An essay in historical interpretation
PROFESSOR J. M. TALMON, Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University, in an article explaining the purpose of the study of history rejected the view that the aim of history is ‘just to tell what actually happened.’ To him history was ‘a means of self-identification, a way by which we get to know ourselves, by looking at the origins, the concatenation of forces and events, which brought about our situation.’ In this essay, I have not set myself as ambitious an aim as defined by Prof. Talmon. Nevertheless, I hope that I may make a small contribution to a project which still awaits the historian: the writing of the social and cultural story of the development of South African Jewry.
A few years ago, the late Dr. Louis Mirvish, when pleading for the establishment of a Jewish Museum in Cape Town, said: ‘Every community sooner or later arrives at a stage of stability and maturity when it starts examining its past … the mainsprings of its development. We in South Africa have now reached that stage. Already there are signs of a growing interest in the history of our development, and in the course of the next generation or two this will be intensified.’ Although it may be doubted whether the interest in South African Jewish history is as widespread as Mirvish believed, I feel he was right in stressing its importance. We cannot truly understand our present situation unless we look back to our origins and form an assessment of the forces and events which brought us to our present situation.
It is in this spirit that I venture upon this excursion into communal self-knowledge in an attempt to identify some major factors which went into the making of South African Jewry and gave it its distinctive character. This essay makes no claims at completeness. It is an exploratory study of certain aspects which seem to me to be significant. I hope it may serve as a stimulus to others to probe further and more deeply.
Immigration to South Africa
A community, like an individual, may be studied in terms of the interaction of two sets of forces: heredity and environment. I propose to deal almost exclusively with the hereditary aspect (i.e., the type of Jew who came here as an immigrant), and shall content myself with a few general observations on the environmental factors (i.e., the specific South African forces and conditions which impinged upon the Jew who came here from abroad or was born here). The second aspect is, of course, at least as important as the first, but it is an entirely different subject, which requires a study on its own, Jewish immigration to South Africa falls into several clearly defined periods:
Although individual Jews arrived in small numbers during the first 150 years of European settlement (that is, until about 1800), their record does not strictly belong to Jewish history, as they did not profess Judaism, mainly, no doubt, because the constitution of the Dutch East India Company required that all its servants and settlers should be Protestants.
In the second period, which began in the early nineteenth century and continued until about 1880. South Africa received a few thousand Jewish immigrants, mainly from Germany, England and Holland. They established the first Hebrew Congregations, in Cape Town (1841), Grahamstown (1843), Port Elizabeth (1857), Kimberley (1872) and elsewhere. Those were the first groping efforts towards creating organised Jewish group life: small numbers of individuals formed themselves into Hebrew Congregations, consecrated burial grounds, built synagogues, established philanthropic institutions and laid the foundations of a corporate Jewish life.
We need not be surprised that the foundations were rather shaky and the bonds with Judaism rather tenuous, when we bear in mind the relatively small numbers scattered over vast areas, and also the great dearth of Jewish women, which resulted in frequent marriages out of the Jewish faith. It is doubtful whether the devotion of the comparatively few early enthusiasts from England and elsewhere on the Continent could have withstood the impact of the non-Jewish environment in a new land, without the subsequent reinforcements from Western and especially from Eastern Europe. If immigration of Jews to South Africa had ceased in 1860, or even in 1870, little might have remained of the few early congregations, Indeed, today there are few, if any, Jewish descendants left of the men who founded the first Congregation in Cape Town in 1841.
