In-depth day 8: Find me Jewish

MEETING: Influencial Beth-El member Charity Nnonyeli, Rabbi Obiekwe, and I after our interview. Photo: Rofhiwa Madzena

MEETING: Influencial Beth-El member Charity Nnonyeli, Rabbi Obiekwe, and I after our interview. Photo: Rofhiwa Madzena

Well today was one of the most inspirational days I’ve spent in Yeoville.

Rofhi and I got the opportunity to meet with some of the Nigerian Jewish community members and got to experience a few of their prayer rituals and photograph them while in their religious garb. They had prayer shawls, religious books, tzit-tzit (don’t ask me to translate that) and smart clothes. (Yarmulke’s are worn 24/7 by the religious members of the community).

They prayed beautiful and I must say there were a lot of similarities to the way in which the Orthodox community pray. They ended off by chanting “Adon Olam” in English which means “Master of the University” and is traditionally recited in the Synagogue at the end of a prayer service.

Afterwards, I met with one of the women elders (or Rebbetzin’s) in the community who explained her role as a Jewish woman and a Jewish wife. It was incredible to hear her viewpoints  from a similar but mildly different perspective.

“The Jewish woman’s role is to bring peace to the house, raise the children in the ways of Hashem and look after her husband. This is not to say she cannot or should not immerse herself in the working world. She can do both but family must always come first.” She said.

It gave me a bit of a spiritual rejuvenation and made me think: If they can be so strong in their faith in Judaism and God, how much more so should I be?

The Igbo Jews are fantastic. I’m glad to have them as apart of the “tribe” and “family”.

JUST KIDDING: Taking a swing in a park in Observatory while on a break. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

JUST KIDDING: Taking a swing in a park in Observatory while on a break. Photo: Rofhiwa Madzena

Following my wonderful morning we met up with Bongi and headed off to meet her interviewees. Both were interesting (and a little dodgy) rappers. We went on a trek to find a quiet park to film and ended up walking into the middle of Observatory. We found a lovely park with swings and while Bongi did her thing, Rofhi and I decided to find our inner child, (which we did!) on the swings. It was a nice change for a change.

We trekked back to Yeoville and by 2.30pm we were once again heading back on a Taxi (I’m use to it now!) to Wits. Our driver was mildly crazy and took a few chances. I was nearly ready to kiss the ground after we arrived back safely.

A lovely day was had by all – with quite a few laughs along the way. But I must say – I am exhausted!

Tune in tomorrow where I will be looking to locate old photos of Yeoville’s Jewish community for my video.


TIME OUT: Rofhi and I taking a break and having a little fun in the sun. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

TIME OUT: Rofhi and I taking a break and having a little fun in the sun. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

In-depth day 7: Keep rolling

VIEWPOINT: On our way out of Yeoville today we came across an incredible view of Joburg from a hilltop. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

VIEWPOINT: On our way out of Yeoville today we came across an incredible view of Joburg from a hilltop. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Well I can finally say that filming has commenced. Albeit I only did a bit but at least it’s a start.

The morning started off with a visit to Yeoville with Kudzai and Rofhi. We headed to the police station to meet a source of Kudzai’s and afterwards headed towards the market area to meet my other Jewish interviewee.

As we walked we spotted the scary guy that had made a move on Rofhi last week and low and behold he tried to make a move on me but I had learned my lesson from last week so we got away quickly before he could get too close to me – Kudzai pulled me away from him and I refused to answer when he tried to ask my name.

“He’s not right in the head that one,” said a man behind us, “Stay away from him.”

I headed towards the block of flats where the Jewish man I hoped to meet stayed. As we got to the building I saw a white man standing on the steps. I suspected that was my man and proceeded to go up to him.

“Hi, I’m looking for Morris,” I said shyly.

“That’s me, who’s asking?” He replied.

I explained what I was doing and who I was and he seemed very receptive. The only spanner in the works is that he won’t let me film him.

“I’m okay with recording but no cameras.”

I realised I would have to incorporate his voice as a voice-over at some point during my video. He seemed like a friendly and an interesting fellow to meet. I was excited to hear his story.

