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In Search Of South African Jewish Art

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South African Jewish Museum 88 Hatfield Street, Cape Town, South Africa http://www.sajewishmuseum.co.za

 

Cup presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

I went to the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town with high hopes of seeing how South African Jews uniquely approached the fine arts and Jewish ritual objects. Lions—as the symbol of Judah and later Israel in general—can be found in Jewish art throughout the ages and across the globe, of course. But I wondered if the Jews of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth incorporated other native animals into their art. I had visions of Zebras holding up Chanukah lamps, giraffes on Kiddush cups, and elephants on Havdalah spice boxes. I wondered to what extent South African Jewish artists looked to traditional African art and design for inspiration, and whether they drew upon symbols and styles from their Eastern European, primarily Lithuanian, heritage. At very least, I expected to learn a great deal more about William Kentridge, a Johannesburg-born Jewish painter with an international reputation.

Not only was I surprised not to find bead-encrusted mezuzahs and cheetah-patterned challahcovers, but I saw virtually no art at all. And the few works I saw had little or nothing to do with South Africa. Several glass cases with ritual objects in the first room didn’t even identify where and when they were created, and with the exception of one menorah, they all resembled ritual objects one could see in a Jewish museum anywhere in the world.

Menorah. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The menorah in question (image one), which had no identifying wall text, features at least three animals. On the pinnacle, supported by some sort of pedestal that could be a hand, jug, or flame, is some kind of deer. Judging from the antlers, the deer is more of the North American rather than African Kudu variety. Lower down on the menorah, two forms jut out, which could be crocodiles or merely geometric embellishments. But the central part of the menorah is the most interesting. Two animal forms stand on their hind legs leaning against an open portal. The blessing recited over lighting the Chanukah candles—“… to light the candle of Chanukah”—is inscribed on the two animals and above the portal they flank.

“Yerushalayim d’Afrike’” (Jerusalem of Africa), the history of the Jews of Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape, written in Yiddish by Leibl Feldman in 1940. Cover design by Rene Shapshak. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The animals are peculiar in shape and thus difficult to interpret. It’s clear that they have tails and ears, and they don’t appear to be lions, since they are mane-less. Depending upon which angle one inspects them from, they could be elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, or wolves. And the zigzag patterns on the animals, as well as the eye-like forms don’t help either, as the same patterns appear on the “crocodiles” and throughout the rest of the menorah.

If the symbolism on the menorah is ambiguous, the scene represented on a cup that the Jewish community of Cape Town presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857 is quite clear, although it’s a surprising mythological choice. Norden, who founded South Africa’s first Hebrew congregation, Tikvath Yisrael, was given the cup in honor of his return to England. A lion stands atop the large ceremonial cup, while a bearded man carrying a trident is depicted on the side of the cup. The figure—surely Neptune or Poseidon—stands in a chariot drawn by four horses in the water, as two angels blow trumpets (probably not shofrot). Berries and leaves adorn various other parts of the cup.

Whether the cup was originally created for a non-Jewish patron and later adapted as a gift for Benjamin Norden, or whether it was created specifically for the occasion, the choice of a pagan symbol, rather than a Biblical or rabbinic one, to mark the celebration of a Jew’s career in South Africa is noteworthy.

Other interesting aspects of the museum’s collection include references to Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather trade (see image three) and apartheid. “In my experience,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, in a quote that is printed in a prominent wall text, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Shtetl installation. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

A catalog sold at the front desk of the museum made clear that the Jews who opposed apartheid weren’t a majority by any means. “While most Jews accommodated themselves to segregation and apartheid, a significant number challenged the inequities of life in South Africa and sought a more humane and just society,” according to the catalog, which is authored by Marian Robertson. “Some were motivated by traditional Jewish teachings, others by secular ideals including liberalism, socialism and Marxism.”

The historical attention to Jewish opposition to and support of apartheid, the investigation of Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather and diamond trades, and the Lithuanian heritage of Jewish South Africans are certainly worthy of reflection. It’s also fascinating to note, as Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain do in their 2008 illustrated history, The Jews in South Africa, that Jews were initially banned from Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company, although they enjoyed a good deal of freedoms in Holland. And it’s diverting to think of Table Mountain as the iconic visual equivalent of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for the Jewish immigrants who subsequently came to Cape Town.

Ark of the old synagogue (consecrated 1863) with original mosaic floor. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

But one cannot help but wish that the South African Jewish Museum also focused on South African Jewish art. People who pay attention to Jewish art are likely to have heard of William Kentridge, but there are surely other Jewish artists from South Africa who have grappled with their religious and cultural identities. In this regard, the museum missed a great opportunity, and that’s very disappointing.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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