A letter to Gail Lustig and Eli Rabinowitz
Dear Gail & Eli,
Many thanks for your e-mail the contents of which were read with much interest. I was made aware of your contribution and the website by Gavin Morris, Director of the Jewish Museum in Cape Town. I visited him recently and took him some interesting artefacts that I wanted to donate to his museum, inter alia a Siddur translated into Afrikaans by Rabbi Dr Romm.
I did grow up in the Karoo town of Beaufort West where I was born in 1939 and delivered by a Jewish doctor practising as the doctor for the S A Railways & Harbours in the town, the late Dr Harold Lee. I was schooled there and matriculated in 1956 from the Central High School. My late mother, Annie, (née Dubowitz) also matriculated from the precursor to that school, Beaufort West Boys High School, and was the Matric Dux in 1922. She had to get special permission to do her Matric at a Boys’ school, as the Girls’ school only offered tuition to Junior Certificate level (Standard 8).
I was very excited to read that you were interested in Zelda Myburg, as her late father, Rev. Aaron Myburg, my Hebrew teacher and mentor, was her father. My parents were married in the Beaufort West Synagogue in 1934 and Rev. Gulis was the spiritual leader of the Beaufort West Congregation then. After he left the town, Mr father was instrumental in convincing Rev. Myburg to leave Middelburg Cape and come to Beaufort West, where he would do the ritual slaughtering, conduct services in the shul and teach children in cheder.
My parents were great friends of the Myburgs and on Sunday evenings would play cards with them and others (Moishe Horowitz and the Goldenbaums). My mother was an ardent Zionist and worked tirelessly for WIZO and other Jewish charities. I knew Rev and Mrs Myburg had three daughters, who sometimes spent the High Holydays with their parents. Hettie was the eldest and married a fellow from Johannesburg and if my addled memory does not leave me in the lurch, had the surname of Hurwitz. The middle daughter, Golda, was an academic. obtained her BA degree at Pretoria University. To the best of my knowledge, she never married during my sojourn in Beaufort West. The youngest daughter, Zelda, the prettiest of the daughters, married a young brilliant academic Yaacov Newman, who later was known as Rabbi Dr Jacob Newman. Rev. Myburg was so proud of his son-in-law and used to tell us with much enthusiasm of his many achievements. When I first heard of him from my dear teacher, I think he was the resident Rabbi at the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg.
Rev. Myburg was a wonderful Hebrew teacher with amazing patience. I attribute my Hebrew education to his tutelage, and I had my bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1952. On 7 May this year, I celebrated my second bar mitzvah in the Gardens shul. I read the same portion in the Torah and did the Haftorah Kedoshim in the same trop as I was taught, including the old-fashioned Ashkenazi pronunciation. That was a moving experience, but also quite intimidating, as the Garden shul is massive compared to the tiny shul of my youth.
Rev. Myburg also taught me to blow the shofar and when he became too frail in his older years, I blew the shofar for him. That experience stood me in good stead, as I did the same ritual in the Grahamstown synagogue when I was a Senior Lecturer at Rhodes University. I left Beaufort West in 1957 to pursue my studies in Cape Town, but when I was visiting the old Transvaal in 1963, I went to see my former teacher, who was living his retirement in an aged home in Johannesburg. Suffice it to say it was a moving reunion. Thereafter I lost touch with Rev. Myburg and his family. Without a spiritual head, Beaufort West’s Jewish community dwindled and not a single Jew is left in the town.
When I turned 70 years of age, I was made an Honorary Citizen of Beaufort West. I visit the town regularly, as I still possess some property in the town (my inheritance). During my youth we had a thriving community, and I am hoping to write an account of those unforgettable characters who made such a great contribution to the town. The cornerstone of the synagogue was laid by Mr I Bakst, a great friend of my late grandfather, in March 1922; so this is the centenary year of the shul there. The original building is a storeroom these days, but Rev. Myburg’s house next door is now occupied by the sister of the owner, Mr Botha, a son of the original purchaser, Mr Gert Botha. The square pit in the back yard is still there where Rev. Myburg slaughtered the chickens, and we watched the ritual in awe as children. The bimah landed up in the Milnerton synagogue and the torahs were donated to a young community, Moshav Manof, a South African formed Settlement in the Galilee in Israel. I recall going to the old Schoonder Street Synagogue (since demolished) in Cape Town with my father to witness the handing over ceremony of the torahs.
When my wife and I attended a bar mitzvah at the Milnerton synagogue, I looked at the bimah and remarked to my wife that I recognise the bimah. She scoffed and thought I was losing it. Why would I remember a bimah? Let me explain. Each pillar of the bimah had a large wooden ball which was attached to the supporting pillar with a wooden dowel. As mischievous kids, we pulled out the dowels and balanced the ball on their pillars. When the gabbaim leaned against the pillar, the ball would come tumbling down with a thunderous bang on the wooden floor startling everyone at shul. Perhaps it even woke up a few congregants who had nodded off. What a childhood memory J!! When I told my wife how I had remembered, she remained unconvinced, but a fellow pharmacist and member at that shul confirmed my identification and my wife, like Queen Victoria, was not amused by the pranks practised in our capricious youth.
Once I got writing, so many memories came flooding back. I am pleased that I could add something to Eli’s query about Zelda Myburg. I hope to start writing about the Jewish characters of Beaufort West and my own family. The Finkelstein (my late Dad and I) and Dubowitz families (three uncles and six male cousins) could muster a minyan without the participation of any other congregants. My grandparents and two uncles are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Beaufort West.
Warm greetings and best regards,
Nathan (Natie) Finkelstein Dip Pharm DCC Hons-BSc (Med Sci) MSc PhD FPS(SA) FRPharmS FIPharmM MSAChemI
FORMER VISITING PROFESSOR: FACULTY OF PHARMACY, RHODES UNIVERSITY, GRAHAMSTOWN/MAKHANDA
COMMISSIONER OF OATHS: REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA
Cape Town, South Africa
Update from Natie
You requested pictures and I decided to send you one which marked a significant milestone in my life, viz. my second barmitzvah. The picture was taken by Rabbi Osher Feldman when I did a “dress rehearsal” at the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town (now 181 years old) three days before the actual Shabbat “performance” on 7 May 2022. This was rather a far cry from the original barmitzvah celebrated in 1952 in the small shul of Beaufort West. It was a memorable occasion being surrounded by family, friends, and the Gardens community at a brocha after the service.
Western Cape, BEAUFORT-WEST, Jewish cemetery
8 November 1922
Dr Christiaan Barnard Born
Christiaan Barnard was born in Beaufort West, Western Cape, on this day in 1922. Dr. Barnard studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. His first practice was at Ceres, also in the Western Cape. Dr. Barnard became famous in 1967 for leading a team that successfully performed the first heart transplant on a human being.