The South African Jewish Museum is a fitting tribute to a community who have been and continue to be at the epicentre of South Africa’s economic, political and cultural narrative.
The South African Jewish Museum is proud to tell the fabled story of how a motley crew of largely ragged immigrants, many escaping persecution and hardships in Eastern Europe, arrived on South African shores and proceeded to build one of the most cohesive, and socially, culturally and materially successful Jewish communities in the diaspora.
After browsing through a collection of Jewish ceremonial artefacts (some owned by the SAJM, many on loan from prized private collections) housed in South Africa’s first ever synagogue, museum visitors step foot onto a drawbridge that connects the Old Synagogue and the new museum, symbolising the ship gangway down which Jewish immigrants walked upon landing in South Africa.
From here, the visitor is plunged into a world of interactive displays, audio-visual presentations and rare and fascinating artefacts documenting South African Jewry’s early roots, and painting a portrait of a community who were extraordinarily influential in the building of South Africa as we know it, and who continue to thrive and impact society at every level.
The journey begins with the first arrival of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Britain and Germany, to the Cape in the early 1800s, and continues with the explosion of Eastern European immigrants fleeing persecution and hardships and seeking fame and fortune on South Africa’s newly minted diamond and gold mines, or simply, a better life for their families and descendants.
Dynamic displays document the way in which South African Jews helped establish major metropolises such as Johannesburg (and at how Johannesburg emerged as home to the largest Jewish community in Southern Africa), and the central role Jews played in the development of towns such as Kimberley and Oudtshoorn. We learn of how Jewish smous – travelling pedlars – through hard work and perseverance, secured a better life for their children and grandchildren, and how some went on to build up great industrial empires – their names and the names of their businesses etched into South African economic and cultural lore.
We examine the emergence of the South African Jewish as one of the most cohesive and well-organised in the diaspora and at the great institutions and infrastructure built upon the community’s three pillars of education, religion and welfare.
We look at the strong historical bond South African Jews have maintained with Israel; at the South African Jews at the forefront of the battle against Apartheid, prominent among those effecting transformation in South Africa; and at the great influence Jews have had and continue to have on South Africa’s Political, Economic, Cultural and Sporting spheres.
Walk through a wonderful recreation of shtetl life, be awestruck by the tale of how South Africa Jewry built themselves and their country from scratch; watch Barney Barnato’s extraordinary life story unfold on a screen in front of you; get the inside scoop on the Rivonia Trial. Be moved, amazed and inspired.
A moving tribute to, and detailed account of, one of the great Jewish communities of the diaspora, it all adds up to one of Cape Town’s not-to-be missed heritage experiences.