I have been reading The Jerusalem Report since its inception, but not until recently did I realize that this is probably the only periodical that tells the colorful and sometimes tragic stories of the kaleidoscope of the modern Jewish people.
What interesting people we are! We all more or less have long-lost relatives whom we discover more by chance than by choice. We tend to have vague recollections that someone, somewhere, sometime made their way to another part of the world and often lost touch with the family.
In my case, the story begins in Continental Europe (eastern Europe for my father’s family and western for my mother’s) with significant chapters in Eretz Yisrael and Australia – but the migration maps took relatives to many other countries, too.
My Australian family began in the early 1860s, and not all have remained Jewish, though some who have left the faith are still aware of their roots.
Until 1939, Australia was a mere outpost of Anglo-Jewry, subservient to the British chief rabbi, wedded to minhag anglia (English custom), and in love with the royal family. None of the world’s Jewish leadership was Australian.
Very rarely did an international figure visit, an exception being Chief Rabbi Hertz in his 1921 tour of the Dominions. In those days, Australian Judaism was largely threadbare: much mixed marriage, little religious knowledge, few who upheld tradition. Australian Jews preferred to be neither seen nor heard.
Jews were good citizens, involved in Parliament, local government and Freemasonry. A surprising number lived in rural districts and even closed their shops on Shabbat (which also meant losing the Saturday evening trade), and sent their children to the big cities to prepare for their bar mitzvahs. Some even learned poultry slaughtering to enable their families to keep kosher more or less.
A number began as hawkers, like Jews in many countries, selling clothing and kitchen items, setting off with broken English and gritty determination to build up a trade in country districts.
An example is my great-grandfather, Mendel Cohen, who came to Melbourne with a Polish name (possibly Glegowsky), which no one including himself could spell. Being a kohen, he took Cohen as his surname. With seed money from someone in the Melbourne Jewish community, he became an itinerant salesman in the northern part of Victoria. He must have had some success, since he was later able to open a pawnshop and moneylending business in Melbourne.
It is said that one night he jumped out of a country hotel window and ran for his life to escape Ned Kelly’s bushranger gang. Apparently 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 got out and ran. Mendel survived but the Kellys didn’t – the police finally caught Ned Kelly and made an example of him.
In contrast, Mendel became a pillar of Jewry and many time president of East Melbourne Synagogue. It was a quarrelsome shul, and when 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 the Jewish ghost of Broome to Alfred Goldberg, whose book, A Jew Went Roaming, tells how he was caught by the Kellys and released only after they threatened to track him down like a dog if he went to the police.
My mother’s maiden name was Joachim, possibly related to the great musician. Two uncles changed their name to James, their generation embarrassed by “foreign” names. My mother was an early female graduate of Melbourne University, and embarked on a high-school teaching career.
My father, Haim Isaac Yablotchnik, became Harry Appleton, then Apple, and finally Appleby. He was a merchant and auctioneer who learned English (without an accent) as a boy in Alexandria during World War I – as Russian subjects, the family fled to Egypt from the Turks.
Early in the history of Tel Aviv, one of my father’s brothers was sent by their mother to buy Shabbat candles, met his friends and went swimming… and was drowned. My father, so it is said, boarded ship in the 1920s for Australia, at the other end of the world, to escape from an unwanted arranged marriage.
I went to London as a student, got married there and started a career in the rabbinate, which eventually took me back to Australia. After retirement we made aliyah – three of our four children live in Israel, as do most of our grandchildren and all our great-grandchildren.
Australia is still colorful but no longer irrelevant. Immigration, including Holocaust survivors, has transformed it into the ninth-largest Jewish community, with about 130,000 people. Over 50 percent of its children are in Jewish day schools; its leaders are among the best in the world; Jewish practice is on the rise; the aliyah rate is impressive; and despite antisemitic incidents, Australia is a tolerant, “fair-go” nation. There are Jews from everywhere, enclaves whose residents hail from Johannesburg, Tel Aviv, Bialystok, Odessa – and Lubavitch.
Among the ex-Russians are some called Yablotchnik, my father’s original surname, but we could never prove that we were related. The Australian alarmists moan that everything is falling apart, but most Australian Jews are committed and visible.
There are intellectuals and writers, kollels for the learned and shiurim (lessons) for everybody. There are women’s prayer groups, fine libraries, archive collections, and university courses on Jewish subjects. Some rabbis are world-class. Jews play a seminal role in business, science, sporting and cultural life. Some have struck it rich, some struggle below the poverty line, but most live on a reasonable level. Mendel would not recognize the community today!
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney