South Africa’s Exodus
After a rocky transition, Jewish immigrants from once-thriving communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg have built their promised land in Texas
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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