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Jews in Johannesburg, 1916-1948

In 1991, Mendel Kaplan produced a history of the Jews in Johannesburg from 1887 to 1915 (Founders and Followers, Vlaeberg, 1991). The Kaplan Centre is now conducting preliminary work for a potential second volume  which takes the story from the First World War until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

One of the book’s central themes is that the Jews of Johannesburg, despite being a marginalized minority, played a disproportionately large role in the public life of the city. The Jews were quick to adopt new ideas and technologies from the USA, including mass media (film and radio), mass production of fashion items and foods, discount chain-stores (OK Bazaars, Greatermans, Edgars, Truworths), large-scale property development in the suburbs and insurance policies for low incomes.

A second generation of South African-born Jews spoke English rather than Yiddish, moved into professions such as medicine and the law, contributed to arts, science and culture, and became important philanthropists.

Rising anti-semitism helped make Zionism the central creed of the community (at some cost to religious observance). A minority, liberals, unionists and communists, played important roles in organisations fighting for African rights. A number of Jewish women, allowed for the first time to move out of the home into institutional life, became outspoken public figures.

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