“The Flying Dentist”

SA Rugby Legend Wilf Rosenberg Passes Away In Israel

By David E. Kaplan

January 14th 2019 saw the passing of a legend Wilf Rosenberg at age 84 at Beth Protea, the retirement home for South Africans in Herzliya Israel.

It  was only six months ago that I enjoyed a good laugh with this illustrious Jewish Hall of Famer when  following a string of recent defeats by the South African ‘Springboks’, I suggested “they should recall you to the squad!”

The octogenarian, who immigrated to Israel in 2009, replied:

 “Yes they should; they have nothing to lose.”

Considered one of the greatest South African rugby players of all time, Wilf was dubbed “the flying dentist,” because of the way this periodontist would fearlessly hurl himself over the try line.  The son of a rabbi, he first made it big with the South African Springboks and later with the Leeds Rugby League Club where in 1960-61 he broke the single season scoring record with 48 tries – a record that still stands nearly five decades later!

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True Colours. Wilf Rosenberg in his Springbok colours.

The other record that still stands is that Wilf is the only Jew to have ever played Rugby League.

Jewish people came out in droves to see me, a Jewish boy, playing rugby league. It was wonderful,” recalled Wilf.

This Jewish rarity on the English playing fields was not the case in South Africa where there have been ten Jewish rugby Springboks, amusingly referred to as the “Minyan” (the male quorum required for Jewish communal worship):

Morris Zimmerman, Louis Bradlow, Fred Smollan, Dr. Cecil Moss, Prof. Alan Menter, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kaminer, Ockey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Dr. Wilf Rosenberg and Joel Stransky.

So how did it happen that Wilf emerged an all-time rugby great that earned him an induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994?

No Stopping Rosenberg

Born in Sea Point,  Cape Town in 1934, Wilf spent his childhood in Australia where his father Phillip was the Chief Rabbi. It was there where he began to play rugby at the age of six and was quickly singled out as “an exceptional talent”. In my interview in 2012 with Wilf at Beth Protea, he recalled every last detail, how his coach at the Sydney Grammar School asked Ron Rankin, a decorated WWII airman and a fullback for the Wallabies, to visit the school and assess the best players. “Pointing to me – and I was 13 at the time – Rankin said, “Look after the boy. He will play for Australia”.”

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Mighty Men. At a gathering at Beth Protea, Herzliya recording the contribution of South African Jews to sport were these three world famous Springboks (left-right), Aubrey Kaplan (water polo), Wilf Rosenberg (rugby) and Teddy Kaplan (weightlifting).

That prophesy would never “play” out as Rabbi Rosenberg moved his family back to South Africa despite  a “very upset” Sydney Grammar offering “to put me in a boarding school. My mother was adamant, ‘No way, my son comes with me‘.”

Returning to South Africa, the Rosenberg males were making a name for themselves in Jeppe, the father as the new rabbi and the son at Jeppe High School where he developed his “three-quarter play”. Soon Wilf played for his province, Transvaal, at under-19 and then senior level.

“We had a great schoolboy back line,” he recalled. “Playing centre, I’d swing away outside my opponent, then, when I got the ball I’d dummy the full back and be away. Opponents used to shout, ‘Stop Rosenberg‘.”

Literally, there was no stopping Rosenberg.

His big break came in 1955, when the legendary Danie Craven took a fateful decision and: Wilf was well on his way!

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Willful Wilf. Clutching the ball, there was no stopping this running Rosenberg.

Don’t Cross Craven

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Clash of Titans. Poster for the 3rd test at Loftus Versveld, Pretoria following Wilf Rosenberg’s début match at Newlands.

A stellar player, coach, administrator and one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, Dr. Danie Craven believed that South Africa would not win a test series without a Jew in the side. “He not only believed this passionately” said Wilf, but “put it to the test with me during the  British Lions tour of South Africa in 1955,” the first Lion’s after the Second World War.

Following defeat by one point in the first test at Johannesburg by what rugby history buffs consider to be the best ever Lions team to visit South Africa  with the likes of Cliff Morgan, Geoff Butterfield and Phil Davies – the ‘Boks’ needed to change things around. At the selectors meeting for the 2nd test, “Craven threatened to resign if they did not pick me.”

While Wilf at seventeen had been the youngest player in the Transvaal squad, “I was largely unknown, but they knew Craven and went with his instincts.”

It paid off.

“We beat them 25-8 at Newlands,” with Wilf scoring, as the newspapers at the time described – “a stunning 50 yard try.”

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New Horizons At Newlands. Wilf Rosenberg’s début performance as a Springbok at the 2nd test against the British Lions at Newlands in 1955.

