Keep­ing the Faith in Ma­puto: Cap­i­tal City of Mozam­bique

Forward Magazine - - Travel - By Anne Joseph

Mozam­bique is a great place to be Jewish, says Sam Levy, one of the lay lead­ers of the small Jewish com­mu­nity in Ma­puto, the South­ern African coun­try’s cap­i­tal city. “There’s no anti-Semitism here. The re­li­gious lead­er­ship ac­tively cul­ti­vates tol­er­ance and un­der­stand­ing.” Al­though the Jewish com­mu­nity’s core mem­ber­ship num­bers around 35, it is still a part of the Council of Re­li­gions, an as­so­ci­a­tion of Mozam­bique’s dif­fer­ent re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions. Just over half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is Chris­tian and around 28% is Mus­lim, but, Levy says, “We have a role, we’re counted.”

We’re stand­ing inside Ma­puto’s syn­a­gogue — its cool, white­washed walls of­fer wel­come respite from the trop­i­cal rain­fall and hu­mid­ity out­side. Sit­u­ated in the cen­ter of the city, sur­rounded by a neatly man­i­cured lawn, it is the only syn­a­gogue in Mozam­bique. Al­though there are guards who pro­tect it, the se­cu­rity is no dif­fer­ent from any other prop­erty in Ma­puto whose own­ers can af­ford it.

Natalie Ten­zer-Silva, like Levy, is a mem­ber of Ho­nen Dalim — Co­mu­nidade Ju­daica de Moçam­bique, Mozam­bique’s Jewish com­mu­nity. Orig­i­nally from South Africa, Ten­zer-Silva and her fam­ily have been liv­ing in Ma­puto, where she runs a travel busi­ness, for more than 20 years. Johannesburg may be just under a five-hour drive from Ma­puto, but Ten­zer-Silva has no in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing. “I love ev­ery­thing about be­ing here,” she says.

Built in the Por­tuguese Baroque Re­vival style, the syn­a­gogue’s grand, ex­te­rior front fa­cade and vi­brant blue roof cre­ate a strik­ing im­pres­sion. Orig­i­nally con­structed in 1926, the syn­a­gogue was fully re­stored in 2013. The inside is less elab­o­rate; nonethe­less, its vaulted ceil­ing and ma­hogany in­te­rior give the space a sense of awe and beauty.

Light fil­ters in through sev­eral case­ment windows, and high up on the rear wall there’s a large cir­cu­lar win­dow filled with blue- and green-glazed glass panes in the shape of a Star of David. As Ten­zer-Silva shows me the sanc­tu­ary, her pride, af­fec­tion and en­thu­si­asm for the com­mu­nity and its his­toric build­ing are more than a lit­tle in­fec­tious.

The com­mu­nity has never had the num­bers to sup­port a rabbi, Ten­zer-Silva says. Ser­vices are led, pre­dom­i­nantly by Levy, us­ing prayer book­lets that have been writ­ten in English, Por­tuguese and He­brew specif­i­cally for the com­mu­nity. “You can choose which lan­guage you want to read it in, but it‘s not a stress. It’s so re­laxed, ev­ery­body feels com­pletely com­fort­able,” she says. “When we need a minyan, Kad­dish for some­one or it’s a Jewish hol­i­day and we have to pre­pare some­thing, ev­ery­one mat­ters and you ac­tu­ally feel needed.”

I’d been drawn to Mozam­bique for the last two years, since I’d dis­cov­ered that my Bri­tish-born grand­fa­ther Joseph Lazarus and his older brother and busi­ness part­ner, Mau­rice, or Moses, had lived and worked in the port city of Lourenço Mar­ques (present-day Ma­puto) from the late 19th cen­tury un­til 1908. Here, in the newly ap­pointed, cos­mopoli­tan cap­i­tal of Por­tuguese colo­nial pre-in­de­pen­dence Mozam­bique, the broth­ers es­tab­lished one of the first — and most suc­cess­ful — com­mer­cial photography houses in the city.

My re­search re­sulted in a fam­ily hol­i­day to Mozam­bique, and Ma­puto was our last stop. Mau­rice Lazarus was elected to sit on the in­au­gu­ral ex­ec­u­tive committee of the Jewish com­mu­nity, and, as I en­tered the syn­a­gogue, I saw his name listed on a board in the small foyer. The un­ex­pected feel­ing of con­nec­tion and pride I had at that mo­ment would re­cur in the days that fol­lowed as we ex­plored the city, walk­ing past build­ings and through districts that the Lazarus broth­ers had chron­i­cled over 100 years be­fore.

The first Jewish con­gre­ga­tion was founded in 1899, at a time when Lourenço Mar­ques — for­mally known as De­lagoa Bay — was un­der­go­ing ma­jor growth and eco­nomic ex­pan­sion. The dis­cov­ery of gold and di­a­monds in South Africa re­sulted in an in­flux of im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing Jews. Lourenço Mar­ques was then, ac­cord­ing to the Lazarus broth­ers, “un­ques­tion­ably the most pic­turesque place in South­ern Africa and one that no trav­eler to the Cape should fail to visit.”

