South African Jewry

History of Cape Town's Jews

Written by Gwynne Schrire .

Jews have been involved in the exploration and settlement of the Cape since Europe first developed an interest in finding alternate routes to India. The early Portuguese navigators Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco Da Gama would not have been able to make their journeys without the Jewish mapmakers, and the astronomical tables drawn up by Abraham Zacuto which enabled the sailors to navigate on a large ocean that has no roads or street signs, just big waves or little waves.

Although Jews were shareholders and directors of the Dutch East India Company, the company only employed Protestants. The Dutch settlement at the Cape in 1652 occurred a few years after the massive disruption to Jewish life in Poland caused by the massacres of Chmielnicki, and some desperate Jewish refugees fleeing to Holland were prepared to be baptized in order to get a job with the Dutch East India Company. There were baptized Jews in the Cape in 1669 like Samuel Jacobson who served as a shepherd, and David Heilbron who was stationed on Robben Island. In the 18th century we know of Abraham of Prague, Johan de Souza, and some who did not deny their Jewish identity despite their baptismal certificates, like Eschel Joel, a helmsman who was involved in a fight in 1754 with the ship's mate when he called Joel the Dutch equivalent of damn Jew, and Fernando Henriques who brought along kosher food for the journey for himself and for his slave, but it was only when the British took over the Cape in 1805 that freedom of religion was established and Jews could really come as Jews without having to pretend to be something else.

Lady Anne Barnard bought a rare plant for her garden from a Jewess called Da Costa whose husband was a sergeant in the garrison and later a bookkeeper in the prison. The first practising Jew was Dr Siegfried Frankel who arrived in 1808. A Danish ship's doctor, he was arrested on arrival with the rest of the crew as Britain was at war with Denmark at the time, and when released in a prisoner exchange, he got permission to remain in Cape Town. Dr Frankel later helped to establish the South African College where his sons were among the first students. One of the well known characters in Cape Town was old Moses the Money changer, who came in 1817 and lived at the Castle and was immortalized in a popular song called Katy Kekkelbek (Chatterbox) with the lines:
“Right it is true what Old Moses says in the Cape,
that it is all flausen and homboggery."

Another well known Jew in the early years of the 19th century was Joseph Da Lima, who taught slaves, ran the first Dutch bookshop, started a weekly newspaper and published poems, plays, pamphlets and the first history of the Cape.
Organised Jewish worship was initiated by Jews who had arrived from England with the 1820 settlers. The leader of one party, Mr Wilson, absconded in Simons Town with the group's money. The British Government would not pay his successor, Rev Boardman, the full minister's salary as some of his group were Jewish. These included the Nordens and the Slomans, who were to play a prominent role in the establishment of a Jewish congregation in the Cape 20 years later.

The Norden sons distinguished themselves in settler activities. One of them, Benjamin, explored the interior trading with the Xhosas and reached Natal where he brought a letter to the Zulu chief, Dingaan, from the Governor Benjamin D'Urban about a new settlement to be called Durban. Benjamin retired to Cape Town where he went into business, selling guano. He brought together the first minyan on Yom Kippur 26th September 1841 when seventeen men met at his house, 5 Helmsely Cottages on the Helmsley Estate in Hof Street including Morris Sloman, Simeon Marcus and Dr Frankel. The following week they met again at the home of Simeon Marcus in Loop Street and established the Society of the Jewish Community of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope or Tikvath Israel (Tikvath meaning Hope). This later became the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. Contributions also came from Old Moses and Dr Da Lima.

The following year they bought two plots of ground in Woodstock for what became the Albert Road Cemetery. The first person to be buried there was Abraham Horn one of the trustees of the Tikvath Israel, whose posthumous son was the first recognised Jewish birth in 1845.

The first Jewish marriage took place in 1844 between Marcus' daughter, Amelia, and Michael Benjamin. As there was neither synagogue nor rabbi, the wedding took place in the St George's Church under the Senior Colonial Chaplain, Rev Hough of St George's Church in a ceremony in which, with the permission of the Attorney-General, all allusions to the Trinity had been carefully removed.

Their son was to become the first barmitzvah boy in 1858 although the 13 year old son of Sloman was the first boy to be called to the Torah in 1849 at the first public reading of the Torah in South Africa by the Rev Pulver. This brave young man had his bris the year before when he was 12 years old because there had been nobody in the Cape qualified to do it before then.

