Recent­ly invit­ed to speak at South Africa’s first-ever fes­ti­val of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, Anne Lands­man shares the sto­ry of her vis­it and the dis­cov­er­ies she made there as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The first-ever Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val in South Africa took place in Cape Town on May 22, 2016 at the Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter on Hat­field Street, not too far from the gar­dens that were plant­ed by the Dutch East India Com­pa­ny in the 1600s to feed their sailors fruits and veg­eta­bles en route to the East, there­by bring­ing Euro­pean set­tlers to the tip of Africa for the first time. 

This Jew­ish cam­pus, which includes the Gar­dens Shul (cel­e­brat­ing its 175th anniver­sary this year), the Jacob Gitlin Library, the Holo­caust Cen­ter, the Jew­ish Muse­um, and the Café Riteve, is in the very heart of the city, close to the Hous­es of Par­lia­ment, close to where my grand­moth­er once lived, close to the stu­dent digs I shared when I was fin­ish­ing up my under­grad­u­ate degree at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town. It is also near High­lands House, Cape Town’s Jew­ish home for the aged, where my moth­er spent her last days. I had not been back to South Africa since she died in 2010 and was long­ing to return, so when I was invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in the Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, I jumped at the opportunity. 

I left South Africa in 1981 and moved to New York City, where I have lived ever since. The Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of New York is 1.1 mil­lion, by recent counts, while the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Cape Town is around 16,000 souls. Rough­ly 90 per­cent of the 80,000 Jews who live in South Africa are of Lithuan­ian descent, mak­ing the South African Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty the largest pock­et of Lit­vaks in the world.

As a New York­er and an Upper West Sider, I take the avail­abil­i­ty of Jew­ish life with its vast array of diverse reli­gious and cul­tur­al offer­ings for grant­ed. What would it be like to return to the small, tight-knit com­mu­ni­ty I had known as a young per­son? And what would the community’s response be to this inau­gur­al cel­e­bra­tion of local Jew­ish culture?

When I asked Cindy Moritz, one of the festival’s founders along with Joanne Jow­ell and Viv Anstey, why it had come into being now, she explained that noth­ing like it had exist­ed in the com­mu­ni­ty before, and that, in part­ner­ship with the Gitlin Library, it was intend­ed to ele­vate the pro­file of Jew­ish books and lit­er­a­ture, empha­siz­ing their role in Jew­ish cul­ture as well as in the greater society. 

The oth­er answer,” she con­tin­ued, is that the polit­i­cal cli­mate has meant the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is often linked to dis­sent and neg­a­tiv­i­ty when it comes to Israel and reports on the Mid­dle East. This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to remind the wider pop­u­lace of an aspect of cul­tur­al val­ue that the Jew­ish peo­ple have con­tributed in the past, and do still add here and around the world. It seeks to be non-polit­i­cal and non-reli­gious, to embrace all who want to participate.”

Read Part II of Anne Landsman’s dis­patch here »

Anne Lands­man is the author of The Row­ing Les­son, a 2009 final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Literature.

Relat­ed Content:

Anne Lands­man grew up in Worces­ter, a small South African town in the shad­ow of the Brandwacht moun­tains.” After com­plet­ing her under­grad­u­ate degree at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town, Anne set­tled in New York City, where she has lived ever since. Her sec­ond nov­el, The Row­ing Les­son, was a 2009 final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Literature.

Dis­patch from South Africa’s First Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, Part I

Dis­patch from South Africa’s First Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, Part II