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Gone but not forgotten, unearthing Joburg’s shuls

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There were 43 breathtaking synagogues in Johannesburg at the turn of the 20th century and, tragically, not one of them is still standing.

They were, indeed, architectural masterpieces, which could rival their counterparts in Europe. They loomed above the streets of a city still in its infancy, with their towering domes and detailed facades catching the eye of any passer-by.

While they no longer exist, their stories remain a lasting testament to the Jews who first made Johannesburg their home.

“The stories of these synagogues are absolutely incredible,” says Rose Norwich. “They formed part of Johannesburg in the early days when it was established in 1886. Most people today don’t fully appreciate what we actually had here.”

Norwich, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is an authority on the early shuls which were established in Johannesburg and on the reef. An architect by profession, she undertook a study of these shuls more than 40 years ago after visiting the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York with her late husband.

“The man in charge showed me a folio of the destroyed synagogues of Poland,” she recounted. “I reflected that they had been through a war there, but that in South Africa, our shuls had fallen apart out of sheer neglect.”

Norwich returned home determined to record and account for Johannesburg’s earliest shuls. However, she found that the shuls weren’t the only things that had faded out of existence.

“There was simply no information available. No one seemed to have taken any notice of the shuls or made records of them. No one had preserved them or accounted for them. There was nothing.”

Encouraged by her husband and close friend, Stephen Cohen, Norwich decided to address the issue by preparing a master’s dissertation on the subject, returning to university at the age of 66. Beginning in 1886 (when Jews first settled in the Witwatersrand), she charted the stories of the first shuls built in Johannesburg, concluding her study in the 1930s.

Norwich received a list of the city’s shuls from the Federation of Synagogues, but it was woefully incomplete. After obtaining the few photographs housed at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), she set off on an exhaustive search.

“I trawled through every archive imaginable,” she says. “From the library of the SAJBD, I moved on to the government archives, museums, university collections, and many more. I was given access to all council plans as well as I wanted to find out everything I could about these shuls and what they had looked like.

“I went to a woman called Nola Green at the city council and begged her to help me. She said that plans had been moved from the Town Hall to Hillbrow, adding that someone had found people tearing up the plans. Some had been saved and taken to the Africana Museum [now Museum Africa], so she said I should go there.

“I found four of five beautiful plans there. I had to search everywhere, but there they were.”

Norwich devoted four years to the dissertation, accounting for 43 of Johannesburg’s first shuls. Their stories captivated her.

“The President Street Synagogue was the very first,” she says. “It ran between 1889 and 1926. They had used other premises before, including the Rand Club, for services on high holy days. Later they got some land from the government, but they sold it because they didn’t like it.”

Because no plan of the shul existed, Norwich had to recreate it using a few photographs of the building she’d found during her search.

“The shul was copied from a famous German synagogue, and it was fascinating to see how they had replicated it. It didn’t last very long because there was an argument. They had a rabbi, Mark Harris, that people didn’t like, so the congregation split, and a new congregation was formed.”

Following the split, a magnificent shul was constructed on the Wanderers Park, named the Park Synagogue. The shul was opened by none other than President Paul Kruger in 1892, but lasted only until 1914.

Says Norwich, “Kruger actually gave them the ground, and they established a shul, a school, and a minister’s house on the site. I hunted for photos of the site and ended up at RAU [Rand Afrikaans University]. I found a photo there that showed the area and noticed the distinctive dome of the shul in the image.

“That picture was worth its weight in gold. Some people wouldn’t give tuppence for it, but it was proof that the shul had once stood there.”

The shul was located near what was called the Telephone Tower. When a railway company announced its intention to construct headquarters in the area, it bought out the shul, converting part of the building into its offices. The money from the sale went towards building what would become the Doornfontein Shul.

“I knew about the sale only because of an article I found at the military museum,” says Norwich. “It became a very personal thing, that search. I hunted high and low.”

