JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — I remember my first morning of the first day of the first leg of my Jewish Africa odyssey as if it were yesterday. Where have the last three and a half years and tens of thousands of miles gone?
I arrived bleary-eyed from Osaka via Hong Kong at 6:30 a.m. on August 1, 2012. There was a cerulean sky above and a whole lot of uncertainty within. Just what had I gotten myself into? What was I doing here? Any doubts — about my digs, anyway — were soon allayed when I reached my guesthouse in the cozy Norwood area of town. Karen Morgan, proprietress of Uxolo Guesthouse, welcomed me like an old friend, and her staff warmed me with smiles and handshakes.
We shared some chatter on the terrace, and I perked up with toast and a hearty cup of coffee served by Ella, an amiable, smily staff member who hails from Malawi.
She just served me my last cup. It, as the journey itself, was good to the last drop, if a tinge bitter-sweet.
As I leave my home-away-from-home guesthouse today, the only accommodation I’ve had on every long and short stay here in Johannesburg, it seems ironic that on this very last night in South Africa for my project that I must vacate to another nearby guesthouse because my “home” was fully booked up months in advance for a wedding party. My ending meets their beginning.
And so, it really does feel like the end. But it’s not. I still have Senegal, Morocco, Ceuta, and Tunisia to get to and add to the Jewish Africa opus. So, there’s that. But there’s also the post-project journey of publishing a book, securing more photo exhibitions, and sharing the adventures in talks and presentations.
Just yesterday I had a lively second meeting with an enthusiastic book scout for a publisher here in South Africa. There’s still a long way to go to get a book across the finish line, but the discussion at once energizes the next phase of my project while infusing me with a different sort of uncertainty that I felt on day one of this whole journey — in this case, that of whether I’m doing this publishing thing correctly or not. So, there’s that too.
People ask me why I do this work. Isaac Reznik, something of a legendary member of Jewish Johannesburg society and host of Talk of the Town radio show on ChaiFM, put that question to me live on air again the other day.
“Because it’s important,” I said. “These journeys are not about me. They are about the people in the communities I photograph along the way. They are about the good souls that help make it all happen.”
And I’ve been fortunate to have met so many amazing and interesting people along the way. In South Africa alone, not only have I met hundreds of people, I’ve been assisted and welcomed by hundreds of people. Some encounters are brief, perhaps even limited to a few emails, while others are involved. I’ve disrupted routines, taken up time, and pestered people to open doors — literally and figuratively — to a Jewish world that is by and large rarely visited and little-known by people beyond Africa’s borders.
I returned to South Africa 7 out of the 8 Jewish Africa photo tours (plenty more if you count the multiple ins and outs to other countries I launched from Johannesburg within a single leg). I have seen more of this great land than most of the natives, and I have by now what is probably the largest Jewish South Africa photo archive of its kind (same goes for Jewish Africa at large).
Cape Town stole my heart when I first visited in 2000, long before I ever dreamed up this Jewish Africa project, and never gave it back. On this, my final leg, I was initially booked only for Johannesburg. Foolish, I thought, not to go to my favorite city in the whole wide world, so I squeezed in a three-night weekend visit purely for social reasons. It’s never a bad decision to go there. I even flew down from Johannesburg without my main camera gear (which I left with the staff at my guesthouse). Not all of those people I went to see played an organizational role in my project, but they came into the Jewish Africa fold by providing nuggets of friendship and enthusiasm that no doubt propelled me forward and lured me back again and again.
No one individual was more central to opening doors for me than Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft. As the Country Communities Rabbi (an office within the South African Jewish Board of Deputies), he oversees virtually all facets of Jewish life, culture, history, and religion in the small or the dying or the former Jewish communities, predominantly in South Africa, but further afield too. Once I was able to pry open his door, which took months of persistent unanswered emails (more likely pestering emails from his point of view) and third-party introductions, the flow of information, introductions, and friendship — and sometimes, partnership — never ceased. No one has been a bigger champion, supporter, nor assistant than the Travelling Rabbi. We journeyed numerous times together, near and far, on day trips and overnight jaunts. It is no exaggeration to say that he alone is responsible for the lion’s share of my Jewish Africa photo success across the entire Southern Africa region stretching from here to Kenya in the north, to Namibia in the west, to Madagascar and Mauritius in the east, to Swaziland in the south.
On this, my final week in Johannesburg, he took me along on a day trip to the “Tel Aviv Strip,” a swath of farmland in Mpumalanga Province about two hours drive east of Johannesburg that was once a tapestry of some 70 Jewish-owned farms, one after the other. Today, there remain only about five Jewish farms. Our destinations for the day included cemetery inspections and visits to former synagogues in the towns of Middelburg and Bethal.
In Middelburg, I met Issy Moshe, an Israeli expat who’s been doing business in this bucolic zone for some 30 years. Judging by his style and demeanor, I’d have guessed he just arrived. About 10 years ago, he purchased the former synagogue building, and today it’s a toy shop. He also has an electrical goods supply business. We’d actually exchanged emails when I was planning for leg #2 three years earlier, but I realized Middelburg was too far to get to on my own.
In Bethal, Rabbi Silberhaft and I met Gavin Kotzen at the beautifully kept Jewish cemetery. He’s one of those remaining Jewish farmers. After a quick look at the two former synagogues (now churches) also, we relaxed at his lovely home over a selection of cheeses and crackers and were also welcomed by his very talented wife, Megan, a Judaic artist.
The final excursion with the good Rabbi seemed fitting in that we visited these once thriving communities that now cling by a thread.
“I wonder what will become of these communities in 20 or 30 years time,” I pondered aloud.
“There’ll be no one left,” came an immediate reply.
That sad fate gives all the more importance to my work, and to Rabbi Silberhaft’s. We do what we can do now and hope to pass on the baton of preservation. For all he does, for all I do, it seems like such a drop in the bucket for what should be done, for what needs to be done, for what can be done, for what will be done. The Rabbi and I share that realization, but we also share an optimism for what will be.
Inside the confines of his SUV conveyance, we also shared some private conversation which I regard as a bonus. As different as we are as people, I discovered many shared goals and life experiences. Here’s a man in great demand (there’s not a lot of time between phone calls) and I felt privileged to have so much concentrated time with him, not just on that day, but every day we spent out and about.
As I tip my cap to Rabbi Silberhaft, I recall his comment to my Facebook Jewish Africa Photo of the Day post (the pic of us cruising along in his car) at the end of that day: “Indeed, it was my great privilege to play a small part in your wonderful and important project. LEHITRAOT Jono David,” he wrote, downplaying the enormity of his assistance.
Yeah, see you again, Rabbi. See you again, South Africa. Thank you for an extraordinary journey and for gifting me with priceless memories and experiences.
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