Lionel Slier is a veteran contributor to South African Jewish publications, including Jewish Affairs and the South African Jewish Report.
Not long ago, I read an article in an Australian publication where the following informed guess was made about the number of Jews living in South Africa: “In the early 1970s, seeking more secure futures, Jews commenced immigrating (sic) to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, UK and Israel and by the year 2000 about 50 000 of the 120 000 had emigrated. [Nasty note to writer of this article: I wish he/she would work out the difference between immigrating and emigrating!] Of the remaining 70 000 it was estimated that 48 000 lived in and around Johannesburg, 15 000 in Cape Town, 3000 in Durban and 1000 in Pretoria. The remaining 3000 were scattered mostly in Port Elizabeth, East London and Bloemfontein. Then there are the Israelis living here. Nobody knows how many there are. One doesn't know whether they are permanent or transitory. Certainly they don't sign census counts or register as voters. This is guesswork, of course, but reasonably correct at least up until a decade or so ago. A recently released survey of the community conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy research and the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town estimated that in 2019, the Jewish population had declined to 52 300.
Not so long ago the fifty thousandth Jew was buried in West Park Cemetery, making the bizarre statistic that there are now more Jews in that cemetery alone than actually living in Johannesburg!
Most of the (live) Jews in Johannesburg can be found in the north-eastern suburbs. Here are some: Glenhazel, Raedene, Kew, Norwood, Highlands North, Sandringham, Savoy, Waverley, Orchards, Oaklands and Fairmount. Glenhazel and its immediate neighbours are jocularly referred to as ‘The Shtetl’.
Houghton, once the base for the rich and elite, seems to have lost that aura a little. There was the old time joke that a Jewish snob was one who moved from Doornfontein to Houghton without first staying a while in Yeoville, up the koppie from Doornfontein! Now many houses here have been redesigned as business offices. Similarly many apartments in next-door Killarney are losing Jewish residents.
There is a small but solid enclave of Jews in Greenside and Emmarentia to the west but they have very little effect upon the character of Johannesburg's Jewry. Victory Park slightly to the north here holds up its hand as a Jewish area and its excellent King David School is testimony to this.
The last figure I saw about the number of Jewish places of worship in Johannesburg was 66, mostly by far in the north-east suburbs. Oddly enough the Great Park Synagogue is in Houghton, just beyond the greater Jewish population.
Now to those Temples of modern life - the Shopping Malls. There is the story of a lady who came to Johannesburg from the country with the intention of seeing ‘The big five’. When friends asked her when she would be going to the Kruger National Park, she replied, “What are you talking about? The Big Five are here in Johannesburg - Sandton, Hyde Park, Killarney, Rosebank and Melrose.” Now here is the irony. These centres are outside the borders of ‘The Shtetl’ but all are very easily accessible.
Two that are within the Shtetl are Balfour Park and Norwood Mall. The latter has a distinctly Jewish feel about it, which the former does not. Norwood Mall is unmistakably Jewish. Shoppers say that if they do not meet at least five acquaintances there by chance, that would be the unusual. The mall itself, oddly enough, is not actually in Norwood itself but in Oaklands and Gardens and its northern border ends in Highlands North. It has been built on what had been market vegetable gardens. There were two, called Portuguese Market Gardens and Madeira Gardens, as I recall. The Gardens were well-known for selling ‘tickey soup green’ - a tickey being three pennies or today's equivalent, two and a half cents!
This north-eastern area is the Jewish Johannesburg! Yet strangely enough, there are no theatres, no cinemas, no concert halls, two libraries, one in the Jewish Centre, Beyachad, both not booming. However it has its Hasidic elements, also strictly Orthodox families, Modern Orthodox, Masorti and some secular. But try and find parking by a shul on a Friday night or a Saturday morning or Chagim. Not easy, but this is mostly for security reasons. Johannesburg at night is not a walk in the park. There are many excellent places of learning and top quality Jewish schools. Look at the matric marks every January.
In Johannesburg, there are elements of New York, of London's Stamford Hill, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But it is mostly genuine Jo'burg or Joeys and long may it remain so. There was this young couple walking in Glenhazel. He was casually dressed and the girl was also pretty. They stopped to talk to another young couple. The man had his shirt unbuttoned and he was wearing a golden coloured chain from the bottom of which hung a solid silver Magen David. Close enough, one could hear the girl’s first words, which were, “Oh mi Gard!”