Norwich also discovered a shul which had stood at the end of Fox Street in the centre of town, known as the Beth Hamedrash.

“An Orthodox group bought a little house in 1893,” she says. “It was a tiny space. There are stories of how people had to come in small groups, people with prams coming in, and then the next lot because space was so limited.”

“I struggled to identify the plans because it looked like an ordinary house, but eventually realised that an odd feature in it was in fact the women’s gallery. That was how I knew it was a shul.”

The shul was demolished and larger premises built in 1912, only to be demolished later. The property was sold, and no photographs of the original building survive.

There were also shuls that were planned but never built. Such was the case with the End Street Synagogue in Doornfontein.

Says Norwich, “They were in the process of building and had laid the foundation in 1906, but they never built it. They didn’t have the money, and later donated it to a Catholic nun, Kate O’Brien.”

“There’s only one picture that exists of that space. The foundation stone that sits on display at Great Park Synagogue actually comes from there.”

By the time Norwich began her research in 1988, only nine of the 43 shuls she studied still stood. None of them exist today.

“It’s a loss we have to accept,” she concludes. “Jews moved away from these areas, they built new synagogues and established new communities. It’s a great shame that they are no more, but it was inevitable.

“People always migrate, so be careful where you build a shul, because people won’t always stay there.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Adele Serman

    Feb 11, 2021 at 11:50 am

    What wonderful and very special research!

  2. Adele Gluckman

    Feb 11, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you for writing this article in your latest most informative Jewish Report. Like the 43 lost synagogues of Johannesburg this part of our history would have been lost too without Mrs Norwich’s research on them and her recounting of their histories. More such articles of our city’s Jewish history and heritage would be both informative and a much needed balance with articles on Covid 19.

  3. jb

    Feb 11, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    Is there any possibility that the thesis of Rose Norwich could be published on here ( or elsewhere electronically ). I think it would be fascinating reading. Warm regards, JB

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Dizengoff attack still haunts families 25 years on

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South African-born Tali Gordon and her friend, Inbar Atiya, had gone to Dizengoff Center to find an outfit on the night of Purim 25 years ago, but instead of celebrating the chag, they were killed in a terrorist attack outside the shopping centre.

So many years later, her father, Barry Gordon, is still haunted by the loss of his beautiful daughter who was killed at the age of 24. Tali was killed on 4 March 1996, when a suicide bomber detonated a 20kg nail bomb at a busy intersection next to the centre in the middle of Tel Aviv.

He murdered 13 people, including Tali. Her father, who lives in Johannesburg, says, “Every time there’s another terror attack, it adds fuel to the fire. You don’t get over it, the pain gets worse.”

Tali was living in central Tel Aviv, and she and her friend went to Dizengoff Center, which had a number of shops where one could buy dress-up clothes for Purim, he recalls.

They walked out of the centre and had crossed the road to the ATM. While they were waiting at the traffic light, the Hamas terrorist blew himself up in the middle of the road. Both Tali and Inbar, who was 22, were killed instantly.

“They died together. I first heard about it when my son phoned me in the middle of the night from the mortuary in Jaffa. Tali had a small tattoo of a seagull on her right shoulder, and that’s how they identified her. They also found her car in the vicinity.”

Tali was born in South Africa, but grew up in Israel. Her father spent his whole life in Johannesburg, and attended King David schools. Fiercely Zionist, he headed to Israel straight after school as a volunteer after the Six-Day War. He was there for three years, and met his first wife there. They went to South Africa, where they had two children, Tali and Alon. After 1976, they returned to Israel, but eventually he and his first wife divorced and he returned to South Africa. The children remained with their mother, and visited him once a year. Tali spent a year in Johannesburg, and attended King David.

After school, she went to the army. Talented in languages, she could speak Arabic, French, Hebrew, and Spanish, and she worked in intelligence. She was also recruited to the paratroopers. After the army, she travelled widely.

