JEWISH ROOTS IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN HINTERLAND
DAVID SAKS – senior researcher at the S A Jewish Board of Deputies.
Few Jews nowadays are likely to have any reason to visit the southern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet, but those that do will have the opportunity to see a unique memorial commemorating the role played by Jewish smouse in the economic upliftment of South Africa. In 1989, on the initiative of the town council and the Graaff-Reinet Publicity Association, a plaque in honour of the once ubiquitous itinerant Jewish peddlers who traveled the countryside hawking their wares to isolated settlements was unveiled at the southern entrance to the town. The plaque itself was supplied by the Country Communities Department of the Jewish Board of Deputies, which since 1951 has provided the link between the main Jewish centres and the gradually disappearing pockets of Jewish life in the rural districts.
As early as 1949, the Board of Deputies recognised the need for a special department that would “sustain spiritually and culturally those communities in which there are still enough souls to make an organised communal life possible”. The fact that this decision was taken more than half a century ago is revealing. Contrary to the view that the decline of the country communities is part and parcel of the overall decline of the South African Jewish community in recent decades, it is clear from the above that the Jewish exodus from the countryside began well over half a century ago, at a time when the overall community was rapidly growing.
The Board’s Country Communities Department came to provide the main, and frequently the only, link that the increasingly isolated and always diminishing pockets of rural Jewry had with Judaism and the Jewish world. Apart from the purely personal aspect of the Department’s work, there were also the more practical matters of maintaining and where required disposing of communal property. The Country Communities rabbi has hence had to be something on an administrator, diplomat and historian apart from discharging his normal duties as a spiritual leader and counselor.
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft is the latest in a line of seven rabbonim who have held the position of Spiritual Leader to the Country Communities since the Department was launched. Previous incumbents have been Rabbis J Newman, A H Rabinowitz, B E Naifeld, E I Duschinsky, G M Engel and S A Zaiden. Since taking over the position in 1993, he has also been appointed Spiritual Leader to the African Jewish Congress, which has added the small and even more isolated Jewish communities of, amongst others, Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana and Zambia, to his pastoral roll.
Rabbi Silberhaft’s growing popularity and reputation amongst his far-flung congregation is testimony to the extraordinary passion and dedication he has displayed throughout his tenure. An enthusiastic historian, he works closely with the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth, who over the past decade have been working on a comprehensive country communities research project in which every South African locality where there has been a Jewish presence at some time or another has come under the microscope. Rose Norwich, one of the main participants in the project, said that the mission of her group was to document the stories of the smaller centres whose histories had never been written and which would otherwise be lost. The Friends, which operate with a staff of four and some 20 volunteer researchers, have already recorded a remarkable 1300 localities throughout the country in which there has been a Jewish presence, even if in many cases that presence has been of a fairly limited and temporary nature. A book incorporating the essence of the research, which is the first of a projected series of at least five, will be appearing in the first half of this year. It will focus on the northern and eastern Transvaal and include a foreword by the well-known Cape Town-based historian Richard Mendelsohn. Norwich added that while much of the detail concerning actual personalities and families would not be included in the book, the data gathered was already proving useful to for genealogical research.
Rabbi Silberhaft, as one would expect, has become a something of a storehouse of vignettes and tangy observations that somehow capture the flavour of country Jewish life more effectively than recording the details of a defunct shul’s honours board. On his office wall is a photograph of the notorious Swakopmund tombstone on which the words “Kosher l’Pesach” had been engraved in Hebrew lettering (upside down and back to front) on the instructions of the deceased’s well-meaning but obviously ignorant gentile wife (the offending inscription has since been removed by the Department). He tells with relish the story of Isaac and Millie Kahn, who in 1940 arrived for their honeymoon at Hamlet Hotel in Prince Alfred Hamlet, about fifteen kilometres outside Ceres. The newly-weds liked the hotel so much they never left it, buying it outright and thereby becoming the latest in a long line of South African Jewish hoteliers who at one time were once as prevalent as Greek café owners. Their sons, Joss and Michael, own and continue to run the hotel to this day.
Rabbi Silberhaft, on a more poignant note, describes the lonely graves of I B Schlesinger and his wife on the abandoned and derelict grounds of the once-thriving Zebedielia citrus estate. The Schlesingers were the owners of the estate, at its height the largest citrus plantation in the world, but since being sold it has gone bankrupt and nothing remains of its former prosperity.
