The Jewish Traveler: Cape Town
Between the blue ocean and rocky mountains, Jews—most originally from Eastern Europe—have carved out a meaningful and full existence in this capital city.
Few cities in the world offer the breathtaking surroundings of Cape Town, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west and Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles mountain range to the south.
As the legislative capital of South Africa and the historic heart of the country, Cape Town has undergone dramatic transformations in the last 12 years. The locus of change has been the Houses of Parliament, where Jewish leaders and politicians helped shape the political landscape of the country. Jews participated in the white apartheid government and, since 1994, in the predominantly black African National Congress government. The Jewish community has navigated a complex system of race relations in a country whose government once discriminated against them, later empowered them to discriminate against others and finally offered them equality.
A record of two young Jewish men living in the Western Cape who were baptized on Christmas Day in 1669 is the earliest evidence of a Jewish presence in the region. Until around 1800, the few Jews who came to South Africa did so as part of the Dutch East India Company, which required that all employees and colonists be Protestant.
It was only in 1803 that the short-lived Batavian Republic introduced religious freedom, a right the British government upheld when it assumed power in 1806. In the first half of the 19th century, a small stream of British Jews were among the colonists who made the long journey to England’s Cape Colony. These Jews formed the first community organizations.
In 1841, 17 men congregated at Benjamin Norden’s home, Helmsley Place, for the first minyan in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the site is part of the five-star Mount Nelson Hotel at 76 Orange Street, where a plaque memorializes the event. Over the following three decades, British Jewish immigrants established additional congregations, cemeteries and philanthropic institutions.
By the early 1870’s, Jewish merchants and traders, lured by the discovery of gold and diamonds, headed north to Johannesburg. As a result, Cape Town’s Jewish community dwindled to a few hundred families who mostly assimilated and intermarried.
But Cape Town Jewry was soon revitalized by an influx of Yiddish-speaking East European Jews, predominantly from Lithuania. Fleeing political persecution and pogroms, 40,000 Jews arrived between 1881 and 1910. Many started out as peddlers, eventually becoming shopkeepers.
In 1930, a surge in anti-Semitism, coinciding with the rise of Nazism in Germany, fueled the passage of restrictive quotas on immigration from Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Palestine; Jews were the unspoken target. Then, in 1937, the government passed the Aliens Act, designed to prevent an influx of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
After World War II, Jews became increasingly marginalized as a result of anti-Semitic legislation and propaganda. When the apartheid government came to power in 1948, most Jews accepted segregation. Constituting less than four percent of the white population, Jews were in no hurry to oppose the government. Preoccupied with the “problem” of Afrikaans and Coloureds (any combination of Malay, Afrikaans and Caucasian ancestry), the apartheid government treated Jews almost as equals.
Until about 1985, the Jewish Board of Deputies, the official voice of South African Jewry, refused to take a stand against apartheid, arguing that it was a political issue rather than a specifically Jewish one. The rabbinate, represented by what is now the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, also avoided taking a stance until the late 1980’s.
As a segment of the white population, however, Jews—usually with socialist or communist sympathies—were disproportionately represented in the antiapartheid struggle. Of 23 whites in the 1956 Treason Trial, 14 were Jewish. And in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, which led to Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, all five white defendants were Jewish. Mandela’s defense lawyer, Isie Maisels, was also Jewish.
Outside these trials there were still more Jewish voices of dissent. Helen Suzman, 89, founder of the liberal Progressive Party and for years the only woman in parliament, fought for racial equality for more than five decades.
But many Jews, watching political unrest and violence escalate in the 1980’s and 90’s, felt that the country was on the verge of civil war. A number immigrated to Australia, England, Israel, Canada and America. But today, as the new government—now in power for 12 years—has become more stable, fewer Jews are leaving.
More than 25 percent of South African Jews live in Cape Town, and the community of about 17,000 (down from a peak of 25,000 in the 1980’s) is fairly homogenous; more than 80 percent share a Lithuanian heritage.
Sea Point, a 10-minute drive west of downtown, has the largest concentration of Jews. Composed of a dense block of apartment buildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the neighborhood recalls the coastline of Rio de Janeiro. The large thoroughfare, Main Road, set about five blocks inland, boasts a kosher butcher, restaurant, deli and Judaica shop.
South Africa has 11 official languages, but most Jews speak only English and a smattering of Afrikaans, which has its roots in 17th-century Dutch. Afrikaans is the main language of the Afrikaans and Coloured communities.
