The Perennial Holiday Favourite for SA Jews of All Ages

By: Ilan Preskovsky

Muizenberg Then

Like no doubt many a Jewish Joburger, some of my fondest memories growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s took place during summer holidays in a small coastal town just a few minutes’ drive from Cape Town. Muizenberg in December/January was exactly the sort of place in which indelible memories were created.

I remember old, Cape-style houses in long, quiet streets surrounded by train tracks on the one side, the “Vlei” on the other, and, as the focal point and head of the town, the most glorious seaside a child could imagine. All these years later, whenever I think of the beach, I think of Muizenberg. The soft white sand that seemed to go on for miles; the sea that found that perfect sweet spot of being calm enough for swimming but wavey enough for some solid boogie boarding; rows of those famous brightly coloured huts that may just have been individual storage units but gave the whole beach a weirdly homely feel.

All of this was hidden just behind the town’s famous Pavilion and its amusement park attractions, which only made the revelation of the beach itself all the more spectacular as you passed under the concrete arch and past the gross-looking (though mostly just super sandy) changing rooms on either side and onto the usually too hot sand that would have you sprinting as fast as you could into the beckoning ocean. Shoes were never really an option.

I still remember the smell of hot chips being sold next to the “foofy” (or “water” as most everyone else calls them) slides that loom as large and as intimidating in my imagination today as they did in my eyes as a child. I remember spending far too much time in the sun, playing one game of putt-putt after another before checking out whatever changing attraction stood on the other side of the walkway that in my memories shifts between bumper cars, a carousel, paddle boats, and a swimming pool (it may have been all of these or none of them).

Most importantly, in none of these memories am I alone. I was with my immediate family, of course. Even in those days, it wouldn’t do to have an eight-year-old child wandering the streets and alleys of Muizenberg all on his lonesome. I struggle to think of any of those holidays, though, when I wasn’t surrounded by extended family too. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and hours and hours of quality time with my cousins. I even had a great aunt and uncle who lived just across the road from the Pavilion.

We may not all have stayed together, but it was such a small town that we may as well have. We didn’t exactly spend every moment together (my parents, siblings, and I were fond of driving all over the Cape peninsula, the rest of the clan… less so), but countless hours on the beach/Pavilion, sleep-overs, and just hanging around the flat sure makes it feel that way in retrospect.

And, of course, we always met at shul. Or at least at the lavish brochas with those brightly coloured drinks that I swear I’ve never seen anywhere else, and Mendel Kaplan giving his annual “State of the Nation” address. And who can forget those legendary Shabbos afternoon walks along St. James? Muizenberg was always a decidedly communal holiday, even for an introverted shut-in like yours truly. There’s a reason Muizenberg has, for as long as I remember, been (mostly) affectionately dubbed Jewzenberg by Joburg Jews. Or at least by those that I know.

Somewhere around the turn of the century, though, we stopped holidaying there and, though I have visited Muizenberg over the years, it has never really been the same. How could it be? Adult reality always pales in comparison to childhood memories. But even if it was the end of an era for me and my family in that magical seaside town, it certainly wasn’t the end for Muizenberg as a top holiday spot for further generations of Joburg Jews.

Far from it.

Muizenberg Now

Over the past twenty-odd years, the Muizenberg area has clearly done a lot to battle the decay that I believe started to set in at the end of the last century – it feels like five years can’t go by without a new major restoration project being announced to keep the town vital and attractive to out-of-towners. This isn’t that much of a surprise, of course, as it still remains an immensely popular, highly desirable resort town, known for its unbeatable beaches and cosy, small-town familiarity. The famous Surfer’s Corner alone no doubt helped keep the town as tourist-friendly as possible, even at its lowest ebb.

Most crucially, despite heightened competition as the seaside destination of choice for Johannesburg Jews from places like Plettenberg Bay, Umhlanga Rocks, and, of course, Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard, Muizenberg has both retained its die-hard cadre of old faces, while also attracting their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to make the trek to good old “Muizies” every December.

Muizenberg’s new rabbi as of just before the pandemic, Rav Ryan Newfield (“Rabbi Ryan”, as he is known to holiday makers and locals alike) says it best: “I have only been here for about two years but it looks to me like Muizenberg is really on an upward trend. December is only getting bigger. We have people who have been coming here every December who are now into their eighth decade. Not only are they still coming, but they’re bringing their children and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children.”