The new stream of immigrants coincided with the Great Divide in South Africa, the discovery and expansion first of diamonds in Kimberley (1869), and then of gold in the Transvaal, especially on the Witwatersrand (1886). which led to the gradual transformation of a backward rural country into a bustling modern industrial society. The fortune-hunters who came from Britain, Germany, France, America and elsewhere to the diamond mines and to the goldfields included numbers of Jews. They had a considerable influence upon the character of Jewish communal life, such as it was, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
Concurrently, a different element began to reach our shores in increasing numbers I refer to the Jews from Eastern Europe, chiefly from Lithuania, who were destined to outnumber the older residents. These Russian Jews (as they were describe in the Press and in official documents settled at first in and around Cape Town and Johannesburg, but gradually spread over the whole country. They were part of the great exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe, which began in the early eighties, in the flight from political oppression and the search for economic security. Although the main stream of this immigration to South Africa started in the 1880′s, it has been established that individuals in significant numbers arrived earlier. One of the first was Samuel Marks, born in the little town of Neustadt Sugind, close to the Prussian border, who arrived at the Cape in 1868 and may be regarded as the pioneer of the Lithuanian immigration. The numbers grew steadily in the 70′s, and these Yiddish- speaking Jews were soon found in significant numbers in Cape Town, in Kimberley and other parts of the country. Official statistics became available only after the South African War. Nevertheless, it can be conjectured that the Jewish population in 1880 throughout the country was about 4,000. Ten years later it had grown to about 10,000. At the turn of the century it was in the vicinity of 25,000, and in the 1904 official census it had reached a total of some 38,000.’ These figures reflect rather vividly how the Jewish population was growing through the accession of newcomers from abroad. I estimate that in the thirty-year period from 1880 to 1910, some 40,000 Jewish immigrants entered the country. Thereafter, for various reasons, the numbers decreased, with the exception of the years 1924 to 1930. In all, in the half- century 1910 to 1960, I estimate that per haps 30,000 Jewish immigrants entered the country. The bulk of these were East European Jews.
A new type of immigrant began to arrive in the early nineteen-thirties from Germany. The impact of the oppressive Nazi regime was reflected in the steadily growing numbers of German Jews, who came to South Africa from the time that Hitler gained power until the outbreak of World War IT in all, I think, about five or six thousand individuals.
World War II marks the watershed of Jewish immigration to South Africa. Although there was a resumption at the end of the war mainly of relatives who were Joining persons already resident in South Africa immigration ceased to be a significant factor in the growth of the community and dwindled to only a couple of hundred persons per annum.
English and German Influence
We may now look a little more closely at the social and cultural changes resulting from the various streams of immigrants and at the interaction between the diverse groups. We may also try to assess the distinctive contribution which each group made.
The Lithuanians, who came in such large numbers and whose Judaism was of a more intense brand, had a determining influence in the long run on the character of South African Jewry and its institutions, One of the special points of interest in my study is to try to identify some of the ways in which the South African Jewish community reveals the heritage of Eastern Europe, especially of Lithuanian Jewry. But the influence of the earlier immigrants should not be underestimated.
By the turn of the century, the community consisted of three clearly distinguishable groups:
- the “English” Jew, i.e., those born in England or in South Africa, or anglicised Russian Jews;
- the Jews from Germany;
- the Jews from Eastern Europe.
In 1890 (or perhaps a few years earlier) the majority still belonged to the first two groups. In the year 1900. of the 25,000 Jews then in South Africa, the late Dr. Joseph Hertz pointed out that more than half were ‘Russian Jews – not anglicised,’ and at least 3,000 were German Jews. ‘English Jews,’ he said, ‘also formed a considerable portion. and in energy, public spirit and administrative matters, they formed the backbone of the various congregations.’
This is amply borne out by the personnel of the committees of the leading institutions at that time. They were at the head of the synagogues, of charitable organisations, of the Board of Deputies, of the Zionist societies and of many other institutions.
Culturally, the English Jews at the Cape carried on the traditions of Anglo-Jewry. Chief Rabbi Israel Abrahams has described the relationship thus:
‘From its inauguration, the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation had always maintained the closest association with Anglo Jewry. A number of factors combined to make the nexus strong. The Colony was a part of the Empire, and English Jewry was regarded as the Mother Community. Many of the early immigrants hailed directly from England, or came to South Africa after a period of sojourn in Britain; they consequently looked upon the latter as their Home Country. Family ties and business interests served further to cement the relationship between Cape Town Jews and their English co-religionists. Moreover, the Ministers of the Tikvath Israel Congregation had all come from England, and the Congregation had invariably acknowledged the British Chief Rabbi as their spiritual head, and accepted his ruling in all ecclesiastical matters as authoritative and decisive. In fund-raising, too, there prevailed a spirit of reciprocity. The Cape Town community often contributed to philanthropic campaigns launched by British Jewry, and, conversely, donations to the Cape Town Synagogue were, on occasion, received from Jews in England.’
