(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When my wife was a little girl in North London, she and her siblings used to dig in the back garden in the hope of reaching Australia.
“Down under” had that effect on people. The fascinating stories about it were full of excitement, though they sometimes displayed more wishful thinking than reality. Australian soldiers and sportsmen looked so bronzed and romantic that anyone could have yearned for a healthy country where the beaches beckoned and the sun apparently never went down.
When television came into everyone’s home the Brits no longer had to rely on rumors. Their own eyes saw the Australian outback and Bondi Beach. What a far cry from the grey, gloomy, cold, cramped conditions of postwar British suburbia! Thousands of Brits became 10-pound migrants in search of the Australian dream, though some were disillusioned after a while and returned to the UK, preferring the familiar Moortown and Manchester to Melbourne and Maroubra.
What was the Ozzies’ view of Britain? The first thousand Jews in Australia were from England, mostly convicts whose “crimes” were so petty that these days we laugh at them. Some made good in Australia; some eventually got back to Britain and became respectable citizens, and many were buried at fashionable Willesden Cemetery.
Long after the convict period had receded into history, the “colonial cringe” was still alive and well. Rabbis waxed lyrical about the glories of freedom under the British flag. Many people (even those with ancestors from Russia or Poland) dreamed all their lives of a visit “home” (to Britain), but some who made the long trip left as soon as possible because they hated the weather and laughed at British pretensions and class consciousness and couldn’t cope with the snooty British accent.
Ozzies called the Brits “Pommies” or “Poms,” perhaps because their pale skins made them look like pomegranates when they got burnt by the Bondi sun. The Aussie custom of using nicknames made “immigrants” into “Johnny Grants” and then “Pommygrants.”
The “down under” habit was to shorten everything, so little children went to kindy and young adults went to uni, in summer you had a barby, at the beach you wore a cozzie and were bitten by a mozzie, and on your birthday you received a prezzie. Jewish kids went to Tummo (Talmud Torah) and the boys had a barmy. Places got abbreviated too, so Kensington was Kenso and Darlinghurst was Darlo. If you lived in Brisbane it was sometimes Brizzie. Tasmania it was of course called Tazzie.
Eventually the British-Australian umbilical cord was cut and neither Britain nor Australia felt intertwined any more. Even though the process began as early as the First World War, each nation changed radically, not entirely for the better. Britain lost its empire: Australia lost its innocence.
Australia is still fortunate in its inborn resources, not just its geography. It has grown up and found it can live without Monarchical Mother. It pays lip service to the queen but wonders why she doesn’t support the Aussies in the Tests. It knows she is now too old to come visiting too often. It was intrigued to find that her last visit included a few minutes on a Melbourne tram.
It has dropped its White Australia policy and finally said “Sorry” to the Abos. But it is not without problems, especially the prejudices that came with the wind or on the back of the immigrants, and the violence and terrorism that everyone always thought were unthinkable down under.
Australia talks of a “fair go” – but some Australians prefer to be unfair. It is a sunny land – but some shiver without homes, jobs or opportunities. Though it is colloquially called “the lucky country,” it is not luck that controls its destiny, but brains and determination.
It has a highly educated society, an advanced economy, a sophisticated culture. Its future will be decided in the universities and laboratories, though the sunshine and beaches will remain there as a reward.
It is one of the few places where the Jewish population is increasing (today over 130,000) and the Jewish community is quite pleased with itself (where else is education at the top of communal agendas and budgets?).
The proportion of Australian Jews who have settled in Israel is impressive – though some say the Aussies have to succeed because going back to Australia is so difficult and costs so much.
Australia can’t be reached by digging down from Stamford Hill – the trip, by whichever route, is still long and hard – but time will see its immense potential realized. One day a new wave of Pommygrants might happen, and the Brits will have to get used to Bushell’s tea and forget Tetley’s. The real sign of success will be when they like cold Foster’s more than its warm British equivalent, though Australian pub life will never be as genteel as the picturesque Brit inn.The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.