The first bris was performed in October 1847 by R Joseph, the honorary secretary of the synagogue, who, as a qualified mohel, was a welcome addition to the small community. The first South African boy on whom he performed the operation was his own newly born son.

The new congregation acquired their first Sefer Torah in 1848, brought from England by Aaron de Pass an elder of the shul, who, together with his brother, Elias, the honorary secretary, was very active in the new congregation. They were ship-owners, and built the first facilities for shipping repairs. They also bought the Sea Bride, the ship captured off the coast of Cape Town in 1863 by the Alabama, a Confederate raider that preyed the seas during the American Civil War. (The folk song DAAR KOM DIE ALABAMA - There comes the Alabama - has remained popular ever since.) The greatest benefactor to the South African National Gallery was to be Aaron's grandson, Alfred, whose donations of paintings and etchings formed the nucleus of its collection.

In 1849 the first synagogue was purchased, on the corner of Bouquet and St John's Street adjoining the Lodge De Goede Hoop. It formed part of a house, suitably altered, the rest of which was to serve as living quarters for their first minister, the Rev.Isaac Pulver. This was the first synagogue in the sub-continent.
The first Jewish bride to be married in a synagogue was one of the eight daughters of the Slomans. These daughters had made themselves responsible for providing the vestments and curtains of the synagogue suitably embroidered - a very acceptable occupation for Victorian daughters. The synagogue had at the time no marriage canopy (chupah) so the ark curtains had to be removed to serve the purpose.

The establishment of the first Jewish welfare organisation in the Cape was a direct result of the city's link with the sea and the dangers thereof. Solomon the synagogue secretary had already dealt with a few stranded or shipwrecked Jewish passengers. One day he was approached by a destitute young man who had lost all his possessions in a fire on board ship. The Cape Argus in its report of the destruction of the barque Joseph Somes in 1857 had reported that apparently the passengers had seen the Flying Dutchman with its ghostly captain sail under their bows. Soon after, someone dropped a lamp, but they were too demoralised by the ghastly experience to put the flames out properly thinking them the flames of hell. The newspaper stated that "no man except a Jew and an intermediate passenger saved anything except the clothes he wore at the time." As a result of the report, a public subscription was opened for the victims but the Jew was excluded from its largesse. Those two men were the cook's assistant and a passenger, not the unfortunate young Jew - who had landed as destitute as the others. Solomon complained to the newspaper about the injustice done, with its undeniable tinge of antisemitism. The statement was repudiated, but too late for the young man, for the funds had already been distributed.

With the establishment of the Philanthropic Society of the Jewish Community of the Cape of Good Hope - today's Jewish Community Services - the Jewish community could look after their own, and the Society maintained an active interest in the welfare of new arrivals and in cases of hardship.

By 1861 the congregation had outgrown the small synagogue and with the encouragement of their minister, Rev Rabinowitz, a house, stables and a large garden extending back from St John's Street onto Government Avenue was bought. On this was built a synagogue, now the Jewish Museum. It was consecrated on Rosh Hashanah, 13th September 1863, the 14th anniversary of the opening of the Bouquet Street Synagogue. This was the first synagogue built in South Africa,

A description of the community written in 1891 portrays a complacent homogenous community:

"Touching our co-religionists of Cape Town, they are a fairly representative and industrious body. We worship in a bijou synagogue which, pretty as it be. is indescribable architecturally, although it has some pretensions to the Byzantine. Standing in the Gardens, the local Belgravia, adjoining beautiful grounds dotted with fine old oak, and removed from the "madding crowd", the prevailing repose adds an appropriate solemnity to our miniature temple. Our noble selves may be described as consisting of two classes, those who attend "Shool" and those who don't. There are three sections amongst us - the highest are the big shopkeepers, the second are the small shopkeepers, and the lowest - well we have no lowest. The conditions of life are eminently comfortable, and existence is not a very difficult problem with the majority. Without egotism we can claim the proud distinction of being a quiet law-abiding body, all more or less hardworking, following our respective pursuits with earnestness, if not with equal aptitude and results, Not altogether full of love and sympathy for each other, we are yet fairly sociable, and it is only due to write that the slights and heart-burnings the poor labour under in other places are almost unknown here. ....Practical men, skilled artisans and the like would not make any sacrifice in coming to these shores......"Golden South Africa" will be something more than a mere phrase"

