Treasure on the Titanic, and in our country communities

by Gwynne Robins

The most valuable cargo on the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic when it sank in 1912 were ostrich feathers, insured in today’s terms for R40 million. 

Caledon, Riversdale and Uniondale all had Jews who were dealers in ostrich feathers or had moved into something else, once the feather boom collapsed (due to the arrival of the coming of the open-topped motor car, which blew the large feathered hats off the heads of the fashionably coiffed passengers). 

Merely two years after the loss of the Titanic, all the new Jewish ostrich millionaires were saddled with bales of unsaleable ostrich feathers. By 1917, 23 ostrich farmers and related industries were insolvent and many had become general dealers. It has been said that one should never underestimate the effect of women on capitalism.

Uniondale was 116km from Oudtshoorn, the epicentre of the ostrich industry. So, unsurprisingly, many of the early Jewish settlers had settled in Uniondale attracted by the ostrich feather boom. One early settler was the smous Joseph Ryan, who bought farms in the area and brought out his father, his wife and daughters, his sister and brother-in-law (Rabbi Zelig Shear).

Rabbi Shear was a mohel and shochet, who had been head of a Lithuanian yeshiva, and who became a general dealer and ostrich farmer and, in turn, brought out his brother Woolf with his wife and eleven children. Rabbi Shear had arrived with his own Sefer Torah and was Uniondale’s first minister. When members of the Uniondale Dutch Reformed Church had disputes, it was to Rabbi Shear they turned for a fair judgement. The rabbi listened patiently, took up a Chumash, closed his eyes, opened a page, pointed to a passuk and issued a ruling. The parties to the dispute left feeling that true justice had been served.

Other early residents were feather buyers Bern Lazarowitz, Theodore Bloch and Isaac Tobkin, as well as Jacob Blaiberg and Jacob Noll who had shops near the railway station. During the South African War, British troops raided Noll’s stores and he applied for compensation. By the early 1900s, there were 37 Jewish families in Uniondale, all of whom kept kosher. A section of the abattoir was reserved for kosher slaughtering.

In 1902, brothers-in-law Joseph Ryan and Rabbi Shear founded the Uniondale Hebrew Congregation with Abraham Cooper as a trustee. The next year, its representative Mr Levenberg joined the delegation to petition against the 1903 Immigration Bill. In 1904, Mr L Jacobs was its representative when Morris Alexander established the Jewish Board of Deputies, and in 1905, he brought to Alexander’s attention that the Cape Parliament intended to pass a Half Holiday Bill that would prevent Jewish shop owners from closing on Shabbat. Luckily Alexander, on behalf of the new Board, was able to have it amended. When the Cape SAJBD was formed in 1914, Uniondale affiliated and they attended its conferences.

Cooper, as a trustee, obtained some land by deed of transfer and partners Ryan and Rabbi Shear helped finance its purchase in 1902. A beautiful building with Italian tiles and walls decorated with stars and animals was completed in 1906. Ostrich farmers had money.

Their children’s religious education was important and by 1914, they had built a Talmud Torah with afternoon cheder classes for its 50 pupils, and later a library, a rabbi’s house and a mikveh were built next to it.

Uniondale had a Ladies Benevolent Society, a Women’s Zionist League Society, a Young Zionist Society and a Zionist Society and in 1933 made a generous donation to the German Jewry Fund.

Like the other country communities, their numbers started to drop, and the last synagogue service at Pesach was held in 1963 when three families and some visitors attended. In 1965, when there were no longer any ministers in the town, Rabbi Duschinsky, the Cape SAJBD’s Country Communities rabbi, tried unsuccessfully to arrange for a shochet/ teacher to visit.

The Cape SAJBD became trustees of the Uniondale Hebrew Congregation and its assets in 1971. The Lindes, the last remaining family, left in 1972 and asked that their money goes to charity with a small amount left to maintain the synagogue property and the cemetery. The shul was donated to the Uniondale Municipality on condition that it was not used for religious purposes, and it was subsequently taken over by the Lions Clubs International. 

The synagogue is now one of the tourist attractions in the town. As for the cemetery, the Cape SAJBD attended to subsequent complaints about its condition and in 2003 it was restored, with the tombstones laid flat to prevent vandalism.

Much of the information in this article comes from Jewish Life in the South African Country Communities, Volume III, researched by the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth.

The Country Communities Subcommittee of the Cape SAJBD looks after the cemeteries of the defunct country communities. Contact for more information.

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