One of the main tasks of the Department, and certainly the one that entails the most expense, involves looking after the more than 200 Jewish cemeteries scattered throughout the country districts, comprising some 20 000 graves. Apart from routine maintenance, such as grass cutting and mending of gates and fences, there are occasional cases of vandalism that have to be dealt with (as a result of random vandalism, when graves are restored the stones are now laid flat in a bed of concrete). The most serious such case in recent years concerned the Lichtenburg cemetery, which four local teenage hoodlums all but destroyed at the end of 2000. Most of the graves in the Jewish section of the cemetery were damaged or destroyed altogether by the 14 year-old youths, as well as about half a dozen graves in the general cemetery. Three of the culprits were subsequently found guilty and sentenced to 18 months correctional supervision. The restoration of the cemetery was supervised by Rabbi Silberhaft and was carried out using funds made available by the Country Communities Trust administered by the Jewish Board of Deputies. Following the closure of the Lichtenburg Hebrew Congregation, the remaining members of the community had appointed the Board of Deputies Country Communities Department to be the trustee of their assets and funds derived from sale of their community centre.
Perhaps the most dramatic piece of rescue work undertaken by the Department involved the Jewish cemetery at Ficksburg, which the founders of the community had, in retrospect short-sightedly, decided should be located some way out of town rather than in the general cemetery. By the early 1990s, a squatter camp had sprung up next to the cemetery, and considerable damage was being done both to the grounds and the tombstones themselves. Under the circumstances, normal routine maintenance would have been futile and it was decided to move the cemetery, consisting of 27 graves, to a section of the general cemetery. The exhumations and reburials were accomplished in 1996 at a cost of over R100 000. The Department worked closely with the Beth Din and Chevra Kadisha to ensure that the operation was carried out with the utmost sensitivity and in accordance with Halacha.
The Country Communities Department has never charged for its services, and its budget was from the outset met by the Board of Deputies. As communities folded, however, their remaining trustees began entrusting their assets to the Department, the intention being for the funds to be held in trust in the name of each individual community and the interest on the capital used to fund the running of the Department. The trust agreements jointly drawn up by the Board of Deputies and the trustees of defunct communities are essentially partnerships whereby the religious needs of the remnants of each particular community are guaranteed through the investment of those communities’ remaining assets. The capital entrusted by each community is left untouched and there are provisos that should that community ever become active again, that capital will immediately be released. This in fact is what occurred in the case of the Hermanus Hebrew Congregation, which was unexpectedly revived in the late 1990s after having closed down almost a quarter of a century before. The revival of the community was made easier by the ready availability of capital that the previous trustees had entrusted to the Country Communities Department when the original community was wound up in the 1970s.
The dramatically diminished number of Jews in the country districts compared to fifty years ago has gradually changed the way the Department operates. Whereas in the early decades the Country Communities Rabbi might be away for weeks at a time performing his pastoral duties, today Rabbi Silberhaft seldom stops over at any given place for more than a day or two.
“In 1950, there were 45 active country communities in the Orange Free State alone, sustaining both their own minister and/or shochet” Rabbi Silberhaft said, “These were still active communities that could muster a regular minyan, and the role of the visiting rabbi was to minister to the needs of that community as a whole. Today the picture has changed. The era of communal gatherings and family days is almost gone and the task of the Country Communities Rabbi essentially revolves around seeing to the needs of hundreds of isolated individuals who remain in the country areas and rely on one on one visits”.
Sometimes, the Department’s work in a particular town will revolve around a single individual. For years, it looked after Lydenburg’s last remaining Jewish resident, Bryna Davis, who to the end lived in a house her father had built almost a century before and which had no electricity or running water.
“We visited her regularly, providing her with food parcels, matzah and wine over Pesach and Jewish calendars”, Rabbi Silberhaft said, “When she died in the mid-1990s, we arranged for her to be given a Jewish burial in Johannesburg”.
Even sadder was the case of Miriam Dreitzer and her son Gregory, who lived on a farm at Marseilles, a railway siding near the Lesotho border. Left destitute by the death of their husband and father in the 1970s, the couple were forced to move into the house once occupied by their foreman and there, without electricity and obtaining water from an outside pump, eked out a bare existence as poor white subsistence farmers. The Department secured a monthly allocation from Jewish welfare organisations to enable them to buy feed for their cows and chickens and other necessities. When Gregory fell victim to cancer in his fifties, he was provided with medication to relieve his suffering in his last days and on his death a Jewish funeral with a minyan was organised in Bloemfontein. His mother, clearly unable to look after herself anymore, was moved to an aged home in Bloemfontein, and when she died shortly afterwards, the Department likewise arranged for her to be given a Jewish burial.
Every country community, no matter how small, will have had its own story to tell, but in many cases, little remains of these far-flung corners of the Jewish world beyond a few dozen weathered tombstones and perhaps a synagogue building or communal hall, long since converted for other purposes. Rabbi Silberhaft tells of the last remaining Jewish resident of De Aar, who owns a furniture store situated across the road from what had once been the shul and was now a church.
