The parallel consciousness of self and surroundings... is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies.” -

Edouard Glisant

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Old Lorentzville synagogue

“I am an Afrikaans kugel living in a Jewish synagogue in a predominantly Muslim area, with a buddha.” This is how Jungian therapist Marianna Nielsen describes herself. Marianna is the third private owner of the old synagogue in Lorentzville/Bertrams, which was consecrated in 1926 and deconsecrated in 1983.  She spent two years renovating the building, which was in a dilapidated condition when she bought it, before moving in in 2001. 

In the gallery where the women would be seated, Marianna has her lounge, study, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Downstairs is a vast space containing minimal furniture and a statue of the Buddha in the the area that would be where the 'Ark' is found.

The part of Lorentzville/Bertrams border where the synagogue is located is adjacent to New Doornfontein and Judith's Paarl and also adjoins Troyeville. Many Jewish families used to live in this area. They were part of the Jewish community which spread to Doornfontein and beyond.

The building, which was bought by the community in 1918, had been the 'Valley Bioscope'. It was first used by the Congregation in the state in which they found it but in 1923 a decision was taken to alter the building after negotiations with the Johannesburg "Parks and Estates" fell through.

The Lorentzville/Bertrams Hebrew Congregation, established before 1917, was the religious centre for Jews living in this area for many years.  Provision was made for teaching children Hebrew and Jewish studies, and in 1925, the Bertrams Hebrew Society was formed.

In later years, as the community moved out of the area, the Congregation started to dwindle. In May 1982 a closing ceremony was held. Moveable furniture was donated to the Edenvale Hebrew Congregation.

Marianna is at home in the area. She says: “I love areas where there is a flowing of different cultures, different lifestyles, industrial, residential. I find affluent areas very sterile. Here the children play in the street, you can hear the drunk people walking past on a Saturday night, I have a Chinese neighbour on the one side and Muslim neighbour on the other side. I love the idea that there is a coming together of different cultures and religions. There are quite a few churches and missionaries in the area. There is poverty... It is real, it is just real.  It is not trying to create a kind of a false Tuscany in Sandton.” 

“I think for me it is always about trying to find home. I am on a never ending quest of trying to find home in myself and this is reflected in my outside world. This is a sacred place, a place of prayer. It is a containment.  We live in a chaotic world and I continually come back to a safe, sacred space. This allows me continuity between my inner and outer worlds.” 

There are drug dealers in the area who apparently service quite a number of prominent people from the business, media and academic worlds. “I live in the shadow of Johannesburg ….” Marianna says.  “It is about not being able to keep the shadow out and at the same time trying to find a place of groundedness.”

*Thanks to Rose Norwitch for sharing her Masters dissertation (University of the Witwatersrand, 1988): Synagogues on the Witwatersrand and in Pretoria before 1932 - their origin, form and function.  


  1. Wonderful stories my dear friend! I shall check in on occasion lest I get WAAAAAAY TOO HOMESICK. xxxx

  2. Thank you for this fascinating article. It is the first time I have heard about the Old Bertrams Synagogue. I look forward to reading more stories on your interesting blog.