New book reveals hidden aspects of SA Jewish history

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Solly Berger, Steven Levetan, Rabbi Osher Feldman, Professor Howard Phillips and Professor Adam Mendelsohn at the launch of Phillips' book 'Cemeteries and Synagogues: The Foundation of Organised Jewry in South Africa'.

By Tali Feinberg

Did you know that the first Jewish document in South Africa was written in Grahamstown?

For a long time it has been assumed that the first Jewish document recorded was written in Cape Town in 1841 and it was only recently discovered by Emeritus Professor Howard Phillips that the Grahamstown document preceded it. This document, written in October 1838, was a request for a small piece of ground to use as a Jewish cemetery in Grahamstown, just one of the many facts uncovered by Phillips, a historian at the University of Cape Town from 1974 to 2014.

His new book, ‘Cemeteries and Synagogues: The Foundation of Organised Jewry in South Africa’ was launched last week at an event hosted by the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies (UCT) and the South African Jewish Museum.
Phillips’ link with the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation — also known as the Gardens Shul — is long. His grandfather, Joe Phillips, became a member of the congregation in 1920 after coming to South Africa from Lithuania, and Howard continues that membership to this day.

“In Biblical Hebrew, there is no word for history, only the word zachor — memory,” said Rabbi Osher Feldman at the launch. “This is because memory is alive — it informs our future, guides us and inspires us,” he continued. It was therefore appropriate that the book was launched under the auspices of the Gardens Shul, and is based on essays written to mark the congregation’s significant anniversaries.

“Phillips has uncovered and interpreted material that adds colour and nuance to our portrait of the foundation of Jewish communal life in South Africa,” said Professor Adam Mendelsohn (Director of the Kaplan Centre). ”Sometimes these documents — synagogue minutes, correspondence, maps — have redrawn that picture entirely… his goal has been to illuminate and reveal.”
The text of the book is accessible to all, and this history can clearly be divided into different periods, explains Phillips. He has entitled the very earliest Jewish settlement in South Africa as ‘precarious’, when British and German Jews took the first tentative steps to make the country their home and begin to organise Jewish life here. This can be seen in the title of the book ‘Cemeteries and Synagogues’, as these were usually the first two institutions put in place wherever Jews set down roots.
The next stage would be ‘permanent’, when the first synagogue was established and Jews began to feel at home. That first shul was the St John’s Street Synagogue, or Tikvah Israel congregation, now part of the larger ‘Great Synagogue’ of the Gardens Shul. Thirdly, the book looks at the ‘prestigious’ period from the 1890s onwards, when Jews were accepted by the local population and seen as part of the city. This can be demonstrated in the induction of the first Jewish mayor of the Cape in 1904, Mr Hyman Lieberman, the building of the Great Synagogue, and the public presence of the Jewish community in Cape Town and beyond.

The book concludes with a look at how the Great Synagogue was built, which would fascinate historians, architects and congregants alike. Phillips closes with an explanation of how this synagogue set the tone for the success of the community ahead: “It was strengthened decade by decade through the commitment of faith of the congregation and its leaders… becoming the pillar of Jewish faith… As Winston Churchill once remarked: ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’”

The richly-illustrated ‘Cemeteries and Synagogues: The Foundation of Organised Jewry in South Africa’ is available at the South African Jewish Museum gift shop.

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