Scoring on his Springbok début, it was also noted in talk and print at the time, that “Wilf won the hearts of the segregated black spectators” who cheered  him wildly when he ran out to play.  Was it because he was a Jew, whose people like them had endured insufferable prejudice? Who knows? Wilf responded  by directing his waving at the segregated section of the stadium making as well his début statement against Apartheid. He would later cherish his meeting with Nelson Mandela when ‘Madiba’ ascended from prison to president. “He invited me to his house for tea and we spoke about his days on Robben Island where he spent 27 years in exile.”

But here was the irony that did not escape Wilf who at the time was also promoting boxing in South Africa, a sport Mandela excelled in as a youth.

“Mandela was a mad keen boxing fan,” Wilf related and “we always had ringside seats for him and his staff.”

This was a far cry from when Wilf made his début for the Springboks in 1955 in Newlands and there were no preferential but segregated seats for South Africa’s Black majority. Acknowledging this inequality, Wilf waved to those who were honouring him.

“I think about my début often,” recalling how ecstatic fans jumped the fence when he scored before being restrained by police.

With the game only five minutes old:

  “I sensed their strategy – to target me, the smallest guy on the field.”

As if it was yesterday, Wilf recalled in minute detail how Davies, a giant of a man, “called for the ball and set off. I took off and hit him. Bang! The crowd erupted.” The plan was “to keep it from the backs and attack in the second half. I cut right through the Lions back line for my try. Fans still say it’s one of the best they’ve seen.”

The Springboks won 25-9 and at full time, the Lions lined up and started clapping. “I wondered why and then the Springboks stepped back and clapped. It was for me.”

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A Star Is Born. Magazine covering the 1955 majestic series which ended in a draw but propelled Wilf Rosenberg to rugby stardom.

By the Grace of god

And so began Rosenberg’s career as one of South Africa’s most beloved players, where he dazzled the crowds with his speed, fearlessness and signature stunts. With his head thrown back, he would outsmart his opponents with a “dummy” – a fake pass –  by cutting through the backline and then diving over the try line to score. “It looked as if I was diving into nothing,” said Rosenberg, who was now well on his speedy way to earning the sobriquet – “The flying dentist.”

So how did the son of a rabbi (Jeppe synagogue) end up being allowed to play on Shabbat (Sabbath)?

The rabbi had a smart answer:

My son is born with a G-d given talent. Who am I to argue with G-d.”

This rationale proved reminiscent of a test-winning decision by the great Louis Babrow during the victorious 1937 Springbok tour in New Zealand. The final test fell on Yom Kippur but Babrow decided to play, arguing that, with the time difference, he would have played the match before the Day of Atonement dawned in South Africa.

He displayed the same cerebral maneuverability as he did physically on the field!

Twice inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at Wingate, Wilf’s Springbok jersey, socks and boots are there on display. It was a proud moment when “I led the SA delegation, carrying the flag in the 1997 Maccabi Games.”

Wilf might have participated in the 1957 Maccabi Games had he been allowed to join Nachal (Fighting Pioneer Youth in Israel) in 1956. “Craven would not hear of it, insisting I could not let South Africa down with the upcoming 1956 tour to New Zealand.”

Taking on the All Blacks was “manageable” compared to “taking on Danie Craven; that was bordering on suicide – he nearly exploded when I suggested it.”

‘Tackling’ the Past

It was Wilf’s father, the rabbi, who clinched the deal for Wilf to go professional.

While on honeymoon in Durban with his first wife, Elinor,  he received a telegram from “my Dad that read ‘Pack your bags. I’ve signed you up for Leeds’.” It transpired that while on a visit to England, agents for Leeds surprised Rabbi Rosenberg at the airport and offered his son an astounding ₤6,000 to sign with them – an offer Rabbi Rosenberg could not refuse.

“I knew about rugby league growing up in Australia, but I never had any dreams of playing the game until my father made it a fait accompli,” revealed Wilf.

Adding to the allure was the fact that Rosenberg would be the only Jew to play rugby league – a distinction that holds to this day.

A Jew playing rugby league? Unheard of!” said Rosenberg.

While playing rugby league, Wilf was also in dental school, earning the highest marks and specializing in periodontics. As he remembered it, “I lived a very fast life, juggling my dental practice with rugby and a growing family.”

To the day of his passing, Wilf remains fondly remembered with fans recalling matches well over half a century ago as if they were yesterday.

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Ducking and Diving. Wilf Rosenberg’s trademark dive as he scores for Leeds in the early 1960s.

Writes Hull FC Pete Allen a club that Wilf had played for as well: “He was my first real hero. I was eleven when he signed for the club and it was at the time when the great team of the 1950s had all-but fizzled out. It was a tough time for the club. He made his debut against Bramley and scored twice, featuring the amazing dive he did in the corner. From that day onwards, he’s been a lifelong hero of mine. He’d take off two or three yards away from the line and dive horizontally over. There were always a bunch of photographers hoping to catch one of his famous dives. It was his trademark.”

