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!’”
The miracle of the maroon handkerchief
Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.
Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.
A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.
“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.
Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.
In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”
A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.
The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.
“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”
So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.
She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”
She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”
Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”
Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.
Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”
Orthodox women make case for life beyond Netflix
As the spotlight shines on the introduction of the “Jewish Kardashians” in My Unorthodox Life, ordinary Jewish woman have begun to air their own stories under the title of #MyOrthodoxLife.
Their personal portraits are in response to the Netflix series, and other shows like Unorthodox and the documentary One of Us that depict people who reject Orthodox communities, and paint them as stifling and oppressive environments.
The SA Jewish Report invited six women in the South African Jewish community to add to the gallery of reflections that stretch beyond the streaming service.
As a starting point, many of them cautioned against trying to confine the complexities of Jewish identity into neat categories: “What does the word ‘religious’ mean? Keeping Shabbos and kosher and wearing a skirt? There are 613 other mitzvot. Why have we chosen those three as the barometer for religiosity?” asks Chaya Ross.
For her, the concept of “religious” is a social imposition. “I don’t think Hashem makes such distinctions. In Hashem’s eyes, I believe we’re all Jewish, the Torah belongs to all of us equally, and His only expectation of us is for us to do our best and to try be better than we were yesterday,” she says.
She suggests that Jewish identity isn’t set, but an ongoing process. “In Judaism, growth is gradual, consistent, small steps to an eventual goal. Making these distinctions in Judaism can stop organic growth and close us off to what could be great spiritual and connecting experiences.”
Breindy Klawansky, suggests that labels across the Jewish community can easily be misunderstood. “Your religious identity is your spiritual relationship and ties to Hashem and the Torah. No one can know how spiritual someone else is. If it’s hard to understand your own relationship with Hashem, then imagine how hard it is to understand someone else’s.”
Adrienne Kay says that even within the concept of orthodoxy lies a “spectrum” of experiences. “It definitely depends upon where you and your community are holding. I can talk only from the South African perspective, and the level at which I’m holding. There are definitely more liberal and more stringent Orthodox communities.”
These women celebrate the importance of communality, especially in South Africa. “South Africans Jews are extremely lucky,” says Lesley Sacks. “We are unique in that even if you’re not remotely frum, a lot of South African Jews consider themselves Orthodox and very traditional.”
Rebbetzin Estee Stern, says that in her home, inclusivity was always embraced as “my parents instilled within us respect for each person, no matter their background or level of Jewish observance.”
“The South African Jewish community is united,” says Ross. “We have one Beth Din; we daven in the same shuls; and our lives are connected beyond the type of kippah our husbands and sons wear. Instead, we are connected in the way that we answer each other’s questions on Joburg Jewish Mommies; in the way that we chat in the line at Moishies on a Friday; and in the way that our tehillim WhatsApp groups represent every type of kippah or non-kippah wearing Jew.”
In addition, many express a deep sense of fulfilment in Jewish femininity. “Judaism is very pro-feminism,” says Sacks. “Anyone that knows even a little bit of Judaism, knows that it’s not true that women are second-class citizens.” Having become more religious since young adulthood, Sacks says it doesn’t mean that she “didn’t have meaning in [her] life before”, but [becoming more religious] has brought joy to it. “It’s now intrinsically part of who and what I am.”
“I’ve never once felt subjugated as an Orthodox Jewish woman. In fact, I feel empowered and proud,” says Kay. She gives examples of the extensive career opportunities enjoyed by Orthodox women.
“Rachel [Ruchie] Freier is a criminal court judge in New York from a religious Hasidic community. Beatie Deutsch, a frum Israeli woman, is considered to be amongst the top marathon runners in the world. She’s a 31-year-old mother of six, and runs in modest clothing.”
Klawansky is an award-winning musician and singer in her own right. Though she performs only to women, incorporating tehillim verses in her cutting-edge style, her expressiveness has such powerful resonance, it has even crossed cultural lines. Alongside her husband, the duo has received a Global Music Award and a South African Music Award nomination. Most recently, two of her poems have been selected for publication in an international anthology. Rather than feeling restricted, Klawansky asserts quite simply, “My music is in me…”
The women also say that we need to expand the way in which we measure success and fulfilment. Stern points out that the home is the beating heart of a healthy society. “It’s at home that the bedrock of our Judaism is set. The foundation of a home is the woman. She sets the tone, the environment, and the culture for the family. Judaism places much value and emphasis on women. I strongly believe that if you inspire a woman, you inspire a family. And if you inspire a family, you inspire communities!”
Ross notes how “when the Torah was given, Hashem said to Moshe that he must first go and talk to the women and instruct them about the ways of Torah, and then only after that instruct the men. The reason for this, amongst other things, is that women play a central role in giving over the Torah to their children, and imbuing their homes with it.”
Far from feeling cut off from modern society, they describe how Judaism helps them find balance in what otherwise can feel like a frenetic pace. “The thing I wish everyone understood is the power of Shabbos,” says Blumenthal. “I run my own business, and it often causes boundaries to be blurred, but when Friday afternoon arrives and I can turn off my phone and close my laptop, there’s no greater feeling. Without having that distinct boundary between the work week and my down time, I wouldn’t survive, and it’s because of the gift of Shabbos that I’m able to push forward, keep going, and do the best work for my clients.”
Kay concurs in the pleasures of life beyond Netflix in more ways than one. “In my personal Orthodox life, I have found a balance between modernity and the ancient traditions of Judaism. I love the fact that on Shabbos, I switch off from the modern world, including cell phones and TV, and find a unique peace with myself and a deep connection to G-d.”
COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers
The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.
During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.
According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.
Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.
Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.
Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.
“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.
“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.
South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.
Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.
It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.
Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”
Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.
“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.
In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.
Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.
Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”
Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.
In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.
“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.
“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.
“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.
“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”
Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.
“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.
Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.
“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”
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