Doornfontein

‘WHAT IS IT??’

I’d been running to catch up with the elderly man before he passed through the security gate of his house.  He was wearing a yarmulke, and tzitzit were hanging out of his shirt.
‘Sorry, I’m trying to find the Lions Shul.  I believe it’s somewhere around here.’
The deer-caught-in-the headlights look faded a little.  He pointed to the south.
‘It’s two miles down Harrow Road and it no longer operates.’

Doornfontein’s Lions Synagogue, a candidate venue for my grandparents’ wedding, had been an optional extra.  I’d really wanted to see 45a Beit Street.  From an earlier encounter with Google Street View, I’d known what to expect: a three-storey brick warehouse with roller shutters at street level and wire mesh to its first-floor windows, with a sign proclaiming the address mounted over a pair of white double doors and another – JDF – painted in bold black capitals against a white background on an upper parapet.  From the building’s style, I could see that it had been there for several decades, way past the time when the site was occupied by a dwelling: my father’s birthplace and the first evidence of a street address – other than the Pretoria Gaol – that I have for Harry.

Doornfontein – or ‘thorn fountain’ – is a suburb immediately to the east of Johannesburg’s town centre.  It was laid out in 1889 and its streets planted to blue gum and cypress trees, giving the area a wooded atmosphere.  By 1892 its population was estimated at around 2,000[1], at a time when new immigrants were establishing themselves within the Reef’s economy.

In the decades that followed, Doornfontein, which had the added attraction of its own reservoir – a luxury in a thirsty landscape – became a ‘posh’ suburb sought out by reasonably well-off western European Jews.  Beit Street – named after the gold and diamond magnate – became its main shopping street.  A horse and buggy system provided ready access for residents to their businesses in the town centre, another reason for its popularity.[2]

As the community grew and consolidated, so did the threshold for ethno-specific facilities and services.  Schools, kosher butchers, delis and synagogues followed the march of middle-class, middle-income Jewish families to suburbs to the east and north of Johannesburg’s centre.  The period immediately after Union saw Doornfontein consolidate its position as the centre of middle-class Jewish life in Johannesburg, with the addition of new kosher facilities and several institutions that catered to the needs of disadvantaged members of the community.[3]  It prompted the diarist, H.W. Wedcliffe, who had come from an assimilated Edinburgh community, to remark that, ‘…for the first time in my life I see in Beit Street what a long Jewish business street is like.  Above each shop the placard of the owner is in Yiddish.  I hear Yiddish spoken wherever I go.  The situation is not what I am accustomed to from childhood: to be a Jew at home and a man abroad.  Here in an area now so close to me I experience the thrill of being a Jew anywhere and at any time.’[4]

Today’s Beit Street and the building that sits on the site of my father’s first home bear little resemblance to the charming streetscape of the early twentieth century.

During the Great Depression, much of Doornfontein was bought up by property speculators who turned it into slum housing for black workers.  After this population was relocated to the urban fringe, the slums were cleared and, in the mid 1930s, replaced with the industrial buildings one finds there today.  If black people have since returned to the area, the Jewish community has resolutely stayed away.  Which made my stumbling on the frightened man all the more extraordinary.  I wondered if he was the last of his kind in Doornfontein.

Perhaps the latest Census return could tell me.  I went onto Statistics South Africa’s website with high hopes.  I clicked on the ‘Find Statistics’ tab and put ‘City of Johannesburg’ into the ‘Search Municipality’ dialog box.  I drilled down to ‘Johannesburg’, having noted that Doornfontein was included in this wider area.  I clicked on ‘People’ and scrolled down the page expecting – as I would of the Australian Census – a table on ethnicity.  There wasn’t one.

I didn’t find the Lions synagogue either although I’m reliably informed it’s still there. I’m also told that there is more than one Jewish person still living in Doornfontein.

[1]              Cripps, E.A. Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886 – 1906 University of South Africa, 2012, p102.

[2]              Rubin, M. The Jewish Community of Johannesburg, 1886 – 1939: landscapes of reality and imagination, University of Pretoria 2004, pp 49-51.

[3]              Ibid. pp95, 99, 107.

[4]              Ibid, p97.

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2 thoughts on “Doornfontein

  1. Lovely post, Rose. And I remember the day so clearly. I love the picture of old Doornfontein. I wish it still looked like that. I think I should try to find out more about the Lion Synagogue and whether it is possible to have access to it, before you arrive in May. And also, just exactly where it is…

    • Thanks Jacqui. I was thinking of you as I wrote this post. There is someone who runs Doornfontein tours on an intermittent basis. I’m going to get in touch to see if I can swing one.

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