Oudtshoorn, South Africa
Jewish Ostrich Barons
Isidore Barron is one of the last Jewish ostrich barons of Oudtshoorn, South Africa. Jews have been ostrich merchants for more than a century at this outpost in the dry South African veldt, more than 500 km from Cape Town and 55 km inland from the South African coast over the Outeniqua mountains. Though initially the ostrich industry focused primarily on the birds' spectacular plumage, in the 1950's, Mr. Barron pioneered a new market in ostrich meat. But Mr. Barron himself has never tasted ostrich meat. It is unkosher.
Mr. Barron's steadfast observance of kashrut is typical in Oudtshoorn. Since the community's inception, most of the ostrich Jews have remained faithful to their forebears' Orthodox religious traditions, despite Oudtshoorn's complete, geographic isolation.
In 1880, only a few Jewish men from Lithuania had settled in Oudtshoorn, each working as a "smous," schlepping 80 lb. sacks of groceries and necessities on his back to sell at far-flung ostrich farms owned by the Afrikaner (Dutch) settlers. Before long, however, the ingenious Litvaks dropped everything and focused their attention upon collecting the birds' plumes from the farmers. By the late 1880's, the Jewish settlers had already built their first synagogue, along with the first Jewish day school in all of South Africa. Within two decades, 1500 Jews had come from Lithuania to Oudtshoorn (1/3 of the town's white population) to capitalize on the ostrich feather boom.
In those days, Jews comprised 90% of the ostrich merchants. The Yiddish-speaking traders would return from the veldt every Friday afternoon for Shabbat. Many of the ostrich Jews of Oudtshoorn amassed great wealth through the ostrich trade, building the town's famous "ostrich palaces." The Lipschitz family continues to live as ostrich barons in an ostrich palace, farming ostriches for feathers, meat, eggs and leather and running ostrich rides and races for tourists. Though the Jewish population dropped sharply when the market for ostrich feather fashion crashed after World War I, the Lipschitz family clings to Jewish traditions here with the other remaining Oudtshoorn Jewish families.
Though Oudtshoorn has not had its own rabbi since 1985, a minyan still gathers Monday and Friday evenings. Isidore Barron and several of the Lipschitz men are regulars. Jack Klass, who served as the Jewish community President for 18 years, receives much credit for preserving Oudtshoorn's Orthodox traditions. Mr. Klass was contemporaneously the world's largest ostrich farmer.
Today's community President, Mark Freedman, boasts, "We have not missed celebrating a chag (holiday) together in 116 years!" Mr. Freedman's pride suggests that religious tradition will survive in Oudtshoorn until the last Jewish ostrich baron has gone.