“She was quite worldly, and went to America and the Far East. She started studying political science at Bar Ilan University, and was very politically motivated. Without a doubt, she would have gone into politics. She was a remarkable young lady and we had a special bond,” Barry says.

Strangely, a number of disconnected South African families were also affected by the tragedy, including one Durban family in which a mother and sister were killed.

“What was so harsh about this pigua [terror attack] was the range of age of victims. There was Yovav Levy, who was 13 years old. I’m in daily contact with his mother since we met at the cemetery two years ago. The oldest victim was 84. Most of the victims were young – two were 13, one was 14, and one was 15,” Barry says.

He wasn’t able to get to Israel in time for the funeral. But there was another memorial on the seventh day after the tragedy, and about 2 500 to 3 000 students attended. His daughter is buried in a cemetery just outside Tel Aviv.

Barry says the families of the victims are like a support group. “We share our sorrow. There is such a void. They relate to your tragedy, and you get a bit of closure in that moment.”

His son was deeply affected by the loss of his sister, and has never managed to live a normal life. The family has also been affected by another tragedy. Barry’s mother (Tali’s grandmother) was killed two years before the terror attack in a hijacking in Johannesburg. “Her grandmother took her travelling around the world, and her death really affected Tali.”

Barry remarried, and he and his second wife, Theresa, had a girl named Tashima. “She is named after Tali and is the spitting image of her. She is in her late 20s, and lives in Panama City with her boyfriend, working as an interior designer.”

The Gordons travel to Israel every year to commemorate the tragedy. Last year, they were there in late February and the memorial ceremony was cancelled as COVID-19 began to grip the country. Still, they went to the cemetery, and to the spot where the attack happened.

“It’s on the corner of King George and Dizengoff. There’s a memorial stone there, and a place to light candles. I don’t like the place very much, it gives me cold shivers. But when we were standing there, we saw a photographer and an Israeli actor doing an interview. They asked what I was doing there and I said I lost my daughter in the attack. They said they were doing a piece on the history of Dizengoff, and asked if they could interview me there and then. It was very emotional.”

Another strange coincidence was when they went into the centre to get something to eat, and spoke to the security guard who checks everyone at the entrance. “I told him I lost my daughter in the attack, and he said he was there that day. He got shrapnel in his arm, and it took almost nine months for him to recover. He saw the carnage.”

Barry says that in a strange way, the people who die in terror attacks are “the lucky ones”.

“They go to heaven, they’re with the angels, they’re done. But the families left behind – their lives are changed forever, never to be the same.”

Even though the Israeli government pays a monthly stipend to families of victims of terror, “the injured and their families suffer the most. The ramifications are endless”.

For him, the pain never goes away. “Terrorism has an impact on a person mentally, physically, spiritually, and religiously. Your loved one is there one minute, gone the next. I wonder about so many things, like if I would have had grandchildren by now. Terror means you don’t just lose that person, but an entire generation.”

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Doctors pull back the curtain on COVID trauma

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Watching a quarter of their patients die from COVID-19. Being yelled at by a family unable to come to terms with their father’s demise. Spending hours talking to families and rabbis when a patient refused ventilation. Seeing the first critically ill young patient typing a goodbye message to his wife, afraid to close his eyes in case he stopped breathing. Witnessing a 17-year-old flinging herself on her father’s body, begging him to keep fighting (when family were allowed into wards).

These are just some of the traumatic experiences that Drs Carron Zinman and Anton Meyberg describe as they try to capture why being on the frontlines of the COVID-19 war has been so devastating to the mental health of doctors and other frontline workers.

They are both pulmonologists at the Linksfield Clinic in Johannesburg, working together during the pandemic. “The most poignant time was when I watched Anton say the vidui prayer for our patients who we knew weren’t going to survive,” says Zinman.

