Jewish life and culture on display

2016-09-20 06:00

A new exhibition looks to celebrate the history of Jewish culture in South Africa – through the memories and stories of those living now.

The South African Jewish Museum has opened a new exhibition, The Goldene Medina: Celebrating 175 Years of Jewish Life in South Africa, to mark the anniversary of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa. The Goldene Medina (The Golden Land) reflects the religious, social and political history of the Jews of South Africa from 1841 to 2016.

Comprising a curated collection of anecdotes, images, artefacts and films, it creates a tapestry of the communal experiences that, over the course of 175 years, has forged a new, shared identity – the South African Jew.

Gavin Morris, director of the SA Jewish Museum, says the museum put out a request many months ago via various social media platforms asking the community to submit personal anecdotes representative of Jewish life in South Africa.

“These submissions formed the core of the exhibition. We supplemented these with extracts from a variety of published, self-published, unpublished and out-of-print memoirs that also dealt with the same themes. All the content we received was deliberately left anonymous to reflect universal, familiar, Jewish – but also South African – experiences. When reading the stories, the reader should feel as if they might be the teller.”

The exhibition is not laid out in a chronological order, but is rather divided into various aspects of South African Jewish life, Morris says. “Everything from holidays in Muizenberg, to school days, religious life, business and family life and politics among other themes. The exhibition covers the full 175 years of communal Jewish life in SA – from the early arrivals right up to contemporary Jewish life. Also included in the exhibition are four specially made films reflecting on different aspects of Jewish life.”

Broadly speaking, the South African Jewish community grew from three distinct groups of Jews who have made South Africa their home, explains Morris.

“First there were Anglo and German Jewish settlers who came to South Africa in the early 19th century once freedom of religion was allowed in the then Cape Colony. Later, towards the end of the 19th century, came the Litvaks (Jews of Lithuanian descent) who formed the majority of Jewish immigrants to SA. In the early 20th century the community grew with the arrival of Sephardi (middle-Eastern) Jews who arrived predominantly from Rhodes Island, via the Belgian Congo and Zimbabwe. These three distinct groups came together through a shared religion and culture to form a shared identity as South African Jews.”

But although many Jews’ ancestors arrived hundreds of years ago, their experiences still resonate with today’s community. “What strikes one when absorbing the content of the exhibition is how similar the experiences are across generations. The non-chronological structure of the exhibition results in stories – separated by decades but placed together – reflecting similar themes and experiences,” Morris says.

“Times may have changed, but the ethos of the community remains intact. It is this sense of continuity that comes through in the exhibition.”

The exhibition provides a snapshot of how the forebears of the SA Jewish community, from differing backgrounds, have over generations come together to form a distinct, unique identity – that of the South African Jew. “As a community we are firmly rooted in this country and we form part of the multicultural tapestry that makes up South African society. This milestone through this exhibition is in celebration of this fact,” Morris says.

But the exhibition is intended not just as a static display. “Visitors will be able to share via a computer recording terminal situated in the exhibition, but also via takeaway packs which visitors can take home and fill with their own family histories, photographs and documents. These packs (will) be digitised and added to the Jewish Digital Archive, a project hosted by the SA Jewish Museum that aimed at securing the social history of the South African Jewish community for future generations,” Morris says.

V The Goldene Medina: Celebrating 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa will be on display at the SA Jewish Museum until 20 November

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