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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

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(Ivy Tashlik)
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Solomon’s Son

Half a century ago, Albie Sachs sat defiantly on a bench designated “for non-whites only.” Today he sits on South Africa’s highest court.

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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Phil N says:

We have pleased to welcome many South Africans to our traditional synogogue in Buffalo Grove, IL. South Africa’s loss has been a gain for both our Jewish and secular community.

tk_in_TO says:

400 families isnt that many, not when compared with Toronto, where there are about 25,000 ex-South Africans, mainly based in Thornhill, just north of the city.

Adam Chandler says:

400 is the number of South African Jewish families in Houston. A conservative estimate of the number of South Africans in Houston is in the 50,000 range.

Houston Litvak says:

Of course, more went to Canada – empire and all that!
Houston’s Jewish community is pleased that so many chose us instead of snow.
Great piece!

jacob arnon says:

So, South African experiment in equality isn’t working. Funny how we Jews are the first to fight for rights of others and the first to lose out own when regime change comes.

andrew r says:

You, fight for the rights of others?

That’s a good one.

jacob arnon says:

Not for the rights of antisemites like you andrew bigot.

HannaH says:

I no longer living in Houston but it is a great town. Texans truly appreciates hard-working people. PS is not that more Jews wish to move to Canada. But the United States government Makes It Hard for them to come here

carol says:

I simply can’t believe that a synagogue would not let people in unless they were members – unless it happened to be Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Even in South Africa, you need to pay for a seat on the high holidays. On every other shabbat, every synagogue in the world welcomes visitors. The article is misleading.

David W. Sapire says:

Les Nowitz lies in his teeth. Every shul in South Africa had a membership and every family bought tickets/memberships. You could go to Shabbat services and say Yartzeheit but High Days and Holy Days in the main Sanctuary were reserved for members and those who did not want to or could not by tickets took their chances in the overflow hall. What the South African Jews, to their total discredit introduced nothing more than racism, intolerance and Right-Wing-Republicanism to Houston.

George says:

What the South African Jews, to their total discredit introduced nothing more than racism, intolerance and Right-Wing-Republicanism to Houston.’

Yeah, because as everybody knows racism and republicanism never existed in Houston before.

jacob arnon says:

David W. Sapire, what do you know about Houston and about Jews in that city?

Jews are leaving South Africa and for good reasons. Sapire can stay if he so wishes.

Staying doesn’t make him a no bigot, it just says that he is a fool. It’s like Jewish communists going back to Russia after the revolution and ending up in Siberia.

These pretentious Jewish universalist leftist never learn.

Gerald Sacks says:

Please subscribe me to the Tablet. Thank you

HannaH says:

Who in their right mind would not wish to get out South Africa. If you’re Asian colored or whites. The government against you are poor whites cannot get government food because of your race. Under white apartheid 75 people died in police custody. Under the ANC over 557 people have died in police custody. Even Bishop Tutu. Said the ANC was worst than the apartheid government

DavidR says:

These Jews are making a mistake. They should move to Israel instead. Given the fate of Jews in Lithuania and South Africa isn’t it time to move back to your own country – Israel?

There are plenty of former South African Jews in Israel, so you can find a place that is at least as homely as Houston, but your children will actually have a meaningful Jewish identity instead of coming home laughing at Judaism and being offended at being referred to as Jews.

Rocky says:

Someone censored my prior comment. Was it because I mentioned that Germany is attracting a lot of Jewish immigrants these days? The Jewish Daily Forward just did a whole article on the subject:
http://forward.com/articles/154277/jews-stream-back-to-germany/?p=1

yehuda leyb says:

there is a factual era – while some German Jews arrived in SA at the end of the 18th century, most Eastern European Jews arrived in the 19th century, not the 18th.

Jews should spread all over the world. If we’re everywhere, a Holocaust in one place can’t kill us all. The Final Solution ultimately failed because not all Jews lived in Europe.

stop being negative. 

Same old story, fouling the nest with extremist egalitarianism and having to flee when it turns sour.

Why don’t they thank Joe Slovo and Ruth First- who were the masterminds behind Mandela and the ANC?

Heather says:

Only Jews are being allowed to emigrate from South Africa. White Christians are being denied by all western countries. The Jews in and behind our governments are responsible for the WHITE GENOCIDE taking place in South Africa. What’s even more appalling is the fact that they are the ones responsible for ending apartheid. They knew full well it was the only thing keeping white Christian South Africans alive. Jews are sick filthy devils. They’ve caused the genocide of millions of Christians all over the world!!!

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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

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