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Oudtshoorn: the Jerusalem of South Africa

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The Queen Street Synagogue – Der English Shul. CARRIE CLARK PHOTO

Jewish travellers are often excited to discover a story, a sign or a remnant of our culture, and our people, along their journeys. My wife Carrie and I were delighted about our recent discovery that the Riverview Lodge in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, which we stayed in, was the site of a former Jewish day school.

Oudtshoorn is a relatively isolated frontier town on the edge of the desert in the western Cape region, some 500 kilometres from Cape Town. It is well-known as the ostrich capital of the world, but it is also a place with a rich and vibrant Jewish history. In fact, the town was named, with some degree of exaggeration, Yerushalayim beDerom Afrika – the Jerusalem of South Africa.

While staying at the guesthouse, I took the rare opportunity to explore the Jewish history of this colonial centre, which features wide boulevards and aging palaces, that was home to the wealthy Jewish ostrich barons of the early 20th century.

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According to Jon Seligman – the director of the excavations, surveys & research department at the Israel Antiquities Authority – writing on his personal website, seligman.org.il, “The Jewish community (of Oudtshoorn) grew up in a short space of time around the trading of ostrich feathers, as prices for the feathers soared and Jews flocked to the isolated little town in the Klein Karoo to join in the prosperity.”

There were two waves of Jewish immigrants to Oudtshoorn between the mid-19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The first arrived as part of the British  immigration scheme from 1858 to 1861, during which large groups of people of German origin settled in the Cape, together with skilled tradesmen from the British Isles.

“The second wave,” he writes, “consisted of Jews from Latvia and Lithuania who came to escape the mobilization of many young Jews to the Russian army between 1881 and 1910 and the anti-Semitism that limited their ability to lead productive lives.”

Most fled to Britain, where they regrouped and moved on the U.S., or to British colonies, such as South Africa.

“Some, on reaching Cape Town, would have been told of the fortunes to be made in Oudtshoorn and then moved there, started businesses dealing in ostrich feathers,” wrote Seligman.

Jewish life in Oudtshoorn became so vibrant that there were hotels, restaurants and stores catering to specific Jewish customs and practices. In fact, during Shabbat, the High Holidays and Passover, the town observed Jewish customs by closing down to trade and commerce. The route between the neighbouring village of Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn was even closed to traffic on Shabbat.

The town, however, was not without Jewish opinions and controversies between different religious and cultural perspectives. It had two shuls, one for the traditionally religious and another for the more liberal member of the community.

We had the great pleasure of visiting the grand, old Queen Street Synagogue – Der English Shul. It was easy to enter this welcoming Jewish complex, which houses a shul and a day school. There were none of the security setups and anxiety-provoking entries that have become common at shuls around the world; just a welcoming old black man with a yarmulke on his head, ushering us into the silent sanctuary.

Entering the sanctuary felt comforting, as it had the bittersweet familiarity of a shul with an Ashkenazi flavour: the bimah in the centre, wooden seats on the floor for longstanding members, a woman’s gallery, stacked prayer books, tallitot hanging from the wall.

With the decrease in demand for ostrich feathers, the economy shifted and Jewish families left for larger cities like Cape Town. A second blow was the flirtation with fascism by local Afrikaners, prior to and during World War II, which led to numerous arsons and the destruction of Jewish property, and ended up scaring off all but the most resilient members of the Jewish community.

From a community of 5,000, there are now about 10 resilient Jewish families living in Oudtshoorn.

All in all, our recent stay at the Riverview Lodge was enriched by our understanding of its place in the Jewish history of rural South Africa.

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