JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Third time lucky. The first time I aimed to sojourn in Kimberley and Bloemfontein in the South African outback, plans were scuttled by the theft of my camera gear. The second time, I couldn’t find a driving parter. The journey was worth the wait. Though there are few Jews who actually reside these days in the “country communities” of South Africa, the few who do were gracious and welcoming. I wouldn’t expect anything less, actually, for the South African Jewish community at large is the warmest anywhere.
The trip was punctuated by a bygone era of handsome synagogues, the jewel in the crown being the Memorial Road Synagogue (aka Kimberley Synagogue) in Kimberley, Northern Cape Province. While synagogues are like fingerprints (i.e. they are all different), this shul lived up to the architectural hype.
The octagonal house of worship was completed in July 1901 and features prominent front turret-like stairwells, complementing spires, and interlaid zipper-like stonework at the corners. It’s a cross between an English castle and a French chateau…and a synagogue. Inside, all eyes are drawn to what is surely one of the most comely Aron Hakodeshes in all the Jewish world. It seems to tower above the eight folds of the ceiling, if that were possible, capped by gorgeous domes which give the holy ark a notably spiritual aura. From a photographic point of view, a synagogue like this one is fun to photograph because there are many nooks and crannies and unexpected angles.
Kimberley was founded as a diamond mining town (De Beers Diamonds still have their world headquarters there). Undeniably, where there are diamonds, there are Jews. Barney Barnato (1851~1897) was an entrepreneurial British Jew who played a prominent role in the sparkling industry. He founded the Barnato Diamond Mining Company. What remains today is known as The Big Hole, the world’s largest hand-excavate open diamond pit which closed operations in 1914 but remains open today as a gaping tourist attraction.
It was in the mock old town at The Big Hole that I discovered a gem, a Jewish hearse, housed in the old automobile garage. The placard read, in part: “The wooden box-like container was originally mounted on a horse drawn carriage. In about 1926 the body of the hearse was mounted on a Chevrolet six cylinder chassis and cab.”
I was traveling in a bit more style, a Volvo something-or-other with Diane Fine, a genealogical buff who traces much of her family to the region but who has long resided in Johannesburg. I met her in August 2013 at the Limmud conference in Johannesburg. She came to my presentation, and I went to hers, after which she made an offer I couldn’t refuse: “I’d love to do road trip with you,” she proposed.
“Now that’s an offer I am not likely to refuse,” I retorted. And so, after a period of planning over a couple of months, our wheels were set in motion. We spent 4 days and nights on the road with stops in Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Ficksburg, Bethlehem, and Heilbron, all but Kimberly being located in Free State Province.
Under the 40C swelter of summer and betwixt the rolling folds of the green foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains, I once again found myself listening for a soundtrack of a community that no longer or barely exists. Kimberley community president Barney Horwitz told me there are only 27 Jews living in town. On each of our two evenings, he spun intriguing tales which entertained both Diane and me. Still, it’s sobering to think that the community’s days are numbered.
But mostly what I found — and what I knew I’d see — were cemeteries in varying states of (dis)repair and defunct synagogues that today house businesses that are utterly disconnected to the structures in which they are housed.
In Bloemfontein, the former Fairview Synagogue is now the head offices of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I’m not sure which disappoints more: a synagogue-turned-church, or a synagogue-turned-car parts shop, as what has become of the Bethlehem Synagogue.
The Ficksburg Synagogue is now a welfare center. Somehow, that seems almost deferential to the Jews who once prayed there. Yet, all of these former synagogues share a common denominator: they are extant. I’d prefer the synagogue buildings remain standing and viable rather than be torn down and left to memory and photographs (and it is, in part, for this reason that I do the photo work I do).
But all is not lost. The United Hebrew Institutions of Bloemfontein Synagogue is still alive and kicking stronger than Kimberley. But, as community president Solly Krol put it, “Look, this synagogue originally belonged to the progressive community. We [Orthodox community] bought it when there was no longer a need for two shuls. I suppose our next logical step will be to sell this place and downsize yet again to a house.”
On our last leg back to Johannesburg, we stopped in Heilbron, just 90 minutes from the big city. There, too, the community is long gone, but their synagogue is preserved today in the guise of the Riemland Museum which tells the tale of the local area.
One corner of the exhibit not only recognizes the building’s history, but tells a snippet or two of Jewish life in general complete with a diorama featuring pews from the former Ficksburg Synagogue, an Aron Hokodesh, and a glass case displaying Judaica, including a Haggadah. The latter seemed fitting because Jews have made a modern-day exodus from these bucolic parts.
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