By Tali Feinberg
In April this year, extreme swimmer and Cape Town Jewish community icon Theodore Yach wrote in the Cape Jewish Chronicle about what Pesach means to him: “As a swimmer, I thought about the possibility of swimming the Red Sea as the Jews escaped Egypt. The symbolism, as a Jewish South African, of being able to escape tyranny resonates as apartheid was defeated in the early 90s and our fledgling democracy starts to make its way on the African and international stages.”
He shared how Michelle, his wife of 33 years, brought so much Yiddishkeit into their home — a passion they both shared: “I am married to Michelle, a ‘boerejood’ from Worcester, a place steeped in tradition where her love of Judaism was instilled in her from a very early age. After her late father Sydney passed, Michelle took over the running of the Seders. The symbolism of Pesach therefore generally falling within International Women’s Month is not lost on us as we celebrate the Seders under Michelle’s leadership.”
But that deep respect, love and family unit was shattered on 17 October 2018, when Theodore passed away suddenly at the age of 60 from a pulmonary embolism while undergoing routine tests in hospital. His family, his community and people around the world reeled in shock, as if a tsunami had swept away everything that is stable and true. To many of us, Theodore Yach was the strongest, fittest person we knew, so for him to be taken so suddenly made no sense.
At the funeral, Rabbi Dovid Wineberg of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation described Theodore’s passing as a true tragedy, telling the family that he had no easy answers. He shared that Moshe Rabeinu was given the name ‘Moses’ by the women who found him as a baby floating on the River Nile, and that it means ‘from the water.’ But what was Moshe’s name before that? It was Tuvia – Theodore’s Hebrew name.
He also reminded the mourners to take note of Theodore’s last lesson — that life is fragile, unpredictable and senseless at times, but that this should not make us fearful. Rather, it should alert us to make the most of every moment — as he did — for we never know when it will be our last.
To the hundreds of people from all walks of life who attended the funeral, his sons Daniel and David spoke of his “relentless pursuit of altruism,” and they wished all children could have a father like him. As men and women in the crowd openly wept, they shared how “We were at the centre of his universe, but his universe was huge” — including mentoring younger swimmers, raising millions for charity, and being deeply involved in both the Jewish and wider communities.
Theodore’s connection to the youth was evident in the number of young pallbearers at his funeral — part of four sets altogether. It is also highlighted in his book In My Element, in which he delights in describing how he mentored a group of waterpolo players to join him on his 50th Robben Island swim to raise funds for their upcoming tour to the Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires. The chapter concludes with a photo of him beaming alongside a team of track-suited teenagers, whose parents had trusted him to shepherd their sons across the sea because they knew he was simply the best.
Indeed, his accomplishments in the ocean cannot be underestimated: He was a trailblazing cold-water open-sea swimmer, crossing the English Channel in 1996 (after his first attempt failed when he swam into an oil slick) and conquering the 10.8 kilometre swim between the Cape Town coastline and Robben Island 108 times in just a speedo and goggles. This is more crossings than any other human being. He completed his 100th swim in 2016, to raise money for a number of charities, and it was a landmark moment for both him and the city that he held so dear.
“Theodore Yach was one of the world’s greatest endurance swimmers,” said environmental campaigner and ultra-distance swimmer Lewis Pugh on his passing. “It is so sad that while he achieved greatness, he never reached his peak. Every year he got stronger and stronger. He recently shared his future swimming plans with me and they were incredible and would have firmly established him on the world’s stage.
“His Robben Island record is remarkable. There is no such thing as an easy Robben Island swim. They are all tough. It is a swim that challenges you to the core. Theodore respected it as such and developed a mental resilience to cope with any variable that might have presented itself,” he added.
What many people don’t know is that Theodore was also a legend on land — probably because he always stayed so humble.
He was the Cape divisional head at Zenprop, a commercial property development company, and the founder of the Cape Town Partnership, which led a R25 billion rejuvenation of the city’s CBD. “He said we cannot let the city centre degenerate…. It was his driving force that put the Central City Improvement District (CCID) together. He really was a nation-builder — a social cohesive force across all kinds of boundaries,” said Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.
In the wake of his death, the number of tributes and the outpouring of grief left his family in shock. “I had no idea he knew so many people, or that he had connections with swimmers in Joburg,” said Michelle, after swimmers there gathered to pay tribute to him. His fellow Mother City swimmers who wanted to honour him met at Clifton Beach and made their way into the waves, where they gathered around a boat to talk about the three things he loved most – swimming, his family and the City of Cape Town.
“When an individual dies unexpectedly, especially at a young age, it is tragic and devastates those around them. When an icon that has achieved so much and has done so much for others and in so many spheres dies, it sends ripples throughout the community and beyond,” says Cape Board of Deputies Chairman Rael Kaimowitz.
“Theodore’s passing did just that. The entire Jewish community mourns his passing but at the same time we celebrate and acknowledge his life and his many achievements, not only the record breaking ones in the water but his wider contribution to his fellow South Africans. May his deeds inspire us to do more while we are still able. That would be the best tribute to Theodore.”