Early Jewish Ministers
At that time, the synagogue and religious observance were the main expressions of Jewish life and it was in these spheres that the links with Anglo Jewry were especially noteworthy. As Rabbi Abrahams says, all the ministers of the Cape Town Congregation Tikvath Israel came from England, usually on the recommendation of the Chief Rabbi of Britain acting in consultation with a lay committee. Among these, Joel Rabinowitz (who exercised such a decisive influence), though born in Poland in 1828 and educated at a Rabbinical school there, immigrated to England at the age of 24, later ministered to the Congregation at Birmingham, and at the age of 31 took up his appointment in South Africa, After his resignation in 1882, his successor was the Rev. Frederick Abraham Ornstien, who, born in England, had ministered to the Portsmouth Congregation and also spent some time in Australia, Next came the Rev. Alfred Philip Bender: English-born, an M.A. graduate of Cambridge, he typified the ‘English gentleman’. Elsewhere, too, the ministers appointed to congregations came from England, for instance, the Rev. Samuel Rappaport, who arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1872, after having ministered to the Portsmouth Congregation; the Rev. M. Mendelssohn, of Bristol, who came to Kimberley in 1878, and was succeeded in 1884 by the young short-lived Rev. A. Ornstien, also of London.
Not only was the Nusach of prayer based on the English model, the position of the Chief Rabbi in Britain was at first unquestioned.
He was looked to in such matters as approving conversions and authorising the appointment of ministers, shochetim and marriage officers. In lay matters, too, there was a tendency to look to English precedents. Thus, when the need arose in 1903 for a representative Jewish body. the first thought was to set up a branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association. When that was rejected in favour of a strictly South African body, the name was taken from the ‘Board of Deputies of British Jews,’ although the circumstances here were very different from those prevailing in Britain and the Deputies’ here had quite a different status than that of their British counterparts.
In many respects, the Russian Jews did not find the English pattern congenial and for a period, as we shall see, there were conflicts between the newcomers and the older established group. Nevertheless, in the long run it was the Anglo-Jewish pattern which, at any rate in its externals, prevailed in South Africa, although it underwent important changes in its spirit and inner content. In other words, the basic trend was for the ‘Russian’ Jews to become acculturated to the older English-speaking section. It was a case of pouring Litvak spirit into the Anglo Jewish bottles.
Thus the pattern was established which increasingly prevailed with the passage of the years. Singer’s Prayer Book (in which the Hebrew text was accompanied by the Rev. Singer’s English translation) and later Dr. Hertz’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, came to be used in most of the synagogues. Where the vernacular was used during the service (as in the Prayer for the Royal Family and later for the State President of the Republic, and in the sermon) the medium was English, When pulpits fell vacant in the older-established congregations, the usual practice was to look for incumbents among ministers trained in Britain; and when the appointee was born elsewhere and was not fluent in English – as happened to a growing extent, especially in the newer and smaller congregations – he tried to acquire the English language as soon as possible.
Concurrently, however, the congregations took on more and more of a South African colouring. The organisational link with Anglo-Jewry grew weaker, and finally ceased altogether, as the local Jewish communities became more firmly rooted, The British Chief Rabbi’s authority in ecclesiastical matters fell away very soon (when Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz visited South Africa in 1926 on his pastoral tour of the Dominions, he would not have dreamed of claiming any ecclesiastical jurisdiction here, and he was welcomed primarily as a former encumbent of a pulpit in Johannesburg).
