In 1949, Cecil Moss and “Okey” (Aaron) Geffin joined the Springboks in a rugby series against New Zealand.
“Having a Jewish player on the team is the good luck that I dream of,” the Afrikaner coach, Dr Danie Craven, said at the time, as no side with a Jewish player had ever lost a match.
“And so the records were proved correct, when we won all four matches,” recalled Mr Moss, now 84.
He was speaking at the opening of an exhibition celebrating the Jewish contribution to rugby in South Africa, The Glory of the Game — Rugby and the Jewish Springbok Minyan, which is on at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town until November 8.
Despite South Africa’s relatively small Jewish population (currently 70,000), 10 Jewish players have played 78 Tests for South Africa, winning 57 times, drawing six contests and losing just 15 times.
The most famous players include Syd Nomis, who for years held the South African record for 25 consecutive caps; Joel Stransky, who scored the winning drop goal in the 1995 rugby World Cup final; Louis Babrow — cousin of the first Jewish Springbok, Morris Zimerman, capped in 1931; and Cecil Moss, vice-captain of the Springbok team that toured new Zealand in 1949.
It is “rather unique” that so many Jews starred in South Africa’s national sport, according to museum benefactor Mendel Kaplan, who initiated the exhibition.
He suggested that Jewish immigrants were determined to become integrated into the sports-mad nation and “one of the ways was to be successful on the sports field”.
In addition, he said, Jews arrived as founders of the cities of Johannesburg and Kimberley. Being part of the establishment imbued them with “a natural inbuilt confidence” that immigrants did not usually possess, including the confidence to become a rugby Springbok.
The Jewish community, said Kaplan, “felt that success, they felt it when ‘Okey’ Geffin kicked those penalties in 1949, they felt it when Joel Stransky kicked the drop-goal”.
The community also produced two Springbok referees: Max Baise, and Jonathan Kaplan, who holds the world record for refereeing the highest number of international test matches.
“He is entrusted with international matches across the globe and in a discipline where every decision is scrutinised on television, he remains the International Rugby Board’s first choice,” said Mr Moss. “They’ve got tremendous credit for the Jewish community in South Africa and rugby as a whole.”