In the beginning there were no Jews in Sea Point. Nor in Cape Town although many of the early Dutch and Portuguese explorers rounding the Cape believed that Hottentots had descended from the Jews.[i] JG Grevenbroek (1695)[ii] wrote “Indeed who is so blind as not to see that it is from the Israelites that Hottentots have derived all their sacerdotal and sacrificial rites, which are redolent of the purest antiquity... even Hebrew and the Hottentot languages were alike”. Gysbert Hemmy (1767)[iii] stated that there was no lack of evidence to add considerable weight to Kolbe’s conjecture that the Hottentots were descended from the Jews including that they did not eat pig and regarded women who had just given birth as unclean but “in squalor and uncleanness they surpass the Jews.”
Peter Kolbe (1675-1726) The present state of the Cape of Good Hope
Whatever the reason, when the first people from the Northern hemisphere decided to establish a foothold at the bottom of Africa under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, they excluded Jews, despite the Company having many Jewish shareholders and directors in Amsterdam. The Dutch settlement at the Cape in 1652 occurred a few years after the massive disruption to Jewish life in Poland caused by the massacres of Chmielnicki, and some desperate Jewish refugees fleeing to Holland were prepared to do almost anything to get a job, even if it meant getting a baptismal certificate. Like Samuel Jacobson who served as a shepherd in 1699 or David Heilbron who was stationed on Robben Island. It was only when Governor de Mist, during the rule of the Batavian Republic, instituted freedom of worship in 1804 that Jews could come as Jews and Lady Anne Barnard could complain that she was over-charged for a plant by the Jewess da Costa whose husband was a prison bookkeeper. In 1808 Dr Sigfried Fraenkel arrived and started practice at 9 Roeland Street.[iv]
Lady Anne Barnard Dr Sigfried Fraenkel
The British 1820 Settlers included a number of Jewish settlers. Party leader Mr Wilson absconded in Simonstown with the group's money. The British Government would not pay the full minister's salary to his successor, Rev Boardman, on the grounds that some of his group were Jewish. One of these settlers was Benjamin Norden who, on 26.9.1841, hosted the first minyan for Yom Kippur, in his home in Hof Street with Dr Fraenkel reading Ne’ilah[v] – there is a plaque in the Mount Nelson Hotel indicating where Norden’s house had stood.
SYNAGOGUE ESTABLISHED FOLLOWING ANGO-JEWISH PRACTICES
The following week the Society of the Jewish Community of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope or Tikvath Israel (Tikvath meaning Hope), was established “for holding regular services on Sabbath and festivals and maintaining the Jewish religion in South Africa”. The following year they purchased land in Albert Road Woodstock for a cemetery.
Albert Road, Woodstock, cemetery
In 1849 two houses and a store, corner of Bouquet and St John's Street adjoining the Lodge De Goede Hoop, was purchased for £800 to be a synagogue and minister’s house. These were mainly British Jews in a British colony following Anglo-Jewish practices of English orthodoxy including the necessity for courteous behaviour in the synagogue. Among the rules established by the new committee was one which read: “The Parnas and Gabbay shall send notice to all persons talking in the Synagogue to desist; and should they continue … they shall be fined two shillings and sixpence.” [vi]
By 1861 the congregation had outgrown the small synagogue and bought a house, stables and a large garden extending back from St John's Street onto Government Avenue, formerly part of Van Riebeeck’s vegetable patch, on which they erected a synagogue, now in the South African Jewish Museum, which was consecrated on Rosh Hashanah, 13th September 1863, the 14th anniversary of the opening of the Bouquet Street Synagogue.
The "Old" Synagogue of Cape Town, built in 1863 Rabbi Pulver
The community spoke English, identified with the British, their manners and customs and were comfortable living in a society lacking the discriminatory laws found in much of Europe. Their rabbis were chosen for them by the British Chief Rabbi, and kashrut, daily minyans and mikvah attendance had been abandoned by most as old fashioned or unnecessary and with few Jewish women, there was much intermarriage. Their first rabbi, Rabbi Pulver, left because he said “first, that I cannot get kosher meat, secondly that I cannot as a Jewish parent bring up my children in a place where so little regard is paid to the principles of our Holy Religion; and thirdly, that, notwithstanding nearly two years’ trial to live as economically as possible, I could not make my income meet my expenses,”[vii]
There are no Jewish descendants of the signatories at the meeting to establish the community in 1841 and the subsequent generations did not pay much more attention to the principles of the Holy Religion.
Letters of the period bemoan the neglect of traditions. Here is an apologetic report written by a Kimberley Jew to the Hamaggid newspaper in 1881:
In regard to the observance of our religion I can give the assurance that (the Jews in Kimberley) are not guilty of all the things that are attributed to them. True, they do not observe all the commandments of the Torah as do our brothers who live in civilized countries. We have to realize that the nature of their work and the nature of the people with whom they are associated are an obstacle in regard to the observance of religion.
but he stresses that although they did not all observe the sanctity of the Sabbath, they did observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.[viii] Ten years later the community was no more religious. Hoffman reported in 1891 that:
The religious state of Jews in South Africa is very bad. I am filled with shame to have to report publicly that our brethren have.... forgotten... their people, their religion and language. Their children grow wild in the absence of any schools to give them Jewish education so that when they grow up they will be completely ignorant of their people and their faith. Even the few Rabbis who occupy positions in a few towns....do nothing to improve the position of the children.”[ix]
The same year the Cape Town Jewish community was described as followed:
Touching our co-religionists of Cape Town, they are a fairly representative and industrious body... Our noble selves may be described as consisting of two classes, those who attend ‘Shool’ and those who don't. There are three sections amongst us - the highest are the big shopkeepers, the second are the small shopkeepers, and the lowest - well we have no lowest. The conditions of life are eminently comfortable, and existence is not a very difficult problem with the majority. Without egotism we can claim the proud distinction of being a quiet law-abiding body, all more or less hardworking, following our respective pursuits with earnestness, if not with equal aptitude and results. Not altogether full of love and sympathy for each other, we are yet fairly sociable, ...Practical men, skilled artisans and the like would not make any sacrifice in coming to these shores...’Golden South Africa’ will be something more than a mere phrase.”[x]
[i] Schrire, Gwynne, “Did the Hottentots descend from the Jews? Early travellers debate the issue”, IN Jewish Affairs: 64:2 Rosh Hashana, 2009)
[ii] NG Grevenbroek, An Elegant and Accurate Account of the African Race Living Round the Cape of Good Hope Commonly Called Hottentots, from a Letter written by JG Grevenbroek in the year 1695, Translated by B Farrington, Van Riebeeck Society, 1933, edited by I Schapera pp 209 and 287
[iii] Gysbert Hemmy from Africa, Oratorio Latina, De Promontorio Bonae Spei 1767, transl KD White. SA Public Library, Cape Town, 1959, 29-30
[iv] He left no Jewish descendants. His children were baptised.
[v] Friedman-Spits, Clara, The Fraenkel Saga, SA Medical Association, Pinelands, 1998, p 48 and 89
[vi] Herrman, Louis, The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation 1841-1941: A Centenary History, (Mercantile Atlas, Cape Town, 1941), 21
[vii] Herrman, 1941, 26
[viii]Abrahams, Israel, The Birth of a Community: A History of Western Province Jewry from Earliest Times to the end of the South African War 1902, Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, Cape Town, 1955, 139