Since there has sometimes been misunderstanding on the language aspect, it should be pointed out that the use of English as the vernacular was not a deliberate choice as against Afrikaans. The synagogues merely carried on a tradition which had become entrenched in the first instance at the Cape. In those early times, Hollands (and still more so Afrikaans) was never considered a competitor. And since the Jewish community tended increasingly to live in the large urban centres, where the language of the home, the school and the street was English, it was only natural that it also became the medium of the synagogue, in those contexts in which the vernacular was at all used. (There were a few exceptions in the platteland communities.)
As already mentioned, there was a not insignificant number of German Jews at this time. What impact did they have upon communal life? In this respect, the development in South Africa differed markedly from that in the United States, where the considerable German Jewish immigration during the years 1840 to 1870 established the main pattern in religious life, philanthropic institutions and communal organisation generally – a pattern which persisted well into the 20th century, until challenged by the East European Jews and their descendants.
In South Africa, by contrast, the German Jews do not seem to have made a specifically ‘German-Jewish’ contribution to communal life – possibly because as a group they did not have strong religious and cultural ties with their homeland (indeed, many of them were rather estranged from Judaism), or because they were too few in number or because the English tradition was already too strongly entrenched. However, one should not underestimate the role which individual German Jews played in communal leadership – as seen, for instance, in the careers of persons like Moritz Leviseur and Wolf Ehrlich in Bloemfontein; Sig fried Raphaely, Emanuel Mendelssohn, Bernard Alexander and LI Reyersbach in the Transvaal.
‘Russian’ VS ‘English’ Jews
‘We turn next to the interesting theme of the interaction between the “Russian” Jews (as they were called in official documents and the general Press) and the older Jewish population. Such contemporary records as survive (regrettably, there are not many) show that there was a period of misunderstanding and friction in various matters – religious, social and cultural. Louis Herrman thus describes one of the early clashes between the two elements in Cape Town:
‘In Cape Town many of the ‘foreigners,’ as they were at first styled, would not join the congregation. About 1886 they began to form a separate ‘Association’ in spite of everything the Rev. Mr. Ornstien could do to persuade them to come in. The Committee attempted at first to conciliate them by voting £50 towards the salary of the Shochet, to kill for all, members and non- members alike. But the ‘foreigners’ engaged the services of a Shochet who had not the approval of the Chief Rabbi, to the scandal of the Rev. Mr. Ornstien, who corresponded voluminously with London, seeking interdiction from what he recognised as headquarters, but which those of whose conduct he disapproved did not recognise at all.
‘It was the conflict between East European and West European Jewry. The ‘Russian’ Jew looked upon the English as heathenish and ignorant.’ considered parts of Jewish ritual important that the others considered trivial, and trivial what the others thought weighty. The two pronounced Hebrew with a different accent. There were trifling differences in custom. The one used Yiddish and believed it to be the Jewish language, and the other despised it as a debased jargon.
‘They both became slightly anti-semitic from opposite directions and forgot the toleration which a people that so long suffered intolerance ought to remember. And so the seeds were sown for a crop of dis trust and dislike that would give rise in time to separate institutions.’
The differences between the older Anglicised Jews and the ‘greene’ element were manifested first in the religious field, and resulted in sharp conflicts and often in actual splits in many of the congregations. In Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Johannesburg and other places, the newcomers hived off to establish congregations of their own. Since the newcomers were not a homogeneous group, but had strong parochial ties with their home towns and villages, a large number of independent landsmanschaften came into existence, many of the latter established separate houses of prayer and study in which they followed the liturgical traditions of their Lithuanian origins.
What occurred in Oudtshoorn – nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of South Africa,’ because of the intensive quality of its Jewish life – revealed the degree of divisiveness among the Litvaks themselves. The older synagogue in Queen Street was regarded as ‘too anglicised’ by some of the newcomers. The outcome was the building of the St. Johns Street Synagogue in 1892, which was nicknamed the ‘Greene’ Shul, while the Queen Street Congregation was called the ‘Englishe’ Shul, The differences between the two have thus been described:
‘A spirit of rivalry, edged on occasion by open dissension, marked for many years the relationship of the two congregations, although the members of both Kehilloth emanated from Lithuania and were reared in an almost identical cultural and social environment. Actually the main line of demarcation consisted in the fact that most of the worshippers at Queen Street hailed from Shavli – a city – and those who attended service at St. John’s Street came from Kelm. The older congregation whose members considered themselves socially superior to the Kelm Jews, preserved more decorum but met less frequently for worship. The newer congregation, on the other band, regarded their Shavli co-religionists as ignoramuses in matters spiritual, and followed a more orthodox mode of synagogal activity, which included daily services and regular Talmudic discourses.
