Vredehoek (Western Cape)
by Cecil Helman Moses Chaim Mirvish was born in the small Lithuanian village of Baisagola, in December 1872. He was the son of Joseph Ze’ ev Mirvish (born c. 1845) – a miller and grain merchant – and Tzivia (or Pese) (c. 1850- 1917), and the grandson of Hirshel Mirvish (born c. 1815). He was one of seven children – four sisters and a brother emigrated to the United States in the 1890’s, while another sister died in the Holocaust. He studied for the Rabbinate, first at the Slobodka Yeshiva, and later at the Yeshiva of Telz (Telsiai) – in those days, the most famous yeshiva in Lithuania. His teachers there were the Head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch and Rabbi Eliezer Shkop. At the end of his studies, he received his Rabbinical Diploma or ‘Smicha’ from Rabbi Gordon and from Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor Feivelson of Plunge (Plungian). In Plunge, he married Seine Margolis (1871-1941), and founded a Hebrew School, run on modern lines. In 1908 he emigrated with his family to Cape Town, Cape Colony, South Africa. En route from Lithuania via Bremerhaven (Hamburg), they stayed at the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in Leman Street, London, for four days from 5 Sept 1908 (the Shelter records indicate that their entire assets were just 20 Pounds). They departed from Southampton for Cape Town on 11 September 1908, aboard the S.S. Dover Castle. Rabbi Mirvish was brought to South Africa to be the minister of the Cape Town Orthodox Hebrew Congregation (the Beth Hamedrash HaChodesh), then sited in the Constitution Street Synagogue in District Six, in the old centre of town. Like him, most of its members originated in Lithuania, and many lived close to the synagogue itself. It was significant that, arriving in Cape Town on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1908, he based his first sermon or drushe on the text ‘I was a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus ll:22). He was the first fully qualified rabbi (with Smicha) in the entire Cape Colony. His arrival coincided with a period of turmoil, with the community and the country still recovering from the disastrous effects of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899- 1902. As the South African Jewish Times (29 August 1947) wrote: “One of the greatest difficulties confronting him was that the bad times which succeeded the Boer War prevailed throughout the country. He soon, however, managed to bring new life into the congregation in the old Synagogue in Constitution Street, forerunner of that in Vredehoek.” The Cape Town Jewish community had been officially established in 1841, by English and German immigrants, but from the 1880’s onwards there was a large-scale settlement of Lithuanian Jews (or Litvaks). The Constitution Street Synagogue was the most old-worldly and Lithuanian of the three main Cape Town communities (in Roeland Street, Gardens, and Constitution Street), but also the most orthodox, and the least affluent. In its annual synagogue accounts for the period 1 Nov 1909 – 1 Nov 1910, for example, Rabbi Mirvish’s annual salary was given as 93 Pounds (though this had risen to 116 Pounds a year later). In 1939 the community moved from Constitution Street to a new, purpose-built synagogue, the Vredehoek Synagogue, built in the art deco style on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. In their book The Jews of South Africa, Gustav Saron and Louis Hotz describe the particular atmosphere in the Constitution Street synagogue – a small piece of Lithuania recreated in Africa – and how it differed from other Cape Town congregations of the time. ‘On entering the Beth Hamedrash, one became conscious of a pervading atmosphere totally alien to that of the other two synagogues. Heavy much-thumbed tomes of the Talmud lay strewn along the long tables. To be shaven was almost as serious a breach of decorum as to enter a synagogue with the head uncovered.’ Despite this East European atmosphere, until 1910 the Cape was still a Colony, administered by a Governor on behalf of the British Crown. On 11 December 1909, Rabbi Mirvish was given a Commission by Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, Governor of the Cape of Good Hope Colony, as a Marriage Officer, empowering him: ‘to solemnise Marriages between persons professing the Jewish faith, in the Division of the Cape’ but requiring him also to ensure that: ‘in the solemnization of all marriages you do confirm to the provisions of the Seventh Section of the Order of Her Majesty the Queen in Council of the 7th September, 1838, relative to a declaration made and words to be spoken during the ceremony, and that you do also conform to so much of the Twenty-first Section of the said Ordinance as is not repugnant to the laws and customs observed among Jews.’ Within the context of the growing Litvak community in Cape Town, Rabbi Mirvish was a crucial figure not only in his own congregation, but also in the development of the Cape Town community as a whole. During his years as Rabbi of the Beth Hamedrash HaChodesh, he was active in wider community affairs, helping to create the basic social and religious structure of the Cape Town Jewish community, and in turn this influenced developments in other parts of the country. His Obituary in the Cape Argus (18 August 1947) noted that: ‘There was scarcely any activity in the synagogic, charitable or educational spheres of the Jewish communal life in which he did not play an important part’.While an article in the South African Jewish Times (22 August 1947), describing him as ‘the Grand Old Man of the Cape Town Rabbinate’, reported that: ‘”So numerous were Rabbi Mirvish’s activities,” said a well-known Cape Town communal worker, “that it is easier to mention those with which he was not associated than those with which he was.”’ For example, he founded the Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court) in the Cape, and for many years was the Av Beth Din, and he also founded the Cape Board of Shechitah. He was one of the founders of the Cape Executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies, and a member of its executive board for many years. He was a founder of the Bikkur Cholim (Sick Relief Society), and a Foundation member of the Jewish Aged Home. He was always an active Zionist – even before leaving Lithuania he was active in the pre-Herzl Chovevei Zion movement, and while in Cape Town became a leader of the Mizrachi movement. The South African Jewish Times (29 August 1947) noted that: ‘History was made by Rabbi Mirvish in 1917, when at a Conference he helped to define South African Jewry’s attitude towards the Balfour Declaration.’
While, putting his approach in a wider historical context, his Obituary in the South African Jewish Chronicle (22 August 1947) noted that: ‘local Jewry has been deprived of the foremost link joining up three distinct periods in Jewish history. Rabbi Mirvish grew up in the atmosphere of the Talmud, steeped in the life of a self-contained Jewish community long before emancipation came to the countries of Eastern Europe. That was the first phase. He lived through the period of Haskalah, which witnessed a fundamental change in Jewish outlook. When he arrived here some 39 years ago, the Zionist movement (the third phase) was in its beginnings, and he not only displayed the greatest interest in its progress but unhesitatingly offered it his whole- hearted and substantial support. Rabbi Mirvish’s life was, therefore, part of the very essence of more than one historic episode in our modern history and this, coupled with his virile leadership, explains why he was so universally popular.’ Always active in education, he was Chairman of the United Hebrew Schools in the Cape, founded a Talmudical study group for the young, and was an examiner of Talmud Torah’s in both Cape Town and its hinterland. After the First World War, he was active on the committee for the assistance of Jewish War & Pogrom victims from Eastern Europe. In his overall impact on the South African community, Rabbi Mirvish was a human bridge between the two cultures: the old world of European, particularly Lithuanian Judaism – and the new realities of South Africa, especially within the Cape. He was someone who mediated between these two realities, a living catalyst in the birth and development of the South African Jewish community. His son, Dr Louis Mirvish, in an article in Jewish Affairs (Vol. 15, No.5, May 1960), has described how his father had to solve a whole set of problems in this new, South African setting: ‘It is not easy for a later generation to realise the legal and practical difficulties which arose in this new land, and which my father was called upon to solve. As a pioneer in his field he was conscious that every step was a precedent. Problems connected with divorce, marriage, proselytism, chalitzah and burial, arose daily and had to be tackled in a practical manner. Jewish religious life had to be adjusted to the conditions of the new country – and there were no precedents.’ After his death, a special Editorial in the South African Jewish Chronicle (22 August 1947) noted that: ‘Although Rabbi Mirvish devoted himself primarily to his congregation and particularly to the learned orthodoxy in our midst, nevertheless his beneficent influence stretched out to all sections of the community. For he was not only a great scholar but also a leader and a man of action. His scholarly ability was true to the old rabbinic style – he was exceptionally well acquainted with ‘Shas’ and its commentaries – and in addition he was possessed of an extensive knowledge of Haskalah and modern literature. To this wealth of knowledge was added a progressive approach to communal life and he imbued the activities of his community with something of his own spirit.’ At various times, this progressive, more open approach to the realities of communal life, were at variance with those of his own congregation.