Veronica Belling recently retired after 31 years as the librarian of the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre Library at the University of Cape Town. Here, she shares the experiences, challenges and achievements of an extraordinary career.
“It was much more than a job. It was an education, a hobby, a passion,” says Veronica of her time as the Kaplan Centre librarian for 31 years. She explains how she had returned from Israel where she studied Librarianship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and when the newly established Kaplan Centre acquired a collection of 11,000 volumes of Judaica in English, Hebrew and Yiddish in 1981, she took on the role. Veronica was ideally suited to the job as she had studied in Jerusalem had a background in general as well as Judaica librarianship.
“The most rewarding part of the role was being able to create a Judaica library from scratch. In order to catalogue the books I was forced to research them, so it expanded my knowledge of Jews and Judaism immensely,” says Veronica. “Then there was the language. I was fluent in Hebrew having lived in Israel for nine years and studying at the Hebrew University. I had always been fascinated by Yiddish, which my mom had grown up speaking, but I had never had the opportunity to learn it,” she says.
At the time, the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst in Massachussetts was established, and there was a revival of interest in Yiddish especially in the United States. “Encouraged by Lilian Dubb, a great Yiddishist, I attended the six week Weinreich Yiddish Summer programme in New York three times and I fell in love with Yiddish and with New York. I was also very fortunate to be able to attend the conventions of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) that were held in a different city in the United States and in Canada every year.I attended nine AJL conventions, and I presented papers at all but one. I even travelled to Moscow courtesy of AJL when I presented a paper on a library panel at the Congress of the European Association of Jewish Studies in Moscow. This gave me the opportunity to research, to write and to present to an international audience, which developed my confidence tremendously,” she says.
Extensive academic contributions
Besides her work as a librarian, Veronica also did an Honours in Judaica through Unisa and then a Masters in Jewish Civilisation at the University of Cape Town. Even before this, she compiled a Bibliography of South African Jewry, where she began by indexing the periodical Jewish Affairs, and then adding books and articles in English, Afrikaans, Yiddish and Hebrew. This was published in 1997 by the Kaplan Centre in association with UCT Libraries.
Following this, the Kaplan Centre published Veronica’s Masters dissertation on The history of Yiddish theatre in South Africa from the late nineteenth century to 1960. “To research this topic, I was forced to read Yiddish newspapers, periodicals and books, and my Yiddish improved no end. One of my sources was Leibl Feldman’s Yidn in Yohanesburg (The Jews of Johannesburg). It had a wide range of interesting information, so when I finished my dissertation I decided to translate it into English. That was a huge challenge. It was published by the Kaplan Centre in 2007.” “Then the day after it came out I received a phone call from Mendel Kaplan. In the book, his wife Jill’s grandfather, Yakov Azriel Davidson, is mentioned as the co-editor of a Yiddish newspaper, Der Afrikaner, published in Johannesburg from 1911. Mendel wanted me to find everything in the newspaper that Yakov Azriel Davidson had written and to translate it into English! Needless to say I couldn’t translate everything, but I did identify a series of satirical columns, published under the pseudonym Mr Kochelefel, and that became my next book, Yakov Azriel Davidson: his writings in the Yiddish newspaper, Der Afrikaner, 1911-1913. I also began to participate in the history conferences that the Kaplan Centre co-convened together with the Parkes Centre at the University of Southhampton every two years. That also led to the publication of scholarly articles in the volumes of their proceedings.”
Veronica’s advice to young people who would like to be involved in Jewish Studies or librarianship is that “Jewish Studies is enriching because it enables one to get to know oneself and strengthens one’s sense of identity. It is also portable and can be a passport to various countries that have large Jewish communities. Of all the professions, librarianship has changed the most because of the information explosion. “Books are still important, but electronic resources make information available on a much wider scale. Being in the field keeps you at the cutting edge of new developments which is very exciting.”
Veronica’s hope and vision for the Kaplan Centre is to “continue in much the same way, I reckon it has done pretty well thus far. But it must keep up with modern technology — digitisation of its resources is very important.”
Veronica’s message to the community is that “you have an amazing resource at the centre and you should support it in any way that you can. I can’t over-emphasise the importance of the Kaplan Centre. It is the only Jewish research centre on the African continent. It must encourage research in every way possible.”