I’m sitting with my son Sam outside a surf shop in Muizenberg, South Africa (top photo), when a bearded man walks by in a wetsuit, carrying a surfboard, wearing a kippah. I stop him, saying, “Well, that’s something I don’t see every day—a man in a wetsuit with a kippah.” He explains that he has a house nearby, and then it’s clear he would rather hit the waves than chat. I later learn that he is a former South African national soccer star.
Jews have a deep history in South Africa, and today it’s home to a vibrant community with a massive infrastructure. I had always wanted to visit after spending time with my many South African friends in the Washington, DC area. Our family traveled to Zimbabwe and South Africa in December 2017.
The Jewish community is made up largely of the descendants of Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in the 1890s.There is a smaller Sephardic community that came from Rhodes, Greece.
Jews, albeit baptized ones, first arrived in Cape Town with the Dutch East India Company in 1669. The first religious service took place on Yom Kippur in 1841, after a meeting at what is now the fancy Mount Nelson Hotel, where you should enjoy their spectacular high tea.
In Cape Town, there are several synagogues, and the Gardens neighborhood has a campus with the shul, museum, Holocaust center and Café Riteve, a pretty dairy restaurant with courtyard seating. The informative museum is housed in the original shul building, consecrated in 1863, which has a lovely mosaic floor where the bima once stood.
The Gardens Shul next door has beautiful stained glass windows, a center bima from where services are led and a second one by the ark with a circular staircase and podium—a grand perch from which the rabbi speaks. The rabbi, Osher Feldman, is the brother of DC Chabad rebbetzin Nechama Shemtov. The dynamic chazzan, Choni Goldman, weaves African melodies into his service. Some families have been members for five generations.
I also attended the more modern Camps Bay Shul Friday, built in 1956. We were welcomed warmly, and my daughter and I were invited to a bat mitzvah the next day.
In Cape Town, I ate at The Press Burgers and Craft Beers in Sea Point, a Jewish area. I enjoyed five delicious local beers for four dollars. The Peri-Peri chicken was tangy, but not too spicy. Sam had the “Hangover Burger, ” a moist patty topped with brisket, an egg and pareve hollandaise. Only a 21-year-old could polish that off.
Owner David Hepple created a space and menu that look like any non-kosher burger joint, and people walk in off the street, whether kosher or not. After our meal, Sam and I watched the sun set over the ocean as we walked along the Sea Point Promenade to the Green Point Lighthouse.
I returned to Sea Point to Avron’s Place. I enjoyed the beef espetada with garlic sauce, a Portuguese kebab that arrives on a tall metal contraption (right), and the flavorful Malaysian lamb curry. Owner Avron Almaleh encouraged me to eat the lamb with my hands. The curry recipe comes from the ethnic Cape Malay Muslim community, who live in the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood, and has its roots in slavery.
The city of Johannesburg was founded in 1886 with the gold rush, and Jewish merchants featured prominently in the business.
I had never eaten in Nando’s, though I have smelled it walking by in Bethesda, Maryland. Once I learned that there was just one kosher outpost in the world, I arranged to spend an afternoon in Johannesburg so that I could visit the compelling Apartheid Museum and eat at Nando’s.
The kosher Nando’s has a sign in Hebrew. You choose one of many sauces to top the marinated and grilled chicken. The “mild” sauce on chicken thighs still had my mouth on fire, but the Mozam paprika wings, with sweet and smoked paprika, lime and herbs were delicious and flavorful without the heat. It was great food that just happened to be kosher.
Following lunch, I went to the Apartheid Museum. The apartheid government, which came to power in 1948, did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy, and the Jewish community maintained a cordial relationship with them despite actively protesting apartheid. Potomac resident Glynis Smith, who left South Africa for the United States 30 years ago, said, “We left because of an uncertain future after apartheid and for economic opportunities.”
South African Jews in America “are diehard about all our traditional food,” according to blogger Melissa Mayo, and regularly prepare the dishes they grew up with. Today across the United States, South African Jewish tables continue to feature herring and kichel (a light, crisp cookie), teiglach (Ashkenazic pastries) with golden syrup, chocolate pavlovas, a porridge called meilee pap, Durban curry and, of course, Peri-Peri chicken, as they can now find in stores or online all the ingredients they need.
My own experience of South Africa helped me better understand the strong connection my South African friends maintain no many how many decades they have lived here. At the same time, as our family’s first excursion in Cape Town was to the Township of Langa, where we saw what apartheid did to the locals, as well as its vestiges today. It’s clear that South Africa has a difficult past to swallow.