Cape Town's Jewish History on Display

Nearly 500 Years of Culture in South Africa's 'Mother City'

courtesy of gardens shul

By JTA

Published April 29, 2013.
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British sailor Sir Francis Drake described this city on South Africa’s southwestern coast as “the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth.”

Latter-day travelers seem to agree. In 2012 alone, Cape Town was named the second-best city in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveller, the favorite city worldwide in the London Telegraph’s travel awards, and the best beach destination in Africa by the World Travel Awards.

If anything is iconic of a city with roots dating back to the beginning of European settlement in 1652, when it was established by the Dutch East India Company as a refreshment station for ships sailing to the spice-rich Far East – it is Table Mountain. The flat-topped peak that presides over Cape Town was named recently one of the New7Wonders of Nature. The top can be reached in five minutes by a cable car with a rotating circular cabin that allows for panoramic views of the city and beyond.

For a spot of retail therapy, pop along to the V & A Waterfront in the heart of Cape Town’s harbor. Here you will find Nobel Square, boasting South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize laureates cast in bronze, as well as the passenger terminal for Robben Island, a half-hour ferry ride away.

Today a World Heritage Site, during apartheid the island was a place of incarceration for political prisoners, including the country’s most famous statesman, Nelson Mandela. Tours include visits to the tiny cell where he was kept for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, as well as interaction with ex-political prisoners.

A good place to start exploring Jewish Cape Town is the Hatfield Campus, a hive of activity that includes the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the South African Jewish Museum and the historic Great Synagogue, home to the oldest congregation in the country. Affectionately known as the Gardens Shul due to its position in the Company’s Gardens, which was established by the early Dutch settlers to grow fresh produce for restocking ships, it is regarded as the “mother synagogue” of South Africa.

Originally built in 1863, the synagogue’s present edifice was erected in 1905 to accommodate the Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe. A masterpiece of Edwardian architecture, it is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent synagogues in the world.

The congregation’s first services were held on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1841, at Helmsley Place, the home of Benjamin Norden, which today is part of the luxury Mount Nelson Hotel, a few minutes walk from the Hatfield Campus and an excellent base from which to explore the city.

To enter the Mount Nelson is to encounter a world of timeless elegance. Though situated amid the cosmopolitan city’s hubbub, you would never know it once within the bounds of this nine-acre oasis with its lush gardens.

Opened in 1899 to cater exclusively to the first-class passengers of the Union Castle Lines who made the sea voyage from England to the Cape, the five-star landmark still satisfies the most discerning traveler. Its Librisa Spa is the perfect antidote to a hard day’s touring and features a gym, steambath, sauna, plunge pool and treatments. The hotel’s Planet Restaurant prides itself on locally inspired cuisine focusing on fresh seasonal produce. We shared a five-course vegetarian menu of simple ingredients in unusual combinations – in each case a taste sensation.


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