Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Sivan 5764 - May 27, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From Immigrant to Immigrant in Three Generations: An Impression of the South African Jewish Community Today

by Gita Gordon

As we flew over the plains of central Africa my mind was on the immigrants who had come to the Southern tip of Africa more than a century ago. Yated Ne'eman ran a serial I had written about three such young people, and later this had been published as a book entitled South African Journeys. This had resulted in a request for a talk on my trip to SA, and I was wondering what to say.

We had been flying all night and now the sun rose over a stretch of land and the unique blend of muted colors of Africa rose below me, blues and browns and soft dark green. A dry riverbed cut across the landscape. No sign of human habitation could be seen for mile after mile.

The stunning grandeur hit me and then the thought of people like my grandfather and my great-grandparents who had hurriedly left all that was known to them, small intimate villages filled with Jews, in eastern Europe (especially Lithuania), and come to this alien lonely environment. They had carved a good life for us and themselves in this place. Now their grandchildren had left and those who had once been immigrants remained alone, just as their parents had remained, waiting for letters and talking of strange foreign places.


Our first stop was to be Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of the country. I had grown up there in a vibrant community of 450 Jewish families. In 1965, a new shul opened for the High Holy Days with seating for 1,200 and chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the overflow.

Now the community had shrunk to a tenth of that size and the large community hall and shul had been sold to be used as a conference center by the Seventh Day Adventists. Was it a mistake to revisit the place of my childhood? Each year I had wanted to do this and each year I had decided against it. We would land in Johannesburg and board a much smaller plane and by midday we would arrive in Bloemfontein. I was filled with trepidation.

I needn't have worried. The twenty-four hours that followed were the highlight of my visit.

We arrived at midday and after lunch our tour began. The town itself had changed beyond all recognition. With the stranglehold of the apartheid laws now gone, the town is booming. There are giant shopping centers and new educational institutions. The once dusty sidewalks on the streets where I once lived, are now covered with manicured lawns.

Once, Indians and Chinese had been banned from staying in this Province. Even crossing the area in a train, a matter of some hours, had necessitated going to the police station for a special exemption certificate. Now there is a large Taiwanese population making use of the opportunities of a growing economy. In the small dorps, I was told, the Indian community had moved in to fill the gap left by the Jews, as shopkeepers, lawyers and doctors.

Unchanged is the Naval Hill Game Park, still situated in the very center of the town. We didn't see the famous zebra, arriving too early in the day, but we did see a tall giraffe casually feeding from the very top of a tree. Unchanged also the Arthur Nathan swimming pool. We saw it from Naval Hill and then drove down to park before it. There it is, the same unpainted facade, the same straggly bushes, the name of the Jew who was honored, still there in bold black letters.

The Jewish community has adapted, not only by moving to smaller, more convenient premises but also by making sure that each and every member of the kehilla plays a part. As a result there is a regular evening minyan, a cheder, and a rota of rabbis from Johannesburg and Israel to cover the yomim tovim.

We stayed with our friends, just a week before Pesach, which gives some idea of the marvelous hospitality that remains still quite firmly in place.

That evening we heard how tour hosts entertain people who are on their own every Friday night, as well as inviting families to join them. We saw how the husband is busy with communal affairs, as from early in the morning the phone began to ring with queries. We heard about the regular shiur the wife gave for the ladies who would probably otherwise not go to shul and simply stay home.

Early the next morning we saw the shul, the museum and the archives. Each part of the shul brought memories to me. In the archives we used the retrieval system to access my parents' wedding certificate. In the museum we saw photos of my father attending shul and Board of Deputies meetings. In the garden we saw stones that had been in the old shul, above the ark and a foundation stone, from the new shul, and there, with the rest of the committee, my father's name.

We saw also innovations. A mechitza with slates reflecting the ceiling lights, giving clear vision on one side and total opacity on the other. Everything was sparkling clean and very much in use, from the bustling office. The secretary told me about childhood friends, where they were now and what they were doing . . . She showed me the kitchen and told me of the cheder, the mikveh and the keilim mikveh. I had been afraid to see a community in decline. Instead I saw a vibrant active place and I was pleased I had made the stopover.

