Buried treasure!

An unexpected discovery opens a window into the history of the Johannesburg Jewish community

By Chandrea Serebro

What does Johannesburg have in common with the Qumran Caves? If it were a bad pub joke, I’m sure I would have been booed off the stage by now, but you’d be surprised, and, I’m sure, eager to discover that we actually do indeed share something amazing with this group of eleven caves in the West Bank, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Like all good stories, it starts with, “Picture it. Joburg. 2015.” Rabbi Dovid Hazdan of the Great Park Shul got the opportunity from his son in America to buy a collection of Judaica books, the chance to start an impressive library for the Great Park Shul, an opportunity he felt he just couldn’t pass up. “We didn’t have the money for this, and I knew that. But, a quality Torah library here? I told him to go for it.”

Remarkably, at the same time, Rabbi Hazdan had finally gotten around to clearing out and sorting through the old, dusty archives of the Great Park Shul’s collection of piles of old books – enough to fill a container from an 18-wheeler truck – that had been piling up in an abandoned basement since the move from Wolmarans Street. Indeed, even since inception.

Yes, inception – now imagine what that might look like. The Great Park Synagogue features the foundation stone from the very first shul in Johannesburg, “Shaar Hashamayim”, on President Street, which was erected in 1888 and which was the fledgling that would one day become the Great Park Shul of today. After numerous name changes and various premises, the Great Park Synagogue in its present state has been going since 1913 from its famed premises in Wolmarans Street, and it has been the Great Park Shul on Glenhove Road, as we know it, since 2000. The Great Park Shul has been described as the “custodian of 100 years of important Jewish history in Johannesburg”. I am sure you get the picture. There were books. A lot of books. Books dating back to antiquity. Or, the Johannesburg Jewish version of it anyway.

Most of the books that were there needed to go to the cemetery to be buried as shaimos (lit: names, and referring to burying sacred books and objects that contain the names of Hashem which can no longer be used, a practice that goes back to the Talmud), mainly comprising old siddurim and damaged books. “But, lo and behold, what we really found there was a long-lost treasure.” Inside a large package amidst this “time capsule” of old books lay a set of parchment scrolls of the Prophets, Nevi’im, in “pristine condition”. The Atzei Chayim rollers on either side, made from wood, were brittle and damaged, having been warped from time, dust, moisture, and weather, but the parchment itself was perfect, having been preserved beautifully in its casing.

“This find was hugely exciting. It held major relevance for the Jewish community of Johannesburg about its history, a glimpse into the past, as well as, of course, a new item of Judaica that had just been discovered which could be added to the treasure trove of items already housed in the Great Park treasury. This find pointed to Jewish practice in Johannesburg as far back even as to the 1880s when the shul began collecting treasures of Jewish life and ritual, as well as to the way the shul services were conducted then and the practices that were followed.”

Rabbi Hazdan explains that the reading of the Haftorah was instated in 168 BCE, when the Jews were under the rule of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (of Chanukah infamy), and they were forbidden to read from the Torah. Antiochus’ prohibition, however, was limited to the Five Books of Moses, so the Sages instituted the custom that a section of the Prophets be read instead, something related to the Torah portion for that week, and this has remained in practice ever since. Unlike the Torah reading, in most communities around the world, the Haftorah reading is not read directly from a scroll. Rather, the Haftorah is typically read from a book or a normal page on regular paper, and may contain the vowel points and cantillation signs.

The practice of reading the Haftorah directly from a parchment was promoted in the 1500s by the Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe) and the Vilna Gaon, who instituted that the Haftorah be read only from scrolls which contained the full text of the book, in the same way that the Torah scroll does, bearing no vowel points or cantillation signs. This practice, while common in many Lithuanian-style Yeshivas and in some Ashkenazic synagogues, particularly in Israel, is not common in South Africa despite our Lithuanian roots. So, says Rabbi Hazdan, finding these scrolls related directly to our roots, shedding new light on the South African community of old, showing that they practiced this custom, had the scrolls to do it, and appointed leiners to study the cantillations to read it just like the Torah readings.

“So what was I to do with these scrolls? I needed to get them restored, but where to start?” Rabbi Hazdan found a woodworker who “derived great joy from working with wood, like an artist” in Roodepoort, and commissioned him to create the new encasements for the scrolls, which he did with precision and flair. Rabbi Hazdan knew the scrolls needed pride of place in the Great Park Shul, so within a few days after he approached the community with the opportunity to dedicate these beautiful treasures to loved ones, a new library had been commissioned. And, with these funds, the Torah books Rabbi Hazdan agreed to on a leap of faith had been paid for.

“Two seemingly disparate events somehow managed to connect to each other. The old made way for the new; these ancient scrolls became the inspiration for new opportunities of Torah learning,” says Rabbi Hazdan. “Now these scrolls are standing in pride of place as beautiful treasures of the Torah which is what connects us all – even though it isn’t the practice of our community to read from them.” But the scrolls are loaned out to other communities who do have this practice so that they can read proudly from the oldest South African original scrolls of the Prophets, which is a “reinstatement of what we now know was an old custom in the history of Johannesburg Jewry”.

“It’s symbolic of our shul. We have a unique treasure trove of our rich heritage, including the scrolls, complete with pictures of the original leaders of the shul from the 1800s, while, in the same room, we have modern men and women, young adults and school children going about their Jewish life. There are shiurum and talks, chavrusas and learning going on daily, children running about shul enjoying Shabbos – something these Jews from yesteryear could never have conceived. It is the joy and vibrancy of this community. It is a testament to Jewish life, and Jewish continuity.”

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