Going back to the beginning, she recalls how they “understood coronaviruses, but SARS-CoV-2 changed the rules. While we were grappling with the complexities of this new disease, we had to contend with a deluge of patients”, many of whom were seriously ill.

“I remember the terror when the first AIDS patient was admitted. I looked after the nursing sister who picked up Ebola, dressing in a spacesuit to assess her. In those times, I felt calm and in control. But COVID-19 was overwhelming and exhausting, and caused a high level of anxiety and stress,” she says.

She remembers getting used to PPE (personal protective equipment), which is uncomfortable, restrictive, and depersonalising.

“We felt like we were fighting a war whose rules of engagement we didn’t understand. I remember the shock at the sheer number of death certificates we had to sign. I recall when Anton admitted a friend – it’s impossible to stay dispassionate in that situation.”

She was deeply affected by the rollercoaster of emotions when patients were well enough to be discharged, yet died suddenly, or the guilt of children who had inadvertently given their parent/s COVID-19.

“More often than not, only one of a couple would go home. The ward rounds felt interminable, often being interrupted by calls for resuscitation and admission. It’s an unpredictable disease and as such, we couldn’t always prepare the families for what was to come. We felt like we were being pulled in multiple directions while being physically tired, sleep deprived, and emotionally drained,” says Zinman.

“Then the second wave hit. We had become complacent, believing we understood this disease, but COVID-19 decided otherwise. The new variant affected younger patients, led to a fuller intensive-care unit and a higher percentage of patients on ventilators. This time, patients tried to get us to promise that they would survive to see their children grow up, and we witnessed last phone calls to wives in which they professed their love and asked them to look after their babies. A lot of time is spent agonising over our decisions, trying to find something more we could do. The emotional trauma inflicted by COVID-19 is unique.”

A local general practitioner (GP), who spoke on condition of anonymity, says, “Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have experienced anxiety, although over time, what specifically triggers it has changed.

“In the beginning, I felt overwhelmed by not knowing enough. We saw the hospitals in Italy, and it was frightening. The thought of possibly having to work in a hospital setting after a number of years as an office-based practitioner was overwhelming. The ‘silver lining’ was the realisation that I wasn’t alone in feeling majorly under-prepared.

“The fear of becoming ill, of bringing the illness home to my family, coupled with the enormous pressure of trying to be available to see patients while having kids at home remote-learning was exhausting,” she continues. “By the time the second wave came, I felt more knowledgeable, but when it came, it was much harder.

“The number of patients who contracted the virus was high. The practice couldn’t keep up with the appointments, tests, and patients who needed to be managed at home. The constant feeling of not being on top of things and also of ‘neglecting’ non-COVID-19 patients took a toll.

“There was the stress of trying to find hospital beds for patients. Everyone was under immense pressure, which was palpable. Trying to support families, keep them updated on their relatives, as well as dispel myths and give reliable advice all felt like a lot to manage.

“And then there were the deaths. So many deaths. It really took a toll on me. I had physical symptoms of anxiety such as a tight chest, abdominal cramps, insomnia, and headaches. I absorb a lot. Usually I try to make time to decompress, but during the peak, it was really impossible. The thought of a third wave gives me massive anxiety. I’m choosing not to think about it.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Hanan Bushkin says that among the medical professionals he has treated, “the rate of burnout, post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety is through the roof. With the pandemic showing no end in sight, it has become way more difficult. The brain likes to predict the end point and if it can’t, despondency and depression set in.

“Doctors used to have time to be with family, rest, see friends, exercise, and so on but now they don’t,” he says. “This pandemic has piled on their stressors and eradicated their resources. It’s like being a soldier who has only trained for war but is now experiencing real war, and it’s a whole different ball game. They are seeing traumas that the public don’t see, and this can lead to huge frustration at the ignorance, arrogance, and lack of prevention they see on the street.”