One thought welled up inside me. My father had been against tearing down the historic old shul and putting so much money into a new shul complex. He felt strongly that education was as important, if not more important, than buildings. When he lost the argument he threw himself into fundraising activities for the buildings. However, he continued to push for expanding the educational facilities for the children, particularly the girls of the community. I heard stories of intermarriage. Are these true and could these have been prevented if a vigorous education program had been pursued?

Now, all the time and energy that the committee had expended was enjoyed by the Seventh Day Adventists.

They had the beautiful buildings. By a strange quirk of fate, the minister of this community had been one of my father's patients. After some weeks, he ordered his entire community to use my father as their doctor.

This man had only one irritating characteristic. Each year a special preacher would come to speak to his community and each year he would beg my father to attend. One year my father spoke very frankly to him, explaining why this request was quite out of order. The man spoke out equally frankly, explaining that he had not meant to insult my father, but to help him. However, thereafter these invitations ceased.

When taken to view the building where I had once davened, I felt a terrible sadness steal over me. Probably there was no reason for this. The community continues in another building. As my father pointed out all those years ago, it is the community that is important, not the building.

By midday we were again airborne. The meal consisted of uncut fruit. The stewardess explained that since their was no kosher kitchen, the airlines had decided that this was the only way they could provide suitable food. We were impressed by their knowledge and their thoughtful attitude.

Cape Town

Cape Town held a new challenge for me: public speaking. To say I was quaking in my shoes would be an understatement. However the warmth of the audience put me at ease. They threw a clear light on the story of this community. Many had come as young children, as immigrants. They told of their experiences, the varied reasons they had left, the conditions they had found in South Africa, and the lives they had created in the new land.

They told also of their children and grandchildren living far away. It became clear to me that this society, once so isolated, now has international links with children and grandchildren scattered around the globe, visiting and being visited. The earlier immigrants knew they would never see their families again, but this new immigration is quite different. Family ties are maintained, with many happy re- unions, particularly for simchas.

However, just as they grew up far away from their grandparents, in a land and culture quite different, so too are their grandchildren living far away, experiencing a different milieu.

History tries to tie things up into neat categories. That evening showed me that real life is quite different, quite unclassifiable. Why did Jews come to South Africa from Lithuania? Each person had a different answer. "My Aunty was already here," said one. "My father was going to Australia. When they stopped at Cape Town and he saw how beautiful it was, he decided to stay," said another. Each person told a different story and every experience was unique.

The Shul

The following day we went again to the shul complex. First we visited the library. Like everything else in the complex, it is impressive. There are books of every variety. The chief librarian showed me a new collection, a number of shelves of Yiddish books. Once Yiddish was considered the language spoken by the older generation, not of much use in the new country. For most Jews, English became the language they spoke at home. Now there is a new interest in both the heritage of the shtetl and consequently an interest in its language.

A collection of Yiddish books was donated to the library by two families some time ago and the classification process began. Then one day, a call was received by a congregant who wanted a large number of prayer books collected so they could be taken to the sheimos box. Fortunately the lady who went to collect them was a well-known Yiddish expert and she realized that the books were in good condition and represented a lost trove of Yiddish books. So, instead of the books being buried, they were sorted out. The library retained some and others, sent to the Yiddish Book Center at Amherst, Massachusetts.

People heard the story and they brought Yiddish books from their homes. So the collection grew. The shelves of these newly-collected books are a remnant of a lost age. They are now being catalogued and some will be translated.

Next we went to the visit the South African Jewish Museum. The old shul, the first shul built in South Africa, has been totally changed to house the entrance to the museum. The walls are clean and smooth, the floors shining new wood, The Aharon Hakodesh is empty, and a few token wooden seats are before it. I liked the old museum better, with its atmosphere of days gone by. However, many people prefer this new high tech version with its videos and fancy glass cabinets displaying marvelous silver shul ornamentation.

We saw a cart filled with hawker's goods that was once trundled through the veldt. We saw the recreation of a shtetl, marvelously atmospheric, but did they really have such fine plates and silverware and abundance of food in that place of poverty?

We saw a video recreation of the meeting to establish the first community in Cape Town, wonderfully done, but sad to reflect that none of those families of German and English extraction retained their Jewish heritage.

