The world that was

The memories of Yeoville of yesteryear are ingrained in the psyche of many South African Jews today. No faribles please – we remember just the tip of this much-loved South African shtetl’s iceberg.


By Chandrea Serebro

Yeoville. What started out advertised as a “sanitarium for the rich” where the air was clearer because it was upper-middle class aspirations high on the ridge overlooking the dirt of the smoky mining town of Johannesburg, the city of gold, soon became a hive of multi-culturalism with a distinctly Jewish flavour. While the wealthier target markets looked for greener pastures elsewhere, the eastern-European immigrant Jews settled into Yeoville, quickly turning it into the shtetl of Johannesburg, with the smells of freshly baked challah wafting out on a Friday and the sounds of a new Jewish world in the making. “I’m sure 99% of the people in Yeoville were Jewish,” says Isaac Reznik, who reminisces about Yeoville fondly – “it was dynamic, a hub of Jewish life with an open community,” he explains, that was as diverse as it was accepting of differences.

There were the ultra-religious who came from Eastern-Europe, the Kollel, the German Yekkes who founded the Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Bnei Akivaniks, the traditional Yids who worked on Shabbos, the Lubavitchers, and a movement of baalei teshuva who were going to shul on Shabbos and starting to become frum.

The Yeoville Shul – one of the main congregations in Johannesburg, the Beth Din, and the UOS were all there, and there was a large non-religious or partially religious Jewish population as well, explains Associate Director at the SAJBD and researcher David Saks – “including many left-wing activists – Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Norman and Leon Levy, Esther Barsel, to name just a few.” “It was a kaleidoscope of different communities, each one contributing with its own rich customs and background – Yeoville Shul, Adath Jeshurun, Bnei Akiva, and the Greener Beis Medrash,” remembers Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, executive Director of Chabad South Africa who arrived in 1972 with his wife Mashi. Sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz”l, the Lipskars were pleasantly surprised to find Jewish Yeoville on landing – “a centre of shuls, schools, kosher shops, mikvaot, The Federation of Synagogues, and the Beth Din. Yiddish could be heard in the streets and in the shops. One naturally sensed that Jewish life was alive and well in this corner of the world.”

“Yeoville all round was a vibrant, welcoming, and warm community. Here I was, coming from the United States to Johannesburg and people were just so wonderful,” says Rebbetzin Mashi Lipskar. Everything was in close proximity, the community was much smaller and Rebbetzin Lipskar describes everyone as being “very respectful of one another”, and caring for friend and stranger alike. “I was in my first year of marriage, I was from America, and everything was new. Before we came to this country we had to check that there would be a rov who could handle our shailos – halachic questions, and Rabbi Yaakov Salzer was there for us, with a mikvah in the complex. But what I remember so well is the wonderful people, particularly the Adath Jeshurun people, who welcomed us. Upon my arrival at my new home, I was welcomed with freshly baked rolls and salt even before we had any furniture there,” Rebbetzin Lipskar reminisces.

Everything you needed was in easy walking distance – shuls, shops, kosher restaurants, libraries, doctors and dentists, schools, pharmacies, and even the local pool. People lived in smaller, compact properties, with many living in flats or maisonettes, and the proximity between neighbours endowed the area with a greater sense of community, while, at the same time, making it affordable, enabling young people to settle there more easily. “Walking around Raleigh street (which Rebbetzin Lipskar describes as a “most vibrant business street with the most wonderful shops”) was like walking around Yerushalayim,” recalls Isaac. The memories of the shtetl-like life prevail – Rebbetzin Lipskar recalls just a few: “Fitz Confectionary was outstanding. The baker, Mr Fredy Sommer, “a fine German man with a twinkle in his eye,” opened the first shomer Shabbos kosher bakery in South Africa on Rockey Street in Bellevue, “with a very high standard,” before moving to Raleigh Street in Yeoville a few years later.

“In those days, there was no parev margarine without fish oil, which made it impossible to use it with meat, and Mr. Fitz (as Fredy was known because he kept the original name of the shop when he bought it) had a couple of parev things, ginger cake, and kichel, and we would come in with children and he would always offer them a treat and a vibe in his shop.” She remembers the “humble, old-fashioned mikvah at Adath Jeshurun, so welcoming and so accommodating.” In Raleigh Street, she recalls “Nel’s Dairy”, owned by a non-Jewish lady, but which stocked a few chalav Yisrael products. “They would deliver the kosher milk in those days and you would buy tokens to put outside the door with the empty bottles.”

Then there was Checkers, which always had “a wonderful, Jewish atmosphere. Come Pesach time, Ruby Cohen would be there with her apron guiding people through the Schmerlings chocolates and the other imports, and the local Mosmarks matzah.” Across the road there was the OK Bazaars, where the Jewish patrons would take their board and knife to the fish counter and the non-Jewish server “knew just what our intentions were and she welcomed it”. The Bernard Patley Cheder, Jack Marom at the Kenmere Pharmacy, a Truworths, a Foschini, a Check Dry Cleaners, the library on the corner, Tiffany’s bakery – “It was a heimishe little shtetl,” says Rebbetzin Lipskar, and “all these places made our lives so rich and full.”