“He painted over his shop window so that he would not have to look at it”, he said, “Despite the fact that he had married out and had no Jewish children, it pained him that much to see the shul in which he had had his barmitzvah functioning as a church”.
Sometimes, vestiges of a long-vanished Jewish presence appear in the most unexpected places. In the Eastern Cape hamlet of Kirkwood, Rabbi Silberhaft describes how he discovered an unusually ornate and attractive stained glass Magen David over the doorway of what had been the local shul. The building itself was now being used as doctor’s rooms. When he approached the doctor there to see whether the glass could be removed for preservation in a Jewish institution, the latter politely refused. This was his lucky star, he explained. So long as it was there, people would continue to get sick and he would continue to make money.
Rabbi Silberhaft said that evidence of a former Jewish presence could often be seen in street names and the names of communal buildings. There was a Levy Street in Aliwal North, for example, and a Klaff and a Flax Street in Messina.
Of the hundreds of country communities that have come and gone over the last 150 years, several stand out as especially vibrant and historically important. The Graaff-Reinet community is one of these. Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa, also boasted the country’s third-oldest Jewish community, with the first Jewish resident settling there in 1836. In 1998, a booklet detailing the history of the community and prepared by the S A Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth in consultation with Rabbi Silberhaft, was published. The publication was sponsored by Dr Anton Rupert, a former resident of the town.
Another noteworthy country community from a historical point of view, is Grahamstown, which numbered amongst its founders members of the 1820 Settlers. The second oldest Jewish community in South Africa after Cape Town, Grahamstown also has the distinction, albeit the rather mournful one, of having the oldest recorded Jewish burials in the country. One of those deceased Jewish pioneers was even commemorated by a marble plaque inside the town’s imposing St. George’s cathedral. This was Joshua Davis Norden, an 1820 Settler and an officer in a local volunteer unit, who in the early months of the Seventh Frontier War was killed in a skirmish at the head of his men. Norden was the first Jew to be killed on active service in South Africa, and his brother, Samuel, was evidently the second, losing his life in the First Boer-Basutho War of 1858. The most poignant of these early casualties was the eight year-old Mark Sloman, who was murdered by Xhosa raiders whilst herding cattle.
Bolstered by the student population, the Grahamstown community managed to hold regular Friday night, as well as Yom Tov, services until well into the 1990s. Today, however, both the number of Jewish students and local Jewish residents has declined to the point that services are now held only infrequently in the town’s 90 year-old synagogue. In the early 1960s, the Board of Deputies purchased Hillel House for the University’s then hundred-plus Jewish students. This remains the headquarters of the Jewish student society and is also used as a venue for Jewish-related activities organised by the Country Communities Department during the annual Grahamstown Arts Festival. Dept
From a purely numerical point of view Oudtshoorn, once known as the “Jerusalem of South Africa”, occupies a unique place in the story of the Jewish country communities. A century ago, the karoo town boasted the country’s third largest Jewish community, comprising some 1500 families as well as two shuls, a cheder and a mikveh. Jews were attracted to Oudtshoorn by the ostrich feather boom, which commenced in the mid-1880s and lasted for roughly three decades. In 1914, the feather industry collapsed, after which the Jewish community went into swift decline. Today, the community has dwindled to a fragment of what it once was, but even so 90% of the remaining residents keep a fully kosher home. One of the town’s two shul’s has since closed but the other, now over 130 years old, is still in use.
Rabbi Silberhaft described how in the hey-day of Jewish Oudtshoorn, every first day Rosh Hashana the streets would be crowded with thousands of Jews walking home from shul while their gentile friends would line the streets to wish them a happy new year. To this day, he said, the custom on Rosh Hashana is for the Jewish families to remain at home after shul and be visited by their non-Jewish friends coming to wish them compliments of the season.
While the overwhelming trend has been for Jews to move to the major urban centres, there are signs that this need not be irreversible. Rabbi Silberhaft now numbers amongst his congregations such centres as Nelspruit/White River, Hermanus and Plettenberg Bay, which are active growing communities. Plettenberg Bay in particular is regarded as one of the Department’s outstanding success stories. Seven years ago, it organised full Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, paying for people to go down to lead the services. It continued to maintain with the community, regularly providing assistance as required. Today, Plettenberg Bay has a full-time rabbi and has just purchased a house which will be converted into a shul. Brisses, barmitzvahs and weddings are now a common occurrence. In the case of Hermanus, the congregation was successfully revived in the late 1990s after having closed down altogether more than two decades earlier. It all suggests that while country Jewry is unlikely ever to achieve the pride of place it once enjoyed on the South African communal scene, the saga of the Jewish platteland may yet have several more chapters to be played out.