Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Some Highlights of Jewish Africana

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Some Highlights of Jewish Africana

Article excerpt


Although the Jewish Community in South Africa has always been a small but nevertheless significant minority, it has featured prominently in the country's history. This paper sets out to highlight some of the most important events and developments in the community's local history, culturally, historically and politically. The various events and perspectives are mirrored through the vital documentation of the time, including the following premier examples: the struggle to obtain recognition for Yiddish as a language, the fight against anti-Semitism in the 1930s (the Grey Shirt movement and apartheid in more recent times), hurdles in regard to the immigration of Jews from Europe (especially refugees), the contribution of Jews to the development of the South African economy, commerce, law, literature and medicine


When I initially formulated this paper I intended to title it: "Landmarks in South African Judaica". The Oxford English Dictionary defines a landmark as an object which is associated with some event or stage in a process, and especially an event which marks a period or turning point in history. This cannot be claimed for many of the items included in this paper, important as they are. I have broadened the scope of my present article to include some highlights in late nineteenth and twentieth century Jewish South African literature. With only few exceptions the emphasis is on the printed word: books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspapers.

In the context of this paper, Africaw is defined as any permanent record such as documents, books, pamphlets, photographs, even manuscripts which are relevant in Jewish South African context, or which are associated with South African Jewry, or written by South African Jews. A Jew is defined here as a person having a Jewish mother.

This survey is by no means comprehensive, as it would become unmanageable, and an impossible task. Although the objective of the paper is to feature some highlights of the past, the opportunity has been taken to mention recent textually significant contributions and include them in the list of references. The enormity of the challenge is immediately evident when one realizes that Veronica Belling's Bibliography of South African Jewry contains no less than 2189 entries in virtually all subject fields (Belling, 1997).

Bibliographies and indexes

Veronica Belling's Bibliography of South African ]ewry is the most substantial and up-to-date bibliography in this field (Belling, 1997). An updated edition is in preparation.

S A Rochlin, first archivist of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, compiled a card index to items of South African interest in the Jewish Chronicle, London covering the years 1859 to 1912. The index is actually to abstracts of the items also compiled by Rochlin. Both the index and abstracts have been published (Guide, 2006). In more recent years, from July 1936 to May 2001, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies published Press Items of Jewish Interest (formerly Press Digest) consisting of abstracts to Jewish items in the local and overseas press.

Bibliophiles and book collectors

Sidney Mendelssohn is the best known of the Jewish Africana collectors. He amassed wealth, mainly from diamond mining. His South African Bibliography of 1910 is indeed a landmark in the field of Africana literature and reference books. His collections were bequeathed to the Library of Parliament.

Two of South Africa's former Chief Rabbis were renowned bibliophiles and book collectors. They were Chief Rabbi J L Landau and Chief Rabbi J H Hertz. An account of Chief Rabbi Landau's passion for books has been given by Edgar Bernstein (Bernstein, 1962). The Landau Library was bequeathed to the University of the Witwatersrand Library and forms the basis of the Judaica collection.

Historical accounts

Joseph Suasso de Lima was born a Jew in 1791 in Amsterdam. …

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