This week, as tables across the globe become the gathering point for Passover Seders, one implicit note will be the regenerating narrative of exodus in Jewish history. But often overlooked in this narrative is the way that exoduses, either forced or self-motivated, give birth to new Jewish communities in our own day. And few American cities are more emblematic of this, I’d argue, than my hometown of Houston, Texas, where roughly 400 South African Jewish families have settled, stayed, and grown from the late 1970s to the present. Although, as often happens, their assimilation process was not without its hitches—as the story of one of their early experiences reveals.
“We went to each of the synagogues and they each said, ‘Unless you become a member of the synagogue, you can’t come to the synagogue,’ ” Dr. Les Nowitz recalled, of his first holiday in town. “We said, ‘We just arrived, we came here in June, we don’t know where we want to join and what we want to do.’ There wasn’t one synagogue that would allow us to come into the synagogue for services. So, we sat on the Katy Freeway near the swimming pool in the apartments where we were living. We came from an environment where there was no such thing as needing a ticket to get into synagogue.”
Of course that environment, though perhaps less formal or demanding, had also grown precarious. By the time a 1980 census estimated that the Jewish population of South Africa had reached its apogee at 119,000, a significant number of the country’s Jews had already left. With myriad political crises, including the battles to end apartheid, deepening, the South African Jewish community had begun scattering across the globe by the late 1970s, settling in Europe, Australia, Israel, Canada, and America. For a group that traces itself mostly—80 percent by conservative estimates—back to Lithuania or the Baltics, this dispersal began to reduce one of the most historically singular groups in modern Jewish history. Today the Jewish community in South Africa numbers around 70,000, with an average reduction of nearly 2,000 each year.
Although the circumstances are different now, South African Jews are still choosing Houston. The community remains a distinctive fixture in the city’s Jewish collective, active and prominent in the Jewish and civic leadership—a beneficiary, like countless other places, of the Jewish experience of exodus.
The timeline of Jewish history is stocked with stories of communities that, fleeing persecution, arrived in strange lands and immediately became agents of social change in their new milieus. South African Jews were no different. The community traces its history in South Africa to the late 18th century, when Pale of Settlement pogroms prompted the Jews of Lithuania to seek refuge elsewhere. As the situation deteriorated, many in the community considered moving to places like Brazil and Argentina—until news of a mineral boom in South Africa compelled many to consider moving south.
“Word got back to Lithuania that South Africa was a land of opportunity, and the Lithuanian Jews came to South Africa in droves,” Ian Kavin, a pediatrician in his 60s, explained. “The community itself, as I understand it, was not a terribly religious community, although they were Orthodox, they tended to be Zionistic on the one hand and socialistic at the same time. They really were up against the tsar, and they wanted things to change. Because of that, a lot of South African Jews tended to be liberal in those days. That changed eventually to some extent but remains true.”
Guided by their experiences, South African Jews became prominent leaders in equality movements and social-justice initiatives within the country. Meanwhile, nearly all of those who stayed behind in Lithuania were trampled underfoot by the invasion of Lithuania during World War II, which busted in chaff over 90 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish community of 220,000. The Litvaks advanced in South African society, eventually taking on lead roles in the anti-apartheid movement. Nat Levy, an attorney who also moved to Houston in the late 1970s, represented a number of civil-rights activists in South African courts in the 1960s, including Nelson Mandela. He and the others spoke of the eventual toll that apartheid, as well as the prospects of violence and South Africa’s border war with Angola, took on the community, prompting many to move away.
“There was the political situation, one part of why the immigrants from South Africa left—and this is generalizing—is that they thought the blacks were going to take over, and it was going to be dangerous, and they didn’t want their kids to go to the army to fight against them,” Levy said. “And another part of the Jewish community left because they thought apartheid wouldn’t change, and they thought that it should. There were many different reasons for leaving.”
Like many American cities, Houston became a destination for this influx of South Africans, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike. How Houston became a hub for South African émigrés in the late 1970s as well as a settling point for many from the Northeast had largely to do with the economic success the city was enjoying. To serve its booming population and to staff its growing medical center, the city actively recruited doctors from South Africa and elsewhere to relocate to Houston, guaranteeing them salaries and easing their transitions into medical professions by accepting their South African medical degrees.
“They basically guaranteed you were going to make a living. The point of matter from a medical point of view, it was open,” Nowitz said. “You could get a license and you could start practicing right away. Houston was great, the oil boom was on. Very few have left to go back to South Africa or moved away to different places.”
While the professional transition was easy for some, culminating in the realized dreams of being Jewish doctors, the social aspect of the transition to Houston was less fluid. Like the Litvak Jews who had first clashed culturally with the original Anglo Jews in South Africa in the 1880s, the South African Jews clashed culturally with the Jews of Houston in the 1980s.
“We were immigrants, we didn’t know how to find our feet. Quite honestly, I didn’t find people to be very hospitable,” one noted. “The reality is that they showed us their friendship—I hate to say it, but I’m going to say it—and then dropped us after we bought our houses through them. We were used, I think, by the community somewhat. We came from a very warm, close community, and it was a big adjustment.”
When I ask if anyone minds if I scribble down some notes despite the Sabbath, the group immediately gave their blessing, before jokingly suggesting that I might want to ask my mother for permission instead. The remark reveals a hallmark of South African Jewry: While nearly 90 percent of South African Jews align with Orthodox Judaism, their affiliation, in large part, does not necessarily match their practice.
“It’s purely by happenstance that our affiliation in South Africa was Orthodox,” said Nowitz. “There were only two choices. You had the Orthodox, which were our parents and grandparents, and then they started a Reform movement only around about the 1940s in South Africa, and it didn’t take off. And there was no Conservative movement, so there was no middle ground.”
In Houston, which is not a city whose design or weather is conducive to walking, it’s not uncommon for members of the Orthodox community who live beyond the eruv to drive to shul or elsewhere in Houston on Jewish holidays or the Sabbath. A nickname sometimes used for this dynamic in the South African community is the acronym NOOJ—Non Observant Orthodox Jews—which when said aloud has a slight aural timber of Afrikaans. This particular hybrid in some ways harks back to the initial practice of Litvak Jews who arrived in South Africa during the first wave of emigration from Lithuania. Many of the 40,000 Litvaks in this initial movement arrived with little money, the economy having been stymied the repressive tsarist regime.
“Our forefathers who came from Lithuania were intent on making a living,” said Kavin. “They were very busy, and they didn’t have the time or means to devote to erecting shuls and temples, etc. They tended to let the next generation do their own thing to an extent, so they were Orthodox in my day more by affiliation than by observance.”
“Did Houston give us a chance? Yes,” another said, before adding: “It took 20 years.”
After a quick digression about whether these stories should be told aloud or not, the group went on to talk about others who had been lucky in meeting Americans who were open to them. Some also placed the intra-community friction partly at their own feet, admitting the crew could be cliquish.
“It’s the commonality of experience,” said Leora Nowitz. “People are people everywhere. But just like we did in South Africa, our kids adjusted. They became Americanized while the parents stuck together.”
A few members of the Houston Jewish community who were not South African reinforced this idea when I spoke to them but ultimately cited the dynamic as something that went away with time. Since then, the South African community continues to grow, drawing still from the old country as its troubles persist. South African émigrés in Houston now boast many leadership positions within and beyond the Jewish purview, from heading the Jewish Federation and becoming presidents of Houston synagogues to being on the vanguard of medical development and integral parts of the arts community.
Perhaps the greatest proof of acculturation to life in Houston came in a mention of why the community had chosen to move there: “It seemed to be a better place than Dallas,” Levy noted.
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