The best moment of the tour came when my friend, guiding us, told the following story. "You see that large photo of immigrants arriving in Cape Town? Well, really only the central bit is historically correct. It is a collage. The outer two parts are photos of immigrants arriving in New York. I brought my mother here and as we passed she said, `Oh look. There is my Uncle Nathan.' She pointed to a short man squashed between two very tall men. My mother continued, `He fell as a child and hurt his back and he never grew very tall and he developed a hunched back. He joined his brothers in Johannesburg. They did well there so they sent for a bride for Nathan, but they were afraid that his photo wouldn't have appeal, so instead they sent a photo of his tall, handsome, older brother.' I said, `How could they do such a thing? How dishonest. What on earth did the poor girl do when she met him?' My mother replied, `Well, apparently she was a bit disappointed, but she did marry him and they had eight children and the house always seemed to be a very cheerful place. It was different in those days.' So, now you know a story of that giant collage that no one else knows."

We used the time in Cape Town for visiting the beauty spots. Tourists now flock to Cape Town, considering it safer than Far East destinations, so there is a vast choice of companies and tours. We chose the Hylton Ross full-day tour of the Cape Peninsula. We were collected in front of the President Hotel and driven along the coast along the beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay to Hout Bay. There we packed onto a small boat, together with tourists from all over the world, to visit the seal colony. Once before, I had done this trip, on a simpler, less crowded craft. Now the gabble of strange languages and the constant clicking of cameras somewhat spoiled the visit for me, but the sight of so many seals on the crowded rock is still impressive.

We left the sea to go inland to Kistenbosch, the botanical gardens with the magnificent backdrop of the Devil's Peak Mountains. Even with the crowds of people entering the turnstiles, the park is big enough to absorb them and still retain its beauty.

Next we returned to the sea, driving onwards past Muizeberg, the place where once Jews congregated for their annual summer holidays, past the summer cottage of the diamond millionaire Cecil John Rhodes (the creator of Rhodesia), past the small seaside communities that run along this stretch of fine white sand, to Fish Hoek. There we sat on the beach and ate our picnic lunch, while our companions made use of the beachside cafe.

Then we traveled through Simonstown, once a British Naval base but now firmly in South African hands, and on to the Boulders beach to view the penguins.

If the seals had been a letdown for me, this was devastation. Long ago, we had spent glorious days on this isolated empty beach. A penguin colony had arrived there and set up home. After a swim we would walk a small distance and quietly view these exotic creatures. Once it had been just the penguins and us. Now we joined thousands of other tourists, streaming past tourist stalls, walking in through a purpose-built museum, striding along a massive boardwalk with penguins on all sides gazing passively at the strange throng. We waited patiently to take up the one spot at the end of the walk where there was an uninterrupted view of penguins without people.

Now the pleasant memory of penguins and beach has been replaced. Instead I have the memory of tourists, the gabble of languages and the concrete of the museum. I should have remained in the van.

We went next to Cape Point, the rocky outcrop into the ocean, the southernmost tip of Africa where the warm Benguela current from the east meets up with the cold Atlantic current from the west. Once again, change: steps built into the hillside, tourists puffing their way up and down. There is now a funicular ride to the peak, as an alternative to walking. There are restaurants and tourist shops. All quite spoiled this once wild place for me, but others on the bus were well satisfied.

Walking down we were stopped by a cheery, "Shalom." When we looked around this was repeated: "Shalom. Shalom Aleichem." Jewish tourists from France. They were spending Pesach in South Africa.

How did they know we were Jewish? They laughed when we asked them.

We made our way back home along the recently reopened Chapman's Peak drive. It is stunningly beautiful; a narrow road clawed high into a mountainside, a turquoise-blue sea below. I must tell you though, in all honesty, for someone who doesn't like heights, and who has the knowledge that a rock fall had killed a driver leading to years of closure and reconstruction, there were moments of fear.

We returned home exhilarated by the beauty that we had driven though that day. Early the following morning, we caught a bus from the main road of Sea Point to the Castle. The bus route along the sea front going to the waterfront shopping area is good and regular and filled with tourists. The buses along the main road are chancy, arriving at random times, often an hour apart. However we were lucky and within five minutes we were traveling on a nearly empty bus in the direction of the city center.

