Isaac Reznik, who died on 25 October 2019 at the age of 83, was a unique figure on the Jewish communal scene. Whether as a journalist, editor, photographer, historian, radio host, Jewish communal professional, book dealer, political and social welfare activist, archivist, lay volunteer or in various other capacities, it can truly be said of him that he immersed himself in the affairs of the South African Jewish community activities. In turn, he left a lasting mark in multiple areas of Jewish communal life.
Isaac was known as South African Jewry’s living encyclopaedia, and in his case it was no exaggeration. His recall of names, dates and places was uncanny, to the extent that he could quote verbatim extracts from speeches and sermons given over half a century before. When approached by researchers, both local and overseas, for in-depth information on aspects of the community’s history, this writer would regularly refer them to Isaac in the knowledge that not only was he scrupulously reliable, but that frequently he could tell at first hand of things that one would not find in the official record.
In the journalistic field, Isaac was managing editor of the Zionist Record during the 1970s and later editor of Jewish Tradition, official organ of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues.
An enthusiastic photographer, he also covered numerous community events over the years, with a high proportion of his photographs finding their way into the archives of the SAZF and SAJBD. For five years, he presented two popular weekly radio programmes on ChaiFM: Talk of the Town and Art of the Cantor, the latter focused on chazonut (cantorial singing). He went on to start an online streaming service, 20Chai. Amongst his copious writings on aspects of Jewish communal history were the many scores of obituaries he wrote for the Jewish press, almost always in a voluntary capacity. He was coopted relatively late onto the editorial board of Jewish Affairs, but made a valuable contribution during the few years that he served until his passing.
Isaac was involved in many aspects of Orthodox Jewish life. He served on the committees of the Federation of Synagogues and Jeppe and Cyrildene shuls, as a prisons chaplain (initially accompanying Rabbi Irma Aloy on prison visits, including to political prisoners held in Barberton) and had a long association with the Chevra Kadisha, officiating at well over a thousand burials. This culminated in his appointment as the first director of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues in 1986, a post he held until his retirement twelve years later.
The son of an immigrant butcher, Isaac Reznik was born on 14 October 1936 in Fairview, Johannesburg. After matriculating at Athlone Boys High, he studied pharmacy at Johannesburg Technical College and then worked for a time in the Melrose Cheese Factory. From an early age, he was involved in politics. At 18, he was the youngest member of the central committee of the United Party and later campaigned for the Progressive Federal Party.
While far from being a wealthy man, Isaac was noted for his unstinting generosity. Never married himself, he raised sister’s four sons and daughters when she became too ill to take care of them. After his domestic help died, he became guardian to her seven year-old daughter Julia, and paid for her education. In 1979, he acquired L Goldberg’s Hebrew Booksellers in Bree Street, Johannesburg, which he eventually sold in1988. He also opened a branch in Cape Town, as well as Medicus, a bookshop selling medical books on Wits campus.
In between all his work on synagogue and library committees (specifically the lending and audiovisual libraries of the SA Zionist Federation), running his businesses or political campaigning, Reznik was also a founder member and for twenty years secretary of the Johannesburg Film Society. This was founded in 1954 by a group of Athlone High matriculants, all Jewish, and at its height had a membership list running in the 1000s. As secretary, he met with a number of world-renown film stars, including Anthony Quinn and Janet Suzman.