175-year celebration: ‘Gogo’ reference strikes a chord
In the course of this year, Cape Town Jewry has held a series of cultural and educational events to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the city’s first Jewish religious congregation, Tikvath Israel. This marked the formal birth of organised Jewish life not only in Cape Town but in South Africa as a whole.
Earlier this month, an enthralling new exhibition opened as part of the commemoration, capturing something of the feel and flavor of what being Jewish in South Africa has been like over the generations.
The project was co-ordinated by the South Africa Jewish Museum in partnership with the SAJBD Cape Council.
The exhibition eschews the traditional “Jewish contribution to…” approach to telling the community’s story in favour of a more grass-roots, impressionistic overview based on the first-hand recollections of ordinary community members.
Among the subjects it focuses on are Jewish youth camps, holidays in Muizenberg, cheder and barmitzvah lessons, small-town life and the immigrant experience. As Museum Director Gavin Morris explained in his introductory comments, the display was not chronological, nor were there any famous faces or notable events.
Rather, it was “the story of the everyday – what it was and, what it is, like to be a South African Jew”, – told through personal anecdotes and family photos, with occasional original artefacts.
“It is my hope that this exhibition will elicit nostalgia and a sense of familiarity – that you’ll read the anecdotes and that they resonate with your own memories. This is why we chose not to identify the authors. It’s not about them, it’s about you, me, and all of us,” he said.
Morris singled out Solly Berger, a veteran committee member of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, for special praise. It had been “his foresight, energy and commitment that drove the 175 anniversary project”, and had it not been for him, the anniversary would have passed us by unremarked upon.
Minister in the Presidency for Women Susan Shabangu, the evening’s keynote speaker, described the Jewish community as “an important component of the South African nation” whose members contributed in many vital fields to the country’s wellbeing and progress.
“Through your work, like that of many other South Africans, you have enriched and continue to enrich the marvellous tapestry that is South Africa, and for that we thank you very much.
“A hundred and seventy five years show an unwavering commitment and choice to be South African,” she said.
In her introduction to the Minister, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn thanked her for her ongoing commitment to and friendship with the Jewish community. She was particularly struck, she said, by Shabangu’s jocularly likening the elderly Jewish women in the display to the “gogos” in the black community, something which she believed was illustrative of the underlying commonality shared by all of South Africa’s peoples.
SAJBD Cape Chairman Eric Marx gave an overview of the development of South African Jewry from the initial prayer gathering in 1841 through to the present.
“Our strength as a Jewish community in South Africa, despite the diversity of our members, has always been that we are well structured and unified in so many respects; always ready to support each other, while playing our part in the wider South African society,” he said.