By Adv. Craig Snoyman
In September 2016 a solitary, single, slightly tired woman arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. She did not find the streets paved with gold, nor were the people particularly friendly. With no family or friends, or even acquaintances, she has arrived in xenophobic South Africa with little fanfare and no more than a suitcase, a small amount of money and bucket-loads of grit and determination.
She made her way to the room that she had found on the internet and rented. This too, did not match what had been advertised. The room formed part of a larger house that was sub-let to other tenants as well. A small , grubby dingy room with a communal toilet and kitchen, substantially misrepresented by the photos that appeared on the website, was to be her new home for the immediate future. Not even having unpacked, she took a walk to the corner cafe, bought some cleaning detergent and got down to work, scrubbing down her room and the toilet. She was determined to make the best of whatever hurdles confronted her.
She was different from the other Zimbabweans. She was not an economic migrant. She was here for a higher purpose. She was here to convert to Judaism. For someone who knew nothing about Johannesburg, the area in which she had selected to live was slightly out of the more heavily populated Jewish suburbs, but it was within easy walking distance of an orthodox shul. This had been her priority.
Ruth (not her real name) had been in contact with the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa. She had been told that there were inadequate facilities in Zimbabwe for her to convert. If she wanted to convert, she would have to do this in South Africa. So she gave up her comfortable life in an affluent area of Harare and came to stay in the heart of the unknown, dangerous Johannesburg.
It was about two weeks after she arrived that I first met Ruth. It was on a Friday night, when walking back from shul. By coincidence, I had gone to that shul to make a minyon (required quorum of ten Jewish male adults). She was a new face in the congregation. The congregation is small and even with a mechitzah (participation separating men and women), you couldn’t really miss her. It is a very small congregation, usually all male, Ashkenazi and (to be politically incorrect) all white.
Ruth, the only woman present, was none of the above.
After the service, she was walking home with the head of security and headed in the same direction as me. The Security head asked me to walk her home as she lived only a few houses away from me, in the same street. With little further ado, she came to our Shabbas table and revealed to us the amazing story behind her desire to convert.
Ruth had grown up in one of the leafy green suburbs in Harare, part of a close-knit family. She had cared for her grandmother during her illness, but it was only on her deathbed, that her mother told Ruth that her grandfather was Jewish. Ruth was stunned!
And so began the investigation. Ruth’s aunt (her mother’s sister) had also been aware of the secret but had been sworn to secrecy. She told Ruth what she knew. Her grandfather was a well-known Jewish merchant who lived in a small town in the southern part of Rhodesia. She knew his name and she knew the name of the shop that he owned. Ruth went to the town to see what she could find out. However, this small outpost no longer had a Jewish community, and the trail ran cold. She had made various inquiries over the past ten years, including approaching Africa’s travelling rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silverhaft, but had come no closer to discovering the truth.
What remained unsaid, but what all of us realised, was that we were talking about colonial Rhodesia and love across the colour line was absolutely taboo at the time. Had anyone been aware of what had happened it would have resulted in a scandal that might well have ruined this man’s reputation and certainly his livelihood.
Her interest in Judaism had been sparked and she embarked on a course of discovery to learn more about Judaism and to discover more about her Jewish roots. The course of this road led to a trip to Israel, accompanied by her daughter. She had done some studying in Israel but wasn’t really ready to proceed further. She returned to Zimbabwe and resumed her life. Her daughter remained in Israel, converted, married, and is living in Israel.
Some years had passed, she was now more settled and had decided to proceed on her journey. It was now time for her to convert.
It was a coincidence that she had chosen to come to South Africa to convert. It was a coincidence that she had chosen to rent accommodation in the same street in which we live. It was a coincidence that I had gone to that shul that night. It was a coincidence that Ruth had accepted our Shabbas meal invitation. By a further coincidence, the only Zimbabwean that we knew, just happened to be Jewish. Coincidently, he also just happened to have grown up in that very town where her grandfather had lived. He just happened to be the son of the reverend who conducted the religious services in the small town, where everybody knew everybody. As the son of the “makulu-baas” (the big boss) of the Jewish community in the town, if anybody had any information about that time, it would be him. Further coincidently, he and his family just happened to be living around the corner from us. Again, just by coincidence, he had not severed his relationship with Zimbabwe when he emigrated, regularly returning to Zimbabwe on business.
And so Ruth was introduced to Boaz, who after hearing two sentences from Ruth, completed the description of the shop, the shops next to her grandfather’s shop as well as a general description of the town. He also knew who presently owned the shop. More importantly, he remembered her grandfather!
Opening a book entitled “Famous Jews of Rhodesia”, Boaz directed Ruth’s attention to a potted biography of her grandfather, together with a picture of him. After ten years of dead-ends, it took only two weeks in South Africa for her grandfather to be revealed to her.
A few weeks after Ruth’s initial shock, Boaz went on a business trip to Zimbabwe and took Ruth to visit the gravesite of her grandfather.
Arriving as a stranger in a strange land, Ruth has now learned of her past, formed a durable support base and having spent five tough years following the long, winding, and difficult road to an Orthodox conversion. This morning she went to the mikveh and participated in small socially distanced se’udah (festive meal). In a touching gesture, when she announced her new Hebrew name, she had also adopted her grandfather’s surname. Her long road continues to wind its way, leading to Jerusalem.
The unspoken, but equally incredible part of the story is about her grandfather. He was by all accounts a very prominent member of the Jewish community. He held national congregational office and was married to his wife for many years. He and his wife never had children. In Ruth’s own small way, the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone. She is now a proud Jewess; she has a son that has converted recently at his yeshiva in Israel and soon to be married. She also has a wonderful Kibutznik daughter and son-in-law with two beautiful grandchildren. Her family is a shoot that has grown from the stump of Zimbabwean Jewry, it is a branch that has borne new fruit.
“Isn’t it wonderful,” says Ruth, “how Hashem reveals the jigsaw pieces and lets us put them together, for us to create our own puzzle.”
About the writer:
Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.
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