Layers of history and mystery in delicious ‘Jodetert’
It’s a showstopper of a cake – pancake-thin baked biscuits layered with homemade custard, piled high in a way that’s pleasing on the eye and the appetite. It’s called a “Jewish custard tart”, but it’s most commonly known as a “Joodsetert”, “Jodetert”, or “Jodetort” in the Afrikaans community, where it’s a favourite at bake sales and celebrations. So why don’t South African Jews know about the cake that’s named after us?
Jewish caterers across the country say the recipe has never crossed their tables. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. In the 40-odd years of being in this industry, it’s never been requested, offered, or discussed,” said restaurant owner Michael Wener in Cape Town.
Chefs Sharon Glass in Johannesburg and Linda Nathan in Durban echoed the sentiments. Jodi Chait in Cape Town responded positively, saying “I make this all the time!”, but she didn’t inherit the recipe from her mother or bobba. Rather, she was told about it by her dentist, who is Afrikaans. She still follows his recipe today.
Responding to a post on Facebook, Lynette Cronje and Charlotte Smith told the SA Jewish Report that growing up in Pretoria and East London, Jodetert was a favourite in their homes.
“My Afrikaans grandma always used to bake this. It was her star recipe, and she passed it on to me,” says Smith. “Her recipe was handwritten. I think she probably got it from her local women’s organisation or a friend or family member. Her Jodetert was the favourite at the tuisnywerheid [home industry store].”
Cronje’s story is almost identical to Smith’s, and when both women asked Jewish friends if they had heard of Jodetert, they hadn’t. Cronje landed up bringing one all the way from Pretoria for her Jewish friend to try.
When Small Jewish Communities Association National Director Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft asked Jews living in country communities if they had made or heard of Jodetert, all but one said they hadn’t. “The one coffee shop in Bethlehem makes Joodsetert, and others in Bethlehem make it too. We always said we’ve never heard of it or made it. We find it very strange,” says Lauren Klevansky.
Megan Furniss wrote a blog post in 2016 describing how she had known her husband “for almost 13 years, and over those 13 years, he has told me about his most favourite dessert, a thing called Jewish Tart.” He came from an Afrikaans background, and “his ouma and mom made it for him on very special occasions, and it was his best thing. I have never heard of or seen a Jewish Tart, so I thought maybe his strange and wonderful family had given something this name, and they were the only ones.”
Furniss subsequently made the cake, but it was “a disaster”. She suggests that the recipe may have been named for Jews whom Afrikaans-speakers interacted with.
In response to Furniss’ post, Ronni Israelstam wrote in 2018 that he went to an excellent Afrikaans-owned bakery in Joburg, and they had miniature Jodeterte for sale. “It got me searching for the origins amongst my ‘boereJode’ and Afrikaans friends. They had all heard of it, and many had recipes from grannies, but no one could explain the origin. As a Jewish person, I’ve never come across this confectionery, so I’m really puzzled.”
Some in the South African Jewish community say they know of a similar cake, called a Napoleon or a Tort Medovik, and that their mothers or grandmothers baked such a cake. Writing from Lithuania, Nida Degutiene told the SA Jewish Report, “After reading the recipe, I’m confident that this is a Napoleon – the iconic cake baked in Lithuania for more than 100 years. The only addition to the recipe is one layer of cranberry jam. Without Napoleon Cake, any celebration, wedding, or family gathering wouldn’t be possible,” she says.
Degutiene is “more than certain” the Napoleon Cake was made by Jewish women in Lithuania and taken with them to South Africa. She spoke to Professor Rimvydas Lauzikas, the leading expert on culinary history in Lithuania, who said that the Napoleon Cake was created in Russia in 1912 by a French chef to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the so-called Patriotic War or French invasion of Russia.
Lauzikas says the recipe could have travelled along with Jewish families from Lithuania to South Africa, in particular from larger cities, as wealthier members of society often had French chefs who may have made the Napoleon Cake.
