Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft Reminisces at the Launch of The Travelling Rabbi
In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft launched his book, The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe, written with renowned journalist Suzanne Belling at The Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Johannesburg. The event was hosted by the Union of Jewish Women in South Africa.
Rabbi Silberhaft, the community Rabbi who has been travelling throughout sub-Saharan Africa giving support to Jewish communities and individuals for the past 18 years, was introduced by Margo Segal, national president of the Union of Jewish Women and Jacana’s Mike Martin. According to Segal, “His perpetuity and wisdom are sure to make this book a thrilling read, most people write travelogues, we have our Rabbi writing a Rabbilogue. He has built archival material of a fast disappearing Jewish community that needs to be recorded and remembered.”
Martin mentioned that the book tells the important story that the Jewish community played in the development of our hinterland the back roads to the small towns that Rabbi Silberhaft travels. Guests were then shown a 16 minute documentary about the Rabbi that was screened on SABC after which Belling and Rabbi Silberhaft entered into conversation with anecdotes from the book.
When Rabbi Silberhaft spoke, he picked up on the thread that Segal began: “The sad reality is that the Jewish country community is dwindling, within ten to fifteen years there will be no Jewish presence at all in our small towns, historically there were over 1500 centres, today there are now about 130 Jewish centres and soon all we will be left with are old and abandoned synagogues and graveyards.”
Belling, who has been the editor of six weekly newspapers in South Africa (three of them Jewish), described her essential involvement in the book: “It was during my sojourn in Cape Town that I prevailed upon Rabbi Moshe to do a book, covering the 13 countries that he visits, traversing our vast subcontinent by road and air. I can honestly say that accompanying him, I have witnessed the full extent of his work. Whereas his far-flung flock experiences the cameos of his ministrations, in each area I have seen the full picture. And, indeed, it is an unbelievable picture of caring, dedication and going the hundreds of extra miles to look after then needs of individuals and small communities – from the cradle to the crave, from bris to bar mitzvah, from a wedding to a funeral.”
According to Belling, for the launch to take place at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre was beshiert (a blessing) as the book begins with Rabbi Silberhaft sitting at the side of Rabbi Harris’ bed in Hermanus, when he was nearing the end of his life.
The pair discussed anecdotes region-by-region, starting with the Northern Cape and Rabbi Silberhaft’s interaction with Pieter-Dirk Uys. Uys, who is Jewish by virtue of his mother being Jewish, told Rabbi Silberhaft, “I am proud to be the child of both chosen races – the Jews and the Afrikaaners.”
Through his travels, Rabbi Silberhaft met controversial political figures such as PW Botha who gave him an ancient Jewish relic as they sat on Elephant foot chairs in Wilderness, and Robert Mugabe who was, on the whole, uncharacteristically charming and well versed in Judaism. Guests were treated to a string of humourous and unusual reminiscences – from the story of Isaac Cohen, a supermarket owner in the Vrystaat who refused to meet the Rabbi “because rabbi’s wear black and white and smell,” to being barred from visiting Sun City during Apartheid because of his beard.
Afterwards, the Rabbi lingered to sign copies of this special book for queues of satisfied audience members.