One such trav­eler was Rev­erend Dr. Joseph Her­man Hertz (author of the Hertz Chu­mash, the stan­dard Chu­mash of the An­glo-Jewish com­mu­nity), who pro­posed the es­tab­lish­ment of a Jewish com­mu­nity. He’d come to Lourenço Mar­ques from Johannesburg, South Africa, in De­cem­ber 1899, hav­ing been ex­pelled by President Paul Kruger on ac­count of his pro-Bri­tish ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing the Boer War. Al­though Hertz’s stay was brief — just one week — he im­pressed upon the Jews of the city the need to es­tab­lish a ceme­tery and a syn­a­gogue, as well as ed­u­ca­tional and so­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

It to ok them some time, Levy said. Un­til the con­se­cra­tion of the syn­a­gogue in 1926, ser­vices were held in pri­vate homes us­ing a mix of Sephardic and Ashke­nazi tra­di­tions, which re­flected the di­verse back­ground of the com­mu­nity.

When Mozam­bique gained in­de­pen­dence from Por­tu­gal in 1975, the syn­a­gogue was na­tion­al­ized, along with other houses of wor­ship. It was aban­doned and later used as a ware-

house. Amid a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of hos­til­ity to­ward or­ga­nized re­li­gion, prac­tic­ing Jewish life in Mozam­bique came to a halt and did not re­turn un­til the late 1980s, when the syn­a­gogue was re­turned to the com­mu­nity, thanks to the ini­tia­tive and cam­paign ef­forts of a local non-Jewish busi­ness­man. By 1994, Jewish com­mu­nal life had been re­vi­tal­ized and the syn­a­gogue reded­i­cated.

How­ever, its lo­ca­tion was not widely known. Shortly af­ter Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Larry Her­man first ar­rived in Ma­puto from Is­rael in 2000, he asked a taxi driver to take him to the syn­a­gogue. But, Her­man says, “He took me to the Ge­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum which had a Star of David on it.” “Then, the next week, a taxi driver took me to a mosque down­town, in­sist­ing it was the ‘Jewish Church.’” Fi­nally, the owner of a restau­rant gave him the cor­rect lo­ca­tion.

“I went and there were three men stand­ing in the mid­dle of the sanc­tu­ary around an old metal desk [that was] draped with a blue cloth,” he tells me. “It was re­ally run­down — the roof was leak­ing and sag­ging, and there were some old wooden benches pushed up against the wall.” But Her­man was warmly wel­comed, and he re­turned.

His at­ten­dance that evening formed the be­gin­ning of a long-stand­ing af­fil­i­a­tion with the tiny com­mu­nity. He and his wife, Diane, be­came lead­ing fig­ures in it un­til they left Ma­puto for Los Angeles in July 2016. “It was an oa­sis in a desert be­cause it’s so un­usual, and that was great,” Her­man re­called. “Our ef­forts to cre­ate Jewish com­mu­nity in Ma­puto were an af­fir­ma­tion of our Jewish iden­tity. If there’s a les­son, per­haps it’s that com­mu­nity build­ing — even in a place as re­mote as Ma­puto — is a worth­while and ful­fill­ing end in it­self.”

Yet when the Jewish re­sources are scarce, a com­mu­nity must do ex­tra in order to have the ben­e­fit of Jewish of life, Levy says. “In­ter­est­ingly, what hap­pens is that the for­eign peo­ple who come here, who might not be so in­volved in their home coun­try be­cause there are Jewish re­sources ev­ery­where, might re­mem­ber from time to time to be in­volved. In Ma­puto, to have a com­mu­nity, you have to work for it.”

Lau­ren Wo­jtyla, Levy’s wife and the syn­a­gogue’s president since 2016, says, “It’s hard enough to get peo­ple to be­come ac­tive and in­volved [in any com­mu­nity], so in a very small com­mu­nity that’s run by a lay lead­er­ship, it’s an even greater chal­lenge. One of the things that we love,” she says, ”is that it’s small enough that ev­ery­one un­der­stands that what they do mat­ters.”

Levy says that this spirit of in­clu­sive­ness has been present in Ma­puto since the com­mu­nity’s resur­gence in the 1990s. That in­clu­sive­ness also ex­tends to the non-Jewish mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, some of whom have a di­rect con­nec­tion through mar­riage or those who iden­tify as Jewish through pa­tri­lin­eal de­scent. Oth­ers are sim­ply drawn to the syn­a­gogue and its prac­tice. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Her­man, there have been times when ten­sions have sur­faced about who qual­i­fies for mem­ber­ship.

