Rachmiel (Richard) Feldman


Richard (Rachmiel)  Feldman was born in the village of Shapiska in Kovner, Lithuania, and when his father went to South Africa to try and make a living for his family, his mother, Minne, his two brothers, Zalman and Leibl and sister Rochel went to live in Rakishik. In 1910, when he was a boy of thirteen his family emigrated to South Africa.  He was thus unique among S. African Yiddish writers in that he received both a South African and a Jewish education.  In Lithuania he had studied at an haskilic Yiddish school; in Johannesburg he attended the Jewish Government School.  In Lithuania he had been fired with Zionistic fervour; in Johannesburg he became one of the pioneers of the Young Zionist Society.

In 1924 he visited what was then Palestine as a tourist, and was so taken with what he saw that he joined a kibbutz for a while.  Returning to South Africa, he was instrumental in founding a local branch of Po’alei Zion, an international Jewish movement which tried unsuccessfully to fuse Socialist and Zionist ideals, and which eventually did not materialise.  In 1927, following a visit of Dr Leon Bramson, one of the leaders of the world organisation of Ort-Oze Emidirekt (a body which dealt with the threefold task of reconstructive relief, preservation of health, and emigration from Eastern Europe), Feldman became active in developing Ort in South Africa, and after he married in 1930, both he and his wife Freda, played an important part in establishing it permanently in 1936.

Feldman was one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Jewish War Victims Fund after 1918, later he became a prominent member of the South African Labour Party, serving as secretary of its organising committee before being elected to the Transvaal Provincial Council in 1943, as Labour representative for Johannesburg City, a seat he held for eleven years.  He was also a member of the Central Rand School Board, and an executor of the Morris Isaacson Education Fund which had its origin in the Peretz School for Africans.  Through the fund he set up, he not only helped provide education bursaries but was instrumental in building the first high school for black students.   He wrote prolifically in English, regularly publishing a wide range of articles on current political and cultural matters in local newspapers and journals.

Despite the fact that he had received a substantial part of his education in Johannesburg, Feldman’s abiding love remained Yiddish, which he read extensively.  His only book of stories Schwartz un Vays [Black and White], written in Yiddish, was first published in Warsaw in 1935;  twenty-two years later in 1957, it was republished in New York by the Central Yiddish Cultural Organisation (CYCO), and issued in a dust-cover designed by the well-known artist, Irma Stern, the only South African Yiddish book to achieve a second edition.

Richard Feldman died in 1968 in Johannesburg after a long illness, leaving his wife, son, Josse and daughter Mona.

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