OSAKA, Japan — In the fallout of (let’s call it) a transitional period in my life in 2009, a wise lady said to me, “When one door closes, another one opens.” A hackneyed phrase, perhaps. But a truism. Jewish Africa would eventually become that door, but not before drifting for several months while I extricated myself from the mire that I was in. I needed something different. Totally divergent.
Then, one day in the spring of 2010, I knocked upon the door of Jewish Africa because Africa is a riddle, and Jewish Africa is the riddle inside the riddle. I pushed on the door slowly at first, then it swung open as I realized a Jewish Africa photo survey would set my mind, heart, and soul on a journey of great adventure, perhaps some danger, but certainly of purpose. It seemed the ideal elixir.
This forthcoming trip will be my fifth time overall on the African continent, and my second to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Twelve years ago, I traversed the southern African region purely as a tourist in the safety and comfort of two back-to-back small group tours over six remarkable weeks of game parks, stunning landscapes, and the freedom of the open road. But I have no intention of reliving what’s already been lived. I want to go there this time to photograph its Jewish culture. Not just parts of it. Not merely a few highlights. Not only the better-known communities (most certainly not). Not just the safest places. But all of it. Every synagogue, every cemetery, every community. It’s a hugely ambitious project on many levels, not least of which is financial. Africa is, surprisingly to most, expensive. The continent is vast. The project is monumental. The ambition, the audacity perhaps, is huge. Daunted yes, discouraged no. Perfect.
My compass first pointed towards Morocco, but I quickly realized I would face logistical obstacles that I didn’t quite feel ready to tackle. I considered Egypt, but access to the Jewish community there, especially for photographs, is akin to entering Fort Knox. I needed to start at the shallow end because, to pull this project off, I’m going to need a huge network of contacts. And if I am ever going to pry open the doors in communities such as those in Egypt, I need legwork beneath me, and thousands of images already in the bank.
Thus, I turned to South Africa because, with a Jewish community of some 70,000, it is the largest and arguably the most influential Jewish community on the continent. They also speak English. At long last, in November 2011, I sent out my first emails requesting photo permission. I canvassed the main Jewish centers of Johannesburg and Cape Town, deducing that time spent there first will better connect and prepare me for follow up trips to outlying and regional communities. So I reached out to some 80 or so synagogues and prayer centers.
No one has said no.
That’s an astonishing fact by statistical chances alone. That is not to say that everyone has said yes, however. Nonetheless, I’ve opened a lot of new doors.
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