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Holiday in the Hinterland

Once home to Jewish immigrants, a South African city today hosts a very different sort of Jewish practice

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A Jewish cemetery in the small rural town of Ladybrand, outside Bloemfontein. (Eve Fairbanks)

A personal decision I made in early 2009 to get more serious about my Jewish practice happened to correspond with a professional decision to move to South Africa for work. Now, South Africa has a lot of Jews, but they’re almost all in Cape Town or Johannesburg, and I would be traveling in the hinterlands, through remote Afrikaner cow-towns and black settlements. So, last year, 5770, became one of heightened observance, but with weird modifications. I broke my Yom Kippur fast an hour early to get to the bottom of whether I’d picked up bedbugs in the sheep-farming village of Ladismith. (At the time, this problem seemed exotic, a pesky corollary to the fun of adventuring through a rougher frontier than America; now I hear it can ruin one’s High Holidays even in New York.) A Hanukkah party I attended was marred by an accident involving an enormous digeridoo the party’s host had brought back from Australia. I’ve come to relish the spirit of adaptation that trying to keep up the rituals here can fuel. The friend of mine with the digeridoo, an Afrikaner who’s fascinated by the biblical Jews’ wanderings through hostile lands, assembled a seder plate with me last year out of wasabi maror and a faux rhino horn for a shank bone.

But even I was disappointed to realize that I would be stuck in Bloemfontein this Rosh Hashanah. Bloemfontein is a very old city in the middle of absolutely nothing on the country’s high, windswept central plain. Historically, it was a gathering-spot for Afrikaner generals and intellectuals, but now it’s also home to a growing and socially ascendant black population. This double life makes it a rich vein for stories but an unlikely place to find people for whom September means watching Barbra Streisand sing “Avinu Malkeinu” on YouTube.

Imagine my surprise at seeing people walking into the building where I’d been directed to worship wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls. Some of their children had blond peyes. Many of them were carrying kudu shofars. It turned out Bloemfontein has a burgeoning group of locals who celebrate every Jewish holiday and a lot more intently than I do—only they celebrate it in the name of Yeshuah. The Jews on the upswing in this part of South Africa are the ones for Jesus.

Before the service began, I met their spiritual leader, who introduced himself as “Da-VEET.” He told me he grew up snug in the crucible of the Afrikaner community’s strict Calvinist faith and yet was always troubled by a mystery: Why was he circumcised, when other Afrikaner boys were not? Around the time his wife started to take an independent interest in Messianic Judaism, David learned that an ancestor of his had been a Jewish emigrant to South Africa from Lithuania. Everything began to come together. “Baruch Ha Shem,” murmured David’s co-leader Theo.

Once, there were many Jews—traditional Jews, I mean—in Bloemfontein. Jews came to South Africa in the 19th century as peddlers and merchants, and they embraced country life. Every little hamlet around Bloemfontein boasted at least one Jewish family, many of them hailing from the same town in north-central Germany. The Lithuanians spread down into the mountains to the south and became ostrich-feather barons. Even Ladismith, the sheep-farming village where I feared I’d picked up bedbugs during last year’s High Holidays (just fleas, it turned out), had its own synagogue, though nobody uses it anymore. In time, the children of the Jewish emigrants entered the professional class, and those who didn’t decamp for New York left for the bigger South African cities to open law firms or work in hospitals.

This cosmopolitan ambition has left something sad in its wake: the disappearance of the bright Jewish thread out of the fabric of rural South African life. In the early 20th century, Bloemfontein had three Jewish mayors. Now almost nobody I meet from Bloemfontein or similar towns has ever met a Jew before me. And if they have, their familiarity with Judaism is such that they foresee no particular difference between celebrating Rosh Hashanah as I normally would and celebrating it with Bloemfontein’s contingent of Messianics.

To be fair, the Messianic Jews of Bloemfontein were very hospitable—David and Theo had me sing the Kiddush, although usually women in their community aren’t allowed to lead prayer—and they went to great pains to get the trappings right. They blew a perfect tekiah, shevarim, and teruah on the shofar; they sang with the ardor of Miriam. But, this year, worshiping with a ritual-fastidious group made me realize how important the liturgy is to the High Holy Days, and not just the customs. They had changed the English text to reflect a more Christian perspective on sin, one in which atonement equals not one more year’s struggling to improve our complicated relationships with our friends and with God but a permanent triumph over the corrupt “Self,” capital S. The sermon was on the book of Matthew, and in Afrikaans. The prayer of Avinu Malkeinu—Our Father, Our King—emphasized a Father-Son motif, and the whole New Year theme was downplayed, since rebirth, for Messianic Jews, more properly begins around Passover, when the lamb of God also purportedly gave up the ghost. Oddly, among these Messianics, there actually seemed to be a direct correlation between ardor for the trappings of Judaism and ardor for Jesus. David told me he’d Christianized the Rosh Hashanah service more than usual to appeal to some newcomers, who turned out to be the same people who’d come in toting their own shofars.

