Colourful story of vibrant community

Gavin Morris with one of the display boards.

Tonight, Thursday September 15, an exhibition opens at the South African Jewish Museum in Gardens that tells the story of the Jewish community.

Called The Goldene Medina (The Golden Land) it takes us on the 175-year journey of the Jews in South Africa from 1841 to the present day.

The year 1841 was a symbolic year for the-then small community in Cape Town.

Although the first Jews arrived in the country in 1809, the first minyan or prayer meeting was documented 175 years ago on Kol Nidre night, the first night of Yom Kippur, in which it was decided to create a Jewish congregation.

It was held at Benjamin Norden’s house at Helmsley Place, now on the grounds of the Mount Nelson hotel.

Benjamin Norden was a merchant and pioneer from London who became one of Grahamstown’s foremost citizens prior to moving to Cape Town, and is attributed with initiating a lucrative trade in ivory and other goods between the Cape Colony and Natal.

Gavin Morris, director of the South African Jewish Museum, says the exhibition was conceived a year ago and has been in the making for the last six months. Held under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape), it is the culmination of a series of events that are being held during 2016 to mark this special anniversary.

He says the way the exhibition is presented was planned carefully to differentiate from what the museum contains in its permanent exhibitions.

“The museum already tells the story and history of Jews in the country and we thought ‘how do we make this special’?

“We’ve made it different by telling it from the perspective of daily life. It’s made up of anecdotal stories that will resonate with the Jewish community and inform visitors. And hopefully it will build for the future as the Jewish Digital Archive Project aims to grow the content by allowing the community to add their stories, photos and films.”

Mr Morris says the stories displayed along with photographs on boards have been documented anonymously, without using names.

“The stories were chosen so that other members of the community would remember similar stories in their individual histories.

“It is not being presented chronologically but rather according to subject. We’ve taken the shared experiences of Jews and put them on show.”

It shows all aspects of Jewish life from religious life, to a section called “Muizenberg shared”, a section on the Jewish youth movements – a seminal part of growing up Jewish, “Bobba’s kitchen” – on being around the home; “Family” – on the Jews “tribal DNA” or ethnology; “Turmoil and Tsores” (a Yiddish word that relates to the difficult things the community faced – anti-Semitism and apartheid; and a section called “Here and Now”.

From early Anglo/German Jewish settlers, to the Litvaks who came from Lithuanian villages and shtetls or ghettoes to the Sephardi Jews, they came, as Mr Morris says, to share a common identity despite their different backgrounds.

In the years post World War 2, the Jewish population of South Africa was at its peak at around 120 000 (referred to by Mr Morris as its “high-water mark”).

The community now numbers around 70 000, with the majority of Jews predominantly living in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

The section on immigration and emigration recounts how during the late 1930s there were attempts by the government to halt the immigration of Jews to the country.

Emigration out of South Africa began growing when Jews opposed to apartheid left the country in the second half of the 20th century.

The “Boere-Joode” or country Jews who settled in small towns and villages have moved on, largely as the opportunities that existed when they arrived have dwindled.

Mr Morris, himself a fourth generation Boere-Jood, who lives in Vredehoek, has his roots in Bloemfontein where his family had a large furniture business in the centre of the town. A large orange chair, he recalls, placed on the roof of the store’s building in the centre of the town, made it a landmark.

The exhibition, with its curated collection of anecdotes, images, artefacts and films, says Mr Morris, creates a tapestry of the communal experiences that, over the course of 175 years, has forged a new, shared identity – the South African Jew.

At a sneak preview of the exhibition, the panels with lively and accessible stories, offers a shared esperience for Jews and to outsiders will offer an insight into the community.

Many came to the country, particularly the Litvaks as impoverished Jews and like many other immigrants built themselves up and became highly successful individuals in the field of politics, art, law, and other professional fields. Almost all spent their first night in District Six as they came off the crowded Union Castle ships, arriving at the nearby Cape Town harbour.

Mr Morris says the exhibition is all about the memory and nostalgia in all South Africans. Using another Yiddish word, he says, “It’s not about the big machers (important or influential people). It’s about the man in the street, the ordinary people who make up the Jewish community and made it what it was and is.”

* The Goldene Medina: Celebrating 175 Years of Jewish Life in South Africa will be on display at the SA Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens until Sunday November 20.

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