Chanukah in Africa


The coral creeper smothering the wrap around verandah of our house. Photo courtesy of Tess (nee Banfield) Harris

Chanukah in Africa

Jews had made their way to Rhodesia in its earliest days, before the turn of the century.  Josepth Schattil had come north before the Mafeking to Bulawayo railway was constructed.  He could not afford the mule wagon coach service so he walked the 500 miles. Abraham Paul was the baker at the Globe and Phoenix Mine in 1911.

When Rhodes first arrived at Fort Salisbury he was appalled at the lack of development by his BSAC (British South Africa Company), but noted that the Jews were coming.  It was a good sign.

Chanukah in Africa

But immigration of any sort was in fact slow. The White community rejected becoming an extension of South Africa in 1923 when it chose self government instead. During WWII immigration from enemy territories was banned. Fear of a flood of European refugees after WWII resulted in the Alien Act of 1946: only10% of immigrants could be aliens.  In order that no single minority became powerfully established, citizens of one country could comprise no more than 10% of the foreign quota or 1% of all entries.

So, we were lucky.  The Jewish community provided for so many of the town’s needs:  Sloman’s from the early 1920’s supplied the Globe and Phoenix Mine and all the small workers. There were also Teperson’s Bakery, Philipson’s Butchery and Paul’s Fruiters.

Still, the Jewish community was so small in 1946 that it could not always make a minyan (a quorum of ten male Jewish adults required for a prayer service). Despite my father’s marriage to a gentile, we were welcomed. This was ‘especially’ special coming after the acrimony from both sides of the family on their marriage. My father’s parents had worn black and mourned for a year.  My mother’s mother had a heart attack.

Nevertheless, in 1952 the Jewish Community Hall on Burma Road was opened by Dad with Abraham Paul laying the corner stone.

Chanukah, in Africa when I was growing up, was a simple minor Jewish holiday compared with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover.  Even with the advent of the new Jewish Community Hall, Chanukah didn’t warrant a service.  It was celebrated at home.

Chanukah, falling in early December, is close to Christmas. In America, the display of the menorah in the window and the giving of gifts has come to compete with Christmas lights and presents.

But in Rhodesia, the sun is burning brightest, hot enough to melt the candles on a menorah displayed in a window. Our home, in any case, was obscured by a profuse coral creeper clinging to the fly-screened, wrap-around verandah.

Instead, the dining room table was sprinkled with chocolate gelt (coins) wrapped in gold foil. We each had small mesh bags of gelt, and a dreidel (small spinning top) tucked under our serviettes on the first night.  Our Chanukah menorah held eight birthday size candles.  As my older brother approached his thirteenth birthday Dad made a special effort to get home before sundown to light the candles, one more each night for eight nights, and chant the appropriate prayers in Hebrew at the dinner table. Mom, uncustomarily, for she was no convert, even made a rare effort to make latkes (potato pancakes) symbolically cooked in oil.

Once the meal was underway, Dad would recount the Chanukah story: the only holiday celebrating a military event.  One old man, Mattathias, slew the man about to sacrifice a pig, so starting the Jewish revolt that in three years swept the Greeks out of all Judea.  The candles symbolized the miracle of one night’s oil lasting for eight nights as the recaptured Temple in Jerusalem was restored.

Why was it important? “It was all about not being afraid of the dark,” Dad said, “We all have the power to strike a match and light up someone’s life, and change the world.  Stand up for yourself, your values and beliefs like Mattathias.”

Thanks to Tess (nee Banfield) Harris  for photo of the front view of the house at #1 Silver Oaks Road, Que Que, Southern Rhodesia.


  • Betty Goolsby

    Reply Reply December 13, 2010

    Diana, I loved this account of the trials and hardships of a small group of Jews keeping the traditions of their faith, and I applaud your mother for making potato pancakes. It would be so easy to just ignore the traditions, since there was not a huge community, but there you were, quietly celebrating and sharing the stories of old about faith and God’s watching over His people. I always loved this holiday, both with my best friend’s family lighting the candles and in my own classroom, where loving Jewish mothers came to teach the driedle, bring the gelt and fry the latkes ,with applesauce on the side. How did you guys get gelt? Were there chocolatiers who made them and wrapped them in foil?
    As I said before, it is so easy to be lazy and skip the prayers and traditions of your religion if no one is around to remind you, so I think it is wonderful that your dad took the time to pass on all the high holy and not so holy occasions of your religion. Mazel Tov!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 13, 2010


      You’ve made a good point (as always): America is so much more tolerant and interested in learning about other cultures and then often modifying traditions or foods to fit our lifestyle so honoring the old but making it practical for the modern day. In Rhodesia it was decidedly better to be British and Church of England. The Jewish community wouldn’t have thought of frying latkes at school so everyone could try it. Being Jewish made one different. Acceptance to be free to make a living and be a part of public affairs and community development was enough. They were very generous in supporting charitable causes including the churches. But privately, in the social sense, they were very close knit and kept to themselves. The Jews of Que Que realised the importance of supporting the drive for a Jewish State and were very active through WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) in sending money, clothing and so on to Palestine and thereafter Israel in 1948.

      The gold wrapped chocolate gelt was minted in South Africa and was imported. I see very similar gelt here in the stores but its bubble gum inside.

      Bar mitzvah was denied my brother when the time came. The faith is carried through the maternal line and my mother never converted. It was a bitter experience for him. Mom and Dad theorized that we would be exposed to both religions and free to chose. They had the best of intentions but it left us betwixt and between and we knew it.


  • Tess Harris

    Reply Reply December 18, 2010

    Good to see the old house again!
    Also appreciate all those familiar jewish names as motivated Que Que traders in the 1950’s.


    PS Hope you received my email and pictures sent 21/11.

  • Nigel Prior

    Reply Reply February 23, 2011

    After the Banfields we (Priors…Basil, Ethne, Nigel, Clive and Ivor ) lived for a time at 1 Silver Oaks Rd( It was the last house they lived in before they retired to Hermanus I remember that it was next to the clinic before the Docs established a pvt practice….I have some very old pictures of the G&P because my grandfather and Uncles all worked there at one time or another. My father was a miner then later in African Personnel ( “Compound Manager”)….I even worked in the Assay Office with Billy Heap in the school holidays. I have many vivid memories of the G&P and Que Que.I will look through some of my late Moms pics if you are interested.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 23, 2011

      Nigel, Wonderful making contact with you. I remember you were in my class…gorgeous red hair if I remember correctly. I don’t know why you weren’t in the picture. Weren’t you friendly with Clive Menhennick? I would love to have early pictures of the MIne…it seems your family had a long and varied history there that must be very interesting.
      Number 1 Silver Oaks Road was a grand old rambling house wasn’t it!

  • Merril Moolman

    Reply Reply September 9, 2014

    I loved reading your stories and thanks to you I have found distant relatives of mine. Would you please be so kind as to forward me Nigel Prior’s email address or send him mine and ask him to contact me. I am Merril Moolman nee Gilchrist from Port Elizabeth, South Africa and I am busy with our family tree. I am sure Nigel will be able to help me fill in some missing gaps. Please let me know what you decide to do. Thanking You

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 10, 2014

      Merrill, I am glad the blog has been useful to you. I will forward your address to Nigel.

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