Klerksdorp is a city about 2 hours out of Johannesburg, the centre of Jewish life in South Africa. It was once a gold mining town which in its heyday was home to about 200 Jewish families. But in the early- to mid-twentieth century, a migration occurred as the younger generation - born in South Africa, professional and ambitious - left the small towns for the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Today there are only about 30 Jews left in Klerksdorp.
So how did my husband and I - newly married, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - wind up in Klerksdorp for Passover in 2012? Well, that is truly a Pesach Tale….
I am a born-and-bred third-generation South African who made Aliya after university and met my American husband in Israel where he was studying and living.
When we (somewhat impulsively) decided to spend our first married Pesach in Africa, we reached out to the community there to find out if there was a shul without a Rabbi who would appreciate our help over the festival. It turned out that there was a shul that more than qualified...The rabbinical post had been vacant for well over 15 years and the Chazan, an elderly man who had led the services and served as the lay leader of the community had recently passed away. This community now found itself without a minyan, a Rabbi or a chazan. We decided that going to Klerksdorp to run their annual communal seder would be a perfect way to celebrate Pesach.
My own grandfather grew up in a town similar to - and not very far from - Klerksdorp. He often told us of his childhood in Parys (no, I don’t mean ‘Paris’). In his heavy South African accent he would speak about how he would take the chickens down the road to the Shochet - the kosher butcher /ritual slaughterer- who would slaughter them while he waited. Parys, like almost all small towns in South Africa, has few, if any Jews left. It still has a Jewish Cemetery, where my great-grandparents are buried. So there was something nostalgic about “returning” to Klerksdorp for Pesach. As a South African married to a New York Jew and now living in Israel, I couldn’t wait to show my husband a world that was so tied up to my identity and yet a world that didn’t quite exist anymore.
We were told to expect about 40 people at the seder, many of whom would be coming from nearby towns where they were the only remaining Jews. We were told that most of the people at the seder would be over the age of 70. We brainstormed how to make a fun seder. We made games and wrote songs. My husband planned a rap.
And so I found myself standing in the Klerksdorp shul kitchen the day before Pesach. I was peeling potatoes. And as I looked onto the African setting out the window- I had a funny feeling that my great grandmother stood doing similar preparations in her Pesach kitchen in a similar town so many moons ago.
Suddenly I felt a tap on my back. I looked behind me to see a little old lady leaning on her walking stick, peering over my shoulder to see what I was doing. I stepped aside to show her that I was dutifully peeling fresh cold potatoes from the pot.
She said “Do you know whose pot that is?”
I felt like I was about to be reprimanded. In my nostalgic daydream, had I mistakenly used a chametz pot from the shul kitchen? Or had I taken something that wasn’t mine?
“Oh I am sorry! I found it here on the Pesach shelf! I didn’t realise…”
She waved my apologies away with a smile. “You didn’t do anything wrong. “ she said.
“Just that was my mother's Pesach pot. When she passed, we donated it to the shul. It’s nice to see potatoes back in that pot.”
The central focus and Mitzvah of the seder night is to engage in a dialogue. It is a dialogue which has been spoken for generations. We have been celebrating Pesach by eating matzah and marror and telling the story of the exodus for so long, that perhaps we aren’t just telling our children the story- we are telling the myriads of stories of our ancestors who themselves told the story and have now become part of the epic story that we tell. On Seder Night we don’t just tell about the Exodus from Egypt, because interwoven into that tale are national and personal memories.
It is our duty and our deep privilege to tell the story of our People and the seders they have celebrated, year after year, link after link in an everlasting glorious chain.
I recently heard that last year - for the first time since Jews have been in Klerksdorp - there was no communal Pesach seder in the town. The elderly had passed on. They younger people had moved away. The shul that had housed us was up for sale. It was indeed the end of an era, and I was grateful to have had an opportunity to be a part - however briefly - of the small communities and faithful traditions that have kept the Jewish people alive.
And now I have a story to tell my children of a Pesach quite unlike any Pesach they have experienced before. It’s the story of their ancestors and the story of their destiny.
Shalvie grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and received her BSc in Maths and Finance from the University of South Africa. She studied Jewish thought and textual analysis at the Nishmat Seminary in Jerusalem. Shalvie has taught in high schools in Johannesburg, as well as at many seminaries in Israel, both for newly observant students as well as those with religious backgrounds.
She also ran a youth group for English-speaking teens in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She currently teaches Jewish Studies at Hasmonean Girls High School as well as teaching for various parts of the Aish family and raising her own family.