Scatterlings of Africa

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“The Jewish people have always had a presence in Africa, making some of these communities the oldest in the world,” says photographer Jono David, who will soon photograph Jewish life, history and communities across the continent.

The Great Synagogue in Subotica, Serbia (Photo: Jono David).

Jono is an independent British-American photographic documentarian of Jewish life and culture worldwide. His goal is to contribute to preserving Jewish communities in photographs: “I aim to bring light and vision to communities today while safeguarding memories for tomorrow,” he explains. To date, his Jewish photo library, entitled ‘HaChayim HaYehudim’ (‘The Life of the Jewish People’) contains some 50,000 images from 85 countries.

Now, he is visiting Africa to document Jewish life on the continent. “Communities such as the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa claim descent from ancient Israel. Furthermore, Jews in Africa are diverse peoples with distinct cultures, languages, and customs,” he says. From the Sephardi and Mizrachi in North Africa to the mostly Ashkenazi Jews who settled in South Africa, this continent has harboured Jews and their history for centuries.

But today, “no Jewish community in Africa is expanding,” says Jono. “Some are in great peril either in terms of population, economic hardship, political or religious pressures, cultural assimilation, or a combination of these. Many communities have already disappeared, leaving behind their synagogues, cemeteries, homes, buildings, legacies, and contributions to local life. Sadly, in most cases, these communities eventually fall into obscurity.”

Therefore Jono aims to take on the mammoth task of compiling the single largest photographic survey of Jewish life and culture on the African continent compiled by an individual photographer. “As a documentarian, my goal is not merely to preserve as much of Jewish Africa in photographs for posterity, but also to stoke a worldwide Jewish consciousness for the long, rich, significant, exciting, and important historical record, past and present, of Jewish Africa.”

Beginning in July, Jono will try to photograph Jewish life, culture and history in some 25 nations across Africa, and intends to file a minimum of 100,000 photographs. He will take pictures of every shul and Jewish cemetery; Jewish holiday and festival events; monuments; museums and historical sites; and most importantly, community members and leaders.

Ties that bind
Jono began his project in 1987, when he read an article about the Jewish community of Manaus in Brazil. “A synagogue in the Amazon struck me as most unexpected. The story intrigued me enough to add a visit there on a holiday.” It was this experience that sparked his commitment to photographing Jewish communities of the world.

On his travels, Jono has learnt that “While each Jewish community is unique, all are bound by common threads of cultural identity. Hence, a visit to a Jewish community in even the most unexpected of places is somehow familiar. With few exceptions, I have been warmly welcomed, even when I arrived unannounced. It is a privilege to have a sense of belonging in places where I am otherwise a mere stranger. Indeed, such welcomes are testament to the ties that bind Jews the world over together,” he says.

In terms of moments that stand out from his travels, “One powerful encounter was meeting the president of the Subotica community in Serbia. After chatting with me beneath the rotunda of the Great Synagogue, she handed me a big old fashioned skeleton key, entrusting me with the entire synagogue. For an hour and half, that place was all mine. That experience embodies the welcome, trust, and partnership I receive from people around the world.”

Behind the scenes
Jono plans to begin his photographic ‘safari’ in Johannesburg in July, followed by trips to Cape Town and Zimbabwe. “I’d like the South African Jewish community to know that I am so excited to come back to your amazing country for the first time since 2000. Cape Town stole my heart and never gave it back. I have specifically chosen South Africa as the first of many legs on this Jewish Africa photo survey because it is home to the most significant community on the continent, and I have already been warmly welcomed by several important contacts. I am eager to get started.”

“I always tell people that I am the guy behind the lens, but I am not the only person behind the scenes. My Jewish photo library is a collaborative effort of communities and individuals worldwide. I hope that the Jewish community of South Africa will partner with me in this endeavor to compile the single largest Jewish Africa photo survey of its kind.”

To assist Jono, email him at jono@gol.com, visit his website at www.jewishphotolibrary.com, or contact the Cape Jewish Chronicle.