Another describing Wilf’s inimitable talent is Len Lillford who recalls as a schoolboy watching Wilf in a game against Huddersfield. “He ran along the right wing and just had their fullback, Frank Dyson, to beat. Wilf lobbed the ball over the fullback’s head and ran round him and caught the ball to score under the posts. This was one of the best tries I had ever seen.”

Lawyer Charles Abelsohn of Kfar Saba, Israel, who played rugby at Stellenbosch University and later refereed rugby in Israel, describes his meeting with Wilf at Beth Protea in 2014, as “the second time in history.”  Their first “meeting” was “when I was 11 years old sitting in the stands at Newlands watching with my Dad that famous 1955 Springboks match against the British Lions.”

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Blast From The Past. News cuttings from the 1955 British vs Springbok series.

“Yes, that was when Craven took a chance with me,” said Wilf.

“No, it was not a chance; Craven recognised talent and you proved him 100% right,” said Charles.

Wilf’s glory days at Leeds was well recalled by Derek Hallas who said:

“Wilf was such a nice guy and the best winger I played with. For a man of his size, he was one of the bravest players I have played with and he was a terrific finisher.”

Small in stature, Wilf was a giant of a man on the field.  “One of the bravest players” and “a terrific finisher”, Wilf crossed the line of his life at 84 remembered fondly by fans all over the world.

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The King Is Dead

By David E. Kaplan

Legendary SA ocean swimmer known as the “King of Robben Island’’ dies suddenly in Cape Town

Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy,” he once said of his favourite pastime. “There are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”

Having faced off the perils of the open sea from dangerous currents, Great White sharks, poisonous giant jelly fish and sheer exhaustion,  it was  a routine check-up in Cape Town  on the 17 October for asthma that surprisingly struck down South Africa’s legendary ocean swimmer Theodore Yach at the young age of 60.

Holding the record for the most crossings to Robben Island – hence his nickname in the ocean swimming fraternity as “The King of Robben Island” –  Yach made quite a splash in Israel in 2016 when he swam across the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)  “not the width like most long-distance swimmers but the LENGTH – 22 kilometres from south to north,” says Stanley Milliner from Kfar Saba Israel who has been a friend of the Yach family since childhood.

“It was a tough swim because he was more accustomed to swimming in the cold temperatures off the Atlantic Cape coast and not the 26 degrees of the Kinneret and thus took him over 8 hours,” recalls Milliner. “There was great excitement at the time as members of the Israeli Swimming Association joined him for sections along the way.” Apart from the famed St. Peter’s fish, “He appreciated the human company.”

“It’s been such an unexpected shock for his friends and fans. He was a titan in the water and an example to future generations of ocean swimmers.”

Away from the water, the Yach family name on terra firma is synonymous with philanthropy supporting causes both in South Africa and Israel.

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Theodore Yach (right) with Stanley Milliner at the 2005 Maccabi Games in Israel

Leading Light

A leading member of Cape Town’s general and Jewish communities and an inspiring role model of philanthropy, Theodore Yach’s mother, Estelle has been a devoted friend of Israel and the Hebrew University whose benevolence significantly advanced the University and enabled hundreds of its students to pursue a higher education.

It all began in 1938, when Theodor’s grandfather, Morris Mauerberger, established the Mauerberger Foundation Fund, which his son-in-law and Theodore’s late father Solm Yach went on to head. His mother chaired the Foundation for over twenty years; thereafter passing over the reins to his sister, Dianna Yach.

Since the 1960s, the Mauerberger Foundation has lent its support to a wide range of projects at the Hebrew University, including the Mauerberger Medical Bursaries, the Morris and Helen Mauerberger Chair in Agricultural Entomology, research projects in diverse areas and, notably, numerous research fellowships and scholarships for Israeli and international students, many from underprivileged backgrounds.

Africa Israel – A Pulsating Partnership

Africa is benefiting today from the launch in 2017 of a prize by Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology together with the Mauerberger Foundation Fund in South Africa. Each year, Israeli scientists now compete for a $500,000 prize for suggesting ways of addressing a major development priority in the African continent – and in doing so, also advance the role of women in science.

Dianne Yach called on scientists to collaborate in tackling impediments to the full development of people and societies, while Technion president, Prof. Peretz Lavie committed the Technion to fostering Israel-African partnerships “with purpose and impact.”