“Call me anytime, come visit. I like chatting – not interviews.” He said with a smile.

So the plan is to try see him tomorrow afternoon.

After a successful trip to Yeoville, we headed back to Wits. We got back at around 1.30pm. I needed to get back early because I had a meeting at the Jewish Charity organisation where Kosher Mobile Meals operates from. The plan was to to video some of the packing process and to speak with the organiser. I was set to meet her at 2.15pm.

I discovered that Kosher Mobile Meals focuses on supplying meals to people who are older, living in places like Yeoville and Berea and are unable to cook proper, healthy meals for themselves.

AMAZING WORK: Volunteers at Kosher Mobile Meals home cook and fill over 160 trays of food for the patrons they supply across Yeoville, Hillbrow, Berea and the Joburg CBD. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

AMAZING WORK: Volunteers at Kosher Mobile Meals home cook and fill over 160 trays of food for the patrons they supply across Yeoville, Hillbrow, Berea and the Joburg CBD. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

“We are not a typical charity organisation that looks after the poor in the community – there are other organisations for that. We look after those who are older, live alone and are unable to cook for themselves.” Said the main organiser.

After interviewing her, filming the volunteers who pack the food and the food packing process itself, I decided it was time to call a day.

The charity organisation is next door my old school and I felt I couldn’t be right there and not make a quick stop off to say hi to all my old teachers and friends on the staff.

A busy day but fun over all! I am exhausted!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s special episode of in-depth: filming the Igbo Jews and a meeting with a female member of the tribe.

In-depth day 6: “Sunday Morning…”

SHADOW OF THE PAST: The top of the "Great Synagogue" in Doornfontein is now home to a well-known Church in the area. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

SHADOW OF THE PAST: The top of the “Great Synagogue” in Doornfontein is now home to a well-known Church in the area. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Despite waking up with a mild tummy-bug I decided to push myself and make my way into Yeoville.

After a bit of breakfast and an 8am drive to Wits (on a Sunday morning I might add), Luke came to pick me up from WAM and off we went to Yeoville.

We picked up Roxanne, Palesa and Thabi en-route and drove through the bottom end of Hillbrow and Doornfontein. I spotted the old Doornfontein “Great Synagogue” with its’ big Star of David decorations on the rooftop and around the Synagogue itself.

Funnily enough the Rea-Vaya stop in the area is called “Old Synagogue Station”. It’s now a “pop” church and inside the synagogue-church and lining the streets parallel to it were hundreds of people dancing and praying to the beat on the loudspeakers which were blaring from the church.

As we made our way into Yeoville my stomach started acting up and we had to make a few stops along the way until the “Scopex” finally kicked in.

We went past the police station for Roxanne, to a Congolese restaurant for Palesa’s interview and a barber shop on Rocky street for Thabi.

While we were filming for Thabi in the barbers, I heard a commotion outside. I went to look and saw the aftermath of a man in the street getting a few punches and some kicks while onlookers shouted at him because he had tried to steal an old woman’s bag after she had left church.

A man walking past noticed my curiosity and said: “You see you my friend, people mustn’t steal here. This is what happens if they do. We must make it a safe place for everyone – for you and me.”

Once the commotion and the mild shock had worn off, we decided to get back on the road and give my stuff a shot. We headed to the market to see if my friend with the Jewish connections was around, unfortunately we were out of luck and my hopes of meeting my Jewish interviewees dashed. I remembered where one of them lived and despite not having her phone number I decided to do the an unconventional thing – go past her house.

We got there and low and behold she was home – albeit in bed with flu but after I explained who I was and what I was doing she became friendly and said that once she was better she’d be happy to give me a video interview when I came next week with Jewish Charity or even before then.

“As long as I’m well, perhaps Sunday, Monday or Tuesday next week? Give me a call on Tuesday, here’s my number!” She said with a smile and then she began to cough which I felt was my cue to head back. So finally, after searching for days, my first Jewess living in Yeoville was found.

I also decided to take the opportunity to film some “B Role” stuff like driving past the Old Synagogue and driving along Raleigh and Rocky Street, both which were streets once filled with Jewish shops and even a small Synagogue.