On my instructions, we carefully sat far away from a very disreputable looking young man, as they say in these times, "of color." We were to relearn on this journey the principle of "dan lekaf zchus," as he rang the bell for an old Jewish lady. He helped her down the steps and inquired if she needed help to get to her destination, assuring her that the bus would wait for him a few moments longer.

The bus ended its journey exactly opposite the Castle gates. This imposing building, with its pentagon shape and five protruding defensive towers, once housed the entire population of white South Africa.

Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in 1669, with his wife Maria and a contingent of sailors and craftsmen, in three ships, to found a halfway station to the Indies for the Dutch East India Company. The Castle was built by 1679. Soldiers and sailors lived there and so too did the next governor, Simon van der Stel, who followed Jan van Riebeeck. He built a marvelous swimming pool next to his quarters.

Generations of soldiers -- Dutch, and in later years, British -- relieved their monotony by drinking too much, being incarcerated in the prison cells and carving their name on the wooden doors. Jews arrived with this first contingent, but were lost to our faith, though one of the towers still resonates with its Jewish name: Katzenellenbogen.

The Castle is relatively unchanged. The approach to tourists has changed. There are guides and a staged Changing of the Guard ceremony and two well-labeled interesting museums. There is a cafe. (Always ask for Appletizer when worried about kashrus. Most other fruit juices are mixed with grape juice.) There is a gift shop. The staff is helpful, the building is permeated with history. This is a worthwhile visit.

Shabbos found us in the growing Ohr Somayach shul. The American Rabbi is originally from Cape Town and by all accounts is succeeding in bringing a vibrant orthodoxy to the Jews of Sea Point.

The most memorable part of our visit took place in an office building. My uncle wanted us to attend the regular shiur hosted for the past nine years by the firm of accountants that he established many years ago. We sat in a smart boardroom and ate kosher food from paper plates and then listened as Rabbi Kornblum went into the Tanach and discussed the very relevant issue of antisemitism.

This group is clearly made of dedicated individuals, top businessmen who take time off to learn on a regular basis. Unlike the Jewish immigrants from England and Germany who first came to the tip of Africa, these children of the later Lithuanian immigrants have retained a love of learning.

Again there was no feeling of despair, in spite of reduced numbers. The community has regrouped and concentrated its many functions in one place. There kosher meals are served; people meet for study and to celebrate.

Everywhere there is activity. Everyone seems to be participating. Like the visit to Bloemfontein, I left in an upbeat mood. Next stop, Johannesburg!


We flew to Johannesburg two days before Pesach. I am always nervous to travel erev chag. Just as well, as it turned out. Our flight was an hour later than we thought. Apparently they had changed to a winter timetable a few days earlier and the travel agent was supposed to inform us. Then the flight was delayed. If we had been worrying about the times of candle lighting we would have been in total panic. This way we spent time in the bookshop and bought and wrote postcards.

Arriving at the airport we were introduced to some of the negative aspects of the new legislation that determines precisely how many people of each race group work in an organization. We had learned not to accept cab drivers who come up asking for your destination, but instead to go to the counter where the money is paid and then the ticket is handed to an official driver. The two young men at the counter were smiling and helpful but totally unable to work out what the fare should be. After a struggle, my daughter offered to help with the computer and once this was done we were able to pay.

Now the young men did something that the efficient Afrikaner girl we had dealt with previously had not done. They carried our cases to the taxi for us. So I guess it is: "You win some, you lose some."

Johannesburg is a place of contradiction. The Jewish community has shrunk, with everyone having someone in a far- flung place. Canada, Australia, England, New Zealand and Israel -- all pop up in casual conversation. Yet the community has a vibrancy that was lacking when the society was large and stable and when very few people went abroad except maybe on retirement for the almost-compulsory "six- week overseas tour."

The community has concentrated itself into one fairly large geographical location. Perhaps there is a Jewish child who doesn't attend a Jewish school, but I didn't come across any. Educationally, there is a choice. Religious schools don't restrict pupils to those who fit precisely into their standards and the result is children who bring what they have learned in school into their homes with determination and enthusiasm that pulls their parents along. Homes that were lackadaisical about kashrus now have the highest standards, because of their children's eagle eye on every item entering the house.

