Wandering Jew: Talk of the town

A visit to Cape Town will reveal a lot about South Africa's rich Jewish history as well as the current community.

February 12, 2013 17:57
Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Cape Town is the second most populated city in South Africa and is where the Jewish community established its roots and began to grow and flourish.

In 1820, a large number of British settlers immigrated to Cape Town, including three Jewish families that in total made up about 20 people. Over the next three decades, British Jewish immigrants established additional synagogues, as well as cemeteries and other philanthropic institutions.

Jewish immigrants from Germany and Holland arrived in Cape Town in the early 19th century seeking fortune and adventure, which enabled the community to grow slowly and steadily.

Between 1880 and 1910, the Jewish population swelled from 4,000 to 40,000 with Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Lithuania, thus revitalizing the Jewish community of Cape Town.

In 1930, increased feelings of anti-Semitism surfaced in South Africa but with the institutionalization of the apartheid agenda, anti-Semitism became much less of an issue. Many Jewish organizations and individuals from Cape Town played a significant role within the anti-apartheid movement during the mid 1900’s.

Prior to the second half of 2003, many in the Jewish community left South Africa primarily due to concerns about crime and the economy. Presently, the Jewish community of Cape Town numbers around 17,000, which makes up about 25 percent of the total Jewish population of South Africa.

To begin a day of sightseeing, head to the "Museum Mile,” which is located at 88 Hatfield Street in the center of town. Here stands the museum complex, which compromises many Jewish sites. One such site is The Old Synagogue or The Gardens Synagogue, named because it was erected in the Gardens district of Cape Town, 1863. The synagogue is of a Neo-classical style, and also houses the Museum of the History of the Jewish People in South Africa, established in 1958, and an exhibition of Jewish ceremonial art.

In 1996 the decision was taken to incorporate the Old Museum into the new South African Jewish Museum, which was formally opened in 2000 by Nelson Mandela. The synagogue links via a courtyard to the South African Jewish Museum, which is a piece of bold architectural design. The museum uses multi-media platforms to tell the history of the Jews of South Africa. The museum also shows a daily documentary titled, Nelson Mandela. A Righteous Man, which helps understand how certain events shaped South Africa.

Next door to the Old Synagogue is the Great Synagogue, opened in 1905, which seats 1,400. This is arguably one of the city’s finest and most magnificent buildings. In particular, the stained-glass windows are pieces of art in their right. Sparkling golden mosaics adrorn either side of the Holy Ark and a beautiful chandelier hangs from the dome.

The synagogue is used for services and is free to tour with donations accepted.

Also forming part of this museum complex is the Cape Town Holocaust Center, the first Holocaust Center in Africa, opened in 1999. This is a permanent exhibition that includes sections on the pseudo-science of race and the stories of Holocaust survivors who made their home in Cape Town. As with many Holocaust Centers, this is a very moving exhibition that also tackles the institutionalized racism of Apartheid.

The museum complex is open every day apart from Saturdays and Jewish and public holidays. The cost for an adult is R40, and children under the age of 16 go free.

Touring the museum complex will take the best part of the morning, and conveniently the complex is home to the kosher Café Riteve. Here they serve a selection of kosher meals and snacks. The average cost for lunch is R150 per person.

For the afternoon, a visit to the only kosher winery awaits, situated on the slopes of Paarl Mountain.

Zandwijk Wines, premium vineyard and winery, is nestled in the South Eastern slopes of Paarl Mountain, and is the only kosher winery in South Africa dedicated exclusively to kosher wines and juices.

As well as wine tasting, a visit to the wine cellars is available and also the the option to bring a picnic to enjoy in the grounds. A cheese and wine tasting is R20 per person, and the cellar tour with standard wine tasting is R10 per person. When visiting it’s important to pre book and remember to take cash with you as there are no ATM’s at the site.

The winery is located at Pieter Hugo Rd, Courtrai, Paarl, Western Cape. Paarl is just 40 minutes on the R44, off the N1, a quick drive or taxi ride from Cape Town.

For the evening, head back to central Cape Town and to Sea Point. Here there’s a big Jewish community with some kosher options for dinner such as Avron’s place. Initially inspired by Manhattan and New York eateries, Avron’s serves up kosher food from schnitzel to sushi and the average cost is R130 per person. Another kosher option is Goldies on 174 Main Road, Sea Point. Similarly, they serve up a variety of kosher food with the average cost being R100 per person.

The Jewish Virtual Library contributed to this report.

Follow Tanya on Twitter - @TPowellJones, or email tanyapowelljones@gmail.com

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