by Harvey Leifert
Special to WJW
The focus of my January visit to South Africa's Eastern Cape province was wildlife and natural beauty, both of which are abundant. My companion, Bob Hyams, and I never anticipated a serendipitous Jewish dimension to one-long-day's drive, but serendipity is, after all, unpredictable.
We began early that day with a last look at the spectacular animals and birds of Mountain Zebra National Park and had already covered the 110 miles to Camdeboo National Park, passing a turnoff toward the hamlet of Nieu-Bethesda. From the heights of Camdeboo, we took in breathtaking views of the Valley of Desolation and the vast plains of the Karoo. We then stopped for lunch at a lovely garden restaurant in neighboring Graaff-Reinet, South Africa's fourth oldest city. Bob told the proprietor that we had an additional 200 miles to cover that afternoon to reach Knysna on the south coast; was there a place she knew of more or less midway where we might stop for coffee and a snack?
There's only one place, really, she replied, Willowmore. Turn off the N9 into Willowmore and look for Sophie's Choice, the best (and possibly only) coffee shop between Graaff-Reinet and Knysna. Bemused by the name of our destination, we headed south in our little rented Kia Spark.
One hundred almost straight-line miles and two hours later, we spotted the turnoff to Willowmore. Before actually reaching the town, though, we were startled to see a sign marked "Jewish Cemetery," with an arrow pointing left. "Let's go," we said in unison and followed a winding, but well-marked, route through a "colored" township. (Since the demise of apartheid, anyone is allowed to live anywhere, of course, but economic and social realities are resistant to change.)
Eventually, we reached a walled enclosure with a locked grill gate. "Jewish Cemetery," proclaimed the sign outside, jarringly marked with three crosses, South Africa's official roadside designation for cemeteries. We got out, intending to take photographs through the gate, but had gone only a few steps before a young man emerged from one of the nearby houses. Without saying a word, he opened the padlock and let us in.
We found several dozen marked graves, the earliest dated 1904 and the most recent from the 1960s. Some tombstones were traditional, in Hebrew and English, while others merely carried the name of the deceased and dates of birth and death, or even R.I.P.
Although the last burial took place over a half century ago, the place was very well maintained, we noted with some surprise. I asked the young man with the key, Johannes, whether he was the groundskeeper, and he said he was. "Who pays you," I asked. "A woman gives me money," he replied.
We left pebbles on some of the grave markers and headed into Willowmore, intrigued by what we had seen. Why was there a Jewish cemetery in this remote town, far from the centers of South African Judaism (primarily Johannesburg and Cape Town)? Who pays for the upkeep of the cemetery? Why did burials cease in the 1960s? We found some of the answers in town, but others only after my return home to Bethesda.
Sophie, of Sophie's Choice, started us in the right direction. She first noted that her name is actually Sophia van der Merwe, pronounced so-FEE-a in Afrikaans. She did serve an excellent cappuccino, as advertised, and her "choices" seemed to involve the acquisition of tchotchkes, thousands of which she offered for sale in a huge room adjoining her restaurant and coffee shop.
Years ago, there was a thriving Jewish community in Willowmore, Sophia told us, including a rabbi and a synagogue. Indeed, we found the rabbi's former residence, with Stars of David still incorporated into the decorative porch railing in front; the building now houses an undertaking establishment. Over the years, the Jews had died or moved away, and now none was left in Willowmore, Sophia said. (I later learned that she was off by one.) For further information, she directed us to a souvenir shop across the street.
There, we found a three-volume history of the region that included a page or so about the Jewish community of Willowmore. In particular, it informed us that when dwindling numbers forced the sale of the 1907 synagogue, the proceeds were dedicated to the upkeep of the cemetery. But how the funds were administered remained a mystery, one only resolved when I did further research back home after the trip. And that led to revelations that went far beyond the Willowmore cemetery.
South Africa's Jewish Board of Deputies governs the religious life of the country's Jewish population, including those in remote towns where only a handful of Jews may live. Beyond that, I learned, the board reaches out to Jewish communities and individuals throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Rabbis are rare outside South Africa itself, so the board created the position of traveling rabbi, to minister to isolated Jews in small communities around Africa.
Moshe Silberhaft is the traveling rabbi, racking up some 80,000 miles annually by car and plane. He wears several hats, or kippot, including Country Communities Rabbi of the Jewish Board of Deputies and Spiritual Leader and CEO of the African Jewish Congress. The latter is a coordinating body that links smaller Jewish communities in 13 African countries with world Jewry. In an email interview, Rabbi Silberhaft summarized his duties: "I am paid to be out of the office." One of his important responsibilities is oversight of the subcontinent's 230 Jewish cemeteries, only 14 of which are in South Africa. He also performs marriages and bar mitzvahs as the occasion arises.
"I am pleased you took the time to stop and visit the very well-kept Jewish cemetery in Willowmore," Rabbi Silberhaft wrote me. He says he inspects Willowmore once a year. Johannes, the caretaker, receives the equivalent of $57 per month, the rabbi informed me, which is still paid from the proceeds of the synagogue sale in the 1960s.
Today, only seven sub-Saharan African cities outside South Africa retain viable Jewish communities, according to Rabbi Silberhaft, who visits them all. They are Nairobi, Kenya; Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; Lusaka, Zambia; Gaborone, Botswana; Maputo, Mozambique; and Windhoek, Namibia (where I was once a member of the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation while serving at the American Embassy). Jewish populations are declining in every African country, the rabbi told me, except in Namibia, where an influx of European and Israeli Jews working in the recently established diamond processing industry has stabilized it. Some of them worship, along with the remaining indigenous Jews, in the community's 1924 synagogue, a regular stop on the traveling rabbi's itinerary.
Harvey Leifert is a freelance writer, based in Bethesda. From 1985 to 1989, he directed the U.S. Information Service office in Johannesburg, S.A.