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.


"Do you know that ostriches are mentioned four times in the Bible," Isidore Barron says, reading fluently in Hebrew. Then he adds, somewhat indignantly, "It's always in a derogatory way. It says they're stupid, they put their head in the ground, they're not kosher, they're not clean …. An ostrich is far cleaner than a chicken but we had chicken for lunch!" "The rabbanim are meshugah!" Though he is willing to be critical, and though he pioneered the ostrich meat industry in South Africa, religious Mr. Barron has never tasted the unkosher ostrich himself.

"Do you know that ostriches are mentioned four times in the Bible," Isidore Barron says, reading fluently in Hebrew. Then he adds, somewhat indignantly, "It's always in a derogatory way. It says they're stupid, they put their head in the ground, they're not kosher, they're not clean …. An ostrich is far cleaner than a chicken but we had chicken for lunch!" "The rabbanim are meshugah!" Though he is willing to be critical, and though he pioneered the ostrich meat industry in South Africa, religious Mr. Barron has never tasted the unkosher ostrich himself.

The Lipschitz family are the last Jewish ostrich barons of Outshoorn to live in an "ostrich palace" - a 19-room estate which the family has owned since 1932. But today, the matriarch of the family, Ida Lipschitz, is not proud of her mansion, but of her homemade kosher wine. "Not to brag, but I'll brag - I'm the fastest 'korreller' around," says Ida Lipschitz, using the Afrikaans-language verb for removing grapes from their stalks. "It's done totally according to requirements and only Orthodox Jewish hands may touch it," Ida says of her wine. Ida and her daughter-in-law Bernice Lipschitz have taken second, third and fourth places in the national Kosher Ceremonial Wine Competition, but they are gunning for first place - they already take first for their custom-made labels. "Our wine is made of Muscatel and Alicante grapes," Ida confides, "but I won't tell you how many sugars - it's a secret recipe, passed down grandmother, to daughter-in-law to grandson!"

The Lipschitz family are the last Jewish ostrich barons of Outshoorn to live in an "ostrich palace" - a 19-room estate which the family has owned since 1932. But today, the matriarch of the family, Ida Lipschitz, is not proud of her mansion, but of her homemade kosher wine. "Not to brag, but I'll brag - I'm the fastest 'korreller' around," says Ida Lipschitz, using the Afrikaans-language verb for removing grapes from their stalks. "It's done totally according to requirements and only Orthodox Jewish hands may touch it," Ida says of her wine. Ida and her daughter-in-law Bernice Lipschitz have taken second, third and fourth places in the national Kosher Ceremonial Wine Competition, but they are gunning for first place - they already take first for their custom-made labels. "Our wine is made of Muscatel and Alicante grapes," Ida confides, "but I won't tell you how many sugars - it's a secret recipe, passed down grandmother, to daughter-in-law to grandson!"

"Ryan is through and through a farmer," says his father, Stanley Lipschitz. Ryan, 12, is quick to agree, "Of course I want to be a farmer. I'm not gonna go to school," he says, "I'll go straight through to working." The Lipschitz's run Safari Ostrich Show Farm - the largest of its kind in South Africa, offering rides on the birds, showing ostrich races with expert jockeys, selling ostrich egg art and feather creations. But the average tourist at the Lipschitz's farm would not survive a bareback ostrich race against young Ryan!

"Ryan is through and through a farmer," says his father, Stanley Lipschitz. Ryan, 12, is quick to agree, "Of course I want to be a farmer. I'm not gonna go to school," he says, "I'll go straight through to working." The Lipschitz's run Safari Ostrich Show Farm - the largest of its kind in South Africa, offering rides on the birds, showing ostrich races with expert jockeys, selling ostrich egg art and feather creations. But the average tourist at the Lipschitz's farm would not survive a bareback ostrich race against young Ryan!

Skidding his pickup truck to a halt in a cloud of dust alongside his ostrich corrals, Jack Klass warns to stand clear as he grabs an ostrich by the neck with his bare hand in one swift movement. "This is how you have to hold them," he says. For decades, Jack managed what many say was the world's largest ostrich empire while serving as President of his synagogue in Oudtshoorn. Jack's close-cropped white hair, ruddy complexion, prominent nose and brow, stocky build and powerful hands do not so much suggest refined leadership as an Israeli general - just the sort of man to command hushed-tone respect from this much-diminished Jewish community of farmers and small-town businessmen.

Skidding his pickup truck to a halt in a cloud of dust alongside his ostrich corrals, Jack Klass warns to stand clear as he grabs an ostrich by the neck with his bare hand in one swift movement. "This is how you have to hold them," he says. For decades, Jack managed what many say was the world's largest ostrich empire while serving as President of his synagogue in Oudtshoorn. Jack's close-cropped white hair, ruddy complexion, prominent nose and brow, stocky build and powerful hands do not so much suggest refined leadership as an Israeli general - just the sort of man to command hushed-tone respect from this much-diminished Jewish community of farmers and small-town businessmen.

Isidore Barron, 75, is a third-generation Outshoorn ostrich baron. Arriving at his farm, the blue-eyed Barron steps out of his white Mercedes with its tan leather interior to survey his workers, his land and his beloved birds. He poses for a picture tickling a bird through the fence with a feather. The industrialist is fond of saying that he has "flown to over 70 countries on the back of a flightless bird." He speaks nine languages - six fluently. He discourses excitedly about his innovations in the ostrich industry, which include pioneering the ostrich meat industry in South Africa, new techniques in feather dying and concocting healthier formulas for baby ostrich chicks. "There are 64 types of feathers on an ostrich. Should I tell you about feather dusters?" Barron says, producing a glossy brochure from his business. A long-time Municipal Councilman and Alderman and one-time candidate for Parliament, Barron thinks he is finally ready to retire - but not to rest. "My wife of fifty years and I can write a book and travel and -- visit you!"

Isidore Barron, 75, is a third-generation Outshoorn ostrich baron. Arriving at his farm, the blue-eyed Barron steps out of his white Mercedes with its tan leather interior to survey his workers, his land and his beloved birds. He poses for a picture tickling a bird through the fence with a feather. The industrialist is fond of saying that he has "flown to over 70 countries on the back of a flightless bird." He speaks nine languages - six fluently. He discourses excitedly about his innovations in the ostrich industry, which include pioneering the ostrich meat industry in South Africa, new techniques in feather dying and concocting healthier formulas for baby ostrich chicks. "There are 64 types of feathers on an ostrich. Should I tell you about feather dusters?" Barron says, producing a glossy brochure from his business. A long-time Municipal Councilman and Alderman and one-time candidate for Parliament, Barron thinks he is finally ready to retire - but not to rest. "My wife of fifty years and I can write a book and travel and -- visit you!"