Since its initial conceptualisation in 1919, the historic Durban Jewish Club has been not only the centre of Jewish communal life in Durban, but a frequently used public space for the broader society. The building itself, "surrounded by bush, rippling dunes of corrugated white sand mingled with ochre earth", was officially opened on 4 May 1931. Since then, it has been host to generations of people, with a history that has witnessed wars and political unrest, conferences and public meetings and music and theatre performances. Perhaps its proudest claim is how during World War II, its facilities, including a canteen, showers, billiards, tennis and reading and writing rooms were made available to Allied servicemen passing through on the way to and from the conflict areas. Over two million soldiers and sailors of all faiths and nationalities are recorded as having visited the Club at one time or another.
This week, the Durban Jewish Centre will host an exhibition on the greater South African Jewish story, entitled The Goldene Medina['Golden Land']: Celebrating 175 years of Jewish Life in SA. While the first Jew is thought to have arrived in Cape Town in 1669, and one of the founders of Port Natal (Durban's original name) was Nathaniel Isaacs, who came as a youth in 1825, organised Jewish community life began only in 1841, when the first formal prayer gathering was held in a private home in Cape Town. Most South African Jews today trace their origins to a major influx of immigration, mainly from Eastern Europe, that commenced in the last two decades of the 19th Century.
Rather than focusing on a typical chronological history, or the standard 'who's who' of the community's movers and shakers, exhibition curator SA Jewish Museum director Gavin Morris decided to rather focus on the day to day lives of ordinary South African Jews over the generations. Community members were thus invited to send through their own personal stories, memories and family traditions, which were then arranged under such easily identifiable topics, such as immigration to the country, marriages, education and youth camps. Morris was also adamant that the stories be anonymous. "The reason we did this was to avoid faribels! [arguments]" he says. That being said, the Durban Jewish community is relatively small, so visitors to the exhibition will no doubt delight in trying to guess whose story was written by which community member. One of the panels, for example, recalls: "Durban was a tight-knit Jewish community, where sport was played at the Jewish Club because we were very conscious of not being allowed into the country club down the road. My mother was the kosher caterer for years. She did all the catering at the club. If you wanted a kosher wedding you went to her".
In just this one small piece of reminiscence, we learn so much about a slice of life in Durban at the time. And that is the joy of the exhibition. At every turn, it jogs the memory, evokes nostalgia and recognition and provides many a chuckle. It is people's history at its best - lively, pungent, immediate and authentic. While the stories are from the Jewish community specifically, they touch on a wide array of familiar subjects that the broader community will readily relate to. After all, the history of the Jewish community and that of broader population are inextricably entwined, as indeed are the stories of all the colourful and diverse groupings that make up the South African people today.
The Exhibition, "The Goldene Medina: Celebrating 175 years of Jewish Life in SA" opens at the Durban Jewish Club on 31 July and closes 8 August.