The new prize builds on 80 years of the Mauerberger Foundation Fund support for those areas in Israel and South Africa that include the initial support for the Technion’s Soil Engineering Building in 1955; chairs in nursing, preventive cardiology and neurosurgery at the University of Cape Town; and the advancement of public health at the University of the Western Cape.

Theodore’s grandfather and founder of the Fund first visited the Technion in 1955.

Technion
https://www.jpost.com/Business-and-Innovation/Health-and-Science/Technion-S-African-foundation-launch-prize-498245

Today, the Helen and Morris Mauerberger Soil Engineering Building is home to ‘Engineers without Borders’, a programme that the fund continues to support, and that enables Technion students to initiate community projects in Israel and abroad and promote the University’s goodwill in Africa.

In Cape Town, Theodore Yach with his expertise in property development, was one of the key strategists behind the Central City Improvement District, “which helped the city avoid the inner-city decay that has affected so many other cities in South Africa and across the world.” In keeping with the family tradition of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew: “repairing the world”), Theodore Yach has over the years, raised millions of Rands for various charities.

During office hours, Yach was a divisional director at Zenprop, one of South Africa’s top property development and investment companies. He has also been a director of his family’s philanthropic Mauerberger Foundation and supporter of the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust.

The Cadiz Freedom Swim is an extreme 7.5 kilometres open water swimming race from Robben Island to Big Bay, Bloubergstrand. It takes place annually close to Freedom Day  – the 27th  April, the date of SA’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, marking the end of Apartheid.

The Cadiz Freedom Swim is recognised as one of the world’s most extreme sea races due to the extremely cold water characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean, unpredictable sea and weather conditions, and the presence of the Great White Shark.

Legacy of a Legend

Deserving of the moniker “The King of Robben Island”, Yach had at the time of his passing, 108 Robben Island crossings to his name – more than any other swimmer in the world. He has also swum across the English Channel, and he is the first person to swim from Cape Town around Robben Island and back, taking 11 hours. Despite the freezing temperature of the water, the area is popular for sharks, including the Great White. This never deterred Yach who always took the necessary precautions.

Yach comes from a family of swimmers and his love for swimming was nurtured from an early age.

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Theodore the Titan. Theodore Yach emerges from the water after his epic 30km Ultra Swim from Three Achor Bay, around Robben Island and back in a trip that took approximately 11 hours wearing only a regulation swimsuit, cap and goggles while being totally exposed to the elements. (Stephen Williams, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

In His Element

Theodore’s late father Solly, himself a champion swimmer, “told me as a kid to keep a record of my swimming achievements, which I did,” and led to his internationally acclaimed autobiography.

Titled, ‘In My Element’, it is an inspiring story that brings alive the sport of open water swimming and reveals how the boy matured to a man with every stroke.

in my element.jpg

“I planned a simple paperback book until my editor looked at all the photographs and material I had, and she convinced me otherwise,” he reveals in his preface to the book.

The world of ocean swimming in South Africa is not for the faint of heart. “It requires guts, training and a sense of adventure, all of which characterized Theo,” says Milliner.  “It was no wonder,” continues Milliner, “that his book was nominated in the ‘World Open Water Swimming Offering’ of the year category,” which recognises innovative products or services that have made a positive impact on the world of open water swimming.

Set in the backdrop of the wild waters off the South African coast, In My Element is filled with photographs, memories and personal highlights of his often-risky open water sea-swimming exploits undertaken since the 1980s, including stories about swimming with sea life such as sharks, seals and dolphins.

The autobiographical book sets out to motivate other swimmers and offers training advice.

An unrivalled pastime

“Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy; there are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”

Long distance open water swimmers are always exposed to the threat of hypothermia, jellyfish stings, bluebottles and the ever-present danger of sharks, yet Yach enjoyed every opportunity to get into the water.

“The best part of swimming in open water is that it isn’t structured. I don’t want structure in my leisure time,” he said. “I like the solitude and the fact that I am in the middle of nature and I like the possibility of a Great White that can come visit!”

But he was never reckless. He always swam within two metres of his support crew and with a shark shield that hung off the boat. The device created an electronic force field around him that kept sharks away.

He maintained that open water swimming was a tough sport that involves as much psychological preparation as physical endurance.

“The mental aspect of ocean swimming is more important than physical preparation because you are dealing with the sea, the cold water, currents, sea life and the fear of what is under the water.”

“Hypothermia and heart failure are biggest risks for open water swimmers – even more than shark attacks.”

Yach noted that South Africa was becoming the preferred destination for top open water swimmers to train, “as the water on the Cape coast is so cold.”

He explained that training in water with optimal temperatures was critical for open water swimmers who were preparing for races. “A swimmer’s ability to cope with cold water is essential and this is why they train in our waters for races such as the English Channel.”

The cold water of the Cape has lost its warm friend.