Collecting our communal culture

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Andrew Goldman, Director
SA Jewish Museum

I happen to be writing this article on an El Al flight from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv. Airplane seats always seem be getting narrower, and there is no denying that I have gotten wider. But my minor discomfort makes me consider the gruelling sea journey made by so many Jewish immigrants to South Africa.

As the director of the South African Jewish Museum, I’m constantly exploring the interplay between antiquity and modernity; between a community’s past and its ever- changing present. What’s more, as an American transplant in Cape Town, I have a personal connection with the immigrant legacy of South African Jewry. As much I know what it feels like to be a stranger in a foreign land, I also know what it means to share a common heritage and to feel immediately welcomed by and connected to a minority community. The sleek corridors at Cape Town International airport are hardly the wooden gangplanks that most sea-legged Jewish immigrants traversed when stepping off the ships from distant lands, yet I cannot help but identify with the sense of relief I felt when I received my first invitation to a Shabbat dinner at a Sea Point home.

The South African Jewish Museum is more than a mere collection of artifacts: it provides a sense of home and connectedness for thousands of Jews visiting this wonderful country. As you walk through the museum’s modest entrance, you behold the magnificence and elegance of the Old Synagogue. A sense of history and tradition permeates the space as you walk across the original wooden floors that are nearly 150 years old. As you soak in the words transmitted on the audio guide, rather than fixating on the unique juxtaposition of ornate silver and gold adornments and simple wooden benches, you notice how much light there is in such a stony structure. The synagogue’s intersection between the religious and the secular creates a warm and inviting environment, while allowing the visitor to appreciate the beauty and detail of the décor. It’s truly like no other museum in Cape Town, and certainly a world-class museum in its own rite.

A museum like no other
You’d be surprised at how often my colleagues and I hear museum-goers from Cape Town mention how they had forgotten how wonderful the museum is and how they hadn’t been back in years. Well, let me take you through a brief tour of this already familiar place. While exiting the Old Synagogue (the first synagogue built in South Africa), you cannot help but notice the contrast that the wooden gangplank provides as you segue from the original structure to the more modern addition. The wood creaks and the sea rumbles as you pass over the light-filled bridge between the two sections of the museum.

You gaze upon life-sized photographs of immigrants disembarking ships from their former homelands, and reflect on your own journey through the world. The light from the museum’s extensive courtyard offers warmth and comfort during this moment of reflection. You glance at and acknowledge the past, while taking in the stunning view of Table Mountain — a view reminiscent of the first sight of Cape Town seen by tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants to South Africa at the turn of the century. However, it is a symbiosis between the old and the new that makes the South African Jewish Museum so unique and exciting. Regular visitors are comforted by the familiarity of the permanent collection and tell us they learn something new during each visit. At the same time, locals are constantly surprised by the world-class temporary exhibitions the museum holds in our recently expanded special exhibit space. There is something for everyone. I wish I could record the look of schoolchildren’s faces as they run in and out of the shtetl exhibit, or how they climb over each other to catch a glimpse of the Pepper’s ghost video installation.

As the relatively new director of the South African Jewish Museum, it is my hope to keep the story of the Jewish community fresh and alive, and it is my job to keep people coming back for more.

As a member of the Cape Town Jewish community, odds are that you have probably visited the museum. Why come back? For starters, it would be a shame to miss ‘Jiving with Madiba, Jonathan Shapiro’s Mandela’ exhibition, which features over 100 of Shapiro’s Nelson Mandela cartoons. It opens officially on 14 July, but members of the community can get a sneak-peak starting 3 July. And, there’s more in store for the spring. Starting in September, the museum will showcase a monthly speakers’ series and many other activities for 2011 and 2012. In addition, we are in the midst of planning a film festival, and our biweekly J-Art programme continues to be very popular with young visitors.

So come enjoy the breathtakingly stunning architecture of the museum, don’t miss the Zapiro exhibition, and make sure to leave us your email address so we can keep in touch. Thousands of families filtered through the museum this past year, and I had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of them. Regardless of age or experience, visitors related to me how thrilled they were to explore the museum, and it was an absolute pleasure to hear their reactions, heed their feedback, and note the diversity of experiences they had gleaned inside. I look forward to meeting you and your family at the South African Jewish Museum.

The South African Jewish Museum is open Sunday – Thursday 10am – 5pm, Friday 10am – 2pm. Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Entrance is R15, Kids are free!