A joint venture of AJC-Access and the World Union of Jewish Students, the Global Jewish Voice is a blog, featuring dispatches from all over the world on the international Jewish student experience. Staffed by one editor in Durham, North Carolina and a team of writers residing all over the world, the Global Jewish Voice is a conversation about Jewish student life on campus, in the workplace and in the home.
This week we bring you an article by Jonathan Katz, entitled “Original Architecture” as Messaging. The original article can be viewed on the Global Jewish Voice website by clicking here.
Greetings from Cape Town! I’m here in my father’s home town to conduct research on the Jewish community of the town of Paarl during the late 19th and early 20th century. Of course, I also have some time to do other things – even though I arrived yesterday. One of them: visiting the South African Jewish Museum.
The Museum itself is very nice, and quite worth a visit. The surrounding complex – with its still-used Great Synagogue, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, a library, and a bookshop-café combo – also contains various things of interest. If you’re in South Africa, again, you should go.
But I’d like to talk about something else. The Jewish Museum is partly located in what was Cape Town’s oldest synagogue before the neighbouring Great Synagogue was built, and preserves its architecture: pews, balcony, and Torah-less Ark. It is this juxtaposition that I find of interest.
The façade and interior reflect a common, Western European-inspired architecture: church-like pews, stained glass, Italianate tiling within the Ark. The balconies reflect a certain Cape Dutch aspect, yet the grey-stoned exterior recalls a certain sort of British colonial architecture (also seen in Australia and New Zealand). In a way, Jews sought to say, “This house of worship is a European establishment, and we are White Europeans!” In colonial (and later, apartheid) South Africa, this message protected and gave privilege to the Jewish community, and served as a counter to anti-Semitism common among other white South Africans. The building itself serves as a vehicle of this aspect.
And it is in the current preservation of this interior that a certain image of the Jewish community is portrayed. As pious, for one, in marking the synagogue as the center for Jewish life. And as European and white, in portraying such an “assimilated” and “Western” synagogue; this message is not small in a country so racially charged as South Africa. I wonder if a different image would have been portrayed in a Byzantine-style synagogue, like the Wynberg Hebrew Congregation in the Cape Town suburbs. Finally, the unused interior, as the initial room of the larger museum serves as an “invitation” into the exhibits that explain the messy reality of South African Jewry, by almost inviting the entrant to take a seat at an empty pew. This invitation, however, begins with an initial message about the Jewish community of this country.
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