There are 12 Orthodox synagogues in Cape Town, including the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation (011-27-21-439-7543; www.maraisroadshul.com), located in Sea Point, which is the largest synagogue in Africa with over 2,000 members (it is also referred to as the Marais Road Shul); the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, known as the Gardens Shul, with a membership of more than 800 (21-465-1405; www.gardensshul.org); and Chabad of Cape Town (21-434-3740; www.chabad.co.za), which runs two synagogues. Two Reform congregations serve a much smaller population. While the majority of Cape Town Jews belong to Orthodox shuls, most are not strictly observant.
The Cape Town Jewish community’s most defining characteristics are its highly centralized organization, Zionist activity and relationship to the Holocaust. Local Jewry is represented by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (21-646-4940), the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (21-640-7528) and the South African Zionist Federation (21-464-6700); all are national umbrella organizations.
Cape Town Jewish history professor Milton Shain refers to the Holocaust and Zionism as “twin pillars of a Jewish civil religion in South Africa.” The Jewish community successfully lobbied the government to require Holocaust education in all public schools, and local Jews recently built the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the only Holocaust institution in Africa (21-462-5553; www.cthol ocaust.co.za). Last year, on Yom Hashoah, a siren was sounded from the Jewish community center and broadcasted nationwide; even parliament interrupted its proceedings for a minute’s silence. Accordingly, Cape Town’s Jewish population gives more financial contributions to Israel (per capita) than any other in the world.
The pervasive disapproval of Zionism in Cape Town’s majority population doesn’t reflect a general attitude toward the Jews. In fact, Jews have developed a strong relationship with the local government. Prominent political figures who are often critical of Israel regularly appear at Jewish events; Nelson Mandela attended the opening of the South African Jewish Museum and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, came to the unveiling of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.
In the center of Company’s Garden on Government Avenue, so called because the gardens were laid out by the Dutch East India Company, a modern Jewish campus contains the South African Jewish Museum, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the Gardens Shul, the Gitlin Library and Café Riteve, all built around an outdoor square. The campus abuts several museums and is four blocks south of parliament.
A visitor’s first stop should be the South African Jewish Museum (88 Hatfield Street; 21-465-1546; www.sajew ishmuseum.co.za), the entrance of which retains the neoclassical façade of the first synagogue built in South Africa (consecrated in 1863). Showcased in the restored original sanctuary is an ornately carved wooden Ark and an elaborate floor mosaic of geometric shapes. Also on display are life-size photos of the early immigrants’ arrival on the Cape Town docks, an original peddler’s cart and a life-size replica of a shtetl in Riteve, Lithuania. A video of Mandela features remarks he made about Jews in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Back Bay Books): “In my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”
To the right of the Jewish museum, facing Company’s Garden, is the oldest active congregation in South Africa, the Gardens Shul, consecrated in 1905. Double the width and height of the original synagogue in the museum, the Egyptian-revival-style house of worship, also called the Great Synagogue as well as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, now seats over 1,400. Tall square pillars with round turrets flank the main entrance. Stained-glass windows adorn the sanctuary, and the wall of the 20-foot-tall apse has an intricate gold Middle Eastern-style mural.
The Cape Town Holocaust Centre has a unique South African focus. Comparing early Nazi Germany to the apartheid government, the entire exhibit is framed in a wider context of racial injustice. Adding a personal touch, a wall of photographs and a video tell the story of Holocaust survivors who settled in Cape Town. The section titled “The South African Experience” includes information on the Greyshirts, an anti-Semitic group based in Cape Town who supported Nazi Germany. The Greyshirts were eventually absorbed into the National Party, which led the apartheid government.
Visitors to the campus can also peruse the Gitlin Library (21-462-5088) housed in the Holocaust center; its 20,000 Jewish-themed holdings range from Hebrew, Yiddish and English books and periodicals to photographs, DVD’s, CD’s, videos and cassettes.
Also on the campus grounds is the outdoor Café Riteve (21-465-1594), overlooking a Jerusalem-stone courtyard. The kosher dairy restaurant offers pizza, falafel and traditional South African fare such as smoked snoek, a local whitefish. A small Judaica shop is located on the premises.
About 50 yards north of the campus, also on Government Avenue, is the South African National Gallery (21-467-4680; www.museums.org.za). Cape Town’s first Jewish mayor, Hyman Liberman, donated the carved wooden doors, executed by artist Herbert Meyerowitz in 1932. They are displayed on the far wall of the museum courtyard. The doors are noteworthy for their combination of African and biblical imagery depicting the Jews’ wandering. The panel above the doorframe details scenes of Rebekah at the well; the panel beneath it features Jews in Dutch clothing near a Cape farmhouse. The gallery owns works by Jewish artists including South African Irma Stern and German Hanns Ludwig Katz.
