Students praying at the Jewish Herzlia school in Cape Town in the 1960s (Photo/Courtesy South African Jewish Museum)
Students praying at the Jewish Herzlia school in Cape Town in the 1960s (Photo/Courtesy South African Jewish Museum)

Reinvigorating my Jewish soul in Cape Town

The waiter at the Beacon Isle Resort in beautiful Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, turned to me after taking my order, a chicken sandwich, and in her Xhosa-accented English said, “But not with butter?”

It was more of a rhetorical question, as she was clearly familiar with the eating habits of South African Jews. The chicken may not be kosher, but meat and dairy shall never mix!

After an absence of several years, I was back in the land of my birth to celebrate milestone birthdays, renew friendships and feel the pulse of the South African Jewish community.

It’s an embattled community that has seen considerable migration and felt intensely the antagonism of the government toward the State of Israel. In addition, with a considerable Muslim population, South Africa is regarded as ground zero of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The Jewish community primarily descends from Litvak (Lithuanian and Latvian) Jews who immigrated to the southern part of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. At its peak in the 1970s, it was 120,000 strong, making it the eighth largest Jewish community in the world.

Today that number stands at 55,000, according to Wendy Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Board of Deputies based in Johannesburg. Most of the Jewish emigrants have gone to Australia, Canada, Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom.

My youth and early adulthood years in Cape Town were a halcyon time.

From first grade through 12th, I attended a Jewish school (Herzlia) that was close to where I lived , and my neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. So all the pieces were in place for one’s Jewish identity and love of Zion to emerge proudly and strongly. And they did for me and for many of my contemporaries.

I left South Africa in 1986. I was a reluctant émigré, but the prospect of leading Jewish schools and institutions in Australia and the United States was compelling. For the past 30 years I have resided in the U.S., but the memories of my mother country — of the sights and sounds, of people and places, of food and fragrances coupled with the aesthetic pleasures — remain vivid and undimmed. Always there and always luring.

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The concerns of the South Africa Jewish community are well reflected by Milton Shain, professor emeritus in historical studies at the University of Cape Town, author of several books on South African Jewish history and a leading media commentator. He writes, “South African Jews — like all whites — are anxious about the future. Indeed over the last few decades there has been a steady exodus of Jews. Yet, President Cyril Ramaphosa remains a beacon of hope. At the same time, Jews are angered that the ANC [African National Congress] government wishes to downgrade ties with Israel.”

We spent our last Friday evening at the impressive complex of the Cape Town Jewish community. Situated close to the city, it houses the imposing Great Synagogue as well as the South African Jewish Museum, the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Center, a Jewish library and a meeting center. We passed through the tight security, and a young woman invited us to affix a blue and white ribbon to our lapel “in support of Israel,” she said, reminding us that Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) was in two days.

The synagogue’s rabbi is Osher Feldman, a young Australian married to Sarah, a daughter of Rabbi Yossy Goldman, doyen of the South African rabbinate. Rabbi Goldman was sent to South Africa in the 1970s by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He has been the spiritual leader of congregations in Johannesburg since then.

His son-in-law, Rabbi Feldman, has brilliantly resuscitated an ailing community, with sizable crowds now showing up to services, programs and functions. On this particular Shabbat, we enjoyed the monthly “Friday Night Live” service, which featured a distinguished Israeli cantor and was followed by a lavish Kiddush.

The spacious pews were well filled and the rabbi’s sermon was enthusiastically focused on the upcoming Jerusalem Day. As a poignant addition, he read out the names of congregants who had fought for Israel in her wars from 1948 onward. (In the 1948 War of Independence, the South African contingent of 802 fighters was proportionally the largest from the diaspora.)

The piece de resistance was the singing of “Hatikvah” by the congregation at the service’s conclusion. The stirring words of Israel’s national anthem filled the stately synagogue. It evoked thoughts and memories for me of occasions in the past when the entire community, to a person, would gather and celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, wave flags and rejoice in the birth of a Jewish state resurrected after 2,000 years.

Undoubtedly that still happens, albeit in a diminished community that’s fewer in number but still resilient, active and steadfast to the traditions of the past. It’s a testimony to the unflinching Zionism of the community, first brought to the shores of the country by Jewish souls more than 100 years ago.

Mervyn Danker
Mervyn Danker

Mervyn Danker is the past regional director of AJC and served as head of school for Jewish schools in South Africa, Australia and the U.S., including at the Ronald C. Wornick School in Foster City. He lives in San Mateo.