The Jerusalem of South Africa

Upon the arrival of the first ostrich feather salesman in Oudtshoorn, Jews began to flock together.

bima south africa 298.88 (photo credit: David Zetler)
bima south africa 298.88
(photo credit: David Zetler)
Where was the first Jewish day school in South Africa? Johannesburg? Cape Town? No, it opened its doors in 1904, in the small town of Oudtshoorn, some 470 km. east of Cape Town. Jews in great numbers once lived in Oudtshoorn, a village in this Klein Karoo region of the Cape Province, an inland plateau wedged between the Swartberg Mountains to the north and the Outeniqua Mountains in the south. The reason they came was that giant of birds, the ostrich, or more specifically, ostrich feathers. Apart from the odd Jews who found their way to the area in the 1860s, they began arriving in Oudtshoorn in the 1880s from Lithuania, almost exclusively from the towns of Kelm and Shavli (Shavel). They soon set themselves up as feather dealers, going to the Afrikaner farms where they bought the feathers, then selling them to the dealers who exported them to the fashion industry in Europe and America. Of the 50 Jews in Oudtshoorn who were naturalized as citizens of the Cape Province between 1883 and 1890, 37 gave their occupation as "feather buyer" and two others were feather sorters. Many of the buyers walked from farm to farm, carrying their feathers in a bag slung over their backs. By 1910 there were 277 licensed feather buyers in the area, almost all of them Jews. The Dutch-based Afrikaans language of the farmers was quite similar to Yiddish and the God-fearing farmers, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, were in awe of these "People of the Bible" and had the greatest respect for them. The Jews who settled in the farming areas learned only Afrikaans. While English was also spoken in the town, it was learned from the British settlers, many of whom were shopkeepers. As the Jewish population increased, so did the scope of their activities, with many becoming traders or smouses, traveling to the farms with a horse and cart, selling all kinds of household wares to the farmers. They also became shopkeepers and hoteliers in the town. In 1886, when the number of Jews was about 250, the decision was made to build a synagogue. The Afrikaners were in awe and the minister of the local church said in his sermon: "What a glorious thing it would be to have the children of the Old Testament worshipping in our midst." One of the Afrikaners donated two plots for the synagogue, while another donated the stones and had them brought to the site. The building, known as the Queen Street Synagogue was completed in December 1888, and had, according to one account, been funded by Afrikaner donations. In 1892 the inevitable happened in a Jewish community. The Kelm Jews broke away and built their own synagogue, the "Griener Shul" on St. John Street, which was completed in 1896. The Queen Street Synagogue, in fact, had become too small for the growing community. The Kelm Jews were a people of great tradition and knowledge, and wanted more study and daily services; the rabbi of the Queen Street Synagogue was too Western for them. The ark in the new synagogue was modeled on that of the principal synagogue in Kelm. A Jewish day school was established in Oudtshoorn in 1904, next to the Queen Street Synagogue. It was a government school which had compulsory Hebrew classes and covered the first eight years of schooling. There was also a mikve (ritual bath) which is still in use, while the Oudtshoorn Jewish cemetery had been established in the 1880s. The Jews also settled in the surrounding areas, such as Calitzdorp, Ladismith and Uniondale. The 50 km. between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp was known as Der Yiddishe Gass (The Jewish Neighborhood), as the hotel and all of the 20 shops alongside the road were owned by Jews and they were all closed on the Sabbath. There was also a boarding house owned by Avraham Kaplan, who kept a Torah and where daily services were held. The Jews of Oudtshoorn were, on the whole, very religious. Apparently Afrikaner farmers would not allow Jewish buyers into their homes on Saturdays, as they looked upon them as traitors to their faith. Oudtshoorn was known as "Little Jerusalem" and "The Jerusalem of South Africa." On the High Holy Days most of the businesses in Oudtshoorn were closed, as they were Jewish owned. THE JEWS, meanwhile, started farming the ostriches and built huge sandstone houses, known as ostrich palaces, on their farms and in the town. In 1914, at the outbreak of Word War I, there were 600 Jewish families in Oudtshoorn, about a third of the town's white population. Jews played an important part in the development of Oudtshoorn and the district. At one stage, the mayor and two of the councilors were Jewish, as was the district surgeon, the medical officer of health and a member of the municipal school board. Seven lawyers, three doctors and the biggest landowners and businessmen were Jewish. The prosperity of Oudtshoorn was, of course, due to the high prices the fashion industry paid for ostrich feathers. In 1913 it reached $500 for a pound of the finest feathers. That was the year that fashion started changing, due in part to the open motor cars, whose speed was not conducive to feathers attached to clothes or hats. The start of World War I was the final nail in the coffin. Both in South Africa and in London there were warehouses full of feathers, with no buyers. The feathers were worth next to nothing and the feather buyers were left with debts owed them by the dealers and therefore could not pay the farmers, who started growing tobacco and raising livestock to counter the collapse of the feather market. Ostriches were raised on a small scale for their skins and at a later stage for their meat. Many Afrikaners, anti-British as a result of their treatment in the Boer War of 1899-1902, supported Germany from the 1930s, while the Jews naturally supported Britain. The anti-Semitic National Party, aided by pro-Nazi groups, tried to discredit the Jews, and between 1940 and 1947 many Jewish businesses and factories in Oudtshoorn were burned down, with no one ever being arrested for these crimes. The Jewish population of Oudtshoorn has been falling since the crash of 1914. By the time World War I ended, half its Jews had gone to other towns, and by 1955 there were only 150 families left. In 1973 the St. John Street synagogue was sold, but the ark, bima and a few rows of seats were transferred to a special room in the Municipal Museum, where they are on permanent exhibition. The centenary of the founding of the congregation in 1984 was marked by a week-long celebration, with former members arriving from all over the world. Guests of honor included well-known rabbis, the mayor of Oudtshoorn and the South African minister of foreign affairs. Today there are only 17 Jewish families, five of whom are farmers, with only a handful of children. Synagogue services are held on Friday and Monday evenings and on holidays. Nearly all of the members keep kosher and a shohet comes to Oudtshoorn from Cape Town every six weeks to do the kosher slaughtering.