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SA Jewish story told in eight compelling episodes




Wade, the creator and executive producer of the series, says that he came to work on the project in an unusual way. “I’m married to a Sephardi Jew whose father and some family members were fortunate enough to escape the Nazis who had invaded Rhodes Island in Greece. They settled in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and moved to South Africa in the mid-1960s.”

It was while researching his wife’s family’s history that he began researching South African Jewish history. His research led him back to expulsion from the land of Israel in the year 70 AD, travel across North Africa, expulsion from Spain in 1478 AD, migration to Greece, and ultimately, the family’s escape during World War II.

“I decided that a TV series needed to be produced because I realised very little information was available in accessible video format,” he says.

Wade was born in Durban to an Afrikaans mother whose family was incarcerated in British concentration camps during the Boer War, and a Mauritian father. His professional background is in marketing, and he studied design at the Durban Technikon and film making at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles.

“I was raised Catholic. I first converted to reform Judaism, then later Orthodox through the Beth Din in Johannesburg under the guidance of Rabbi Ron Hendler,” he says. His passion for the community lies in this journey.

“As a convert, the induction process takes candidates deep into the world of Judaism: the Torah, Talmud, halacha, the spiritual and physical, and Zionism. It’s an incredible journey. A deep-seated passion develops, and the very supportive local community becomes part of that journey.”

Wade has been working on this series for about four years. He says he knocked on doors without any success to raise funding, and was “fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity by Kathy Kaler at ChaiFM to produce a radio series on the subject”.

Kaler introduced him to theatre director and radio personality Alan Swerdlow, whose interest in Wade’s project led to an 18-month partnership. “He has done all the research, scriptwriting, and is the on-camera presenter,” says Wade. “The series is in eight episodes – each episode is about 55 minutes – and the format was devised by Alan.”

The series starts with the questions: “Who were they, where did they come from?” It then proceeds to the establishment of small country communities, cemeteries, communal organisations, shuls, cheders, and schools.

“Then it goes into involvement with broader communities, civil groups, and politics [we’ve split this episode into before and after World War II]; the guys who developed business and industries [from farming to mining magnates]; then it’s academics; and finally theatre and the arts,” says Wade.

He believes that what makes this documentary so unique is the diversity of the community. “The South African Jewish community is so diverse, from the first Anglo-Germans who arrived in the first few years of the 19th century to the East European Jews a few decades later, and then an assortment of adventurers, refugees, and mining magnates.”

The series interviewed a range of fascinating people, “from Ryan Lipschitz, from an ostrich-farming family who have lived on the same farm in Oudtshoorn for four generations, to Percy Tucker, the creator of Computicket [who calls himself a ticket salesman], and actor and comedian Peter-Dirk Uys, who discovered his ‘Jewishness’ only after his mother passed away”.

“The most interesting person is Isidore Schlesinger, of a Hungarian immigrant family to New York. He arrived in South Africa in 1894, and was one of the first entrepreneurs in the country. By 1904, he had founded the African Life Assurance Society with money earned from developing Parkhurst [he also developed Houghton, Killarney, and Orange Grove], the first company in South Africa to offer mortgages to home buyers. By 1913, he had branched into the movie industry, starting African Consolidated Theatres, the African Broadcasting Company – which became the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) – and produced African Mirror newsreels. Then he added farming to his interests, growing pineapples, owning 80 000 sheep and Zebedelia, the largest citrus estate in the world. His CV included owning controlling interests in retailers, banks, advertising agencies, a hotel chain, catering firms, theme parks, agriculture, canneries, diamond grinders, and newspapers.”

The biggest challenge of the project was to raise the money. “It was perceived as a ‘glamour project’ by everyone I contacted, with far more pressing community needs and ‘donor fatigue’. But Natie Kirsh, a patron of the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Tel Aviv, saw this series as an invaluable addition to its audiovisual presentations. He also saw it as a template for other productions that highlighted the history and contributions of Jews around the world.”

The Kirsh Family Foundation donated generously to the creation of the TV series, but Wade is now attempting to raise more funds via crowdfunding platform BackaBuddy. “The objective of our BackaBuddy campaign is to raise additional funding for the monumental task of editing the hours and hours of material. Our first round of funding allowed us to travel the length and breadth of South Africa to capture the video material and interview community members. Now we have to edit it down into broadcast format for international distribution,” says the producer.

“I originally planned this production according to a very tight budget, but as the research and writing progressed, I realised that the task at hand was far greater than I anticipated. We have almost finished shooting, and now face the daunting task of editing down hours and hours of material.”

His team still has a few months to go before the editing and sound process is complete. For Wade, this project has been both “daunting and exciting”, as the contribution that South African Jews have made to the socioeconomic and political development of our country was largely unknown.

“We hope that our TV series showcases those wonderful achievements. One of our greatest challenges was to identify who we would leave out, and that decision was not based on personalities or affiliations, but rather on those who would develop our story-telling narrative.”

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