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 Hebrewfor overseas postage and handling.  Teacher, by Alexander Levin, translated by Michael Belling, Jewish Publications SA, Kaplan Centre, University of Cape Town, 310 pages, R299, plus R100 postage and handling.