South African Jewish commitment to Israel

A garage in the beautiful leafy suburb of Oaklands in Johannesburg was a popular venue for takeout coffee for years. Not only did it serve the best cappuccino in town, it stocked kosher products, the finest nougat and the best Swiss and Belgian chocolates. Pesach delicacies and products that were difficult to find anywhere else after the pre- Pesach frenzy, when the supermarkets had run out of necessary basics like tomato sauce or matzo meal, were right there on the shelves. On summer and winter evenings it was a popular meeting place for Jewish boys and girls from the surrounding suburbs of Houghton, Norwood, Highlands North and Glenhazel, leaning on their cars with the music turned up. Business was booming. There was no parking. Queues of BMW’s, Porsches, 4x4’s and Mercedes wound round the fuel pumps and out the two entrances to the garage.

During Operation Protective edge last year things changed. Jewish customers looking to buy kosher Humus, Techina or Israeli pickled cucumbers couldn’t find them on the shelves or refrigerators and approached the relatively new owner, a Muslim, who everyone said was ‘a great guy.’ He told them he wasn’t stocking Israeli products since the war, as a protest for the treatment Israel was dishing out to the Palestinians. I wasn’t there but received several sms’s from likeminded Jewish lovers of cappuccino. They quoted the new owner’s words.

There was an outcry. Not in the form of protest we South Africans are used to – large crowds of chanting and dancing placard bearing masses, blowing whistles and Vuvuzelas – who could (if you aren’t South African) be mistaken for merry revellers. Instead Jewish customers simply stayed away.  So much so that the owner released a press statement saying that he meant no offence to his Jewish clientele.

I thought it would last until the Gaza war was over. I’m sure the owner did too. But now almost a year later, there is ample parking, no queues at the pumps or for those dark cappuccinos, macchiato or long black coffees. And no Jews. I stopped there two weeks ago on a Saturday night for a late cappuccino and parked in one of the empty bays. There wasn’t a teenager in sight or any musical accompaniment as I walked into the store. I ordered my coffee and looked around. There were only two other customers. A woman in a black hijab, her husband in a long white, shirt dress and white crochet head covering (which I sometimes, inappropriately,  referred to as a 'kippah').

I paid for my cappuccino in a rush and headed for the door. I felt ashamed. As I reached the exit, wheels spinning, I thought for a moment that there may have been some big Jewish function on that night, that I didn’t know about. I turned back to look at the empty courtyard and I realised, that save for me, there probably hadn’t been a Jewish customer there for almost a year.

Being a journalist and wanting to confirm what I had experienced, I decided to visit again during the week and the following Saturday night. I wasn’t disappointed. Well at least, not by the Jewish community, who showed themselves to be probably the most committed, single minded and loyal Israel supporters in the world. As I rushed from the store for the third time in two weeks I only felt ashamed of myself: for believing I needed to confirm it. I got home and ran myself a hot bath and almost used up an entire bar of soap. I felt that dirty.