Jewish Affairs

Tradition among the Changes

(Author: Zita Nurok, Vol. 76 * No. 3 * Spring 2021)


Roodepoort’s small shul building was the place that held our community of approximately sixty Jewish families together. There were families that originated in Eastern Europe, from places such as Lithuania and Poland and from Germany, as well as those born locally. The shul was a communal house of worship for all.

Adjoining the shul was the Morris Hockman Talmud Torah Hall, a social hall with classrooms built by and named after a generous member of the congregation. It too united us, in celebrations of barmitzvahs, weddings, parties, holiday events and often kiddushes after Shabbat services. Children attended cheder during the week in one of the classrooms, while adults held meetings to discuss community issues. We belonged to youth groups, such as Habonim, that met on Sundays to enrich and reinforce our Jewish backgrounds and cultivate an understanding of Zionism and love for Israel.

Grave of community stalwart Morris Hockman, Roodepoort Jewish cemetery

While growing up in small town South Africa, we focused on the richness of our Jewish life, which was part of the surrounding secular world in which we lived. Our parents came from Lithuania in the 1920s in search of meaningful opportunities, so different from the way they’d lived in Europe where antisemitism and anti-Jewish policies caused many to flee their world. From the mid-17th Century up until the Second World War Jews lived mainly in shtetls, generally small market towns made up of close-knit Jewish communities where Jewish culture and traditions thrived, albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Those who left were willing to make changes, to forsake the former lives and abandon what was familiar in order to reach new destinations where they could fulfill their hopes and dreams. But what stayed with them were traditions they had known all their lives.

My father, who had not lived in a shtetl, followed in the footsteps of his brothers who sought economic security in the diamond fields of Kimberley. First, however, he remained in Lithuania so that he could complete his studies at a yeshiva in Shavli before embarking for South Africa. He was proud of his education and always wished that he could have used his knowledge of the Jewish studies he held dear and to pass it on to others.  However, this did not come to pass. Instead, like other immigrants, he devoted his energies to establishing himself financially in order to support a family.

My father’s student ID, Ponevezh Jewish Gymnasium (High School)

My mother left her Lithuanian hometown of Riteve in order to better her life. She intended bringing her mother and sister to South Africa, but tragically they became victims of the Holocaust.

Observance of holidays and Shabbat brought us to shul year-round, establishing a routine that created a comfortable feeling of security. Although we didn’t attend shul regularly on Shabbat, our father did, ensuring that he contributed to the minyan every week.  For us the relationship between our home and the shul, reinforced and strengthened our Jewish way of life. The traditions our parents brought with them were perpetuated throughout our growing years, and so love for traditions ran deep in the roots of our family. Our mother recognized the holidays or Shabbat by preparing distinctive culinary delights for each, and she told us stories of her life in Riteve. She told how she helped her mother to bake challah, or how they filled hamantaschen with poppy seed, or how they made geschmirte matza on Pesach, and more. Candle lighting every week and at holiday times was a valued ritual in our home. The polished brass candlesticks that Mother had brought with her from her own home in Riteve glowed under the light of the candles she placed in them. It was a special moment to see her cover her eyes and recite the blessings. We grew up knowing that the tradition of reciting Kiddush comes before drinking wine, as is reciting the blessing before eating challah, but the blessing for the candles is said after the candles are lit.  This age-old tradition reaches back to Biblical times.

Our father enjoyed his ability to recite and read the appropriate prayers for each occasion, holding our attention as the words rolled off his tongue with ease.  A particular tradition that I remember well occurred to usher in the holiday of Pesach.  My father would make his way through our home with a feather and a paper bag to sweep away all the chametz in each room. He loved music and an exciting annual activity at Chanukah time was when he, my brother and I would take the train into the city, and go to the Wolmarans Street shul (or Great Synagogue) in Johannesburg to listen to the choir singing inspiring and beautiful Chanukah songs.

                   Annual servicemen’s Chanukah service, Great Synagogue, circa 1970s

Some of the traditions of early Jewish music are described in A History of Western Music by Burkholder, Grout and Palisca. In the sixteenth century a cantor or Chazzan sang responsively with a congregation, and in the 17th Century Cantillation which is the chanting of prayers and responses became the primary form of Jewish music, resembling what is heard in Orthodox synagogues today.

Changes came to our town, and the community gradually diminished in number.  Some families moved to join their children in the big cities, and a few immigrated to Israel. Eventually no one was left of the community, as occurred in other small towns across South Africa, resulting in Jewish populations of those bigger cities increasing.

The shul building still stands in Roodepoort. It’s different now but remains the place that played an important role in shaping who we were as Jews, who we became, and even who we are today.

Over the years changes were occurring throughout the country. Political, economic uncertainty, and also concerns for personal safety caused major upheavals at various times, which led to the emigration of many families who were seeking security and opportunities for improvement. The changes caused disruptions.  Little did those who had left Europe years before believe that unsettling times were to be repeated, and that their own children would leave their homes just as they had although for entirely different reasons. They have scattered across the globe to the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Britain, adapting to different lifestyles in new environments. Traditions among many of these families continue to be valued as they had been in previous generations.

Our family left during apartheid times.  Upon mentioning that we were moving to the United States, responses were that it wouldn’t be that different from life in South Africa because everyone spoke English. This was indeed comforting, but it didn’t take into account the myriad of differences both good and more challenging, to which we would adapt. Having no family proved to be a major difficulty, since we missed not only the availability of relatives to whom we could turn in times of need, but also partaking in all family events that were happening in South Africa. Celebrations in the United States such as barmitzvahs, weddings, and sharing all the holiday observances and events were largely held for us with new-found friends but it was at these times we recognized and appreciated certain similarities in the practice of traditions and rituals that we held dear. Interacting with grandparents was restricted to the yearly visits either to South Africa or the once-a -year visits from grandparents who traveled to visit us.  We missed the multicultural environment of ‘African-ness’ created by Black people, Colored people, Indians, immigrants from Portugal, Italy, Greece, and more.  However, attitudes towards child rearing were largely different and far less authoritative, allowing and encouraging children to have their opinions stated wherever feasible.  We admired the way that people were able to express their thoughts and opinions openly with ease, and mostly with confidence. It also felt good to be in a place where at least in principle all citizens are treated equally.  Moreover, climbing the ladder to success is possible in the US if one is prepared to recognize and take advantage of the many educational and other opportunities along the way. Over the years the feeling of being an immigrant in a new country was gradually replaced with many more positive feelings of belonging, as our family became integrated into our new country.

South African Jews have been able to maintain their Jewishness in the South African culture without feeling discriminated against. Although emigration has torn many families apart, the remaining Jewish communities in the country continue to flourish, to lead vibrant and comfortable lives with many fervently embracing their Judaism.

Will connections to Jewish traditions anchor those who emigrated and endured many changes to who they are as Jews wherever they may live?  I believe so.



Zita Nurok, a regular contributor to Jewish Affairs, is a former elementary school teacher who grew up in South Africa. In 2019, she retired after 48 years of teaching, nine of which were at the then Jewish Government School in Doornfontein. She is a member of the National League of American Pen Women, and has served as Vice-President and President of the Indianapolis branch.