Photo: Nelson Mandela & his first boss, the Jew Sidelsky
Jewish lawyer Lazer Sidelsky gave Nelson Mandela his first job as an articled clerk in Johannesburg in the early 1940s.
In the book of Deuteronomy (16:20), we are commanded: Justice, justice you shall pursue.
Our father, Lazer (Laz) Sidelsky (I have two siblings named Colin and Ruth) pursued the law, and if ever there was a man who pursued the justice required by the law, it was our father. But it was more than the law that he pursued – it was mercy, compassion and kindness, which is in the true spirit of the law.
Throughout his life, our father was a man who gave tzedaka – charity, and devoted himself to gemilut hassadim – acts of loving kindness. This was exemplified in his legal practice – where he related to clients not just as clients, but as human beings to whom he gave of the best of his sage advice, help and friendship.
Lazer Sidelsky passed away on Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – the day of King David’s birth and death. Lazer could be compared to King David’s forefather Boaz, a man who continuously carried out deeds of loving kindness.
When Boaz married Ruth, little did he think that out of this union one of their descendants would be David, king of Israel.
In a similar vein, when Lazer Sidelsky admitted the young Nelson Mandela to his law firm to enable him to serve his articles, an action that no other white law firm was prepared to take, little did he think that Mandela would rise to be the president of the Republic of South Africa.
Our mother, Goldie Blume Sidelsky, throughout her life fulfilled the verse of Proverbs: A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.
When it came to kind deeds, Goldie excelled in her benevolence and consideration for others – Jews and Gentiles.
She was the Commandant of the first Jewish detachment in the S.A. Red Cross (Voluntary Aid Detachment No 57), administering first aid and care for many people. She took on voluntary work providing occupational therapy for people with special needs.
When her husband, Lazer, in later years opened a law practice by himself, Goldie worked for him in the office supporting him as a loving wife and personal assistant.
Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, wrote that on Walter Sisulu’s recommendation, Lazer Sidelsky had agreed to take him on as a clerk while he completed his BA degree.
The firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, one of the largest law firms in the city of Johannesburg, had a client base of blacks as well as whites.
Mandela wrote, “The law firm was more liberal than most. It was a Jewish firm, and in my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.
The fact that Lazer Sidelsky, one of the firm’s partners, would take on a young African as an articled clerk – something almost unheard of in those days – was evidence of that liberalism.
Mr. Sidelsky, whom I came to respect greatly and who treated me with enormous kindness, was involved in African education, donating money and time to African schools. He took a genuine interest in my welfare and future, preaching the value and importance of education – for me individually and for Africans in general. Only mass education, he used to say, would free my people, arguing that an educated man could not be oppressed, because he could think for himself.”
Nelson Mandela emulated Joseph in the Bible. We read in Genesis (45:4-8), “And Joseph said to his brethren: ‘Come near to me, I pray you.’ And they came near and he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. And now, be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and he has made me a father to pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.’” Later, we read in Genesis 50:15, “And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead….” Rabbi Yitzhak, one of the sages of the Midrash, asks, What did they see? They saw Joseph when he returned from burying his father, going and looking into the pit (where they had previously cast him); but he Joseph only had heavenly thoughts. He said to himself: “How many wonders did the Holy One, blessed be He, perform for my benefit – He saved me from the pit. But his brothers didn’t know what he was thinking in his heart and said: “It may be that Joseph will hate us.”
Nechama Leibowitz, in her commentary on the Pentateuch, wrote: “From the moment that Jacob and his sons came to Egypt, Joseph is presented not only as a son who honors his father, but as a faithful brother who used the power and authority that had been given him to serve and not to dominate. Beginning with his great speech to his brothers upon informing them of his spirit of forgiveness and peace and love, to this taking care of his family, we do not see him bearing a grudge or wishing to take revenge.
This epitomizes Mandela.
He was sentenced by the Supreme Court to life imprisonment and served 27 years in jail, most of them on Robben Island. Not one member of the apartheid governments of South Africa could ever have imagined Mandela one day becoming president of South Africa.
He and all the black people of South Africa had been victims of state persecution and human rights abuses. In April 1994, the Mandela-led African National Congress won South Africa’s first elections by universal suffrage and on May 10, he was sworn in as president of the country’s first multi-ethnic government. In 1995, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Instead of taking revenge upon the white oppressors of the blacks of South Africa, Mandela wanted to make his country a symbol of reconciliation.
Mandela said gently, “The Rainbow Nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.”
When Alon Liel, the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, first visited Lazer Sidelsky in his home in Johannesburg, he mentioned that Mandela had asked him whether he had met his boss.
“Who?” replied Liel. “F.W.de Klerk?” “No!” said Mandela taken aback. “Not de Klerk – my boss, my only boss – Mr. Lazer Sidelsky!” Years later, Sidelsky attended a dinner in honor of “Newsmaker of the Decade.”
He was introduced by the MC, Time Modise, as “Madiba’s ex-boss.”
When Mandela heard this he stood up and exclaimed, “My boss is here, my boss is here” and promptly walked over to where Sidelsky was sitting.
Sidelsky began to stand up, but Mandela gently placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said, “You don’t stand up for me, I stand up for you.”
The two men embraced to a standing ovation of nearly a thousand people.
The writer is a rabbi who lives with his wife, Naomi, in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
This article was adapted from his book, Mandela’s Boss (Mazo Publishers, Jerusalem 2011), which he co-authored with his brother, Colin Sidelsky.