As a matter of principle, Orthodox Jews usually shy away from changing the text of traditional Jewish liturgy. But in the 1970s, when Barry (Dov) Sidelsky served as community rabbi in South Africa, he altered a passage to include a plea for the speedy release of a black man, who at the time was serving a life sentence for terrorist activities.
On Mondays and Thursdays, right after the reading of the Torah, worshippers say a prayer on behalf of “our brothers and the whole house of Israel who are in distress or captivity.” Sidelsky felt that this prayer should not only address fellow Jews and thus took the liberty to slightly amend the text. “I would add: ‘And amongst them Righteous of the Gentiles of the World, including Nelson Mandela.’”
Although the chief prosecutor in the 1960s Rivonia Trial, which sent Mandela and nine associates to prison, was a well-known Orthodox Jew called Percy Yutar, Sidelsky said his congregants never complained about him amending the words of the prayer. “I would imagine that most of the Jews I knew were also feeling that it’s a terrible thing that Mandela should have been sent to prison for so long,” he said.
Sidelsky, who today lives in Jerusalem, is the eldest son of the only white person Mandela ever called “my boss.” In the 1940s, Lazer Sidelsky, a successful Johannesburg lawyer, had hired the future president as a legal clerk. A white lawyer employing a black man was “something almost unheard-of in those days,” Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
Lazer Sidelsky and Nelson Mandela became close friends. “He would come to visit us from time to time when I was a little boy,” Barry Sidelsky, now 70, recalled this week. “When he first got married [to Evelyn Mase], before Winnie Mandela, the wedding procession came past our house in Parkwood, Johannesburg, as an honor to my father.”
The two men stayed in close contact thereafter. “When my father went to visit Mandela at Victor Verster Prison — that’s where he was the last year of his incarceration — he asked my father about his eldest son,” Sidelsky said. “He said, ‘How’s your son Barry?’ So my father told him: ‘He’s now a rabbi and I’d like to tell you that he’s been praying for your release for quite a number of years.’ Mandela was so moved, there were tears going down his eyes.”
Today a grandfather of six living in the capital’s ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood, Sidelsky believes that Mandela attended his bar mitzvah — his father had invited many of his non-Jewish clients and associates — but admits he is not certain because he has no clear memories of seeing Mandela there.
Growing up in a traditional but not Orthodox home, Sidelsky started becoming religiously observant during his last year of high school. He was active in the Zionist Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva, and in 1964 decided to study Torah in Israel, at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He then returned to South Africa where he completed his rabbinical studies and served as community rabbi for over eight years, first in East London and later in Port Elizabeth.
During the apartheid era, Jews were overrepresented in the African National Congress’s liberation struggle, but the Sidelskys always remained apolitical, and racial politics were rarely discussed at home. This was rather typical: The local Jewish community, as a collective, adopted an “attitude of neutrality” to the racist rule in their country, according to Israeli-South African scholar Gideon Shimoni, who examined the issue in depth in his 2003 book “Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.”
“Even Mandela kind of bought the line that those individuals who were active in the opposition kind of saved the record of the Jewish community. But it’s a much more complicated situation than that,” Shimoni said last week.
Just like he and his father, most Jews weren’t highly involved in politics but had good personal relations with blacks, Sidelsky said. “The Jews as a whole in South Africa were people who related to the blacks or the colored or the Indians in a positive way. I’m not saying they were prepared to fight for the end of apartheid, but their relationship with blacks [was] basically pretty good.”
He is a distant relative of Yutar, the Orthodox man who prosecuted Mandela and is remembered by anti-apartheid activists for his abrasive and some would say vindictive style in court. Sidelsky even hosted Yutar and his family once on Shabbat. “I used to see Percy Yutar in shul. He went to the same shul we went to,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, Sidelsky — who prayed twice a week publicly for Mandela’s release — had nothing bad to say about Yutar, a man who even Mandela reportedly detested wholeheartedly.
“After Mandela became president, I would see [Yutar] in shul and I would think to myself: ‘How amazing is it that the man who prosecuted Nelson Mandela is now walking around as a free man.’ That’s the amazing thing about Mandela,” Sidelsky said. Just like the biblical Joseph, Mandela was thrown into a pit and sold to slaves, yet didn’t persecute his brothers once he reached a position of power, he added.
In 1981, Sidelsky and his wife Naomi immigrated to Israel, where he made a living teaching English and Jewish studies. Eighteen years later, in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, he saw Mandela for the first time since childhood. It was during the already-ex-president’s first and only visit to Israel. Sidelsky and Mandela had a short but “very moving meeting” that was hosted by Ehud Barak, who had just won the premiership.
They met again two years later, this time in a Johannesburg hospital. The elder Sidelsky — the man who Mandela said “trained me to serve our country” — had become seriously ill. “It was the most amazing thing: Mandela came into the hospital room,” Sidelsky recalled, “and my father, as he saw him, sat up; his eyes were twinkling, he was smiling. Mandela was like the best medicine he could have had. Because from that moment on, my dad recuperated and was much better.”
When Lazer Sidelsky passed away, in May 2002, Mandela paid a shiva visit to the bereaved family.
The Sidelskys have always been staunch Zionists, so how does Sidelsky junior reconcile his support for Mandela, with his vocal backing for the Palestine Liberation Organization? After all, Mandela had called the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat “one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation.”
Sidelsky, an otherwise eloquent man, didn’t really know how to answer this question. After hesitating for a few seconds, he said: “I never discussed it with him. I imagine that whoever would support him and the rights of the blacks to gain their total freedom, to have equality of rights in South Africa, he became a friend of.
“Of course it’s not something that I admire, on the contrary. Yasser Arafat was a hater of Israel, a terrorist. And he and those who followed him hated the Jews and the State of Israel,” Sidelsky continued. Perhaps Mandela sought the friendship of Arafat and other Arab leaders, he surmised, because of the “terrible situation” in which the South African liberation movement found itself, driving him to look for support wherever he could find it.
Saying that many prominent Jews had wonderful relationships with Mandela, despite his questionable alliances, Sidelsky added, “Maybe they feel the way I do: that on the one hand Yasser Arafat supported him; on the other hand, Nelson Mandela, in his relationship to all the peoples in South Africa, was a wonderful person.”