A series of synagogues and a brush with history

A series of synagogues and a brush with history

“This exhibition is a culmination of a couple of years work trying to locate and paint all the synagogues in Cape Town and the Western Cape,” says Vivienne Basckin, whose paintings are currently exhibited at the South African Jewish Museum.

Here are about 20 of the more than 40 synagogues I have painted on display,” she says. “As most of the early synagogues were situated in District Six in Cape Town, it seemed most apposite that this collection should be shown in conjunction with the main exhibition [about District Six] currently showing in the Jewish Museum.”

Viv began her venture into painting shuls many years ago, “when we lived in Hong Kong and I was asked to paint the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Robinson Road. It was a beautiful turn of the century building and I painted interiors and exteriors and had an exhibition, which was well-received. I realised then that so many of us respond in the same way: We search out synagogues when we travel and are interested in the congregations of different places and other times.”

This was the beginning of a journey of exploration of the synagogues in the Western Cape. “Coming to Cape Town, I was commissioned to paint one or two shuls and then over the last few years, when my husband Jonathan and I travelled into the country visiting various towns and dorps, we’d always ask if there was a ‘Joodse Kerk’ in the area,” Viv explains. “We often found one and had a wonderful time uncovering old buildings and remnants of Jewish communities that had lived there years ago.”

The project continued when Vivienne was asked to speak at Limmud about the 40- odd shuls that she had painted. “I began to research some of these communities in more depth, and a vivid picture of the movement of the Jews in South Africa emerged. I entitled my talk, A Brush with the History of the Jews in South Africa and the Western Cape. I managed to find a great deal written on the first synagogues (mostly in District Six) and learnt how the communities moved away from the cities into the country; and when and why they have now moved from the country back to the city.”

The history behind each synagogue tells a small part of the story of South African Jewry. “Reading about former communities, I encountered so many similarities over the years! Disheartened rabbis, wise and benevolent ones, stalwarts in each community who would drive the activities and fund raising of the congregants, and always the perennial ‘ferribles’ between people, factions and sometimes even whole congregations! In Oudtshoorn for example there are two shuls next to each other, built at the same time by Jewish immigrants who came from two different shtetls in Eastern Europe and could not pray in harmony!”

Painting the synagogues was not a simple endeavour, especially the ones that are no longer used or even exist.

Viv visited every single shul, sketched and painted them and filled in the details from photos she had taken. “Where the buildings no longer exist, I had to rely on books and kind people having pictures in their family albums. There are still one or two that I cannot find or maybe one that I have missed — so it is a work in progress”, she says.

A repository of memories

With many mediums to choose from, Viv decided to paint the synagogues using watercolours, “as I felt this to reflect the transient, ephemeral nature of the subject matter. The medium allows one to capture a feeling of ‘being’ but not ‘being all at once’, which I think is the essence of what I want to achieve.”

When asked which shul was her favourite one to paint, Vivienne says that she “enjoyed finding the more remote shuls, such as in Ladismith, Riversdale and Piketberg, but I was equally fascinated to locate shuls in Parow, Goodwood, Maitland and Durbanville — all of which had large thriving congregations.”

Many shuls belonged to communities that are no longer there. Vivienne found that “what is amazing is how many of the buildings have changed. Some of the shuls have been sold and used for other things; gyms, sales rooms, exhibition areas, workshops, cycle stores… A few have been taken over by different religions — the New Apostolic Church has taken over at least 5 of the shuls I found, often their leaving the Magen David next to their signs or symbols.”

She continues: “When you look at the paintings on display, what you do not see are the decayed and crumbling walls, the dilapidated roofs and moss growing everywhere. You do not see the piles of rocks and rubble or the scaffolding being erected around a new office block.”

Yet despite this, the paintings do record the synagogues for history, in all their splendour. “What I have depicted are images where the buildings are bright and pristine, where the foliage is abundant and the picturesque landscape is clearly seen. These are the synagogues in better times, reflecting the memories I had in my youth of the synagogues in Salisbury and which must have existed at some point in time,” says Viv. “Whenever I painted a doorway or a gate or pathway, I was reminded of another congregation at another time and place.”

Concludes Viv: “I felt a need to document in some way this juncture in our history, which is being rapidly swept away. Synagogues are a repository of memories. We reflect on our times of going to shul when we were children or times of spirituality or occasions of celebrations, marriages, barmitzvahs and family reunions. I discovered that I, like many others, sought out shuls in foreign countries. Was it an interest in history or maybe even more so, a resonance with other communities in other places and of other times?”

“This is my personal journey searching for vestiges of long gone communities all over the Cape, in the suburbs and in the small dorps, uncovering glimpses of past congregations, their moments and their milestones. Hopefully it will resonate with the viewer and also provide a source for future generations.”

‘Synagogues of the Western Cape: A selection of watercolours’ by Vivienne Basckin will be on display at the SA Jewish Museum until the end of April.