JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — I arrived back in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 31st very jet lagged and a little uncertain about my photographic calendar. I like to be busy, very busy, when I’m on a Jewish photo tour not merely to make the best use of my time and expenditures, but because the busyness energizes me. So, prior to arrival, I worked hard to fill up the schedule, as I usually do. I reached out to a number of previously established contacts in search of social events and simchas (a Jewish celebration) to photograph but, alas, virtually all clashed with plans already on my calendar.
My momentum was forestalled further when, shortly before arrival, a few plans unravelled leaving me with unwanted time gaps. Most notably, and for the second trip in a row, a jaunt to Kimberley, Bloemfontein, and other bucolic points en route just didn’t happen due to events beyond my control. I have not flown all this way to squander the days. So I threw caution to the wind and figured I’d let things happen once I landed. As a result, my schedule has filled up with a mishmash of unexpected photo opportunities.
On my first full day, Rabbi Moshe “The Travelling Rabbi” Silberhaft — to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for his remarkable and sustained support and friendship — took me round to Satyagraha House located in a leafy and predominantly Jewish neighborhood not far from my guesthouse.
Built in 1907 by Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect, it was Mahatma Gandhi’s Johannesburg home in 1908-9. In 1961, the North Eastern Congregation (better known as Pine Street Shul) built their synagogue on the same property which created an interesting juxtaposition of architecture, purpose, and history. Satyagraha House today is a sort of living museum. Visitors can see where the Indian nationalist and spiritual leader lived and worked, or they can come for lunch or even spend the night in beautifully appointed accommodations.
The next day I had no photo appointments at all on the calendar. So I took a 20-minute stroll to Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg home located in the upscale Houghton neighborhood. Its wide streets feature some extraordinary houses mostly hidden behind high security walls fronted by neatly pruned gardens. Mandela’s home actually looked quite modest in comparison to the surrounding homes.
Mandela established friendships with several prominent Jews who themselves fought in the anti-apartheid struggle. Some of his friends resided in houses that still stand today on the same road as my guesthouse. In fact, my guesthouse was a safehouse where Mandela himself spent some time. But I digress. All around the walls of Mandela’s home are brightly painted message stones. One in particular caught my attention: It was adorned with a six-pointed star — a Magen David in the eyes of a Jewish photographer — with the word “Tata” written on it. Tata (pronounced more like “da-da”) is an isiXhosa word meaning “father”. Coincidentally, “tata” is also the Yiddish word for father.
My first Saturday took me to Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue where I gave a presentation about my Jewish photo work and current Jewish Africa project. A small but warm group seemed quite intrigued by my story, and as always, I enjoyed sharing it. On the ride home, Jessica Sherman, who arranged the speaking opportunity for me, invited me to a bingo night community fundraiser at the synagogue for that same evening. So, six hours later, she again came round to fetch me and I spent a delightful evening photographing the event.
I was surprised by two things: One, the number of people in attendance (about 120) and, two, how complicated bingo seemed to be. There were straight up games, but there were combinations of up, down, diagonal, two rows across, two rows down, multiple cards, single cards, odd and even number combinations.
The following evening, I went to Houghton Golf Club, a somewhat exclusive society for Johannesburg’s uppity crowd, to photograph another fundraiser, this time for Chevrah Kadisha, South Africa’s burial and welfare organization. The “Helping Hands” event was, oddly enough, a poker night attended by several hundred young Jewish men in their 20s and 30s and literally a handful of women.
Though they were there for the good cause of raising money for a range of Jewish social services, I thought it peculiar that it took an evening of debauchery to pry open their wallets. As the alcohol flowed and people anted up and up, about the only way I could capture the Jewish spirit of the event was to take some from-above photos of some players wearing kippot. There was really no other indication that the event was a Jewish event. I thank Stan Smookler for creating this photo opportunity. As a well-established caterer and jokester-extraordinaire, he’s a veritable institution in Jewish Johannesburg. Everyone knows Stan.
I’ve also added a bar mitzvah to my photographic calendar, though I am not sure as yet whether or not I’ll be given permission to take some pics during the service itself. Being that the event is at the progressive Jewish community, I’m hoping for permission to do so.
I’ll also be meeting with Elona Steinfeld from the South African genealogical department (a branch of the Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel) who specializes in the research and recording of the history of South African Jewry. The organization has published a series of books over the years and their work isn’t done yet. I am pretty certain that Elona’s work, and that of her colleagues, amounts to the most well-documented Jewish community in the world. I actually met Elona on my first Jewish Africa leg in August 2012. I was chuffed that she remembered me when I popped in unannounced. I am looking forward to taking her portrait and to recording her comments about an aspect of Jewish Africa in a one-minute video. The videos are an added element to my project from the trip.
But it hasn’t been all work and no play. When I last came to South Africa in February-March, I passed through the Drakensberg mountains and an accommodation called Amphitheatre Backpackers which I did not know about. It’s located in proximity to a spectacular mountain range called Amphitheatre (for its amphitheater shape).
I had also unwittingly missed an opportunity to go to Lesotho located on the other side. It is the highest country on earth averaging 1,100 meters above sea level. It is also one of the most isolated and poorest nations on the planet.
So I budgeted in a few days on this trip to go back there. On one day, I took an exhausting yet exhilarating hike around the Amphitheatre, a fantastic range of cliffs and mountains and the world’s second-highest waterfall (which was nearly dry due to the season). The following day, I took an excursion to Lesotho for no more reason that because it is there and because a sojourn there was a hole in all my southern Africa travels. Both excursions were well worth the schlep: the mountains for their majesty, and Lesotho for the warmth in everyone’s smiles.
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