A 10-minute drive west of Company’s Garden takes one to the District Six Museum (25A Buitenkant Street; 21-466-7200; www.districtsix.co.za). In the early 1960’s, District Six became infamous when it was rezoned as whites-only, with the apartheid government forcefully removing the Coloured population. Around the turn of the century, though, this is where East European immigrants first found lodging. Mayor Liberman grew up in District Six, and a large plaque and several photographs in the museum are devoted to his achievements. The museum also displays photographs of various Jewish-owned shops as well as the Memory Cloth, a tribute to former residents of District Six that has Jewish names scrawled across the woven cotton.
Another vestige of a Jewish presence in District Six is Beinkinstadt Booksellers (21-461-2431), one block behind the museum. Housed in a poorly maintained Victorian building at 38 Canterbury Street, it is the oldest existing Jewish bookshop in Africa, according to owner Michael Padowich. His grandfather opened the store in 1903, and many of the books he acquired rest on the shelves at the back under a thick layer of dust. The store carries a selection of works by Jewish South African writers Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson and Lyndall Gordon. The shop is hard to find; ask a staff member from the District Six Museum for directions.
On the edge of Greenmarket Square, the bustling center of the Cape Town curios trade, is the Michaelis Gallery (21-481-3933). The core of its Dutch collection was donated by Jewish benefactor Max Michaelis.
For art lovers there is also the Irma Stern Museum (21-685-5686; www.irmastern.co.za) in the trendy college town of Rosebank on Cecil Road. One of South Africa’s most celebrated artists, Stern painted predominantly African themes in a post-Impressionistic style. The museum is housed in the artist’s former home and features dozens of her important paintings as well as her collection of African artifacts.
A five-minute drive southeast of the museum is the University of Cape Town’s upper campus, home of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research (21-650-3062). The facility has a Jewish library, a beit midrash and a kosher cafeteria. It is the only center of its kind in Africa.
Few people visit Cape Town without touring the world-renowned wineries in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. The winelands, less than a 45-minute drive northeast of the city, offer magnificent views of the pastoral countryside. There are two kosher wineries: Eshkol Winery (21-864-3356) and Zandwijk Wine Farm (21-863-2368), the latter producing the Kleine Draken label (www.kleinedraken.co.za).
The Zandwijk grounds, near the slopes of the Paarl Mountains, include a large lake and restored mid-18th-century Cape Dutch home with thatched roof and white gables. Once prevalent in Cape Town, the Cape Dutch architectural style remains popular in the winelands and reflects South Africa’s unique Dutch heritage. Visitors can tour the farm lands, but are not permitted inside the building. Zandwijk offers wine tasting daily, and don’t forget to try South Africa’s signature wine, Pinotage.
An avid Zionist and generous benefactor, Mendel Kaplan has amassed great wealth building Cape Gate Steel into an international company; he has served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the World Jewish Congress. Another successful philanthropist and businessman is Raymond Ackerman, founder of the national Pick ’n Pay supermarket chain.
There are notable Jewish figures in just about every imaginable field. Albie Sachs is a judge on the Constitutional Court; member of parliament Tony Leon leads the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to the ruling party in South Africa; and Sir Antony Sher grew up in Cape Town and later moved to England, where he became an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company and best-selling author of novels and nonfiction.
Sir Antony Sher’s works include Middlepost (Knopf), a fictional story about a Jewish peddler originally from Lithuania that is inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, and his autobiography, Beside Myself (Arrow), which deals with his identity as a Jew and a homosexual growing up in Cape Town during apartheid.
Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer gained international acclaim after writing several novels highlighting the negative impact of apartheid. In The Lying Days (Penguin), she explores the relationship between a black man and a Jewish man.
And for a range of Jewish experiences, consider Contemporary Jewish Writing in South Africa (University of Nebraska Press).
Additional kosher food options include two meat restaurants in Sea Point: Avron’s Place (19-33 Regents Road; 21-439-7610) and Goldie’s Deli (174 Main Road; 21-434-1116). For a quick meal, try the kosher deli inside the Checkers grocery store (21-430-4680) in Sea Point on St. Andrew’s Road; it offers prepared meats, salads, sushi and sandwiches.
Though Cape Town is full of lovely hotels, a more affordable and convenient alternative is renting a luxury apartment or house in Camps Bay, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Rates vary depending on the season. For more information contact Village and Life (21-430-4444; www.village andlife.com).
After shaking off the vestiges of apartheid, Cape Town today seems to be thriving, and the Jewish community, though small, remains an integral part of society.
Rebecca Faye Rosenberg is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.