After the Kiddush, Theo led me over to what he called the “Jewish corner” of the dinner hall, which consisted of one single, cranky old man named Herman. Herman told me he was a “real Jew, a Jew-Jew,” and he lamented the flight of his fellow Jews out of rural South Africa. Still, he seemed able to find strength in what remained behind. This Messianic stuff “was OK,” he guessed: At least they don’t swear constantly using the Lord’s name in vain, as he gathers they do nowadays in New York.

Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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There used to be Esther Shapiro there her husband was a pharmacist and she was a superb Golfer travelling the world to play in a Laddies Team called “the Nomads”

The Jews have left Judaism. Norman Pohoretz was right when he said that American Jews have substituted Liberalism for Judaism. Only born-again Christians have more love for Judaism than us.

Arnold Toynbee once called Judaism a “dinoseur religion”. In Israel most Jews don’t consider themselves Jews but Israelis and the ones that are growing the fastest, the Herudi, are worthless. They can’t fight and never go into the IDF and this is the fastest growing segment in Israel next to the Arabs. The Arabs only have savlavnut and wait and they’ll take over. This is the future. The same people who couldn’t elimnate Hitler in the 1920s before he was a threat have no idea what to do. Should they bring back a Levi Eshkol on the eve of the Six-Day War who couldn’t make a decision because he was a weak Jew, a water engineer, a Kibbutznik.

Happy Holiday and a good year. We’re going to need it.

Bill Levy

I am a Jew (the whole caboodle – going back generations originally from the Russian Empire) and live in South Africa. I also believe in Jesus, of if you prefer “Yeshua” – the Greek doesn’t bother me.

I can understand the fascination “Messianic Jews” have with Jewish ritual, because Jesus was part of it. Perhaps, I’ve been spoilt because I had all that ritual and lived in it for all of my youth, but I don’t think believers in Yeshua/Jesus need to do all those things to get closer to God. If though, they want to do it because it makes them happy, I supposes that’s ok, as long as they realise that it’s not an essential ingredient of being a Christian oops a “Messianic.”

I need to clarify that by “Messianic Jews” I didn’t mean Jews who have come to believe in Yehsua, but gentiles who have.

Toynbee was ahead of his time perhaps prescient: antisemite, he encouraged Jewish assimilation.
To paraphrase, let Jews assimilate, they will soon lose their Jewishness. and then there’ll be none.
Know your enemy, Jewish survival came about as a result of those forced-to-be ghettoized, observant Jews who always had stood apart amd died Kiddush HaShem.
The tribe of Levi was the only one of the tribes that did not alter their dress when slaves in Egypt, so it is said, and were especially honored by G-d, and have remained the only extant tribe.
There’s a lesson in that.
Keep the faith.

Uhhh. Nothing Jewish about this, sorry. Just because someone blows a shofar and sing “Avinu Malkeinu” doesn’t make him Jewish any more than eating corned beef on rye.
This was depressing and disheartening.
To Zev/Bill, it’s “chareidim” and “savlanut” — if you’re going to diss your fellow MOT, at least get the lingo right.

A “herudi” Jewess.

Joshua Lewis says:

Eve, its a pity you didn’t find the Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in Bloemfontein. My girlfriend grew up there, and her parents still live in Bloemfontein. I was in Bloem for Rosh Hashana and spent it all the Orthodox Synagogue. There is still a wonderful, vibrant community there. They still have Shabbat services every Shabbat, and from what I understand some minyonim during the week.

Try find the Orthodox shul if you’re there again, you won’t be disappointed.

How can you claim to be “Jewish” and at the same time believe that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah? It just doesn’t compute. I don’t mind Christians observing Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, just don’t call it a Jewish observance.

Reeva Solomon (Furman) says:

Coming from the eastern Freestate, from Ficksberg on the border of Basutoland, I wonder what life is like for Jews today?
The Africaner always had a good relationship with the Jews in these small towns. My criticism of the article is most Jews were from Lithuania and only one or two families from Germany….facts are false

Chana Batya says:

Jews do not acknowledge the divinity of anyone other than God. @Raphael, you’re a Christian now. That’s it.

Hello there, just wandered by. I have a Caboodle website. Amazing the amount of information on the web. Wasn’t what I was looking for, but very nice site. Take care.

Wow! This can be one particular of the most helpful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Excellent. I am also a specialist in this topic so I can understand your effort.


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Holiday in the Hinterland

Once home to Jewish immigrants, a South African city today hosts a very different sort of Jewish practice

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