JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It has been a week of contrasts here in South Africa: Old and new synagogues, Johannesburg and Pretoria, wealthy neighborhoods and shoddy areas of town, crisp mornings and warm afternoons, high-speed world-class Gautrain and rusty taxis, white world Jewish adventures and black Soweto exploration. I suppose I wouldn’t expect much different here, not in a nation with eleven official languages.
The week started at the Kensington Hebrew Congregation where I met a gentleman who insisted that “had the country remained under white leadership, we’d be better off…But I’m giving you a political speech,” my contact concluded, to which I merely responded, uncomfortably, “I better get to work.” I only surmised that, to him, economic success takes precedence over racial equality. He was kind enough to me, but I was shocked by his rambling commentary, and just what it had to do with the history of his beautiful synagogue, I didn’t quite know. I don’t think he did either.
The week ended at the Apartheid Museum, a first-world facility that, for the most part, lets photographs and videos make their own commentary, mostly very telling, brutal, at times squeamish. I recalled my visit to the Holocaust Centre in Cape Town 12 years earlier (and where I look forward to revisiting and rephotographing) and parallels drawn to the segregation of Jews in Europe to the blacks (and coloreds, Asians, non-whites) here in South Africa. Yet I found Soweto, at the heart of apartheid, surprisingly welcoming, the riots and desperation feeling like distant echoes. While there are indeed pockets of abject poverty in the townships today, there are also clusters of relative wealth (some very much so) with newly-built housing, well-paved streets, groomed gardens, shopping malls, and smiling, happy children playing on jungle gyms.
With the end of apartheid, many Jews left South Africa for Israel, Australia, the UK, and the US. “Many people feared reprisals,” one community member told me. “But it never played out that way. But crime increased dramatically and that also scared a lot of them off.” And it seems to keep many from returning to a thriving Jewish community that I have found to be the most welcoming I’ve encountered anywhere else on the planet. I don’t just mean individual, specific communities, but the entire scope of Jewish South Africa.
“We’re a friendly people by nature,” said one woman. “But many of us also share a common heritage [in Lithuania]. So no one ever sits at home alone on Shabbat. We always have a place to go. We’ve always looked out for one another.”
But I’ve wondered if demographics has anything to do with the closeness, and just what impact apartheid played on the community at large which peaked at some 200,000 souls and is currently at about one-third that amount (though more or less stable today). Then again, whites in a black, apartheid world lived in a segregated world too, and Jews within that small world lived in their even more miniature world. Then there’s both general high crime rates and threats of attacks on Jewish installations which likely pull the community tighter still. But whatever the causes for the closeness, even insularity (or self-preservation), of the Jewish community of South Africa, I’ve been welcomed with open arms, curious minds, and supportive enthusiasm. For instance, on Tuesday this week, I took part in the Sephardic Hebrew Congregation lunch club, watched part one of the BBC’s Hitler’s Children, and considered the question of forgiveness. On Thursday, I was welcomed by the South African Union of Jewish Student (SAUJS) at Wits University for al fresco lawn lunch aimed at generating good will to fellow non-Jewish students. That same evening, the choir at the Beit Emanuel Progressive Hebrew Congregation graciously allowed me to hear (and photograph) them rehearse.
The week ahead will also be full of contrasts. On Wednesday, my three weeks in Johannesburg are up, and I move on to seven days and nights in Zimbabwe.
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