It is not just the observance of halacha that has seen an upsurge, but also the enthusiasm of the people, old and young. Ohr Somayach found that young singles who were not yet fully-observant felt less than comfortable in their services, so a new community was founded especially for them, where they can grow into a new way of life at their own pace. There is a respect for religious observance, even by those who are not totally involved, that is a model for other countries. South African hospitality, already legendary, when coupled with the principle of hachnosas orchim is something to behold.

The ten days in Johannesburg were either chag or Shabbos or a public holiday. So we spent most of the time being entertained. We sat in wonderful houses, gazing at landscapes of lawn, trees and flowers surrounding a glistening blue swimming pool, and listened to divrei Torah given by young and old.

I thought of my great-grandparents and how it must have been to live in Lithuania and to live in a vibrant Jewish community and to wonder if it would be better to stay on with the familiar, though it had many difficulties, or to venture abroad as others had done. The community now seems solid and settled, but no one wants to predict the future.

We had two days that were not chag, not holiday. On one we decided to buy presents (on the afternoon before Pesach). My sister took us to the large Pick and Pay where there is a large clothing section and there we bought presents for all the family in one great swoop.

The other day we were taken to the Museum of Apartheid. We went with two children who were visiting from Cape Town. They were twelve and ten and it was amazing to think that neither had any experience of the time when every race was rigidly classified and rigidly separated. After purchasing our tickets we found that we had been given a card marked either "white" or "non-white" and the entrance had two gates with similar signs above and we had to go in according to our "classification." The children found this totally weird.

We soon spotted a group of Jews ahead of us. They told us they were from the Oxford Road shul and a member of the shul was the chief architect of the museum and he was giving them a special conducted tour. Because of this, the museum became a special experience. I am not too sure of just how interesting it would be simply going around without such guidance.

There are photos, videos, and a film showing the years of apartheid. For me, there was nothing new or dramatic, nothing I didn't know or hadn't seen before. However this is a place for tourists and perhaps for them the material is new and interesting.

We were there at the same time as a group of tourists from Nigeria. They were all dressed in tie-dyed bright green shirts, "so we don't lose each other," they explained to me. The adults walked around looking at the exhibits, but the children seemed bored.

My sister teaches at a school for the deaf. When she taught history she wanted to make it interesting, so on the section covering the apartheid years she organized a special program. On one day, Helen Suzman, the Jewish MP so well known for her lone anti-apartheid stand in parliament, was invited to give a talk and she accepted and captured the audience with her usual aplomb.

On another day, the children were taken to the Apartheid Museum. The one exhibit that totally attracted the children was the bench marked "Whites only." My sister has a marvelous photo of four little colored children sitting on it, pointing at the sign with an air of grave defiance.

The awful days of prejudice and discrimination have gone. The question is whether the change is in time to create a stable society where each person has the basic necessities of life. The question is whether crime can be tamed, because there are always evil people who want to grab what they have not earned. The question is whether this Southern, most part of Africa can escape the corruption and violence that has plagued the rest of the continent.

The most important question for the Jews is if they will be left to live their lives in peaceful coexistence within the "rainbow' nation without being turned into scapegoats for any ills that befall the nation.

The government is anti-Israel, in no uncertain terms. This can and does spill over into antisemitism. The press is a problem, and the large and increasingly radical Moslem population in Cape Town is another factor that cause a degree of worry for the future.

However, for the present, Jewish life is rich and rewarding and each day was a pleasure and a delight.


Cape Town Hylton Tours : 021 511 1784

Boulders Penguin Park: 021 786 2329

The Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point: 021 701 8692

The Castle: 021 787 1249

Johannesburg Apartheid Museum: 011 309 4762

Beware of baboons when touring the Cape. Remember these are wild animals and they act in unpredictable ways, so stay inside your car, keep windows closed, and do not offer food.

Always take extra food when traveling. We were nearly lulled into a false sense of security as on each trip the mehadrin food appeared. Then on our final trip home we only received one mehadrin meal. The airline company told us that mehadrin meals cannot be ordered for internal flights. However, all the meals we received from South African Airways were mehadrin.

