Rosie Motene is kept grounded by her conversations with Hashem

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She is a household name in South Africa, but few know that Judaism has been the thread linking the many disparate, yet distinct, life experiences for actress and businesswoman Rosie Motene.
by MIRAH LANGER | May 03, 2018

She describes herself as “born to the Bafokeng nation, but raised in a Jewish household”. She went on to convert to Progressive Judaism in her 30s.

“Judaism is conversations with Hashem; it is a form of grounding and a form of spirituality that when I’m alone, I’m not alone,” muses Motene. She has spent decades in the public spotlight as a television and theatre actress, and has also branched out into working as a producer, radio host, talent agent and human rights activist.

“For me, it is about that comfort and that refuge,” Motene told the SA Jewish Report during an interview in the run-up to the release of her memoir, Reclaiming the Soil: A black girl’s struggle to find her African self.

In the book, Motene traces her search for a sense of belonging and identity during the time when South Africa was shifting from the constraints of apartheid to the promise of a new, post-apartheid era.

It was against this backdrop that Motene began delving into her upbringing. Her mother worked as a domestic worker for a Jewish family in Johannesburg who offered to raise Rosie as one of their own.

Growing up, Motene struggled to reconcile the repercussions of this decision.

“People I tried to get advice from would say: ‘Well, just be grateful for what they [the Jewish foster family] did for you.’ For so many years I heard that.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful, but I also have a right to feel this [need to find my identity] and to ask questions and say: ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I’m a grown woman. And for a person who is so vocal on so many issues, I felt voiceless.”

It was from this position that Motene came to write her book, recounting a journey of over 10 years which she describes as a process of healing.

Motene says she has had to learn to forgive herself. She used to feel guilty about how she had treated her biological mother. She describes their relationship in the book as being, at times in her childhood, like that of a “mistress and servant”.

“[There were] things I did that were not right, but a lot of those actions were when I was a baby and I didn’t know any better.”

Motene is grateful that in adulthood she has had the opportunity to rectify the situation with her biological parents, with whom she lived until a few years ago. Her father died recently and she continues to strengthen her relationship with her mother.

Reclaiming the Soil is dedicated to her biological parents. In a passage in the introduction, she pays tribute to them. “I’m fortunate for my loving parents, who sacrificed their daughter and their parenthood over me and watched as another family of a different race, culture and religion raised me. I’m most fortunate for the love, resilience and humility that they, my biological family, taught me,” she writes with bittersweet poignancy.

Motene says she has never been given a clear explanation of why the agreement for her to be fostered by her mother’s employers was made. Her book details the push and pull of inclusion and exclusion she felt between these two worlds.

Perhaps the naming in the book of both her foster and biological mother best illustrates this entanglement and complexity.While mainly pseudonyms are used in the book, Motene calls her biological mother “Mama”. Yet she notes that until she was in her 20s, she used to call her mother “Boomba”, a nickname coined by one of her foster sisters as a reference to “Fatty Boom Boom”.

And in the book, Motene calls her foster mother “the mother figure”.

“She was still my mother for a very long time… You can’t take that away… She held that figure,” Motene says, explaining her choice of name.

Part of the battle for belonging is also seen in Motene’s relationship to Judaism.

In the book, she describes feeling deep pain when, as a child, she was told that she could not follow all the Shiva practices after her foster father died.She also reflects on always feeling a “stronger pull towards understanding what Judaism was. Growing up in a Jewish home was more than just a religious thing for me, it was how we lived. I loved Judaism for its celebration of life and that every year we are made to repent for our sins,” she writes.

During her interview with the SA Jewish Report, Motenedescribes how a stranger on an airplane once came up to her and told her she must be her foster mother’s daughter because “your mannerisms are the same and you sound exactly like her: The only thing is that you are a black woman”.

As such, she feels it was inevitable that she would find her way into Judaism as an adult. “In terms of my following a Jewish way of life, it’s how I was brought up. It makes sense.”

When Motene was in her 30s, she was invited to give a talk at the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Parktown. Immediately, the warm environment and the equality practised at the shul impressed her.

“I was also yearning for some form of guidance and anchoring. In my eyes, in my conversations with Hashem, I wanted to do this; it was essential for me.”

In 2011, Motene completed her conversion to Judaism through the Progressive Jewish community. What feels so precious about her spiritual connection, she says, is that it is “one thing that no one can ever take away from me”.

Describing herself as “content where I am, but still searching”, Motene adds that she hopes to further explore how African spirituality fits into her identity alongside Judaism.“Where I’m sitting as Rosie, the African woman, there is still much more I need to discover about myself – but being in my 40s, I have also discovered that there is no rush.”

One of Motene’s most treasured memories of Judaism was the time she spent in Uganda with the Abayudaya people, one of Africa’s oldest Jewish communities, during a recent Rosh Hashanah celebration.

“It’s these beautiful green rolling hills and these huts and the rabbi comes out and screams, ‘Shana Tova’, and you see people coming out of the huts… Going into the synagogues, there are only black people. Everything is in Hebrew and their reading is impeccable,” says Motene, with a wry admission that her own Hebrew was not up to scratch with theirs.

Spending the Yom Tovim with the community was inspiring: “It just takes you back to humility.”

On the subject of South Africa’s Jewish community, Motene notes the split between right and left wing viewpoints about Israel as well as in addressing issues of race. She finds racism among some members of the community jarring, especially considering the history Jews have endured: “That’s why I get so confused when Jews are blatantly racist: It happened to you, so come on...”

A positive trend she notes in the community is that more secular Jews – many of whom she’s known from the entertainment industry – are returning to their religious roots. “I don’t know if it is [the pull of] Israel or if we are reaching a point where we need solidarity.”

With her book being launched this week, Motene acknowledges that the way it is interpreted or received by others may not be plainsailing. “Of course there will be repercussions. The truth is, when you write about yourself and you expose yourself, you’re going into areas in which people don’t want to go.”Yet, she says, she has come to believe that “my points are as valid as anyone else’s”.

Motene kept making adjustments to the book until close to its final print date.

For example, she decided that the original cover, which showed hands clutching soil, needed to be changed. It now shows the silhouette of an African woman against a bright, striped orange background. When requesting the change, she’d said: “No, the cover is too dark – this is about my stepping into the light.”



  1. 2 Linda Mischel 06 May
    As a member of Rosie"s "white Jewish family" I can attest to the difficult journey she has undertaken in unraveling the threads of her identity, To date Rosie has disconnected from her foster family that nurtured her. As a progressive woman, embracing Judaism we can only hope that Atonement and  Forgiveness as well as Truth and Reconciliation - tenets being so much part of her cultural heritage - will guide her through the next phase of her life. I hope the revised book allows the reader to contemplate the unknown moral dilemmas, complications and sacrifices that an entire Jewish family undertook while fostering a black child in a dangerous, hostile apartheid environment. All this was done with love and pride. We can only hope that Rosie finds closure, happiness and reconciliation.
  2. 1 Nomhle 06 Jun
    We do not know what Rosie went through as I believe it is a tough world but I think on the other hand she must be greatful that she got a better of lifestyle, education and opportunities. But I do understand that the love you got from your foster parents is not the same as the love you would have got from your parents and their struggles of life. Nurture every moment of your success and where you are right now as both of these families played a bigger role of who you are today.


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