Can I ask you a personal question?

Question of the Week:

Please excuse the personal question, but my curiosity is overwhelming me. I’ve wondered how a Jew could come from South Africa. I know just enough history to get me in trouble, so I will ask a leading question. Are Rabbi Lapin’s ancestors Sephardic Jews who sought refuge in Portugal before emigrating to Amsterdam and then to South Africa with an Afrikaans community? That would make for an interesting story if my guess is correct.

Talk soon,

Tom P.

Dear Tom,

On a list of intrusive personal questions, yours doesn’t even make the cut. We’re happy you asked as it gives us an opportunity to partially explain why, although Jews are a teensy minority of the world’s population, they seem to be everywhere.

The books of the Prophets speak of the expulsion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel followed over a hundred years later by the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the exile of the tribes of Judah, Levi, and Benjamin in 586 BCE. Those expulsions presaged many more that would face Jews, continuing to this day. In recent decades, Jews were expelled from countries such as Libya and Egypt where they had lived for thousands of years. There are also voluntary moves such as the recent large shift of France’s Jews to Israel as French anti-Semitism has increased with the influx of a Moslem population. One of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Pearl S. Buck’s books, Peony, published in 1948, even features the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China. In other words, since first leaving the land of Israel (though a remnant always stayed in the land) Jews have been on the move. It is difficult to find a country that has never had a Jewish community, let alone individual Jews. There is also an extremely high level of assimilation, so many Christians can trace back to a Jewish member of their family.

Your suggestion of our ancestors moving to Portugal and then Amsterdam in response to the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1492 is fascinating, but it isn’t accurate. We don’t know exactly when the family arrived in Lithuania but it would have been somewhere around the 16th century. It was from there that Grandpa Lapin moved to S. Africa in the late 1800s, part of a large immigration movement. The overwhelming majority of S. African Jews came from Lithuania and while they interacted very warmly with the Boer community which was Bible-believing and religious, the two groups remained separate. Jews in South Africa tended to be mostly part of the English-speaking white population. From the 1960s and onwards, a very large part of South Africa’s Jewish population emigrated to many other countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and of course the United States to which my footsteps brought me.

Thanks for asking,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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