Arts & Culture Tough Jews Thrived — for a Time — in an Inhospitable Region of S. Africa

Today, the only remaining signs of the hardy Jewish pioneers of Namaqualand are a cemetery and a synagogue, which is now a museum. But these Jews — who first arrived in this remote, arid region of South Africa in the mid-1850s — once numbered as many as 200 and played an important role in the region’s development.

In a new book, “Into Kokerboom Country: Namaqualand’s Jewish Pioneers,” authors Phyllis Jowell and Adrienne Folb tell the story of these Jews from their arrival in the northwestern Cape to the late 1970s, when the community had dwindled to a precious few.

For some readers, the book will serve as a fascinating look back at the progress of these new immigrants as they went from itinerant peddlers to bedrock components of a modern economy — a story mirroring that of rural Jewish communities around the world.

The writers compare the community to the indigenous Kokerboom — tree-like aloes — which have dug their roots into the sandy soil of Namaqualand.

The glossy coffee-table book is liberally sprinkled with historical photographs, many of which are previously unpublished, and also includes interviews with former Namaqualanders. Joining the ranks of South African Jewish Africana, it is a valuable social history that captures reminiscences of a generation before their stories are lost in the mists of time.

The authors trace the growth of the community from its origins — largely from the shtetls of Eastern Europe — to its peak of around 200 in the 1930s and its subsequent decline. They cite economic hardship, pogroms following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and discriminatory military conscription for Jewish boys as factors in the community’s departure for new shores.

In line with their entrepreneurial spirit, the penniless immigrants “went for the gap,” often starting off as “smouses,” or traders, supplying necessities — and later luxuries — to isolated farmers. Many later became proprietors of country hotels, spotting the need to provide hospitality to travelers in these inhospitable parts.

Having been attracted to the region by the development of copper mining in the 1850s and the discovery of diamonds in the 1920s, these Jews, the book says, became the area’s middlemen — traders, shopkeepers and hoteliers — rather than being involved in the mining itself.

Later arrivals included professional service providers who, according to the authors, became “a key influence in the development of the region.”

The first Jews to settle in Namaqualand, in the coastal village of Port Nolloth, were Esther and Aaron de Pass. They observed the faith, setting a trend that was to become prevalent despite the difficulties inherent in doing so far from the larger population centers.

Before arriving in Port Nolloth, Aaron was involved in the purchase of the first synagogue in South Africa in 1849, now known as the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town.

Another early immigrant, Moses Schur, was reputed to have traveled between Bowesdorp and Cape Town with a schochet, or ritual slaughterer, and to have prayed every morning.

When the “smous” Abraham Jowell — the grandfather of Joe Jowell, Phyllis Jowell’s father-in-law — had a fatal accident with his mule cart in 1898, Schur’s two Jewish assistants acted as “wagters,” sitting with the body until the burial.

The book traces the developing Jewish infrastructure, including the establishment of the Namaqualand Hebrew Congregation in Springbok — on what were formerly church premises — in 1918 and organizations to channel the strongly Zionist inclinations of these country communities.

Their involvement extended to civic affairs, with Joe Jowell serving as mayor of Springbok for the better part of 27 years.

The book credits the immigrant shopkeepers with transforming the economy of Namaqualand from a currency based on barter to one based on money, thereby bringing the society into the 20th century.

The authors attribute the decline of a Jewish presence in the area after World War II in part to the establishment of the Herzlia Jewish Day School in Cape Town in 1945. Young people, the book says, rarely returned to the area once they completed their schooling. By the 1960s, most parents had followed their children into the cities.

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