, Mi-Po ad Kaf ha-Tikvah ha-Tovah ("From Here until the Cape of Good Hope," 2004). As well she wrote plays and published on Jewish identity in South Africa.

In the 1930s Jack Rubik founded a monthly Hebrew newspaper, Barkai, and produced it regularly until his death in 1978. The newspaper died with him. A monthly Hebrew supplement, the Musaf Ivrit, to the weekly Zionist Record ran from the 1960s and closed in 1987.


D. Sowden, The Jew in South Africa (1945); idem, South African Jewry (1965), 119–39; South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Books and Writers (1948); E. Bernstein, in: South African Jewish Yearbook (1959/60), 21–26; idem, in: JBA, 18 (1960/61), 54–61; idem, in: Jewish Affairs, 15, no. 5 (1960), 27–32; A. Coetzee, ibid., 38–41 (Afrikaans); H.D.A. du Toit, ibid., 21, no. 4 (1966), 16–20; S. Liptzin, ibid., 23 no. 9 (1968), 28–32; S.I. Mocke, ibid., 6, no. 6 (1951), 7–10 (Afrikaans); R. Pheiffer, in: Die Burger (March 11 and 12, 1970). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C.N. Van der Merwe, Breaking Barriers: Stereotypes and Changing of Values in Afrikaans Writing 18751990 (1994); M. Leveson, People of the Book: Images of the Jew in South African English Fiction 18801992 (1996); V. Belling, Bibliography of South African Jewry (1997).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.