‘What we have are the Jewish Orthodox marriage application records, divorce, conversion and adoption records for the Johannesburg area and the surrounding towns/areas…If you want to search under any of the above categories that we do keep, you will need to provide me with full names and surnames of the people, the full date of marriage and shul of marriage…Please also be aware that there are UOS (Union of Orthodox Synagogues) admin fees that apply to cover the searching as well as manual and electronic archival retrieval and scanning of documents etc. These fees can range from R300- to R800 and sometimes more than that; it all depends on the extent of the search…’
It was as if I’d been dismissed from class. I was less put out by the open-ended nature of the fee quote – although I don’t like entering into such arrangements – than that Nirit Selbst, custodian of archival records at the Johannesburg Beth Din, had asked for the very details I was trying to establish: the date and synagogue of my grandparents’ marriage.
I tucked the response into an email folder and mentally closed the file. That was in September 2012. Two years later, finding myself in Johannesburg and bruised from the year-long Home Affairs encounter, I reconsidered. I offered to come into the Beth Din’s office and do the research myself. And I’d pay whatever fees were involved.
It was one of those hot dry days that precede the set-your-clock-by-the-4pm-storm that is so typical of a Highveld summer. For the sake of decorum, I donned trousers – the black and white jazzy pair I’d picked up at a pop-art shop in Sydney’s Darlinghurst district – and teamed them up with a plain short-sleeve shirt and sandals.
I was buzzed in through a security gate at the street entrance. There was another check at the entrance to the administration office and a third one at the staff door where Nirit was waiting to meet me. Her manner was friendly, a nice contrast to the long-distance exchange of 2012. Barely five-foot tall, I guessed her to be in the late thirties. She was wearing dark trousers and a long-sleeve top. My gaze came to rest on her too-perfect hair; from the parting, I could tell that it was a sheitel.
We walked to a small anteroom which opened into a vault where the records were kept, its entrance secured by a thick door like one you would find in a bank. Against each wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves randomly packed with boxes, books and folders.
Nirit pointed to the stacks which held records for my period of interest. I started pulling out books, getting onto my knees to reach the lower shelves. I piled the books on the small wooden desk in the anteroom and started working my way through them. A man in a black frock coat and yarmulke – I assumed he was a rabbi – came into the anteroom to look for something. I read into his sideways glance a flicker of distaste. Perhaps it was my uncovered arms. Or my imagination.
After an hour, I wandered over to the accounts section to make a donation. When she heard where I came from, the woman handling the transaction started talking about her son who lived in Bondi. She had visited Australia twelve times, she said. Despite this, I detected a singularly Eastern Suburbs-centric view of Sydney which tends to form in people who don’t stray far from the Bondi bubble.
The conversation drifted to the topic of Sydney’s property prices. The woman told me that her son resented ‘all the Chinese buying up property because it was preventing him from getting into the market.’ I wondered if I should tell her about the investment rules that limit non-resident foreign nationals to buying property ‘off-the-plan’; and that such development occurs mostly in suburbs remote from Bondi. That in looking for something to buy, her son was most likely competing with cashed-up locals or other migrants – including South Africans – with the same rights to residency as he had. There was a lot I could say about a myth rooted in the type of prejudice that she and I had grown up with. Instead, I gave a sympathetic nod and waited for my receipt.
There was no record of marriage application in the Beth Din archives. I might have known.
 An ecclesiastical court that presides over, among others, kosher certification of restaurants and food manufacturers, conversion to Judaism, bills of divorce, questions relating to burial practice, authorising who can carry out circumcisions, adjudicating technical points of Jewish law, etc. In Orthodox Judaism, it consists of three observant Jewish men who are often rabbis.
 Yiddish word for the wig worn by some Jewish Orthodox married women to comply with the requirement of Jewish law to cover their hair.