Looking Back

Isadore Kahanovitz taught us to see more clearly ahead

By: Eleanor Katseff

In the first of an occasional series of “Educator” profiles, Eleanor Katseff, one of his former pupils, reflects on the influence of Isadore Kahanovitz, whose first yahrzeit is in August this year.

The Jewish calendar is a testimony to and validation of the power of history. It recognises the necessity to pass stories on from one generation to the next, and to teach the lessons of the past over and over until they become a clear and vital living thing. Isadore Kahanovitz, who passed away recently at the age of 96, understood the power of history and the impact it could have on the lives of his students, and he made it his life’s work to impress upon them the wisdom that comes from looking back in order to see more clearly up ahead.

In many ways, his journey as an educator is the history of Jewish Education in South Africa: From Johannesburg where Isadore was instrumental in establishing both King David Linksfield Primary and High School, to Durban where he headed up Sharona and developed Carmel College. He served on the Jewish Board of Education and later accepted the opportunity to put his unique stamp on Carmel High in Pretoria. Inspired by his years of study at the Institute of Education at London University and months spent observing schools across Israel, he introduced modern and progressive ideas as principal, and his deep and abiding love of English Literature and reverence for History were passed on to his students with a maverick and unforgettable methodology of teaching.

Years later, students recall with affection this humble and erudite teacher who with the stroke or jiggle of a piece of chalk could conjure up the free world and make the story of man alive and captivating. Many of his students went on to excel in their chosen fields and they attribute in no small measure Isadore’s influence as a contributing factor to their success. Far from being a dry academic, Isadore’s interests were many and eclectic, and it was this innate curiosity and passion for learning that gave depth and vitality to his classes. He was also a sports master of distinction, particularly in Cricket in which he maintained a life-long interest. A favourite night-time ritual was reaching for a book, many of which focused on the game. Students remember classes he taught with a cricket bat swung about with enthusiasm, and that small piece of chalk so creatively used to denote countries and events on the world stage, was also a useful missile aimed with a sportsman’s speed and accuracy when occasionally required. It was not unusual for him to rise suddenly from the dinner table only to bowl an imaginary cricket ball at an imaginary wicket. This somewhat eccentric element of surprise was part of his unique charm.

His wry sense of humour, gentle ribbing, and, of course, that marvellous intellect made him wonderful company, and friends recall with joy the pleasure of sharing a good whiskey with him. Isadore enjoyed his neat with two blocks of ice! Community was important to him, and he acted as Chairman of both The Zionist Council and Bnei Brit, and upon his retirement he took up leadership at Rotary for many years. Never one to rest on his laurels, Isadore spent his retirement continuing both the education of others, and his own edification, signing up for a Master’s degree in Education when he was in his early 90s. He taught classes to foreign students learning English, gave private classes to the underprivileged, advised universities and other bodies on pedagogy, and was the language Educator for the Department of Education.

As a family man, Isadore was an adored husband, father, and grandfather. To his children he passed on his love of literature, an appreciation of history, and a love of Israel and the Jewish people. He believed that a good night’s sleep could solve most problems, and that it was better to hold back an opinion in order to keep the peace. He was loyal and compassionate, laughed easily, and had a genuine and insightful regard for everyone he met. His wife, Muriel, was his constant, supportive, and equally charming companion for more than 60 years. It was Winston Churchill, much admired by Isadore, who said: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” This can be said of Isadore, whose life was scripted with the care, energy, and passion that creates a true legacy. In the end, his example lives on as the embodiment of the subject he so admired: an examination of his life story serves only to inspire, motivate, and encourage a new generation.

Memories on the occasion of his 90th birthday

“By the end of the lesson, the board was an incoherent plexus of curlicues, whirligigs, and squiggles. But out of this chaos blossomed our understanding and love of history.”

“He sought and won closeness rather than aiming for aloofness. He stimulated rather than scolded. He guided rather than ridiculed. He used neither anger nor threats nor violence. A disapproving glance from him was punishment enough.”

Vivian Jack

“More than anything, it was the values you communicated, the passion for knowledge, and the depth of your humanity, and the unforgettable idiosyncrasy of your maps! Somehow, too, behind the formal relationship I sensed a friend and someone who cared about my well-being”

Tony Dinner

“Isadore was one of the most important formative adults of my youth, and the ideas I formed at Carmel have stayed with me and been a guide all my life.”

David Schmahman

“His intelligent descriptions of European history were always fascinating and made real, as if we could see into the mind of Napoleon. I have been teaching medical students and residents for many years, and I still wish I could have those great gifts as a teacher, and as a role model as a truly good human being that we were so fortunately exposed to at King David.”

Hillel Laks

“Isadore is one of those rare individuals whose genuineness and integrity are palpable. He will always have a fond place in my heart.”

Desmond Tuck

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