Historians tend to concentrate on the larger Jewish communities and ignore newer and smaller kehilot like Australia, probably because before 1939 it was a mere colonial outpost of Anglo-Jewry, subservient to the British chief rabbi, wedded to minhag Anglia, and in love with the Royal family.
In those days, the Antipodes hardly mattered in global terms. None of the world Jewish leadership was Australian. Very rarely did an international Jewish figure visit, an exception being chief rabbi Hertz in his 1921 tour of the Dominions. Occasionally an Australian macher took a trip “home” (to London) and was received with appropriate courtesies, but it was play-acting and no-one pretended that Australia made any difference to Judaism.
In those days Australian Judaism was largely threadbare: many mixed marriages, little religious knowledge, and few who believed in tradition.
They had a series of good rabbis, teachers, lay leaders and organizations, but most Australian Jews preferred to be neither seen nor heard, though some had the courage to stand up for Jewish rights and to protest and offer help when Jews were in danger anywhere in the world.
Jews were respected citizens, involved in parliament, in local government and Freemasonry. A surprising number lived in rural districts; a few closed their shops on Shabbat (even prepared to lose the Saturday evening trade) and sent their children to the big cities to study for their bar mitzva.
Some even learned poultry shechita to enable their families to more or less keep kosher. Others – even members of synagogue committees – said, “Where in the Ten Commandments does it say anything about kosher meat?” A number began as itinerant salesmen, like Jews in many countries, acquiring a small supply of clothing and kitchen items for sale and setting off with broken English and gritty determination to build up a trade in country districts.
An example is my own great-grandfather, Mendel Cohen, who arrived in Melbourne about 1860 bearing a Polish name (a version of Glegowsky) which no-one could spell.
Being a kohen, he assumed Cohen as his surname. Probably borrowing seed-money from someone in the Melbourne Jewish community, he started off as a commercial traveler (a rather too dignified title for that time and place) in the northern part of the Colony – as the Australian States were then called – of Victoria. He must have had a modicum of success, since he was later able to open a pawnshop/money lending business in Melbourne.
One night he jumped out of a country hotel window and ran for his life to escape Ned Kelly and his bushranger gang. The story goes that he was still awake when he heard voices saying, “There’s a rich Jew in there – let’s wait till he’s asleep and go in and rob him”. He ran for his life.
Mendel survived, but the police finally caught up with Ned Kelly and made an example of him. In time, Mendel became a pillar of local Jewry and for many years was president of East Melbourne Synagogue.
It was a highly quarrelsome congregation and whenever the meetings became too raucous and the congregants too rowdy, the word went round, “Let’s get Cohen back!” Australian Jewish folklore has many other stories, ranging from Jewish ghosts to the ex-convict who wrote his own headstone, bearing two lines from Adon Olam... plus Alfred Goldberg, whose book, A Jew Went Roaming, tells how he was caught by the Kellys and only released after they threatened to track him down like a dog if he went to the police.
Australian Judaism is still colorful, but no longer irrelevant. Immigration, including Holocaust survivors, has transformed the scene. Australian Jewry is the ninth largest Jewish community in the world, about 130,000 people. It has a remarkable Jewish education system, with over 50 percent of its children at Jewish day schools.
Its leaders are among the best in the world.
Jewish commitment and identification are increasing. The aliya rate is impressive.
Despite anti-Semitic incidents, most Australians are a tolerant, “fair go” nation.
Australia’s Jewish community is drawn from everywhere. There are enclaves that are Tel Aviv, Bialystok, Odessa, Johannesburg – and Lubavitch. Not everyone plays a part in Jewish life, and the alarmists moan that everything is falling apart... but most of Australian Jewry are serious Jews, involved in Jewish life and concerned for Israel.
There are intellectuals, scholars and institutions. There are kollelim for the learned and shiurim for everybody. There are women’s tefila groups. Mandelbaum Publishing produces specialist Judaica.
There are fine libraries, archive collections, and university courses on Jewish subjects. Some rabbis are world class. Jews play a seminal role in business, scientific, sporting and cultural life. Some have struck it rich; some struggle below the poverty line, but most live on a reasonable level. Most Australian Jews live in the state capital cities, but there are growing numbers in rural districts.
Is there anything Australian about their Judaism? They live in the sun – and they bask in their Jewishness. They squabble and solemnly denounce one another – but on the whole they are highly pleased with themselves and their community.
My great-grandfather would not recognize his kehila.The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.