However, “The problem is that neither Tort Medovik nor Jodetert nor anything similar appear in South African Jewish community cookbooks,” says Gavin Beinart-Smollan, a food historian and archival researcher for the course “A Seat at the Table: A Journey into Jewish Food” at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
“I haven’t come across anything resembling these recipes in my own research on these cookbooks,” he says. “And the cookbooks certainly do include Litvak baked goods and sweets that Jewish immigrants brought with them – teiglach, pletzlach, imberlach, and so on. So even if Jodetert did originally come from Jewish immigrants to South Africa, it was likely never something that was particularly widespread amongst Jews.” Asked if Jodetert could have been an Afrikaans recipe named for Jews, Beinart-Smollan says this is plausible.
And yet, the Jewish connection remains there – a link as thin as the biscuit bases it features. In her meticulously researched story, “Putting the Jew back into Jodetert” in Daily Maverick on 23 October 2020, food writer Dr Anna Trapido found a recipe closely resembling Jodetert but listed as a Napoleon Tort in the Kitchen Stories community cookbook published in 2018 as a fundraiser for the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda, Israel.
The recipe was supplied by Leningrad-born émigré Stella Shurhavetsky. “Her layers are made using the same ingredients and virtually the same quantities that South Africans use in a Jodetert,” writes Trapido. “Mrs Shurhavetsky also offered a theological explanation for the seven layers in her recipe. Seven represents the seven species, the seven days of creation, the seven laws of Noah, and the seven times Israelites encircled the walls of Jericho. In South Africa, the meaning has been lost but the number remains”. As one Free State baker observed, “I don’t know why, but I just do it that way. It’s seven because it has always been seven – that’s what my ouma did.”
For now, the recipe remains a treasured heirloom in Afrikaans households – and a way for Jewish and Afrikaans communities to connect.
“I grew up eating Jodetert at all the special functions on my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother used to make it especially for my uncle, it was his absolute favourite. This photo is taken from my mother’s ancient cookbook,” wrote Maché Myburgh on her food blog in 2014, sharing an image of a typewritten recipe in Afrikaans.
“No one knows where it comes from. It’s called a Jewish Custard Tart, but nowhere else in Jewish cooking do we see anything like it. It’s not typically boerekos [Afrikaans food] either, since it’s a bit more intricate in construction.”
When contacted by the SA Jewish Report six years after writing this, Myburgh becomes emotional. “We follow my gran’s Jodetert recipe, and we just found out this afternoon that she isn’t well – she may not make it to her 90th birthday in January. It would be such an honour to share her recipe with you.”
Snapshots of youth
To commemorate Youth Day, the SA Jewish Report asked some of South Africa’s most illustrious photographers to share a photograph that they felt evoked something of youth, either past or present, within our land. They reflected on their choices.
Ilan Godfrey, Swimming in the ‘Long Sea’, Diamanthoogte, Koffiefontein, Free State, 2013
I came across these kids swimming while travelling across South Africa to various mining towns for my book titled Legacy of the Mine. Daily life in and around these mining towns was an important component of this project, and this scene really emphasised how this legacy is engrained on our landscape. The pure joy, spontaneity, and youthfulness of the children, and their ability to find the most imaginative of spaces to play, really epitomises Youth Day for me.
The suburb of Diamanthoogte (Diamond Heights) is home to a predominantly coloured community that lives on the outskirts of the diamond-mining town of Koffiefontein in Free State province. During the summer months, children enjoy swimming in the canals, which they refer to as the ‘Long Sea’. The canals carry the overflow of water through the town from Kalkfontein Dam and the mine dam to outlying farms.