As we drove around I also found out the Chassidic synagogue on Yeo Street in Yeoville is still active – so that’s two synagogues (not counting the Igbo Synagogue) I’ve found that are still running to some extent. Pretty cool – I must say!

Once I had finished we headed back to Wits and I decided to give the Jewish Charity to find out when I can come film the meal packing, “We pack on Monday’s and you can come tomorrow or next Monday with ABSOLUTE pleasure,” She said.

She confirmed that filming for the delivery process would commence without a problem next Tuesday. Excited and enthused I said thank you and decided to take a look at my “B Role” footage.

A part of me is cautiously optimistic that all this will come together nicely! (I hope saying it doesn’t jinx it!)

Until tomorrow: Adios Amigos!

In-depth day 5: Snails pace

Today was a little bit of a slow day. Not as productive as I’d hoped but reflecting back on this week, it was good – exhausting but good!

I focused mainly today on figuring out my multimedia and scripting. The process is long and hard but hopefully everything will come together. Working out what will work and what won’t work and how to handle the camera in the car is mildly nerve-wracking because despite practicing a bit, I have one shot at getting this right on “D-Day”.

So to get a feel for the camera, I took a drive with my mom and another drive with my sister to practice angling and keeping it steady.

I spent most of last night and today working on my first written draft about the “Igbo” Jews and my shot list and scripting for the video. Also spoke with the Jewish Charity again about meeting those who will be working with me to get the video off the ground.

Plan for this weekend: Biggest fast of the year tonight and tomorrow and then Sunday will be spent in Yeoville to meet one of my interviewee’s and also going to “check out” how things work when it comes to packing food parcels at the Jewish Charity.

Apologies for the lack of excitement today – at least there no AK47’s this time and it was a “Sugar-daddy” free day!

Wish me luck… I feel like I’m going to need it.

Stay tuned for the next episode coming Sunday! 😉



In-depth – day 4: Lost and Insecure

PRAY: A look inside the temporary prayer tent - the area the Igbo Jews pray in until the synagogue's reservations are finished. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

PRAY: A look inside the temporary prayer tent -the place of worship used until the synagogue’s reservations are finished. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

For some reason, over most of today I felt unsettled and a little unsafe. Nothing scary happened and information wise, it was a good day. But for the most part I felt uneasy. If you asked me why I felt this way I wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer.

Despite my day of fear, I had a wonderful interview with the Rabbi of the Nigerian or as they are known “Igbo” Jewish community. I spoke with both him and his assistant (in Hebrew this is known as the Gabai) about the community living there. How he established the Synagogue and why they both came to South Africa and what they hoped to achieve when they did. They explained the story of the Igbo Jews, the laws they keep and how just in the Orthodox community, there are people at all different levels of religiosity. It was probably the most fascinating part of the interview.

I learned about the difference between Orthodox Judaism and Messianic Judaism which does have a few deviations from traditional Judaism but in some respects they are very similar. I took a look at the praying area, the prayer books used and even got a few pictures of it.

It was interesting to hear about the way this community functions like the way the entire community spend most of the Sabbath together, eating meals, singing religious songs, the men and women praying and also doing bible studies in the afternoon after Sabbath lunch.

The Rabbi said he would put me in touch with one of the religious ladies from his community and I’m planning to interview her on Monday. Exciting!

My interviews took longer than expected and the rest of the group had places and people to visit, so unfortunately I was unable to meet any of the Orthodox Jews still living there this afternoon because of the time constraint.

While at the Rastafarian club, I was “hit-on” by an older man who wanted to be my “Sugar-daddy” and made some gross remarks… if I could have run out screaming, I would have! It was pretty disturbing but the others came just in time so no more interaction could take place. As we left he asked “when am I seeing you again baby?”

I just answered, “I don’t know”, and ran out in front of the group, all of them giggling at my harried reaction.

Once 4pm hit, we decided to get going – you want to be out of there by that time because things start getting a little dangerous and mildly raucous.


TAKE TWO: Taxi ride selfie with the one and only Lutho Mtongana. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

We caught a taxi again – ride number two for me! Once we got back to WAM I was too scared to get out of the taxi because there were oncoming cars next to the door and I was afraid of getting hit by a car (my judgement is bad sometimes). Everyone laughed at my silly-ness and the driver even had a laugh – glad I could be entertaining!