Isaac remembers Kaufman’s Bakery, “the best hamentaschen in town”, the old Yeoville Bioscope, which was demolished, and the Piccadilly Cinema, the beginning of Empire Films, and all the Yiddish Films from America which were screened to the Jewish crowds. And the atmosphere was electric, particularly for young people – the social scene in Yeoville was budding for both religious and non-religious Jews. “For Tikkun Leil on Shavuos, we used to go shul-hopping from one to the other the night through, and everyone was accepting and warm,” says Isaac. He remembers shul being a hive of activity on a Shabbos morning, a social scene even for those not shomer Shabbos, where “all the young people came together”. Particularly, he remembers, Bnei Akiva, “the most dynamic youth service you could ever get in Johannesburg, where the ruach was incredible”.

“Growing up in Yeoville’s neighbourhood was magical, and anyone who did grow up there will tell you so. It was something too special, to cherish. The Jewish environment was rich in its flavour of shuls, sects, and outlets,” says Rabbi Ilan Hermann, who grew up there and, from the age of 27, presided as rabbi of the Lions Shul in Doornfontein for 18 years until just recently. “Back then, the energy in the air was ripe with ideas and change. There was depth, and Yeoville Jewish life had a spiritual character and refinement to it. It was a time where you would see a person’s mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) to take on and embrace ideals. It was rich in tradition and emerging with Torah in its spiritual leadership then and now, and in the generation that would learn from them and take on the baton.”

Rabbi Hermann and his family lived on Hunter Street as neighbours to Rabbi Mordechai Korn. “His long beard and holy face would reflect off the light of his wife Fruma’s Shabbos candles, when we would dine with the family on Shabbos,” remembers Rabbi Hermann. He describes the Korn Shabbos “like stepping into Mea Shearim, with little space to move because the book shelves were taking up most of the area with seforim”. On moving to Francis street, the Hermann’s neighbours were all illustrious rabbis of the community then and now – families such as Grossnass, Vigler, and Blumenau. “Particularly memorable was Rabbi Tatz and his wife Suzanne. I remember seeing Rabbi Tatz walking down the stairwell on his way to the new medina ‘Glenhazel’ where he would deliver his mid-week crowd-packed lectures on mysticism. He subsequently went to Israel and then London to establish the JLI (Jewish Learning Institute).”

And Rabbi Tatz’s “new medina”, about which Rabbi Hermann speaks, was a herald of things to come. “Today’s Northern suburbs communities were realised out of that hub,” says Rabbi Hermann. And indeed, much of who we are as Johannesburg Jews today comes out of that space. Rabbi Lipskar started his life in South Africa there as the rabbi of the Chassidim Shul, housed in “a delightful modernistic building designed by Jaques Morgenstern, an architect of note. It stood on Harrow Road – now Joe Slovo Drive – a main thoroughfare leading into town”. The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society and Jewish Community Services shared a building adjoining the former Harrow Road, and the schools of today also took root there – Beth Jacob Girls High School and Shaarei Torah nursery and primary all began in Yeoville.

For Rabbi Lipskar, Yeoville was “special”, an “incredible blend of the past and the future”, where there were “elderly Jews who still remembered der heim and young ones who were becoming attracted to an authentic Jewish lifestyle”, together. “It became a centre of exciting growth and Yiddishkeit and a forerunner to what is now much of Jewish Johannesburg,” says Rabbi Lipskar. David’s recollections of Yeoville are poignant and personal, but also point to the sad decline of Yeoville as the Jewish centre of Johannesburg. “As apprentice ‘frummers’, my wife-to-be and myself joined the Adath Jeshurun congregation in 1990. It was still very much a ‘Yekkishe’ (German) shul, so it took a while to get used to the different customs. For my first Yom Kippur, I decided that in view of this being so solemn a day, I should wear my darkest clothes so as to be fully in the spirit of things. I duly arrived at the Adath, entered the shul – and found everyone there dressed almost entirely in white.”

Yeoville was central to the Jewish experience of the seminal Rugby World Cup Final of 1995, which for David is “another abiding memory”. It was being played in Ellis Park just a few kilometres away, but of course, it was Shabbos, so none of the Yids knew what was happening or how the team was faring. “I was a passionate Springbok supporter back then, and was a nervous wreck all day. I knew that if late afternoon came and we didn’t hear the spontaneous tooting of motor horns from passing vehicles, then South Africa had lost to the All Blacks. Frankly, my hopes weren’t high – New Zealand had an exceptionally strong side. Came mincha time, and I miserably entered shul. I’d hardly sat down when heard a distant ‘parp’.  Surely not? Then another, then two more, virtually simultaneously. I lurched out of my seat, rushed outside into the street – and the world was starting to go mad. I did not have much kavana in the subsequent davening, that’s for sure.”

But the Yomim Noraim, followed by Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchas Torah of 1998 were perhaps the “most stirring” davening David ever experienced in Yeoville, and perhaps also the most poignant. The Kollel was about to move, Adath Jeshurun was probably going to follow, and the remaining shuls were all by then struggling to survive. “Yet the simcha and exuberance of the chagim of that year was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. All taking part knew that this was the last time there would be such celebrations in the suburb. It marked a stirring farewell to Jewish Yeoville.” Sadly, it was the end of an era, after which the Jews all but abandoned this old ‘new world’ in favour of the suburbs spread around Johannesburg. The sounds and smells of Yeoville and surrounds as the Jewish hub, the new Jewish world, a relic of the mind and heart, but one whose legacy lies in the very streets of Jewish Johannesburg still today in who we are and in the very organisations who saw their seeds take root in the streets of Yeoville.


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