Good People. Looking for Jewish Meaning in South Africa


Eszter Lanyi is a social entrepreneur in the field of Jewish education and culture and occasional photographer from Budapest, Hungary. Mladen Petrov, her partner for this ROI project, is a journalist with a thing for social media, originally from Bulgaria, who now lives in Warsaw, Poland.

One recent Friday afternoon Eszter and I found ourselves in an usual situation. On our way to an important meeting, we were asked few questions about Jewish life in our respective countries, Hungary and Poland (although there was some misunderstanding, and Budapest native, Eszter, was asked about Poland, my field of expertise). The questions came from the radio presenter in Johannesburg and we were answering, through a friend’s cell phone, from Durban. The other meeting was to begin in 10 minutes.

This might not exactly sound like a dream vacation to you, but hey, you should think twice. When we started exchanging messages in March, playing with the idea of a joint ROI project, a map was pulled out and our fingers met in South Africa. We wanted a trip with a meaning, and a Jewish heritage trip to South Africa sounded just right.

If you rely only on articles, your idea of what Jewish life in South Africa looks like might be a little distorted. While the BDS movement is going strong in the country, which poses a problem for a traditionally very Zionist community, there is a lot more to Jewish life in South Africa than the well-known boycott talk. And we wanted to find out about these other layers, hidden from outsiders coming from Central Europe who are not even from Lithuania, home to the ancestors of some 85% of the community.

With a map in hand and a small list of contacts we started planning. Even though we didn’t know a whole lot about the community, we knew one thing: there is Jewish life outside the big cities - Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town - and we wanted to see it. How did Jews end up in the ostrich farms? Which is the Jewish winery? Who was the first Jewish mayor of East London? What is it like to pray in a synagogue located one block from what can easily be the most gorgeous beach in South Africa? How do you live a Jewish life in a town with some 50 Jews? We had a lot of questions and only two weeks to find out.

Naturally our contact list kept growing from the initial small list of a few ROIers and some distant acquaintances, and by the time we landed in Johannesburg in the beginning of August, there were some 30-40 people expecting us all over the country. By the time we left the city, the list expanded with new friends who wanted us to meet their friends in one of the 10 cities we were to stop in along the way. Needless to say, with every new city there were more people hearing about these two Europeans, with no relation to South Africa, doing a Jewish heritage trip in South Africa. We didn’t have to wait too long to reach the point when we had to start apologizing for turning down accommodation offers. But we saw this coming - the thing about being a hospitable Jew in an African culture known for its hospitality is that eventually you become double hospitable.

After Johannesburg and Durban, we rented a car. There were some 2,000 kilometers along the Indian Ocean ahead of us. South Africa is also known for its high crime, although things are changing, so before we hit the road we took few crash courses on how to survive on the road. As we were moving from one town to another, there were more and more text messages to send the people we met and befriended. “We made it to East London.” “We are in Port Elizabeth, it’s all good.” “Greetings from Plettenberg Bay.” “We are in Outdshoorn, the ostriches say hi” (that’s a lie, we couldn’t possibly pronounce Outdshoorn, so we settled for the “ostrich place” - everyone knew what we meant), “Cape Town is gorgeous.” Unfortunately one message didn’t get delivered, and by the time we found a wi-fi spot there were three e-mails and two Whatsapp messages from different worried sources waiting for us. “Are you guys ok?” Oh yes, we were more than ok.

Wherever we went - big cities, small towns - we were getting yet another portion of what we needed: proud Jews and proud South Africans, people who made the two identities work and complement each other. Something we, coming from the post-communist part of Europe, struggle with even today. We learned about the numerous Jewish activists fighting the Apartheid regime with their friends and then actively participating in the creation of the new, free South Africa, while finding time to develop their very own Jewish community to the point where finding a seat in a kosher restaurant on a Wednesday evening in Johannesburg is impossible. Wednesday evening? Yes, these people are very Jewish.