Stay tuned for the next episode of in-depth: Coming soon to a blog near you.

In-depth – day 3: A little help…

It’s amazing to see the reactions one receives when simply asking for help.

Asking for help always reminds me of The Beatles song “A little help from my friends” which teaches a great lesson – it’s okay to ask for help, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We all need a little help sometimes and today it was my turn.

That said, today the struggle to find the Jews continued… I spent two and a half hours being passed from person to person when asking around about the community. (Thank you Zelmarie, Robyn, Anazi and Tendai for accompanying me through my wild goose chase).

“Maybe ask this vendor…”

“Nah my sista, go speak to him…”

“Sorry I can’t help you, but she might be able too…”

At about 2pm I finally got hold of my friend from yesterday who was able to point me in the right direction. Low and behold he had kindly spoken to a number of Jews in the area who would be willing to speak on camera.

He called one of my interviewees and asked if we could meet him so we could become familiar with each other. He said: “Yes!”

And with that we were off to see him. We walked into the building, knocked and rang the bell for a good 15 minutes to no avail.

“He’s home,” said my friend, “but he’s not answering. I’ll have a word with him when he does his shopping tonight. You’ll meet him and the others, don’t panic!”

We walked back to the market and he showed us his stall. There was an array of spices, rices, beans and nuts from all over the world – an amazing sight to see. He sent us on our way with samples which most of the group devoured in minutes.

After a quick lunch break, it was time to get down to business with meeting the contacts for my written piece – the Nigerian Jews of Yeoville. Off we went to the synagogue to meet with the Rabbi and one of his congregants.

Our mission: To find out a little bit about the Judaism practiced and their history. The synagogue is still in the process of being renovated but what we did see was beautiful.

I had a quick chat with the Rabbi who told me a little about their history which included a small family tree which showed their lineage which has been traced back to Gad, the fifth son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. The sect of Judaism they abide by is Messianic which is the reason why most Orthodox communities do not recognise them despite being “Igbo”, meaning Hebrew, Jews.

We scheduled a second meeting for tomorrow where I will be hearing about the Jewish laws they abide by and ways of celebrating Jewish holidays and Sabbath.

As we headed back to Rocky street, we stopped off for Anazi and Robyn to speak to a few contacts in the market. While waiting, what felt like a scene from a movie played out in front of us:

A white car zoomed past us, windows open with two AK47’s sticking out which were pointed at all us pedestrians standing there. I quickly ducked fearing they were about to open fire. It was a car chase – the two men in the vehicle had robbed a fidelity van and were being pursued by the police who followed after them about 2 minutes later, sirens blaring. I found out afterwards that Tendai and Zelmarie had both been mildly shocked by what we had seen too and had as they explained it “frozen”.

After that we decided we had had enough drama for one day and called it.

Surprisingly, this evening I received a phone call from one of my sources who managed to get me more Jewish contacts in the area – amazingly all of them he listed are religious Jews who haven’t left Yeoville just yet.

What’s yet to come – time will tell.

In-depth – day 2: Discover and distaste

DISTANT MEMORY: The once vibrant Yeoville synagogue is now home a Congolese church. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

DISTANT MEMORY: The once vibrant Yeoville synagogue is now home a Congolese church. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Today was a busy, interesting and at times a difficult day. A couple of false starts and a mild panic attack later, I found myself scouring the streets of Yeoville together with my classmates, looking for any hint of Judaism in the area.

I needed to find an in into the Jewish community were left there and fast. Time was of the essence and things did not look to promising.

We came across some of the old synagogue buildings and also found where the ultra-orthodox school once was. It made me feel a mix of sadness, longing and nostalgia to see that this once thriving community was now a shadow.

Eventually I found the “Torah Centre” on Muller Street and went in to it. Unfortunately the person I had tried to contact before my arrival there was not overly accommodating which put a spanner in the works. However he take my details and promised to give them to someone else who might be able to help me.