Koffiefontein became a stopover point for transport riders travelling between the diamond fields in the south and gold mines to the north during the 1800s. After diamonds were discovered here, Koffiefontein developed into a mining town. The town has a significant military history. It was seized by the British during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, and was later used as a detention camp in World War II. Among the internees was John Vorster, who later became prime minister and president of South Africa. The mine has been closed several times over the years, but continues to recover some of the most valuable diamonds in the world.
Jodi Bieber, Soweto Country Club, Soweto, 2007
Through all my travels in South Africa and around the globe photographing different communities, my experience reveals that children the world over, often living in environments with few opportunities, show resilience and creativity with very little. I fantasised that one day, I would become a talent scout for those children that shone in order for them to live out their dream.
Marc Shoul, Jané, Sydenham, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1999
I took this photograph in my early 20s before I became a father. When I Iook at this image, I see the gentleman in the background, and I can sort of relate to the feelings in a way. I shot this in a house that I would frequent from time to time when I was in Port Elizabeth. This was when I was completing a body of work called Beyond Walmer where I was concentrating on the lower-income white group, post-1994. The little girl’s expression is just priceless. The man on the very right hand side, to my knowledge, is her father; the guy holding her is a mother’s new young boyfriend or husband at the time. It would be amazing to go back to that house and see where all these people are now. Perhaps I will.
It’s an image that has contrasts, and hopefully, it has some sort of hope for the future, not only doom and gloom, but the reality is that there is a long, winding road ahead.
Alon Cohen, Kids of the Street, Oaklands, Johannesburg, 2016
This photograph of four young men that live together in a community on the streets of Oaklands, Johannesburg, represents a massive segment of the youth that we sadly haven’t managed to cater for in this country. These guys are well meaning, lost people that come each from their own unique, dysfunctional background where they felt they could no longer stay because to live amongst their families was more torturous than living on the streets.
I just know that given a healthy place to live and a basic purpose to fulfil every day, many of these youth could bring value to their lives as well as the country as a collective. Yet, in spite of everything, they’re still able to look at each other and have a laugh. So human, just like any one of us.
Paul Weinberg, Dancers, 1995
I took this photograph of two Zimbabwean dancers while on an assignment for a cultural magazine called Du in 1995. It was a dance production with a group of street performers. A fleeting moment of connection between two people, whose parents had been engaged in a conflictual past, but now were kinetically and intimately bonded through this performance. Images provoke arresting questions. That was 25 years ago. The two youths then are now middle aged. So much has happened in Zimbabwe since this period, as in this country. What happened to these two people, where are they now, how did life play out for them? This image also provokes an important meditation for me. A moment of synthesis that speaks back as well as to the future. How difficult is it really to suspend prejudice and polarity to find our common humanity and human potential? Why do we struggle to learn this over generations? This image, buried deep in my archive, has come back to life. It’s a touchstone for a more humane and loving world, as relevant now as it was then.
Eric Miller, Poverty, the Third Pandemic, Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, 2002
In the middle of this pandemic, the consequences on the poorest and most vulnerable are exacerbated by the poverty and circumstances within their communities. My work as a documentary photographer in this country stretches back several decades, and includes the documentation of a previous pandemic, HIV/Aids. Ingwavuma district, KwaZulu-Natal, was at the epicentre of the HIV/Aids pandemic, with an infection rate generally greater than 30%. The photograph shows the three oldest of five sisters orphaned after their parents died of Aids-related illness. Four of the girls attended school, the fifth taking care of her own two-month-old baby at home. The girls, aged then between eight and 19, were left to care for themselves, collecting water from a nearby stream for cooking, washing, and so on. They were reliant on assistance, receiving food provided by a local community organisation which survived on donations from well-wishers. During the current pandemic, my thoughts often turn to them and the many similarly orphaned children left to fend for themselves or in the care of elderly grandparents who during this pandemic have been most vulnerable in the face of rampant COVID-19 infection, often relying on government grants as their only income for survival.
Ilan Ossendryver, Tyre Race – Kliptown, Soweto, 2019
Kliptown is an area in which everyone has been forgotten, yet it’s quite an amazing place. I’ve been working with the community there for many years.
