Strewn across tables at the offices of the United Sisterhood in Johannesburg, hundreds of photographs, albums and minute books which helped inform this history

What this website is about

A neglected aspect of Jewish history

The story of the Jews in South Africa has been so thoroughly researched by scholars, biographers and film-makers that not many areas remain unexplored. But one of the most glaring omissions has been the role of the Progressive Jewish movement in this country. Scholars are now coming to realise that no history of South African Jewry is complete without an understanding of how this minority group impacted upon the wider community.

Progressive Jews (known in earlier years as Liberal or Reform Jews), were the first in this country to hold batmitzvahs, the first to include women in executive positions on synagogue management committees, the first to launch large-scale outreach programmes in the African townships. They pioneered interfaith initiatives, were the first to open their doors to “Jews of Colour” and their rabbis spoke out against social injustices, sometimes at personal cost.

The book: Mavericks inside the Tent

Mavericks Inside the Tent is a book published in 2020 by UCT Press with the support of the Kaplan Centre at the University of Cape Town, the first comprehensive history of the Progressive movement in South Africa from its beginnings in the late nineteen twenties until the early twenty first century, positioning it within its context in the wider Jewish community.

The author is Irwin Manoim, a researcher attached to the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, where he investigates neglected aspects of South African Jewish history. He was previously a journalist and author, and was joint founder and editor of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail (now called the Mail & Guardian). He has been a frequent speaker on Jewish themes around the country, and at Limmud in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and the UK.

This website

Given the vast scope of the subject matter – a national movement that at one point had two dozen congregations from Cape Town to Harare – the author’s original draft had to be considerably cut back for publication. The purpose of this web site has been to house some of the material which was dropped from the final version, including a number of chapters (labelled ‘Lost Chapters’ here), galleries of historic photographs and interesting source documents.

The website is therefore complementary to the book, rather than a stand-alone history of the Progressive movement. Much of the information on this website needs to be understood within the context of the book itself. Details of how to purchase the book can be found here.

An exhibition
 

The website and book were part of a larger project which included an exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, entitled Groundbreakers. The exhibition was intended to take place in late April or early May, but the national lock-down has postponed it. No definite date can be set yet, but it is hoped that it will take place later during 2020. The exhibition aims to supplement the book and website with additional photographic and video material, and also original artefacts. The exhibition has been designed in such a way that it is “mobile” and can be packed up and presented in other locations around the country. Announcements will be made as soon as the exhibition date has been confirmed.

Hosted by the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town

Write to us at kc@uct.ac.za.