Jewish Journal

A Tie That Binds

South African emigres cling to kinsman for comfort.

by Andrea Adelson

Posted on May. 1, 2003 at 8:00 pm

On the final night of the Pacific Jewish Film Festival in February, the South African emigre community jammed the theater to see the comedy about Christians and Jews in South Africa. Long after the credits ended, they stayed, kibbitzing in the aisles, hungering for their own countrymen.

Like other immigrant communities, many South Africans have yet to fully acclimate to the economic and cultural differences of living in the United States and cling to kinsman for comfort. But unlike other immigrants, South Africans are a rare group of refugees, because they find life harsher in their adopted homeland, and they are nostalgic for the privileged lifestyle they abandoned.

Most gave up economic ease and political uncertainty in their native home for a more competitive economic climate but worry-free personal freedom in the United States. San Diego and Orange counties are now home to an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 South Africans.

"I didn't want to start in a place that had no future," said Clive Goldberg, 36, of Irvine, a financial executive. He left South Africa after finishing college and military duty in 1990. White paranoia was near its zenith then, as was political upheaval before apartheid's end in 1994.

About the same time, Hazel Dyer and her late husband, Charles, also left their home. Her three children preceded them.

"It's damn hard to immigrate when you're 50," said Dyer, now 65, who works as administrator of Irvine's Congregation Beth Jacob, founded in the '80s over a bowling alley by former South Africans.

About 42 percent of its Orthodox congregants are South African expatriates, themselves descendants of immigrants who left Latvia and Lithuania in the early 1900s. The shul is one of the few local places known for its South African ties, as English-speaking expatriates blend into the workforce and neighborhoods.

"I have friends in Cape Town who think I'm crazy," Dyer said, explaining that they tell her, "'You could live like a queen.'" Money alone cannot recoup for missing soccer games, piano recitals and ballet performances, Dyer said. "I'm not the granny from thousands of miles away. I know them," she said of her eight grandchildren.

The South Africans left behind cohesive Jewish communities with kosher stores and Jewish day schools, where intermarriage rates were low and Orthodox shuls were nearby. They also gave up housemaids and affluence.

South Africa's government quotas, only recently loosened, permitted couples to extract assets worth no more than 200,000 rand, today worth just $24,000 in U.S. currency. Even so, South Africans gravitate to the United States, pulled by family ties and prospects for opportunity.

More recently, Australia and New Zealand are the choice destinations for those in self-imposed exile. The rand's value is stronger against the local currency, and cultural differences are fewer, such as driving on the left.

"It's not easy," said Michael H. Wolf, a Tustin printer, who relocated from Johannesburg in 1986. Uneasy about South Africa's political situation, he also foresaw political trouble in Angola and wanted to avoid military service by his four children, one of whom was nearing graduation.

"We were all very spoiled with servants and wonderful vacations. It's not the same lifestyle," he said of the United States.

South African parents had the leisure to be deeply involved in their children's lives. They also could more easily control their exposure to popular culture with a government-censored media.

"It was a shock," Goldberg said of his initial reaction to neighbors. Families required two incomes to support high consumption and granted their children more independence.

Seven years ago, fear of violence forced Ruth Ableman, 66, to follow her children to the United States, leaving behind an ill husband and an unsold home. Grimly, her actions proved prescient. Her niece, stepping outside her Johannesburg home, was abducted and murdered 18 months ago. "This is a never-ending story," she said.

Ableman, who works in a small business, consoles herself by joining a lunch group that has held monthly get-togethers since 1994. The semiofficial name is South African Ladies Lunch, but Ableman calls it the South African Grannies Association. "You all know what you left behind," she said.

Immigrant enclaves dot Southern California. However, English-speaking South African communities are less visible.

"The first generation of immigrants will stick together," said Pamela S. Nathan, president of the South African Jewish American Community, a San Diego group of about 400 families that provides support to recent emigres. Last year, the group assisted 15 families; five years ago, the figure was double, Nathan estimated.

The group puts on near-monthly get-togethers, partly to shred immigrant insularity. "That's one of the challenges: to get them outside the temple, to get them to participate in the broader community," she said. "The tendency to stick to their kind is understandable. It's the second generation that really will assimilate."

Immigration to the United States from South Africa has dropped substantially since the mid-1990s, said David Hirson, a Newport Beach immigration lawyer, who left Johannesburg in 1980. Involvement in the Jewish community helped him build business relationships and more quickly integrate into U.S. culture.

"In South Africa, you knew everyone around," he said. "It's easy to be connected. Here, it's less personal."

Even with relative stability, South Africans are still leaving, but for different reasons. Much has improved: real estate is appreciating, crime is abating and social life reviving. But young whites now leave home for economic opportunity. Preference quotas at universities and by employers are likely to favor blacks, who outnumber whites 8-1.

"Our parents think it's the most wonderful place," Goldberg said. "I don't have that feeling of allegiance. Nothing's drawing me back."

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