As simple and enjoyable it sounds, it isn’t. Back in the day, before the big wave of emigration in the 80’s and 90’s, following the political changes in South Africa, the community was 120,000-strong. Everyone we met had a son, daughter, and grandchildren abroad. Australia, Israel, the US, London, you name it. The community, now at over 70,000 members, believes the worst is over. Numbers are stable; there is a good life to be lived now.

The main lesson to learn from this trip became clear early on. Part of our project was meeting with the communities in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town and bringing them up to speed with the issues European Jews are currently dealing with (the list is too long). These cordial meetings would not have happened if it wasn’t for ROIers Dan Brotman and Gina Flash for taking care of everything, from invitations to kosher catering. As we were answering the numerous questions, anything from Holocaust remembrance to kosher slaughter, we were also taking notes. Some 90% of the South African Jews are affiliated with the community. Back in Hungary and Poland, the number of affiliated Jews could easily be at 10%. Still 80% to go until we catch up!

Eszter came up with a working solution. “My next life I am coming back as a South African Jew!” For me this means do your thing, be good at it and remember to check with your friends at the community. I am not sure what she meant but it sounded good, and if I am not coming back as a South African, I’ll visit her anyway.

While living a Jewish life in Johannesburg, home to the largest community in South Africa, is relatively easy (you never know, with regularly scheduled anti-Israel events all over the country - we made it just on time for a 40,000-strong rally in Cape Town), living a full Jewish life in East London (Jewish population: 160) is more challenging. And yet it’s happening. The day we visited the synagogue was empty, but there was a lesson to be learned. The beautiful building was home to two communities: the Orthodox synagogue with its followers would stay on the ground floor, and the Reform congregation would go upstairs. Every now and then, the two communities would meet after a service for a joint Kiddush. The wise quote of the evening came from a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of our lovely East London host, Lisa: “Yes, I am the only Jewish girl in my school, but this only makes me stronger. Being a Jewish girl in a Jewish school is too easy and you can forget who you are.” Indeed.

Down the road in Plettenberg Bay, home to a vibrant community of some 50 Jews, Johnny, the local leader of the congregation who “resigns and starts over on the very next day,” told us about his experience. What does it mean to be one of the 140 Jews living between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, an almost 700-km stretch of road? “We don’t have problems getting rabbis here. Who would turn down an offer to lead a service in such a beautiful little town, practically on the beach? But we always make one thing very clear: this is our community and this is how we live, modern people respectful of the traditions, but doing our own thing. As long as no one is telling us how to be Jewish, we get along just fine.” That’s it.

What makes the South African Jewish community what it is? Proud of being Jewish, proud Zionists, and proud South Africans. And how come these people have the time and strength to do their work, care for their families and communities, and even keep their homes open to two complete strangers (that would be us)? One morning as we were strolling on the gorgeous beach in Umhlanga, just outside Durban, Eszter provided what seems to be the best answer: “You know, maybe they are just good people," she was thinking out loud.

Yes, they are.

Out of Africa

I was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, but was lucky enough to travel and even live for periods in three very different cities. One of the greatest realizations of my migrating past was that wherever you go, things are the same - they’re just done slightly differently.

So, planning the project with Mladen, I was trying to imagine how different that same Jewish life will be in South Africa. And honestly, it was pretty different. The country has been on my radar for a while because the people I met from there were all very nice, and also because I felt that there were interesting similarities between us - starting from the size of the Jewish community, to the fact that the political regimes changed in our countries at more or less the same time.

It is difficult to put two weeks into a short paragraph. We had amazing encounters, generous hosts, we met children, parents and grandparents, we visited communities of thousands and places that struggle with a minyan. But no matter where and with whom we talked, people were proud Jews and proud South Africans. Something I rarely - if at all - find in my home country. Not that I don’t know that this has its historical reasons, but the moment I realized this was one of the most moving moments of my time in South Africa.

I want to thank everyone from Johannesburg, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Plettenberg Bay, Oudshoorn and Cape Town for making these two weeks the most incredible trip filled with serious conversations and beautiful scenery.