Remember that fruit juice in South Africa almost always has grape juice added, because it is cheap and plentiful. So fruit juice requires a hechsher.

The Beth Din sticker does not necessarily mean "Cholov Yisroel" unless specifically stated.

It is possible to travel on the tourist "Blue Train," or by "Premier Class" on a normal train and receive mehadrin food, if arranged well in advance through your travel agent.

At the airports they are extremely strict about the 20 kg limitation of luggage and overweight means a lot of extra money. Arguing gets you precisely nowhere. So pack carefully. If you find you will have a lot of excess luggage then it is worth contacting Baggage Solutions, a firm that deals with sending unaccompanied luggage. Tel: 011 397 7690

South Africa is generally reasonably safe as long as you carefully follow local advice. This is not a country for walking around in the dark, or going off the tourist track, or showing off expensive jewelry or cameras. Before going to shul on a Friday night check with the local rabbi that you will be using a safe route on your return journey.

When leaving your car at large car parks (parking lots), you will notice attendants in uniform. They help you unload your parcels. The uniforms are from the supermarkets in the area. These attendants pay a fee for the uniform each day, but get no salary. The tip they receive from you is their salary. So, even if you don't really need their help it is probably better to accept assistance from them and pay them a ten rand tip. This small amount of money could make the difference to them and to their family, of food for the day or going hungry.

The Vanishing African Jew

by D. Saks, South Africa

This year, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, in the central African state of Kenya celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Given the great antiquity of Jewish life on the African continent as a whole (after all, Egypt is in Africa), this event would not appear to be particularly significant, but for Africa south of the Sahara it is a genuine milestone. The majority of Africa's fast-dwindling Jewish communities are unlikely to reach their centenaries, or if they do will by then be in such reduced circumstances as to be de facto defunct. At around 260 souls, Kenyan Jewry remains relatively viable, although it is probably only half the size it was at its height in the 1950s.

The highwater mark of Jewish settlement in Southern Africa was the 1890-1960 period, roughly beginning with the commencement of white colonialism and ending when the various African countries attained their independence.

Post-independence Africa has not been antisemitic or even, with the notable exception of Zimbabwe, particularly anti- white. However, the general trend towards economic disintegration, ruinous despotism and frequent civil war has resulted in most Jews, and indeed most Europeans, relocating to better places. There was no similar exodus from post- independence West Africa, since even during the colonial period there was little or no Jewish settlement in this part of the continent.

The mass exodus of Jews from the North African countries was primarily a result of the establishment of the State of Israel. Within two decades after 1948, the ancient Jewish communities of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria had been reduced to a fraction of their former size -- in the case of Libya, eliminated altogether.

Most North African Jews (with the exception of those from Algeria, who primarily settled in France) went to Israel, in large part because of the anti-Jewish persecution that resulted from the Arab world's humiliating defeats at Israel's hands. Mass aliyah saw the disappearance, under more inspiring circumstances, of the equally ancient Falasha community of Ethiopia which had some Jewish connection, nearly all of whom had been brought to Israel by the early 1990s.

Today, outside of South Africa (with an estimated Jewish population of 75,000), there are fewer than 10,000 Jews still living elsewhere in Africa. More than two- thirds of these are located in two North African countries, namely Morocco and Tunisia, with 5,600 and 1,500 respectively according to the 2001 figures.

A hundred Jews remain in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, down from 2,500 at the community's height under Belgian rule. Both Zambia, once a thousand- strong, and Namibia, previously over four hundred, now have only a few dozen Jews remaining. Perhaps the saddest story is the demise of Jewish Zimbabwe, now reduced to 400, mainly very elderly members, after peaking at around 7,500 in the mid-1960s.

Not all African Jewish communities are in terminal decline. While still very small, the Jewish presence in Botswana, bordering South Africa to the west, is steadily increasing and the community is preparing to build its first shul. The island of Mauritius has also seen a modest increase in its Jewish residents.

Last year, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, spiritual leader to the African Jewish Congress, officiated at the first bar mitzvah there in more than two decades.

The small Mozambique Jewish community is also showing signs of revival after closing down altogether in the years immediately following the overthrow of Portuguese colonial rule in the early 1970s.


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