After leaving disheartened and sure my idea was going to fall through, we started making our way towards the other group destinations. Soon afterwards we realised we were being followed by two men. We eventually lost them when we went into one the Churches in the area.

After talking to people, visiting the Rastafarian house and the Rastafarian compound, we came across a man who struck up conversation with Rofhi and I. He said he was Jewish and spoke Hebrew fluently. After telling him I was Jewish too, he told me his name was Ovad and that he was part of a Jewish Nigerian community who could trace their roots back to biblical times and had been practicing Jewish tradition for thousands of years. He said they were not properly recognised as Jews and his community decided to change this by going to Israel, doing an official conversion there and learning Hebrew.

BLUE STEEL: Nqo and I do a taxi selfie to celebrate my first time travelling like a real South African. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

BLUE STEEL: Nqo and I do a taxi selfie to celebrate my first time travelling like a real South African. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

He promised to take me to the Nigerian synagogue in the area and introduce me to the Rabbi tomorrow. It was decided that this would become my multimedia focus.

Hope for success on my written piece was not all lost after I came across a man in the Yeoville market wearing what looked like a yarmulke on his head. (Good eyes Bongi & Rofhi!)

I went to chat with him and found out he wasn’t Jewish but in fact he knew most of the Jews who still lived in Yeoville and was happy to take me to meet them over tomorrow. He said most are happy to chat but some are extremely sensitive, “One wrong word and they’ll throw you out swearing.” (A bit of a nerve-wracking thought).

The dampener on the day was a quick but scary incident that took place when one of my friends was harassed by a dodgy looking character. I saw him just before the incident. I kept thinking that he was going to try pick-pocket one of us and decided to walk just behind him and the friend so I could keep an eye on his hands. He started talking to her, something didn’t feel right and I become suspicious. It quickly escalated when he grabbed her with both hands and tried to… “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I shouted as Lameez and I pulled her out of his grasp.
“I just wanted to kiss her.” He appallingly answered. We shook our heads and quickly got away from him before things could go any further. But the damage was done, emotions were running high and a soft pain was creeping in. It was a frightening and unwelcome introduction to the Yeoville taxi rank.

Despite the horrible incident, we ended our day off with a traditional Joburg taxi ride back to Wits. My first one in fact!It was a lot of fun and something different. A new experience to add to my South African identity.

In-depth day 1: Exploring

ENGLISH ART: A french artist painted quotes from Macbeth across areas of Yeoville. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

ENGLISH ART: A french artist painted quotes from Macbeth across areas of Yeoville. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

As a lover of literature discovering the home of Herman Charles Bosman and finding random quotes of Shakespeare around Yeoville were just some of the highlights of today’s tour.

Maurice Smithers, a native of Yeoville and a well-known guide showed us around the area. The tour quelled my anxieties about working in a place that I had stereotyped as an extension of Hillbrow – riddled with crime and drugs. However I was pleasantly surprised to discover a mix of cultures, religions and an array of interesting foods from all over Africa.

One of my favourite parts of the tour was seeing all the old Jewish sites like the old Synagogue’s, a learning institute and in even a synagogue which is currently run by a black Jewish community who live there. Yeoville which was once a vibrant hub for the Jewish community has a rich history which petered out when most of the Jewish residents left after 1994. It was also home to many of the Jewish activists like Joe Slovo and Esther Levin. Seeing their childhood homes  made me feel as if I was walking in the steps of South African history and it left me with a feeling that was quite indescribable.

After visiting Yeoville’s oldest house, which happens to be a couple of years older than Maurice’s, we went through the market. I found a number of delicacies that I’d never heard of before including dried eel, cassava bread and vegetables I cannot even pronounce.

Finally we stopped off at a Congolese restaurant for a late lunch. Dead tired, feet dragging we took our seats and enjoyed a cool beer as we reminisced about our first day. Despite not being able to eat, the smells and types of food offered at the restaurant were a novel and the textures seemed strange but intriguing.

The day came to a close with a laugh whilst classmate Luca Kotton entertained us, the girls on our way back to our home away from home – WAM.

Wits Vuvuzela albums: Facebook, Instagram & Twitter (semester 2)

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Wits Vuvuzela gallery – online & print (semester 2)

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