Conference Proceeding: Recovering the Lives of South African Jewish Women During the Migration Years, c1880-1945

Of all Jewish diaspora communities in modern times, social conditions unique to South Africa allowed Jewish women, part of a privileged white European settler minority, to play a pioneering role in fields, such as politics, law, literature, theatre and art, to a degree beyond that in the older, larger and more established Jewish communities of the United Kingdom and the United States. If individual Jewish women became conspicuous in the public sphere, their self-confidence was nurtured by a Jewish community unusual in its cohesiveness, rooted in its homogeneous origins in the rural communities in Lithuania and Latvia that forged a common identity that was reinforced within South Africa’s racially and ethnically divided society. This presentation, based on the author’s doctoral thesis, will survey the collective experiences of Jewish women - including migration, immigrant neighbourhoods, marriage, education and careers, welfare and Zionist societies and the women’s enfranchisement movement - and will juxtapose them to those of a small number of highly individualistic women, iconoclasts, whose cultural and political backgrounds predisposed them to rebel against accepted social and political conventions and to contribute (in some cases at great personal sacrifice), to the political and cultural life of South Africa.

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