Kimberley steeped in Jewish history
They say “a diamond is forever” – and this has proved a truism in the mining city of Kimberley. Although numbering 25 souls, despite demographics and moving to major cities and overseas, the Kimberley Jewish community – members of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation – has not vanished into the city’s Big Hole.
Former Kimberley residents and other interested parties have attended reunions over the past years, including the congregation’s 110th anniversary in 2012, and every Rosh Hashanah the congregation almost doubles in size.
Solid as the stone for which Kimberley is famed, is Adrian “Barney” Horwitz, chairman and CEO of the congregation, a lawyer with a practice in the city. He and Barry Katz, from and old Kimberley family, are largely responsible for conducting services. The trio which runs the Jewish community is complemented by David Allen, of the GWHC.
Horwitz is a keen historian and is in demand for his talks on Kimberley and the significance of what he terms the “Jewish sojourn” there.
Kimberley’s Jewish community produced six mayors between 1906 and 1967, including William Sagar, Justiceof the Peace, Ernest (later Sir Ernest) Oppenheimer, Bernard Cohen, Gustave “Gus” Bowman Haberfeld, Lionel Jawno and Cecil Jack Sussman, some of whom served for more than one term.
Colonel Sir David Harris – known as “The Grand Old Man of South African Jewry” – a director of De Beers and commander of the Kimberley Town Guard during the siege in 1900 – was MP for Kimberley and Griqualand West in the old Cape Parliament and subsequently in the Union Parliament.
Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who moved his residence from Kimberley in 1916 succeeded Sir David Harris, remaining an MP until 1938.
A malicious rumour that did the rounds regarding the Oppenheimer family and the Kimberley Shul has finally been debunked as loshen hora.
The Oppenheimers had been active in Kimberley and the congregation. Ernest’s son Harry was born and had had his bris there. However, on the death of Harry’s mother, May, Sir Ernest married Caroline “Ina” Harvey and the family converted to Christianity.
The story goes that the Oppenheimer family had put up a plaque in the shul to mark Harry’s barmitzvah and because they no longer practised Judaism asked for the plaque to be removed. When the congregation refused, the Oppenheimers were said to have offered to buy the synagogue, raze it and have it rebuilt at their cost – minus the plaque.
“No such thing happened. There never was a plaque. Plus the records show – to which Barney Horwitz attests – the family left Kimberley when Harry was 11, he didn’t have a barmitzvah there or anywhere else for that matter,” says Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, country communities rabbi of the Board of Deputies, who ministers to the Jews of Kimberley.
The Kimberley Synagogue was built on land donated by De Beers. The original shul building was a somewhat primitive galvanised iron structure on the site of the present Cecil John Rhodes memorial statue.
The Kimberley Synagogue, to many, is the most beautiful in southern Africa – Byzantine in style and modelled on a shul in Venice.
In July 1902 GH Bonas, president of the congregation, laid the foundation stone. The shul was officially opened in mid-September 1902. The next month, Bonas was presented with a solid silver replica of the synagogue in appreciation of his work for the congregation.
Many years later, this valuable replica, was discovered in a London pawnshop by a congregant, who serendipitously was visiting the United Kingdom. It was immediately bought and returned to Kimberley. It is now on loan to the Cape Town Jewish Museum.
The synagogue today is one of few in South Africa to be in use for over 100 years. However, the Kimberley Jewish community itself dates back to 1873. Even before that there is a record of individual Jews having settled in the city.
The main feature of the synagogue, with its ornate stained-glass windows, is an imposing domed ceiling, depicted as a blue sky with stars. Marble steps lead to the Aron Kodesh, the surrounds of which are painted to resemble marble. There are 613 seats in the shul, symbolising the mitzvot of that number.
Twelve Sifrei Torah enable every male in the congregation to have a chance to walk around the bimah during the Simchat Torah hakafot.
There is a famous yad (hand or pointer to read the Torah), with a blue white diamond set on the forefinger.
There are two Jewish cemeteries in Kimberley. One has been walled in to keep out vandals, but the West End Cemetery is still in use.
During the 1990s Horwitz arranged, through a Muslim “contact”, for observant graduate medical doctors to do their prescribed community service at a hospital in Kimberley. Instead of staying in doctors’ quarters at the hospital, they stayed in the shul house.
The last spiritual leader – the Rev Shmuel Kruglak – left in the early 1990s and Rabbi Silberhaft stepped in in 1996. Among the spiritual leaders was the Rev Joe Matzner, who served Kimberley during the seventies and now lives in Johannesburg.
Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.
Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.
The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.
“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.
Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.
When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.
Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.
Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.
He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.
“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”
Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.
A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.
An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.
“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”
The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews
The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.
Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.
Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.
The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.
The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”
Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”
According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.
“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”
In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.
Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.
“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”
“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”
In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.
Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi
More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.
Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.
Letters/Discussion Forums3 days ago
Deafening silence about Afghanistan, hue and cry about Israel
Letters/Discussion Forums3 days ago
Tribute to a man who embodies Judaism at its best
Tributes3 days ago
Sea Point “boytjie” Paul Sulcas leaves a legacy
Sport3 days ago
The record-breaking, observant “Jewish Jordan”
Sport3 days ago
Bacher hit for six by Boucher outrage
Voices3 days ago
Make Us Count 2021
Voices3 days ago
To a sweet, unsticky, New Year
Religion3 days ago
Learning to fall teaches us to fly