Jewish Museum – an awakening

by Tim Dawe


I shouldn’t feel scared trying to enter a place of worship. But that’s exactly how I feel standing in front of this narrow cage-like entrance topped with razor wire, confronted by a large “security person” of indeterminate authority carrying a mean-looking weapon – guns not being my special subject in this quiz show.

The inquisitor searching my backpack is built like a Springbok forward rather a choirboy but he’s courteous. Gaining a little composure I stammer out that this procedure seems unusual.

“This is a synagogue. We need this sort of protection. It happens all over the world,” he says politely.

“Er, not in my part or the world.”

I am at the Grand Synagogue to see the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, just up from Parliament House. But I’m not quite sure why. Was it something I read? It’s not related to my background – unless you count a penchant for visiting oddball museums. I cross through the soaring space of an empty courtyard alongside the synagogue. Preconceptions change when I turn to see the dramatic sweep of stark, modernist, architecture in Jerusalem stone. This is not a shoe-string operation of elderly folk displaying their grand-parents’ effects with that faint whiff of mothballs. No way; this is a modern, professional, state-of-the-art museum. Who’d have thought?

I enter from quiet solitude to light and energy. Exhibits whirr and whiz and there is a buzz in this open space as visitors move around enthusiastically. Modernity joins the Old Synagogue museum by a clear and symbolic “gangplank” bridge. There is a 100-seat auditorium and the fashionable Riteve Café serves, of course, kosher food. The museum was opened in 2000 by “its friend” Nelson Mandela with Helen Suzman in attendance.

sajm shtetl
model of Riteve shtetl in Lithuania

Touch screens, interactive computers and surround-sound screenings are placed alongside an itinerant pedlar’s smous (cart) and an original cabin trunk. The curator’s goal of piquing our interest with diversity, in both content and media, without overwhelming information, is fully achieved. I am particularly taken by the full-scale replica of Riteve shtetl (village) in 1880s Lithuania. It’s easy to absorb the sense of Jewish village life walking through this seemingly abandoned Baltic pine cottage with its table set for dinner, past a general store, around the well, and to a tailor’s shop that looks like he’s stepped out for a bagel.

village well

There is a holocaust centre elsewhere but this museum’s focus is on migration. The theme is about these poor immigrants and how they and their descendants made good in South Africa as scientists, Nobel laureates in literature, cricketers, social justice champions and actors, and my instant favourite, the irrepressible entrepreneur, Barney Barnato. All of these people seem to have come from just a few villages “beyond the pale” in nineteenth century Latvia. They contributed. There’s an Australian resonance, for example, with generations of Greek families from the tiny island of Kastellorizo.

Museums generally offer a realisation of well-known things. One may know about the Rosetta stone, but a museum lets you see it, experience it even. For a few museums, particularly this one, its contents are completely unknown. Everything I see is an unexpected discovery.

sajm Helen SuzmanI discover the Jewish community’s deep involvement in the overthrow of Apartheid, their strong advocacy, and the personal cost. The outside world knows of Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom but few would recognise the Jewish names of those who risked all to work within the system and lay down the conditions for a democratic nation – that includes Helen Suzman, fearless political opponent, human rights activist and parliamentary leader for 36 years. It becomes clear that for Mandela, opening this museum was much more than just a presidential duty.

sajm stairHaving no expectations, I learn much from this visit – in fact, all I see. But my take-out image is not of the Jews of South Africa. It is to do with architectural design: a spiral staircase. And in keeping with the place, even that has a reflective purpose. Looking from below there’s a large white hole in the floor above. Descending from that, in brilliant white, is the flowing form of an unsupported staircase shaped like the continuous peel of an apple.

In Mandela’s words, “it’s an unforgettable experience”. If you have the chance, go – don’t be put off by the big bloke and his machine gun.

sajm entrance with logo


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