‘Each congregation made its distinctive contribution to the religious schooling of the younger generation. The ‘English Shool’ was responsible for the establishment of the Jewish school in 1930, where Hebrew and the tenets of the Jewish faith were taught as an integral part of the general school syllabus. The ‘Greene Shool,’ not satisfied with the standard of Hebrew at the Jewish school, opened a Talmud Torah conducted on East European lines, which continued to function till 1920.
Divisions and Conflicts
These divisions and differences were found also in other spheres of Jewish life. For example, there was almost a crisis in the Chevra Kadisha in Johannesburg in the late nineties:
‘Like most of the early organisations, it was started by the ‘aristocratic’ elements, the English and German Jews, who were used to Western decorum and were conscious of social superiority, With the influx of East European Jews, causes of friction arose both as to personnel and procedure. The newcomers cared nothing for ‘manners. They accused the powers in command of dictatorship. So acute was this division that there was talk of a split. The move was quashed and good feeling was eventually restored by the tact of the leaders and by the gradual fusion of the diverse elements into the body politic of the community. By the end of 1897, harmony reigned; the Society’s Boardroom was neutral territory’, and the Chevra Kadisha was even instrumental in bringing together in amity ‘all the different congregations and benevolent associations’.”
Similarly, when steps were taken soon after the Anglo-Boer War to set up a representative Jewish body in the Transvaal , the Board of Deputies – the Russian Jews were at first unwilling to accept the leadership of an anglicised Jew like Max Langermann. A journalist in 1903, in a report to the Hebrew paper Hamelitz, wrote:
Our brethren from Russia, knowing the cold attitude of Jewish leaders in England and their ignorance of the present-day needs of Judaism and the Jews, and aware especially of the disfavour with which they regard a large variety of occupations, including 133 tailors and outfitters, 89 shoemakers, 83 builders (carpenters, bricklayers, contractors, etc.), 60 clerks and shop assistants, 50 travellers; and in smaller numbers, butchers, cattle-dealers and speculators, cabinetmakers and other furniture workers, watchmakers and jewellers. engineers, mechanics and blacksmiths, bakers, barbers, etc. Ministers of religion, synagogue officials and Hebrew teachers numbered in all 17.
As might be expected, it was mainly the younger, more adventurous type who had left the old country to seek a home in South Africa. Twenty-three per cent. were under 21 on their arrival here (some were in their teens, anything from 14 to 19 years of age): the age group 21 to 25 at the time of arrival constituted 28 per cent., and those in the 26 to 30 age group numbered 20 per cent.; the over forties constituted 8 per cent.
All the individuals who formed the subject of this study were, of course, males applying for naturalisation. The article does not give information on their marital status, but it may be assumed that a large proportion, especially among the younger age group, were unmarried. This feature of the pattern of the early immigration of East European Jews must constantly be borne in mind when trying to understand the social religious and cultural impact of that immigration. There was for long a great preponderance of males, whether unmarried or husbands temporarily separated from wives whom they had left behind until they established themselves in the new country.
It took many years before the proportion between males and females became more normal. In the first official census in 1904 that is after almost 20 years of continuous East European immigration – the males outnumbered the females by two to one: 25,864 males against 12,237 females. In 1911 the figures were 27,820 males as against 19,099 females; in 1918 there were 32,688 males as against 26,073 females; and in 1926. 39,014 males against 33,155 females. By 1951, however, males outnumbered females by less than 2,000.
Article by Gustav Saron. (South African Jewry 1965)
Encylopedia of South African Copyright : Media 24 /Naspers.
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