But Her­man be­lieves that non-Jews play an im­por­tant role in Ma­puto’s Jewish com­mu­nity. “Th­ese are the peo­ple who would drop ev­ery­thing to come and sup­port mem­bers dur­ing pe­ri­ods of mourn­ing, even though ha­lachi­cally they couldn’t be counted in a minyan. You have to ques­tion, from a re­li­gious per­spec­tive, what is a Jewish com­mu­nity, what is the role of peo­ple who aren’t Jewish. It’s changed my views

The dis­cov­ery of gold and di­a­monds in South Africa re­sulted in an in­flux of im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing Jews.

about what should be and how much we should en­cour­age peo­ple like that,” he says.

The non­de­nom­i­na­tional com­mu­nity is made up of a scat­ter­ing of peo­ple from all over the world, says Wo­jtyla — she and Levy, now per­ma­nent res­i­dents, came from the U.S. in the 1990s and founded a law firm in the city. But the size of the com­mu­nity tends to wax and wane, largely de­pend­ing on the num­ber of ex-pats work­ing in Mozam­bique, of­ten at an em­bassy, an NGO or in medicine. The mix of cul­tures, lan­guages and dif­fer­ent Jewish re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ences can cause dif­fi­cul­ties, Wo­jtyla says: “How do we make it rel­e­vant and how [can we] move across th­ese dif­fer­ences when per­haps peo­ple’s only point of contact is their Jewish iden­tity?”

One par­tic­u­lar is­sue that caused much con­tro­versy was about whether to have a me­chitza (a di­vider sep­a­rat­ing men and women in a syn­a­gogue). Two years ago, there was a re­li­gious fam­ily liv­ing in Ma­puto, Ten­zer-Silva ex­plains, and so for them it was im­por­tant, but most of the com­mu­nity was un­happy about it. Even­tu­ally, a com­pro­mise was reached: the syn­a­gogue would be di­vided into three parts: a women’s sec­tion, a men’s sec­tion and a fam­ily sec­tion. On the day of my visit, the me­chitza was folded up and propped against the back wall — no longer needed, for the time be­ing.

An­other is­sue was the un­fore­seen costs of the last ren­o­va­tion. When the builders re­moved the roof, en­gi­neers dis­cov­ered it was rot­ten and that the build­ing was struc­turally un­safe. A pro­ject that had been es­ti­mated at $25,000 rose to al­most $150,000. Bene­fac­tors, ex-mem­bers and the com­mu­nity paid for the re­pairs, but there was also re­mark­able good­will, says Ten­zer-Silva. “Ev­ery­one un­der­took to do the work at cost — even the land­scape de­signer who had no con­nec­tion to the shul.”

The re­con­struc­tion was com­pleted in 2012, just in time for Ten­zer-Silva’s son’s bar mitz­vah — the first since 1975. On the Fri­day night, there were 125 peo­ple in the syn­a­gogue, Ten­z­erSilva re­calls. “Larry re­quested that no one touch the walls, as the fi­nal coat of paint was lit­er­ally still dry­ing!”

Main­tain­ing the syn­a­gogue is vi­tal, even if no one comes into it to pray, says Her­man. “It’s got to be painted, the bugs have to be kept out and the wood has to be pol­ished from time to time. It can­not be al­lowed to be­come di­lap­i­dated.”

The years since Mozam­bique’s in­de­pen­dence have been tur­bu­lent — the coun­try has ex­pe­ri­enced civil war, eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity and cor­rup­tion. Yet, there is rea­son for some cau­tious op­ti­mism. The dis­cov­ery of nat­u­ral gas in Mozam­bique will, even­tu­ally, have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the coun­try’s do­mes­tic rev­enue and in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment. It will also have an ef­fect on the Jewish com­mu­nity, whose fu­ture is tied up with Mozam­bique’s eco­nomic fu­ture. “Jewish peo­ple will come here, drawn to the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties — much like they did in the 19th cen­tury,” says Levy. “The goal for this com­mu­nity is to stay co­he­sive, to grow in its ob­ser­vance to learn more about how to live a ful­fill­ing Jewish life and ed­u­cate its chil­dren. There’s no grand se­cret to that; it’s do­ing more of the same and bet­ter.”


A beach in Ma­puto, cap­i­tal of Mozam­bique.

SHUT­TERS ON THE BEACH: Joseph Lazarus helped to es­tab­lish a photography busi­ness in Ma­puto.



TOWN: De­signed in the Por­tuguese Baroque Re­vival style, Ma­puto’s syn­a­gogue was built in 1926 and re­stored in 2013 .


AF­TER IN­DE­PEN­DENCE: On this unas­sum­ing cor­ner in Ma­puto, the Lazarus Broth­ers main­tained their photography busi­ness.


RIS­ING LIKE LAZARUS: In 2015, the 40th an­niver­sary of Mozam­bique’s in­de­pen­dence from Por­tu­gal, Ma­puto saw a wave of con­struc­tion and re­build­ing.

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