Saturday, July 4, 2009
Jews in South Africa - The Fundamentalist Turn
Having just returned from a short visit to South Africa, to celebrate a traditional Jewish wedding, I find myself thinking about the Jewish experience in South Africa, from the origins of the Jewish community until the present.
The last thirty years or so have been characterized by a fundamentalist turn in the South African Jewish community. What is this all about and how do we feel about it?
The extent of this shift is debatable. To me it seems very significant in scope, especially among the young. This mirrors developments in other parts of the world. Jewish communities in America, for example, have experienced a decline in the number affiliating Conservative and an increase in the numbers affiliated Reform and the various branches of Orthodoxy, especially Chabad and the Haredi outreach groups like Or-Sameach and Aish-Hatorah. But the latter movement, toward Orthodox affiliation, is dwarfed by the numbers in Reform and the numbers opting out of Jewish identification altogether through intermarriage or disinterest. Orthodoxy remains a small minority among American Jews (maybe around ten percent). In Europe, where these denominations do not really exist, the number of Orthodox has likewise increased, but not as fast as those assimilating. In Israel there has been a noticeable increase in Orthodox affiliators, and an increase in overall religiosity, allowing for the development of Conservadox alternatives, like the Shir-Chadash synagogue of the Shalom Institute of Rabbi David Hartman in Jerusalem.
In South Africa, where Reform has always been tiny, and Conservative Judaism non-existent, the shift has been from the unique variant of South African Orthodoxy, that developed in the generation after the first main Jewish immigration, to some variant of strict Orthodoxy, like Chabad or some other black-hat type. So the shift has been almost exclusively to the right, that is, out of the center toward more stringent Orthodoxy – in contrast to the U.S.
The reasons for this shift are also debatable. Most likely the uncertainties of the South African situation (high crime, rapidly changing demographics and technologies, economic fluctuations) have something to do with it. The revealed word provides a source of unchanging comfort for many. More specifically, the precipitous and ongoing decline in the size of the South African Jewish community (from a peak of about 120,000 to around 50,000!) may be a cause as well. Emigration tends to be selective, and perhaps the more secular are also more mobile. The matter awaits more scientific scrutiny.
Whatever the reasons, however, it is real and it has completely changed the character of the Jewish community.
The founding immigration to South Africa occurred from about 1890 – 1930, overwhelmingly from Lithuania. These were mainstream, non-Chassidic, Litvaks. Many of them were religious, like my grandfather. But, very soon their children faced hard choices and made predictable decisions. Similarly to America, this generation became rapidly secularized, choosing to work on Saturday and drive on Yomtov, eschewing kosher food, etc. but nevertheless holding fast to their Jewish identities. Unlike in America, there was no melting pot, no Conservative Jewish movement, very little intermarriage. In South Africa an affiliated Jew was affiliated Orthodox, even though the vast majority of the congregants were secular. This is not unlike the Conservative congregations of America, except that the religious leadership were Lithuanian (and sometimes other East European or British) orthodox Jews. Furthermore, the religious leadership was not theologically sophisticated, like the innovative Conservative rabbis of America. In fact theology, and religion as such, played very little role in the communal Jewish life of most South Africans. It was tradition more than religion. To be sure, the rabbis did their level best to increase the sorry state of awareness and observance among their congregants. But for the latter the rabbis were not very important. Mostly South African Jews of this generation, my and my parents' generation, went to shul to listen to the chazzan and the choir, rather than the rabbi – and to be with family and friends. Some rabbis attracted disproportionate attention with their oratorical eloquence (form rather than substance) and their charisma. But it was their personal magnetism, rather than their theology that was admired. And Jewish liturgical music was key – the choir and the chazzan were the center of the service, Friday night, Saturday morning and on Yomtov.
This mixture of loyal affiliation and secular pragmatism resulted in a vibrant, fiercely Zionistic, high-achieving Jewish community. Members of this community can be found all over the world today in successful businesses, leading professions, artistically prominent positions and community leadership. Their achievements were astounding for such a small proportion of the overall population. They are generally free-thinkers, modern in their approach, requiring reasonable evidence for any claim, not particularly troubled by the schism between the teachings of their religious leaders and their own critical beliefs. They are mostly secular and liberal (in the classical sense of upholding universal individual human rights). Many of their children in South Africa have succumbed to the temptations of the evangelical fundamentalists. Many have left. More will leave.
For me this is very sad. It is the final chapter of the losses I have experienced in the four-decade long emigration process. The country, the culture and the community I left no longer exists. In its place a narrower, more doctrinaire, superstitious, unthinking mixture of alternatives has arisen. To be sure, old-style South African Jews still live there, but they seem to be in the minority – just one of the many alternatives, and their numbers may be dwindling. South Africa may well be alright. It may overcome the multiple challenges it faces and remain the hope and salvation of Africa. But the golden age of South African Jewry has passed.