I selected the photograph because of the creativity with which children create toys and games. They have parents that care, their parents will fight for everything, but the government doesn’t care. The photograph shows the creativity of the children, but also the failure of government to really help people. They live in really terrible conditions: no running water, no toilets, and no electricity.
I do outreach programmes and we hold a tyre race where they get prizes. Eventually, I give everyone prizes, but first I want them to learn to keep trying better next time. In their expressions, you can see the absolute determination to win, and the community watching them. One of the men watching is actually one of the best drummers in South Africa, and even played at a Lag B’Omer celebration at a shul in Johannesburg.
It’s lift off for Novick and SAA
Former kulula.com now LIFT Airline mastermind Gidon Novick may be a sucker for punishment, but he has taken to turning South African Airways (SAA) around and making it something South Africans can be proud of.
“I’ve already got grey hairs, a few more can’t hurt,” Novick joked, speaking to the SA Jewish Report last weekend, days after his involvement in the 51% buyout of SAA was announced.
Novick and Global Aviation, which partnered to launch LIFT in December, have joined up with Harith General Partners, a private equity firm that invests in infrastructure across Africa, to buy a 51% share of the national carrier. The Takatso consortium will be chaired by Harith’s chief executive, Tshepo Mahloele, and Novick, who was also the former chief executive of Comair. The government will still own 49% of SAA.
SAA was put into business rescue in December 2019, costing the country about R250 million. Late last year, R10.5 billion was allocated to SAA for business rescue. This was released over time, and some of it (roughly R2.7 billion) will be allocated to SAA’s subsidiaries.
The government will have no further financial obligations to the airline. Said Novick, “We will control the company, but also value and respect the input from government as a significant and strategic shareholder.
“No doubt there will be excitement and stress,” he said. “I feel like there comes a point in life where you need to chill or give it a real go and take what comes with that. I believe I’m up for the challenge. It feels opportune.”
He said he was at a unique point in his life where he has both energy and experience. “I have done a few things along the way, and am still young enough to have the energy. This venture will make good use of that energy and experience and hopefully, will be meaningful on a few levels.”
Novick comes from an airline family in which his late father, Dave, was in the industry for 51 years. He took Comair from a company with two aircraft and built it into a major player in the industry with British Airways and kulula.com. As part of Comair, Gidon, a chartered accountant with an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at North Western University, started the then innovative kulula.com.
In 2019, Novick told financial journalist Alec Hogg that running SAA would be “pretty much the worst job – after Eskom”. However, he did say that if he were ever to take on SAA, “certain things [would] have to be put in place, and one would require the autonomy to make some quite drastic decisions in that organisation”.
So it may not be such a surprise that Novick now says this has always been something “that could emerge or evolve over time”.
He is excited to take on what many may consider to be a dinosaur because, “Government has come a huge way, some of it by necessity, and the dealings we have had have been so positive. I understand it better now, and believe we have a real opportunity for alignment and pulling the right interest and skills together in the private and public sector.
“The best thing is we all have the national interest at heart,” said Novick.
He said real discussion about the SAA takeover started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he reached out to the department of public enterprises to start talking. “They had put together various advisory teams to look at SAA’s future as it was under business rescue.”
These discussions began before Novick launched LIFT. “I was sharing some ideas about what we could do with SAA. It was very initial, and then we got stuck into launching LIFT, which we are still completely submerged in,” he said.
“At the time, I had been out of the airline industry for a while, and was building an airline model in LIFT that was right for this time. That helped a lot, and became more practical and real in relation to working with SAA.”
To create LIFT, Novick partnered with Global Aviation, a company that leases out fully crewed, maintained, and insured aircraft to established airlines locally and around the world. Then, he met the leadership of Harith that already co-owns Lanseria Airport and was interested in investing in airlines.
