Hardly anyone in Cape Town today remembers Alexander Levin, but he was a towering figure in the Jewish community both physically and intellectually, the founding principal of Herzlia School – the first Jewish day school in South Africa – and a pioneer in Jewish education in this country.
Born in a Lithuanian shtetl in 1882, Levin was part of the vibrant Jewish world destroyed in the Holocaust. He was active in the early political Zionist movement that revitalised Jewish life and identity.
After early religious studies in a yeshiva, he became a teacher, specialising in modern Hebrew. Like many others of his generation and background, he became a man of enormous secular and religious learning and insight.
He also experienced first-hand the severe discrimination against the Jews in a time of pogroms and upheavals in the Russian empire. He witnessed the start of the 1917 Russian revolution, quite literally across the road from him as he was walking down the streets of St Petersburg in March of that year.
Looking for a life of greater freedom, he chose to emigrate. After waiting too long to accept a post offered to him by an American university, he was eventually offered an opportunity in this country.
Arriving in South Africa in 1928, he immediately became a pioneer in Jewish education in Cape Town, going on in 1940 to become the founding headmaster of Herzlia School, eight years after he originally proposed the idea.
He wrote his memoirs in Hebrew, his language of choice, in the early 1950s. This valuable contribution to Africana and Jewish history in South Africa has now been translated in English, in what Professor Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town describes as ”fascinating detail and lively prose”.
Education - My Life: Memoirs of a Hebrew Teacher, by Alexander Levin, translated by Michael Belling, Jewish Publications SA, Kaplan Centre, University of Cape Town, 2019, 310 pages. Download the book in full in PDF format [14Mb]
Read a review: in the South African Jewish Review, 29th April 2021
The contact for payment and distribution is the South African Jewish Museum.
- In the Village
- My shtetl
- The cheder (religious elementary school)
- The beit midrash and school
- The yeshiva In Kovno
- The meeting place for study
- Wanderings In the Great Yeshiva
- Experiments and failures
- Across the river
- Town and country
- Towards the objective
- The threshold of the teachers’ training school
- Teachers and students
- A convenient time
- First steps
- The Jerusalem of Lithuania
- To Saint Petersburg
- Beyond the pale
- Vilna under the steamroller
- At the crossroad
Download PDF in full [14Mb]
Postscript March 2023:
Alexander Levin’s autobiography also reveals a rich range of experiences of having spent significant time in Ukraine, travelling widely across the country in his late 20's / early 30's early last century. This provides interesting insight into inter-community tensions, nationalistic sentiments and the expansionist ambitions of Russia and other countries in the Region, in hindsight some of the seeds of the current War.
I am greatly indebted to many people in several countries for active, as well as behind the scenes support and encouragement, in helping to make the book a reality.
Certainly, the project could not have been achieved without a strong team effort, encouragement and support - both moral and material. I benefited from the helpful advice of many on approaching philanthropic sources, gaining sponsorship, as well as the production and logistics in bringing the project to birth.
Michael Belling, the book’s Johannesburg-based translator, has done an outstanding job conveying with consummate skill and flair the spirit and essence of my grandfather. His specialist knowledge of the historical contexts in which Alexander Levin lived, together with his background as a journalist and author, give the reader a meticulous, sensitive and nuanced account of his interesting life. It was always a pleasure to work with Michael on the project.
Geoff Cohen, Director of Education at Herzlia, has from the outset been very supportive of the project. He and his colleagues recognise that the current success of the school and its thousands of alumni are built on the contributions of the founders and leaders such as Alexander Levin, the first Principal, who guided Herzlia through its nearly 80 years of very proud history. I am deeply grateful to the school for administering the fund and making available resources to profile the autobiography to the wider Herzlia community of past and present pupils.
Solly Kaplinski, an Israel-based social entrepreneur who is Executive Director, Overseas Joint Ventures, Joint Distribution Committee, and a former Headmaster of Herzlia, immediately saw the value of translating the book. He became my generous mentor and wonderful matchmaker, guiding me on funding pitches, making connections and securing funding from philanthropists. Without Solly’s access to the international funding ecosystem of which I had no prior experience, together with his strong endorsements for the project, the funding goal would not have been achieved and the project would not have materialised. He was always at hand with wise counsel.
Adam Mendelsohn, Associate Professor and Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, at the University of Cape Town, was the initial champion of the project, providing anchor funding. The strong academic endorsement gave the project legitimacy in my search to source additional funding. This provided independent evidence that translation of the autobiography has wider and more substantive merit than as a mere family testament. As an alumnus of UCT, I was also particularly gratified to receive the funding. Janine Blumberg, also of the Kaplan Centre, was of invaluable support in navigating the challenging journey from the translated manuscript and original illustrations to publication. I greatly appreciated her on-the-ground knowledge and stoicism.
I’d also like to thank family:
The descendants of Azariah, my late father, who was Alexander’s younger son: Desiree, my sister, who found the book, Nicole and Emma, my daughters, and my dear wife, Alicia.
The descendants of Boris, Alexander’s elder son (named Baruch in the book): Susan, Julius, Michael, Alexandra and Tracey, and their children, Emma, Andi and Brad, and families.
Susan’s husband, John, as a retired geneticist and editor of an associated journal, was the ideal person to do the proof reading. I am immensely appreciative for his painstaking attention to detail, together with the close support of my daughters in finalising the edits.
Another heartwarming aspect of the whole project is that it was instrumental in bringing together the family spread over several continents.
The following organisations and individuals contributed financially to the project:
- UCT Kaplan Centre
- Dubbi Rabinowitz on behalf of Berdun Charitable Trust
- The late Eliot Osrin on behalf of Isidore, Theresa & Ronald Cohen Charitable Trust
- Herzlia School
- Gerald Diamond on behalf Kurt & Joey Strauss Foundation
- Levin and Lewin Family
There are many others who contributed valuable steers, input and advice, production expertise and administrative support to the project. These include:
Camilla Frankl-Slater, who produced the artwork for the cover, Amanda Zar, Lisa Leemans, Jacqui Rogers, Dr Shirli Gilbert, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, David Benatar, Ronnie Gotkin, Professor Glenda Abramson, Rabbi Johnny Solomon, Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Marc Falconer, Noaa Barak, Dorron Kline, John Orosa, Rabbi Yossi Pikel, Gwen Podbrey, who typed the book, Linda Bester, book layout designer, Daniel Kudenko, Nigel Grizzard, Professor Charles Oppenheim, Clair Heaviside and Solly Berger. The latter is the sole living contact I have come across who remembers Alexander from his school days as a toddler.
I am eternally grateful for all their goodwill.
As a former pupil, UCT educated, now New York-based Dr Philip Lanzkowsky MD, ScD, DCH, FRCP, remembers Alexander Levin very well and shared vivid recollections of his personal experiences:
'What struck me most of all was your grandfather’s erudition, deep knowledge of the Hebrew language, literature, bible and Talmud. He had professional teacher’s training in top schools in Europe at the height of Jewish history in the inter-war years. He had real struggles with the existing untrained Hebrew teachers in Cape Town who opposed any change and with the ignorant parents of the school children. I know first hand how he was disrespectfully treated by the cheder children of whom I was one (I am now 90!) because of his accent, European and foreign (to the uneducated South African ears) expressions and limited command of English. There was a complete lack of understanding and appreciation of the depth of his learning and his goals in Hebrew education……. This is my take away lesson from reading the book. You deserve a lot of credit in bringing his life and contribution to Jewish education in Cape Town to attention by publishing this book. It is a very important contribution to the history of Jewish education in Southern Africa.'