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Crouching Synagogue, Hidden Witness

Robyn Sassen

I question the value of my presence there, as a white woman amongst young black people who historically shouldn't want to be near me or my kind.

She sits ponderously in the centre of an area of Johannesburg. Behind her runs a little street that has been nicknamed "Gun Alley" within the last couple of years. The traffic light alongside her entrance is currently notorious for smash-and-grab thieves. Her pose is hampered or enhanced, depending upon where you're coming from, by the alcoves that have been cut into her sides. Rather than testaments to sacrosanctity, the alcoves are shop fronts and tributes to more hands-on economic values. But her little Jewish headdress remains intact. She is the Synagogue on Wolmarans Street.

Built in the late 19th century along the designs of the Haggia Sofia Church, an icon of Byzantium, for many years, this noble and solid red brick, domed building was the spiritual and communal "head office" of Johannesburg Jewry. Then apartheid got tossed, crime became a national statistic, the Jews moved north and the area was left to those who remain. The synagogue was bought about five years ago by a group of business people, led by a member of the Jewish community, who felt it an abysmal shame that such a beautiful icon of a bygone era was being left to rot in the wake of demographics. They bought this building and its surrounding establishment not in the interest of restoring a Jewish ethos, but in the realisation that the Synagogue on Wolmarans Street could become a hub of the surrounding metropolis. By giving it new life and tenants, it is no longer a place of refuge for drug lords and victims of crimes, but rather, it is now a mecca of shops, the arts, and a place for prayer on a Sunday.

Indeed, now the synagogue and her surrounding space is once again overflowing with enthusiastic members of the population. Granted, these people are not Jews, and the area is no longer upper class, but here and now, in this new place and time, the cultural buzz is loud and the heart beat of the city is palpable. The buildings that were once "snob estates" are now downtrodden and broken from the outside, and probably much worse from within. But the new vibe is playing from a different chord, now. The synagogue building was bought by a company running under the rubric "The Voice of Peace" and along these ostensibly clichéd lines, it's much like a pub where the regulars can go and watch soccer over a beer, undisturbed, and, after submitting to a body search by astute security men, they can then enjoy themselves in safety. No guns allowed in this alley.

The auditorium of the synagogue, still rather quaintly adorned with its stars of David and its solemn ghosts of ladies with gloves reeking of expensive perfume in the upstairs cloakrooms, is now a space for gigs, church meetings, and for that gospel-jazz fusion type of music that is beginning to proliferate here. Even the security guard has just released his first cd in the medium.

The Synagogue on Wolmarans Street fascinates me, for reasons of political correctness, I guess, but possibly also for something a tad deeper. My whiteness, my vulnerability, my femaleness, stands starkly against the black men drinking beer on a Sunday afternoon. Yet I'm drawn to this space because it is a place of my roots, too. The man who bought the complex, which comprises the synagogue, a communal hall, and a high school across the road, articulates similar feelings. But he also expresses sadness, and a feeling of being alone in his realisation of the historical value of this synagogue. The Synagogue on Wolmarans Street has stood by Jews through the apartheid era, the World Wars, and the exoduses that so many of them made from the late 19th century onwards. It was there for young immigrant Jews without access to the language or culture of Africa, and it represented stability and a sense of home for those elderly Jews who came as refugees, who would live on the back of Africa, but would never again see their own homes or families.

Here, indeed, is a building worthy of historical respect. South Africa has a governmentally supported strategy to historicize and protect certain monuments, but given all the other complex issues that this country is wading through, priorities lay elsewhere.

This week, a bunch of reformed street children and homeless youngsters are presenting a festival of performance and art at this synagogue: this is a showcase of the work they are doing at the rented High School premises. It'll be staged, with innovative puppetry, mime and dance, in the belly of this synagogue. It'll be cast in an atmosphere redolent with something surreal, and something very real, and it'll be what the people who live in this area needs. People will come. They'll have a good time. They'll applaud and dance wildly in the aisles. They may drink. They may fight. Stuff might happen.

I question the value of my presence there, as a white woman amongst young black people who historically shouldn't want to be near me or my kind. Sure, I want to see all the beautiful work that has been made in this space. Indeed, I love live performance for the sheer spectacle, but is it my recalcitrant Jewishness that speaks of foreboding in the thought of getting in my car and driving there tomorrow night? I can pretend to be as cool as I wish when I am in this neighbourhood, but people who live there might see me as representative of something from a terrible part of their history. Spontaneous violence between people with unpromising compromised challenges is not a new story. The people in the Central Business District of Johannesburg are not wealthy and many of them are unemployed. Life is hard there, and opportunistic crime is part of the territory. Crime is not only targeted toward white people, but also toward vulnerable, unaware, out-of-place people, who might appear as "soft".

This synagogue building has undoubtedly, over the last few years, served as a witness to more horrible things than communal strife. It is rumoured to have been a place of rough refuge to escapees from botched hijackings and bloody muggings. "Everyone we know has been touched by crime", a young girl in the area nonchalantly commented to me the other day. Yes, bad stuff does happen, here.

But am I courting it to go and see a festival in a synagogue that used to be in my cultural neck of the woods? Will the synagogue be my witness, too, if I go to see a gig or a concert, and "stuff happens"?

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