Bushkin says GPs often treat generations of families and get to know them well. Now, he says, “they have a front-row seat to families being broken and the incredible losses of many people that they had a personal relationship with”. In addition, before the pandemic, people who died were usually elderly, or slowly declined after a cancer diagnosis. Now, patients of all ages are getting sick and dying within weeks. “It’s incredibly traumatic,” he says.

“PTSD doesn’t get you when you’re in it,” says Bushkin. “It’s afterwards when the trauma hits, when someone tells themself, ‘I cannot believe that’s the world I’ve just come from’.” He hopes that when the pandemic is over there will be some kind of platform or forum that allows healthcare workers to “de-brief” what they’ve witnessed.

Clinical psychologist Dr Dorianne Weil, who has consulted healthcare workers since the beginning of the pandemic, says, “Doctors are looked to for answers. But if they don’t have all the answers, it creates a dissonance that’s incredibly stressful. They may feel like an ‘imposter’, like they are ‘living a lie’. Everyone sees them as heroes, but they don’t feel that way.”

“There is also the pervasive fear of contracting the virus and passing it onto their families. They become ‘torn’ as they know it’s their calling. Sometimes they don’t want to rely on their families as a support system as there is a feeling that ‘unless you’re in my shoes, you don’t know what it’s like’,” she says.

Doctors have also had to take on the role of being their patients’ families, when family members haven’t been allowed to comfort dying loved ones. “They are stepping into a role that they aren’t usually called to do. It’s unprecedented, and it’s really getting to them.”

So what can we do to support our frontline workers? “There needs to be a group effort to do what these professionals are recommending,” says Bushkin. “I cannot think of a greater insult than for them to come out of a ward and witness people disobeying the rules. It’s incredibly disheartening, and doctors are devastated. It’s the least we can do.”

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Toxic conspiracy theory paints Ramaphosa as a ‘Jew’

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What do you get when you combine antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and COVID-19 denial? While white supremacists and QAnon supporters feel like they are far off, this toxic combination came much closer to home last week when a woman calling herself “Chabad de la Fontaine” started spouting such ideas to journalists at an anti-lockdown protest in Cape Town.

“[South African President Cyril Ramaphosa] became a Jew,” she told news photographer Esa Alexander in a video he took at Fish Hoek beach on 6 February 2020. Although the initial word “Ramaphosa” is cut out of the clip, Alexander confirmed to the SA Jewish Report that this was what she said. She isn’t wearing a mask in the video.

“And he is acting like the anti-Christ, so I don’t respect him, because people who take their knowledge of G-d and mis-interpret it and distort it the way he did need to be kicked out of the country,” she continued in a rant that became even more hysterical. “I don’t want him in South Africa anymore. He’s not a South African. He can go to America and live with all those people that are the Zionists and the cabal that are trying to manage our planet. No, Mr Ramaphosa, immigrate [sic], go and live in America, we don’t want you.” The video was posted on Twitter, and went viral, with almost 90 000 views.

She’s not the first person to spout such a theory. Local antisemite and white supremacist Jan Lamprecht also calls Ramaphosa “the Black Jew”.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of operations at the Community Security Organisation in Gauteng said, “The first time we heard this theory about Ramaphosa was from Lamprecht. He would justify it by sharing photos of Ramaphosa talking to the chief rabbi, or of the president talking on the bimah of a shul. It proves that you can sell anything you want to if you have a willing audience.

“It’s not just about spreading propaganda, but having an audience that’s receptive to it. There are so many conspiracy theories out there that you can espouse anything that suits your own agenda.”

Greenblatt says the “Ramaphosa is a Jew” lie is attractive because it ties into age-old antisemitic tropes of Jews controlling the world. “When society is under pressure, this idea is often the first port of call. We see Jews being blamed for the virus or being implicated in benefiting from the virus. It’s a strong element of the extreme right-wing to blame others rather than look at themselves. And it suits them to say that the Jews are controlling the government or South Africa, and here is ‘proof’, ‘Ramaphosa is a Jew’.”