Within a few years, the attraction of this Golden South Africa had drawn to its shores many new immigrants who certainly lived in poverty unacknowledged in this rosy hued report. From 1881 when the gates from Eastern Europe were opened, a steadily increasing trickle of Jewish immigrants arrived in South Africa. It is estimated that 40 000 Jews arrived in the Cape between 1880 and 1910, and a further 30 000 between 1910 and 1948. Most of these came from Lithuania, two thirds of these from the Kovno area, towns like Kovno, Ponevez, Shavli, Rakishok, Poswohl and Shadowa with the rest from Vilna, Grodno, Vitebsk, Courland and Minsk. A few others came from outside the Litvak area, like Lodz, Warsaw, Odessa, Kiev and Kharkov. The path from Lithuania to Cape Town involved a train journey through Europe, a voyage on a cargo boat to London, a stay in the Jews Temporary Shelter in Leman Street, London, and then a long journey by sea to Cape Town. Intense competition for the mail service to the Cape had resulted in the time for the journey being reduced from 26 days in 1883 to 19 days by 1894.

The Docks they saw were smaller and closer to the city than they are today, and bore no resemblance to today's fashionable Waterfront. Familiar landmarks like the Adderley Street pier have disappeared under the giant land reclamation scheme that created the Foreshore and skyscrapers stand where boats used to be moored. The ships of the Union Line and the Castle Line would tie up in different areas of the Alfred Basin. and passengers would crowd the sides eagerly for their first glimpse of Table Mountain. Most arrived with very little. Of 32 immigrants on the SS GOTH from Libau via England which docked in Cape Town on 1st July 1902, six were completely penniless, the other 26 had 61 pounds seventeen and sixpence of which thirty pounds belonged to four, thus the remaining 22 passengers had approximately thirty shillings apiece.

The new immigrants settled mainly in District Six, Woodstock and areas close to the city. Most found it easier to find work in the small country towns and farming areas which were economically undeveloped and Jewish communities began to spring up all over South Africa.

Most of these immigrants were practical men and skilled artisans, mainly tailors, shoemakers and carpenters although there were also builders, clerks, butchers, caterers, watchmakers, engineers, bakers, tobacconists, barbers, tinsmiths, brass founders, harness makers, waterproof makers, locksmiths, glaziers, printers, portmanteau makers, brush makers, mattress makers, soap makers, and photographers. A random sample of 50 East European Jews in 1903 collected by a government official who wanted to show how undesirable these immigrants were revealed that 46% were shopkeepers, 32% were artisans and 8% were Hawkers.

These new immigrants with their skills were to have considerable impact on the South African economy in a time where it was a poorly developed colony relying on Great Britain for most of its merchandise and over the years they have made a great contribution to the development of textiles, fashion, food processing, cinema, furniture, glass, chain stores and food chains in South Africa.

In Cape Town itself the arrival of the East European immigrants resulted in an explosion of societies, schools, clubs and organisations to help them to settle and establish themselves and destroyed the uniformity of the previous assimilated Anglo-German Jewish establishment. The new immigrants were not happy in the English environment, did not respect their way of religious observance and regarded their standard of kashrut as lax. At the turn of the century a number of other synagogues sprang up to serve the different needs of the newcomers ranging from the Zionist affiliated New Hebrew Congregation (Roeland Street Shul) (1900) to the East European style Beth Hamidrash in Constitution Street, the Beth Hamidrash of the Chasidim in Buitenkant St, the synagogue of the men of Ponovetz and numerous Chevras. None of these buildings still stand.

As a result of the increasing population, the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation outgrew their premises and moved to a new and larger building next door which was consecrated on September 13th 1905, the anniversary of the opening of the Bouquet Street Synagogue in 1849 and the St John's Street Synagogue in 1863. This is called The Great Synagogue -the Gardens Shul - and it and the old synagogue next door, the Jewish Museum, are well worth a visit.

