David J. Litvak has some wonderful things to say about the Goldene Medina exhibition and about Leah Teddy & the Mandolin in his article South African Jewish Envy published in Vancouver's Jewish Independent Newspaper on 28 November, 2019.
I have a bad case of South African Jewish envy. This condition developed when I moved to Vancouver from the North End of Winnipeg. In fact, I can’t remember meeting even one South African Jew while growing up in the wind swept prairies because the majority of the Jewish population in my hometown were from Eastern Europe (a place that South African Jews probably avoided like the plague because of the Arctic like winters). However, I met oodles of South African Jews when I moved to Vancouver in the early 90’s and I was impressed by their knowledge of Judaism and commitment to Jewish life. There seemed to be something unique about their Jewish community and it seemed exotic compared to Winnipeg. Many of them became my good friends, probably because as a Litvak (my last name literally means a Jew from Lithuania) I share a common ancestry with my South African co-religionists, who predominately hail from Lithuania.
In fact, when I first moved here, my South African friend Geoff Sachs z”l, and two Montrealers and I organized Tschaynik’s, an evening of Jewish performing arts at the JCC. It was at the JCC that I met another South African friend Steve Rom, who was working there at the time and helped us set up our events.
Goldene Medina, a celebration of 175 years of Jewish Life in South Africa
About a month ago, Steve brought a fascinating South African exhibit to Beth Israel synagogue. Prior to being displayed in Vancouver, the exhibit, Goldene Medina, a celebration of 175 years of Jewish in South Africa, was displayed in South Africa, Israel and Australia. Thanks to Steve, Jews in Vancouver could get a taste of South African Jewish life.
A unique feature of the exhibit was that nobody was named or personally identified which accomplished two things; helping to tell the story of all South African Jews and making the exhibit both particular and universal at the same time.
The stories were depicted on a series of panels which traced the origins of the South African Jewish community from its origins in 1841 - when Jews first settled in South Africa to the present. On one of the panels I recognized, the son and daughter in-law of Cecil Hershler, who has South African roots and is well known in the Vancouver Jewish community as a storyteller. His son married a woman from Zimbabwe and the wedding in Vancouver, which I attended, was a joyous blend of South African and Zimbabwean cultures. Seeing the panel brought back memories of that joyous occasion and gave me an unexpected personal connection to the exhibit (other than identifying with my Lithuanian landsmen).
Other panels depicted various aspects of Jewish life in South Africa highlighting both the familiar and the exotic. While I was fascinated by the differences between the South African Jewish community and my experience growing up in Winnipeg, it became apparent that the exhibit was a microcosm of Jewish life in the Diaspora, albeit in a more exotic locale than many Jewish communities.
For example, the panel of Muizenberg, depicted a resort town located near Cape Town where throngs of South African Jews flocked to during the summer. Some of them made their way to Muizenberg by train. The photos of crowded beaches with smiling teenagers and families on the beach told a thousand stories. However, that panel reminded me of the stories that my dad, z”l, told me about taking the train to Winnipeg Beach in the summer with other Winnipeg Jews to escape the summer prairie heat. Like Muizenberg, there was a synagogue at Winnipeg Beach. I am sure that Jews from New York have similar summer stories escaping the city heat in New York by going to the Catskills. In addition, the Jews of America, like the Jews of South Africa, referred to their new home as the “Golden Medina.” Ultimately, all three places - Canada, the United States and South Africa - represented a new start for Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
The Goldene Medina Exhibit gave me an opportunity to learn about Jews from the land of my ancestors in Lithuania who were able to reinvent itself themselves on the African continent and create a thriving Jewish community, which at one point, reached 120,000. This resiliency is a characteristic of Jews and Jewish communities all over the world.
The film Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song
This resilience was also evident in the film Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song, which screened at Beth Israel during the exhibit – and will be shown again at the synagogue on Dec. 8.
Using ten years of archival footage, Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin showcases, the Annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which was held in Cape Town. The documentary features stirring renditions of classic Yiddish songs like “Romania Romania” (see photo - Ivor Joffe, Rumania) and “Mayn Shtetele Belz” as well as two original songs written for the festival by Hal Shaper, a renowned songwriter, which are sung with passion by talented South African Jews of all ages. The songs featured in the documentary evoke a yearning for a Jewish world that no longer exists in the Shtetls of Lithuania and Eastern Europe and highlight the power of the Yiddish language and Yiddish music. This remarkable revival of Yiddish song in Cape Town is another example of how South African Jews have been able to keep Lithuanian Jewish culture alive.
While the South African Jewish community has shrunk since its heyday in the 1970s to approximately 50,000, it is still an important Diaspora community. In addition, South African Jews make important contributions to every Jewish community they move to and bring their unique culture to their new homes.
Seeing the exhibit and the documentary cemented the kinship that I feel with my South African brothers and sisters. A few of my South African friends even made me an honorary South African Jew at the exhibit, an honour which I gladly accepted (I am a Litvak after all). One day I hope to make a pilgrimage to the Land of the Litvaks to experience South African Jewish life first hand. Until then, I will have to continue to learn about South Africa vicariously.
The December 8 screening of Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin at Beth Israel takes place at 4pm. For more information, visit