“I was introduced to Tshepo Mahloele, its executive director, who said they were interested in SAA and we combined our efforts,” said Novick. Harith committed the finances necessary for the deal.
As to what exactly the future SAA will look like, Novick said, “I don’t quite know yet. We have done a lot of work in planning how things will operate, but there is still mountains to be done.
“I believe in the creativity that exists in South Africa, and the solution will capture the best of the legacy of the SAA emblem and its name. We will infuse modernity and creativity into something all South Africans can be proud of. It will be iconic and fresh, stand out, and be globally recognised.”
Novick said he planned to import some of LIFT’s efficient agile operating model into SAA, among other things. “The customer obsession we have at LIFT will also become a mainstay of SAA,” he said. “It’s critical, everything has to revolve around the customer.”
As for staffing, he said 80% of SAA’s staff had already taken voluntary retrenchment, but, “we need to take a good and careful look at the organisational structure”.
He is clear that the vision for the new SAA is to build an iconic national brand and a globally competitive airline, particularly on the African continent. “It will be a cornerstone of commerce, tourism, and industry.”
He isn’t yet sure how LIFT will fit in, however he says experience and skills will be exported into SAA so that the national carrier can benefit from its learning.
Novick plans to start local flights soon, and get going with regional ones soon after. “Regional flights use the same infrastructure as local, so that isn’t too complicated. The long-haul network will depend on tourism, the opening of borders, COVID-19, and global collaboration.
“I am hoping this initiative becomes a blueprint for future public-private partnerships, and gives all South Africans the confidence we need to continue building this incredible country,” Novick said.
On cantors and choirs: sifting through the soundtrack of SA Jewry
History books may detail the facts, but it’s through the notes and melodies of Jewish liturgical music that the emotional story of the Jews of South Africa can be heard. Now, two afficionados on the subject have begun the mammoth task of collating the tales of cantors and choirs on the tip of Africa, detailing its rich legacy and hopes for the future.
“Chazzanut [cantorial music] is a unique Jewish creation. The chazzan [cantor] is described as a chacham lev – he who has the wisdom of the heart,” says Evelyn Green, who along with Professor Russel Lurie, has dedicated herself to the preservation and practice of Jewish liturgical music in South Africa. After all, she reflects, “What are the Jewish people without their music?”
Green and Lurie have been stalwarts of the Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir (JJMC), Green since its inception in 1985, and Lurie, an acclaimed maxillofacial and oral surgeon, since 1987. Green, who is also renowned for her work as a Unisa (University of South Africa) music examiner and private music and singing teacher, is the choir’s musical director, secretary, and repetiteur (singing coach). For the past 25 years, Lurie has served as its chairperson. Most recently, they have begun collating and researching the history of the cantorial and Jewish liturgical musical tradition in this country – the first such project of its kind.
Last month, they presented a set of webinars under the auspices of the Cantors’ Assembly in America. They also spoke to the SA Jewish Report about their extensive work together and their determination to take it even further while keeping the art form alive and thriving.
The interweaving of the everchanging South Africa context and this centuries-old Jewish tradition is illustrated by a delightful anecdote involving a cross-over choir, a bottle of whiskey, and a compulsory invitation to the home of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.
As South Africa commenced its democracy, “within this political scenario, the choir embarked on an outreach programme and on occasions, combined with one of the country’s best black choirs, Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society,” says Green.
However, Imilonji KaNtu is made up of male and female singers, and this doesn’t comply with Jewish Orthodox tradition. Nevertheless, in 2000, in the spirit of the times, the JJMC felt the collaboration had such deep meaning, performing together could be justified.
“A few days before our concert,” says Lurie, “my secretary [of his medical practice] came into the office and said Chief Rabbi Harris was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. In his broad, Scottish accent, he said, ‘Russel, I want you at my home at 18:00, and bring Evelyn as well.’