The 1904 Census list 8 114 Jews in Cape Town with a further 2 567 living in its suburbs, mainly Woodstock and Wynberg. Ten years earlier there had only been 3 007 in the entire Cape Colony. As the community began to spread out into other suburbs synagogues were established in Wynberg in 1905, in Woodstock in 1913 and then further afield as the Jews moved up in the world, out into the suburbs and away from the overcrowded streets of District Six and Woodstock.

The increase in the Jewish population with the steady influx of immigrants concerned the Government and various attempts were made to stop their admission; from the Cape Immigration Restriction Act of 1902, to the Immigrants Restriction Bill of 1912 until the 1930 Immigration Quota Act finally stopped the flow of Eastern European Jews altogether, the omission from the quota of Jews from Germany being amended in the 1937 Aliens Bill. Thus at the period of their greatest need to escape, the doors to South Africa were kept very tightly closed and only between 6 to 7 000 German Jews managed to squeeze in between 1933-1939. Even after the War very few Jews were given permission to immigrate, as a result few Holocaust survivors could find refuge here.

Since the war the Jewish profile in Western Cape has changed. In the first two decades of the century nearly every little town had its Jewish community, its Jewish hoteliers and shopkeepers, its minyan, its synagogue and its cemetery. These country communities have nearly all vanished. Starting in the mid-thirties as the immigrants' children began to grow up, families began to translocate to the cities. The trend to urbanisation snowballed and the rapid shrinkage of the rural communities has resulted in the closure of many of the synagogues and their conversion into museums, clinics, auction halls or furniture showrooms.

More than 80 % of South African Jews now live in the two major metropolitan centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Sixty percent live in Johannesburg and 22% in Cape Town, and with dwindling numbers in Pretoria, Durban, and Port Elizabeth. Since the 1980s there has been a migration into South Africa of Jews from Israel, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and other Sub Saharan countries. Cape Town Jewry has also benefited by the contribution of the Sephardi Jews from Rhodes Island (via the Congo) who have settled in Sea Point and established their own synagogue.

The 1991 Sociodemographic Survey of the Jewish Population of South Africa by Allie Dubb conducted by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research of the University of Cape Town showed that there were 23 500 Jews in Cape Town. Half of them live in the suburbs on the Atlantic Sea Board, a quarter in the Southern Suburbs, 11% in the City Bowl area with a further 6.5% in Milnerton.

They form a homogenous and cohesive community led by a Jewish Board of Deputies and has a strong Zionist identity, with several Zionist organisations under the Western Province  Zionist Council. They have an excellent Jewish Day School network of Herzlia schools to which 90% of Jewish children attend. There are 19 functioning places of worship, ten welfare organisations covering a wide spectrum of problems. They are well integrated in the community and many of the city mayors have been Jewish. There are doors in the national Gallery symbolising the migration of the Jews through the ages that were donated by Hyman Liberman, mayor from 1904-1907, whose house Rosecourt, is today a halfway house administered by the Jewish Sheltered Employment Agency.

Historically Cape Town had been more racially integrated than  the rest of the country. Blacks had lived alongside Whites in many Cape Town suburbs including District Six. When the Apartheid era enforced a social stratification based on melanin pigmentation, Cape Town was affected severely, particularly by the Group Areas Act which separated residential areas according to racial classification. Cape Town was known to be more liberal than the rest of the country and the Jewish community in Cape Town was known to be more liberal than the other communities. From 1961 to 1974 the Jewish Helen Suzman stood alone in the political wilderness, the only voice in Parliament opposing the iniquitous race policies and a significant percentage of her supporters and of other liberal candidates was Jewish. The only member of the Communist Party to hold a seat in Parliament was also a Jew, Sam Kahn, who fought hard for racial tolerance from 1949 until 1952 when his party was banned. Anti-Semitic voices regularly complained about the number of Jews arrested for anti-Apartheid activities. A museum to this unhappy past now stands in District Six in which the Jewish contribution to the area is also acknowledged.

After a century and a half the Jewish Community in Cape Town as a group retains a strong Jewish identity and a strong commitment to Israel while maintaining a strong South African identity and a strong commitment to South Africa, an identity and commitment enhanced by a feeling of pride in our new multiracial country and our constitution which bans all forms of discrimination including racial and religious.

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For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. Isaiah 62:1