In November 2020, the Randburg Magistrate’s Court issued an interim protection order against Lamprecht following an application by Professor Karen Milner, the Gauteng chairperson of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), after Lamprecht posted her personal details along with disparaging comments about her on his website, resulting in her receiving hate mail.

Over many years, Lamprecht has used his website to promote Nazi propaganda and disseminate extreme antisemitic and racist content. His published comments include, “Given what a race of two-faced, backstabbing fiends they are, I … have made the argument that there is no such thing as a good Jew”; “They need to meet a new kind of white man, the kind they’ve not met since the time of Hitler”; and “filthy little race of rats and pathological liars … They dominate EVERYTHING … and turn all the powerful against us … Hitler was too nice to them.”

He is prolific on social media, managing multiple websites. His homemade videos spread inflammatory, racist, and antisemitic material. He lauds lone-wolf white supremacists including Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooter Robert Bowers, and Charleston Church mass killer Dylann Roof.

Lamprecht has continued to post inflammatory material and incite violence even after he was served with the protection notice. He is expected to appear in court on 16 March for his final order, and the interim order will be in place until then.

It’s clear that the woman calling herself Chabad de la Fontaine is elderly, and while some social media users laugh at her statements, others say that she is bigoted, a white supremacist, antisemitic, racist, and a danger to society. This became clearer in another clip posted by Alexander from a different lockdown protest at Muizenberg beach on 31 January.

“I’m a very highly skilled medical doctor as well as a virologist, immunologist, and quantum physicist, working with parasites that they call viruses,” she stated, also not wearing a mask.

“They’re not viruses, they’re parasites, and you don’t need to wear a mask because none of it can be transferred, even with kissing or in a sexual act. What we need to understand is that you’ve got to build up your immune system, like mine, I’m 77 years of age, and I’ve got a strong immune system.” A quick look at her LinkedIn profile and other investigations online make it clear that she isn’t a medical professional.

Asked if she’s on the radar of the SAJBD and if the organisation will take her on over her antisemitic conspiracy theories, Cape SAJBD Executive Director Stuart Diamond, said, “In 2019, we launched our ‘report hate’ tool to capture concerns about antisemitism, anti-Jewish rhetoric, conspiracy theories, hate speech, discrimination, and the like from the Cape community. To date, this tool has provided us with various cases that we consider in our antisemitism and legal subcommittee to determine appropriate action.

“The videos of Chabad de la Fontaine reached us via this tool over the weekend. It’s our first interaction with her content. We are following the same process to determine appropriate action, if any. Further findings on the reported content will be communicated in due course.

“Giving conspiracy theories any airtime is a dangerous activity,” Diamond said. “People are vulnerable to misinformation, especially as South Africa faces a pandemic and its associated complications, economic turmoil, and social challenges. We urge our community to refer to global and local health authorities on all matters related to COVID-19. We also urge our community to continue to use the report hate tool if they become aware of any possible hate incidents.”

Antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Professor Milton Shain, said, “She’s clearly living in a world in which ‘Zionists’ [the collective Jew] are ‘controlling’ and ‘manipulating’ global affairs. This is a classic trope. Her use of the ‘anti-Christ’ also suggests a penchant for conspiracies. This idea goes back to the medieval world. Such tropes are always available, but in times of crisis they seem to have greater traction.”

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation, said he hadn’t heard fellow politicians say that Ramaphosa was Jewish. However, it is a theory circulated amongst some right-wing extremists.

“It’s sad to see such vile hatred. Unfortunately, as the government’s failures increase and citizens’ desperation increases, so will the risk of scapegoating, and that bottle could spin between race, religion, and parties. The sensitivity for Jewry is that we have seen this rodeo far too often, and for us, it has had fatal consequences historically.”

To report antisemitism in the Cape, visit at www.capesajbd.org/focus-areas/antisemitism/report-hate/

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