The Goldene Medina exhibit is designed to have the feel of a scrapbook album, to have come from any Jewish South African’s family memoir. (photo from South African Jewish Museum)
The Goldene Medina exhibit arrives in Vancouver July 29 for two weeks. A celebration of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, the exhibit was displayed in South Africa, Australia and Israel prior to arriving here, where it is making its North America debut at Congregation Beth Israel. Local Jewish community member Stephen Rom, who is from South Africa, saw it for the first time in Sydney and was instrumental in bringing it to the city.
“You need to remember your past to engage in the present,” reflected Rom. “I was struck by the level of professionalism of this exhibit, which was produced by the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. What’s different about it is the way the stories have been written. Nobody is named or personally identified. This is the story of all Jews in South Africa, the community as a whole.”
The Goldene Medina was the Jews’ name for Johannesburg when they arrived during the gold rush in 1886. “This exhibition has soul – it’s not a dry exhibition of facts and figures,” noted Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “It’s one that tells real stories of families that have been living in South Africa for 175 years.”
“This is a social history,” agreed Gavin Morris, director of the museum, “the story of families and people and their experiences as South Africans and as Jews for 175 years, from our forefathers arriving to contemporary Jewish South Africa. Everything is taken from unpublished memoirs, articles and out-of-print books, to give the exhibit a sense of a scrapbook album, of any Jewish South African’s family memoirs. Our goal was for people to find their own stories in similar stories.”
The stories are excerpts written in the first person and accompanied by photographs old and new. One excerpt, titled “My Mother’s Table,” reads, “At my mother’s table, ‘being full’ was never a reason to stop eating. Some of the many reasons to have some more included: ‘I cooked this especially for you because I know you like it,’ ‘you can’t put so little leftovers back into the fridge,’ ‘it’s freshly made,’ and ‘you don’t like my cooking.’ Refusing more was to snub the generosity and abundance that was on offer. Eating was proof that you were loved and that you knew how to love back.”
Another, titled “Cubs,” reads: “After my mom realized that I only knew Jewish kids, she sent me off to Cubs – not exactly your standard Jewish activity. I came home with my first friend and said, ‘Mom, isn’t it wonderful? Here’s my first friend from Cubs and guess what – we’ve got the same Hebrew teacher!’ He was the only other Jewish kid there and we found each other. My mother gave up after that.”
A third is titled “A Surprise Guest”: “What is the epitome of Jewish chutzpah? Inviting the president of the country to attend your bar mitzvah. And what is Jewish mazel? When the president actually accepts. The bar mitzvah boy delivered his handwritten note to a security guard outside [Nelson] Mandela’s Houghton estate. He hoped to get a card from Mandela in return. Instead, his parents received an official call to say the president will attend. On the day, President Mandela arrived and sat at the main table, between the bar mitzvah boy and his father.”
The excerpts are thought-provoking, poignant, entertaining, informative and never boring. And the photographs are deeply intriguing, telling a story of their own – a timeless Jewish story that has relevance to all Jews whose ancestors have known immigration and resettlement.
Accompanying the Goldene Medina in Vancouver will be the exhibit Shalom Uganda: A European Jewish Community on the Ugandan Equator 1949-1961, curated by Janice Masur.
“As a child, I lived in this remote European Jewish community on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala, Uganda, under British Imperial rule, with no rabbi or Jewish infrastructure. Yet, this tiny community of 23 families and 20 children (15 of whom were born in Kampala) identified as Jews and formed a cohesive group that celebrated all the Jewish festivals together,” explained Masur. “Now that most references to Jews in Uganda pertain to … Abayudaya Jews, I want this history – my story about my Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala – to be remembered in the Jewish Diaspora.”
The photos and stories that comprise the Ugandan display are, said Masur, “a testament to a determined but isolated group of Jews who were secular in a [remote] place but upheld their Jewish identity and traditions as best as was possible,” given the lack of religious, educational or cultural Jewish institutions. (For more about the Ugandan Jewish community in which Masur grew up, click here.)
The July 29 opening night of the Goldene Medina starts at 7:30 p.m. at Beth Israel, where the display will be up until Aug. 14.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.