He admits that the area did have a rough period a few years ago, but it has been rejuvenated and, along with its famous beach, Muizenberg offers a bohemian, small-village kind of lifestyle that doesn’t just bring in holiday makers in December, but also offers an excellent quality of life to the locals and former holiday makers who have made their home there.

Mandy Yachad, who has a very long history with Muizenberg, certainly agrees with the sentiment. He started going to Muizenberg as a toddler with his parents until he was about fifteen, whereafter he took a break to – rather famously – embark on a professional sports career. In 1992, though, Mandy returned to Muizenberg with his wife and the very next year they bought a flat in Arlington Court and have been going there ever since. “For the past thirty years now, we’ve been going to Muizenberg every year with the exception of the one year when my son got married in Israel. We find it the most amazing place. The beauty is that it’s kid-friendly. My kids, and now my grandkids, love coming there.”

A Hub of Jewish Life

Muizenberg in December has an even greater selling point for Mandy and his family, though. “It has become the destination holiday for frum yidden, in that there is a minyan, a very strong minyan, three times a day for five or six weeks, and it’s an amazing coming together of many communities.”

Rabbi Ryan – who now lives in Muizenberg all year long and who works as a spiritual leader throughout the year not just with a core group of Muizenberg locals at the Muizenberg shul, but with Jews of all stripes from Simon’s Town all the way through to Newlands – further elaborates: “Muizenberg may be the largest Jewish community in South Africa during the holidays. We have a minyan of over fifty men every single day. You can’t walk a minute on the beach without seeing a group of people you know sitting together. The amazing thing is that you see Jews here from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy. You have people – and often very different rabbis – from Chabad, Mizrachi, Ohr Somayach, etc. all joining together in a single shul.”

Laurence and Emma Rapp and their family are similarly stalwart Muizenberg-goers, holidaying there as they have for the past twenty years, and when I spoke briefly with Laurence, he made it clear that the same things that draw the Yachads to Muizenberg year in and year out are the same that have him and his family coming back too.

“A key part of the holiday for us is the shul. In fact, it’s the reason we keep going back year after year. The fact that we can have minyanim for shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv every day is a big part of the holiday. The fact that we are with like-minded people who love being in shul, who value it. I think there are great middot in Muizenberg.”

Indeed, both Mandy and the Rapps are very involved with making Muizenberg such a hub for Torah-observant Jews. Mandy works with the Cape Beth Din to ensure that the bakery in Muizenberg under the Beth Din’s supervision always has an observant Jew on call to turn the ovens back on in the case of a power failure or load shedding. Emma Rapp, meanwhile, has worked for a number of years now with Checkers in Sea Point to deliver ready-made hot meals to Muizenberg for those who want it, every Friday throughout the holiday period.

Laurence and Mandy, along with Israel Bender and Dean Gerson, are the shul’s gabboim during the holidays and they have helped put a number of things in place to further enhance the beauty of Shabbos in Muizenberg, especially for the children. According to Laurence, “We really make a plan to ensure that the young kids are as much a part of the shul as possible. We get them to sing anim zmirot or open the ark. We have barmi boys taking the responsibility to lein every week of the holidays. It’s very much about the shul being there for everybody. We try and make the services very warm, very lebadik, that everyone feels included. One of the most incredible things is the fact that we’re now starting to see multiple generations coming to Muizenberg. We see our children getting married and returning with their families to Muizenberg. This year we had a kid in shul who, granted is one or two years old, but who is a fifth generation Muizenberger.”

And yes, apparently the communal walk along St James on Shabbos afternoon is still a thing!

As, indeed, is one of the greatest points of pride for Jewish Muizenberg: that it’s still the home-base to Camp Kesher and that the community – and those involved with the shul especially – still warmly welcome the Camp Kesher kids as a significant part of the Muizi community. It was like this back when I was a kid and it was still called Bikkur Cholim Camp, and it’s beyond heartening to hear all these many, many years later that little has changed.

Best of all, though, is knowing that Muizenberg has continued to play such an important role in the childhood of so many Jewish South African kids… and looks set to do just that, please G-d, for many more years to come.

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