“We walked in, and the tension was there. We sat down, and he brought out a tray with whiskey. He said, ‘We have a problem: Russel, Evelyn, you are against halacha. You know that men and women cannot sing together, but I want to congratulate the two of you because you have made a stride in the building of a rainbow nation.’”
Then, recalls Lurie, he immediately turned to the next task at hand asking, “Now how do you take your whiskey, because if you want water with it, you’ll have to find some other place.” Then he turned to Evelyn, joking “and you are too young for this, you can have a cooldrink”.
At the end of the evening, he told Lurie and Green, “Anne [Harris’s wife] and I will be at the concert. Leave the rabbinate to me, but don’t ever do it again.”
Green remembers opening night. “It was at the Linder Auditorium, which was totally packed except for two empty seats. We waited for five and then ten minutes before deciding that we had better start, and as I walked onto stage, they arrived.” Harris remained a keen fan of the JJMC for the rest of his life, hosting them for a lunch every year. “He was the most wonderful man and supporter,” reflects Green.
Jewish liturgical music was first carried to South African shores by immigrants fleeing pogroms and unrest in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish songs they carried with them were anthems to love, loss, and resilience.
After World War II, South Africa became a safe haven for refugees who brought both Ashkenazi and Sephardi music traditions. Lurie details how one chazzan of the Oxford Shul in the 1970s was in fact a Holocaust survivor who was taken, along with thousands of others, to the shooting pits. “He lifted his arms and pleaded with the officer in charge to let him sing a prayer for his people. They let him sing, and they pulled him out.”
Indeed, as Europe struggled in disarray in the aftermath of the devastation, South Africa was seen as an attractive option for chazzans to come and work. “South Africa was a springboard. The cantors would come and stay for four or five years and move on,” says Lurie.
Some of the most acclaimed cantors in the world spent time in South Africa. A special story is told across three generations of the Alter family, starting with Israel Alter who was born in the Ukraine, and studied in Vienna and Hanover, before arriving in South Africa in 1936, fleeing Nazi rule. He went on to serve for 25 years at the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg. His son, Elazer Alter, followed in his footsteps at various shuls in Johannesburg and today, Israel’s grandson, Avron, serves as the cantor at Sandton Synagogue.
In the 1980s, visits by icons of liturgical music like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and cantor Sol Zim, as well as the influence of cantor Ari Klein, resulted in experimentation in a new direction. Classical chazzanut was blended with Hasidic and even contemporary pop and folk music. Klein “introduced a light-hearted approach to services and his rendition of foot-tapping music had his congregation in awe,” recalls Green.
So popular did this trend of contemporary experimentation become, Harris even joked in his memoir that he had not known that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed music for the synagogue.
From this heyday of excitement and innovative energy, the current status quo is more concerning, say Lurie and Green. While South Africa certainly boasts superb local home-grown talent in the field, there appears little community support for these efforts in terms of sponsorships. Moreover, say Lurie and Green, there isn’t sufficient effort in Jewish education to promote musical appreciation and practice.
Most chazzans are able to practice their art only in a part-time capacity as they must find other employment to make ends meet. In addition, in South Africa, the shtibl shul set-up, whereby there is no chazzan or choir at services, is the increasingly popular choice, particularly of younger generations.
It’s all the more pity, say Green and Lurie, because their own lives are testament to what richness an immersion in the music has brought. “There is no end to it, and it is so beautiful,” says Lurie.
Green recalls the poignancy of experiences like when the choir was invited to the first International Louis Lewandowski Choral Festival in Berlin in December 2011. At one point, the choir was taken to the cemetery of Lewandowski, one of the greatest composers of Jewish music. It was pouring with rain and freezing cold, yet the choir sang in his honour by his grave. When they visited the Holocaust memorial in the city, they too chose song to express themselves.
Lurie says it was an act of the most sacred affirmation. “It showed, ‘Look we are here. Not only are we here – we are singing!’”
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