Friday, December 22, 2006

Tales of a Wandering Jew-South Africa

Traveling through the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces of South Africa, I am struck by the sad disappearance of the Jewish communities that once thrived here. There are still strong Jewish communities in the big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there was once vibrant Jewish life in South Africa's interior. As Jews the world-over have similarly done, the Jews of South Africa helped build this nation. Stopping from city to city, I have heard the similar refrain, "we once had such a wonderful Jewish community here, and they really helped build our town."

In the city of Graaf-Reinet, there was a plaque on the main street honoring the "smouse," the itinerant merchant who peddled wares from town to town. The smouse would travel with a cart filled with supplies that often served as a lifeline for these tiny outposts in the wilderness. Yet every city I stop in now, a whole litany of places like Grahmstown, Ladybrand, Kroonstad, Colesburg, Ficksburg and Bethlehem (yes, same name), there are communities that have dried up, and synagogues that are now closed. Some synagogues have been bought out by private business like the one in Colesburg that is now an ABSA bank office.

I spent a Shabbat evening with the Jewish community of Kroonstad. Like many South African cities, Kroonstad once possessed a large, thriving Jewish community, but now its community cannot even form a minyon. Yet the three remaining members of the Jewish community, with whom I had the opportunity to attend Shabbat evening services, dutifully and faithfully come together every week to welcome the Sabbath.

The story that struck me most during my travels was that of the Jewish cemetery in Ficksburg. Mickey Hellman, the Chairman of the Free State Council of South African Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in America), told me this story:

There was once a large Jewish population in Ficksburg, but over time it left. There was a proper Jewish cemetery, which was located near the township. As the township expanded, it encroached upon the cemetery. Eventually the growth of the township overtook the cemetery. This expansion led to desecration of the graves, with gravestones being used for building material, and cattle grazing in the cemetery. The South African Board of Deputies, which looks after all Jewish graves and cemeteries located south of the Sahara, made the decision that cemetery needed to be transferred to a new location.

After consulting with forensic experts, and Rabbis in Israel and South Africa, the Board of Deputies exhumed all the remains of those buried in the cemetery. They re-interred the graves in a new area that was donated by the Ficksburg municipality. The project took three years to complete.

When the project was finished, there was a special ceremony held to consecrate the new cemetery and to honor the Jews of Ficksburg. People from all over the world attended the ceremony, including those Jews who formerly lived in Ficksburg, and those whose relatives were reburied.

The sad disappearance of the Jewish communities in South Africa mirrors the story of the Jews of so many lands. Yet, our resilience and our desire to preserve the symbols of communities even after the communities are gone, ensures that the Jewish presence in South Africa will never fade.

Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He recently spent six weeks in South Africa on a Rotary Group Study Exchange. You can read more about his (mis) adventures at his blog:

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