Around the Jewish World Ostrich-farming Jews Mark 120 Years in Rural South Africa

The glimmer of gold once drew thousands of prospectors to the Western United States, and the promise of oil has attracted myriad entrepreneurs to the Middle East. But for Jews in the little town of Oudtshoorn, in the middle of the parched “Little Karoo” lands of South Africa, it’s another commodity that once fueled their success: ostrich feathers.

During the three decades leading up to World War I, many Jews moved to this isolated town, located 270 miles from Cape Town, catching the height of the ostrich-feather boom.

They were among the leading ostrich farmers supplying the sought-after plumes for feather boas and hats worn by fashion-conscious women in fin-de-siecle Europe. Several of the farmers built huge homes, known as “ostrich palaces.”

Hundreds of community members and visitors from around the world gathered earlier this month to celebrate the Oudtshoorn Jewish community’s 120th anniversary.

“Oudtshoorn makes up one of the most unusual and compelling chapters in the history of Diaspora Jewry,” said Michael Bagraim, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the representative body of the country’s Jewish community. “Oudtshoorn, almost unique among Jewish country communities, has continued to survive as an organized, functioning Jewish community on past the centenary mark.”

Several speakers addressed the town’s long Orthodox tradition, a tradition that has maintained since its original immigrants arrived from Kelm and Shavel, two small towns in Lithuania.

The revelers packed a local synagogue to the rafters last Friday night and Saturday. At the Friday-night service, many of the men wore ostrich-leather yarmulkes, fashioned especially for the occasion. The magnificently embroidered curtain adorning the shul’s ark was donated in 1984 by the Oudtshoorn town council to mark the congregation’s centenary.

One tribute followed another during the weekend of celebration and commemoration. Speakers included South Africa’s Chief Rabbi-elect Warren Goldstein; the former chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and of the World Jewish Congress, Mendel Kaplan; the chairman of the African Jewish Congress; Mervyn Smith, and Bagraim.

The Friday-night shul service was followed by a festive banquet at the local civic center, where over 270 people enjoyed abundant kosher fare. There was also a traditional style barbecue on Saturday night at the “ostrich palace” of Stanley and Bernadette Lipschitz.

When Jews in Oudtshoorn were involved in the ostrich business, the feather trade was the fourth largest industry in the country — after gold, diamonds and wool.

The community flourished in what became known as the “little Jerusalem of Africa.” At its height, it was among the largest Jewish centers in South Africa, with an estimated 600 families, most of them observant Jews. They had two synagogues for worship, one of which is still in regular use today.

But in 1914, the feather industry slumped and many Jewish families, losing their livings, left Oudsthoorn, diminishing the town’s Jewish population to about 1,000.

Today, only 16 Jewish families remain in the town, many of them still involved in the ostrich industry. Three quarters of these families maintain kosher homes and Rabbi Desmond Maizels of Cape Town regularly visits to perform kosher slaughtering of their meat.

Hendrik “Lampies” Lamprecht, the mayor of Oudtshoorn, praised the contribution of the community to the town. He told JTA that Jews were an “example of civic-mindedness, proud and loyal citizens of South Africa.”

One indication of the high regard the people of the town had for the Jewish community was the content of an exhibit in a local museum. “Nowhere else will you find a synagogue in a non-Jewish museum,” Lamprecht said.

Longtime Jewish leader Philip Krawitz said it was a “remarkable community. They stood up, not just as Jews, but as observant Jews, as Zionists, and were welcomed as such by the entire Oudtshoorn community.”

The Oudtshoorn Jewish community may be small, but the ostrich industry has recovered, although it has changed markedly from he early days.

“It’s a tough ride,” ostrich farmer Lipschitz told JTA. But he “runs” 300 to 500 birds.

“It has built up slowly again, right through the world. It is now meat, skin and feathers, in that order,” he said. “It used to be skin, meat and feathers. In the olden days in the boom, it was just feathers.”

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