Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

Steven-Cohen (2)

Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? South Africa has a tradition of Jews taking leading roles in innovative arts as patrons and audiences. With the changing nature of South African society and the community, will this tradition wither? Performance artist Steven Cohen, who has received international acclaim, is shown in the photograph

WHEN Israeli-born concert pianist Aviram Reichert performed in South Africa in the early 2000s on a five-week programme, auditoriums were packed everywhere. Having performed as a soloist with major philharmonic orchestras worldwide, Reichert commented that it was “very seldom that you encounter such audiences” in their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Close to two decades later, internationally acclaimed Israeli-born pianist Amit Yahav joined the Odeion String Quartet last week to perform Chopin and Dvorak at the Linder auditorium in Johannesburg. The music was superb, but the hall was half empty; mostly old people came to hear him, a few of them Jewish.

Jews are almost absent in the arts today, particularly young ones. Younger Jews have either emigrated, are doing business degrees and are uninterested in the arts, or have become deeply religious.

In the past, the most innovative artistic individuals, institutions and the bums on seats, were Jews: the likes of Steven Cohen, William Kentridge, Moving Into Dance founded by Sylvia Glasser, The Market Theatre by Barney Simon, the National Children’s Theatre by Joyce Levinsohn, Daphne Kuhn’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square, Norman Nossel’s generous support of classical music, the Johannesburg Musical Society by Avril Rubinstein, to name but a few.

It’s natural that each generation becomes bored with the previous one’s ethos, in arts and elsewhere. Teaching staff at South African universities report that when struggle musician Johnny Clegg and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are mentioned, many students have either never heard of them, or refer to them as ‘old white men’.

Added to this is the pressure of the social media generation, and its impatience with such precious memories. This generation doesn’t read books, walks around with its collective headphones on and cellphones at hand, not talking to anyone, engaging instead with virtual friends on digital platforms. The digital age seems unstoppable, with everything being gobbled up and digitised.

Yet there are signs here and there of a counter-revolution, small green shoots appearing with an ‘analogue’ ethos, where it matters that you can touch something with your hands, read a physical book and have it on your bookshelf, see people face to face, not just on a screen, and so on. One small example is the revival of vinyl records, because people find digital CDs too cold in their ‘perfectness’. Manufacturers of vinyl records are running at full capacity.

Back with the arts: while Jews are withdrawing, it is ironic to see the young Afrikaans community, always highly cultured and now largely freed from apartheid’s stigma, producing excellent artworks engaging openly with post-apartheid South Africa.

As an example, a courageous Afrikaans-language film currently on circuit called Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen, looks piercingly into tough issues in Afrikaans culture. It focuses on a sensitive 18-year old Afrikaans boy (played by Schalk Bezuidenhout) from a conservative, rural village. He is drafted into the South African army during the 1985 state of emergency when unrest was at its peak. Being musical and talented, he enters the army choir. There are almost no black people in the movie; it is entirely about what young white, mainly Afrikaans boys faced in the army and the propaganda they were fed by the mainly Afrikaans regime. A brave movie for young Afrikaners to make.

SA Jews also went through the horror of apartheid and the army. They too have cutting edge stories to tell and explore. Are there storytellers brave enough to do it, in this generation? Will the pendulum swing for Jews, and pull back into its ranks innovative, young people? Ultimately, it always does. In the meantime, green shoots must be nurtured.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 


2 thoughts on “Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

  1. In my experience the Jewish community of SA, since the fall of apartheid in SA and the birth of it in Israel, has become more conservative. The first place you will notice this is in the arts, in attendance and in what it produces.


  2. Good one, Geoff. I am sure there are a multitude of reasons for this but one might be that the younger Jewish population has not had the benefit of being exposed to the arts. It might be that as what is left of the community becomes more religious, music, theater and the arts in general have less of a role in their lives.


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