In Plain Language: Tuesday with Maori

It’s no secret to readers that we love to travel.

Statue of Maori warrior at Auckland harbor, New Zealand (photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)
Statue of Maori warrior at Auckland harbor, New Zealand
(photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)
"This beautiful world is a majestic book authored by God; if you never travel, you will have read but one page.”
It’s no secret to readers that we love to travel. While we cherish Israel above all other places, there is so much to see and appreciate on this incredible planet that, like so many other Israelis, we periodically indulge our wanderlust and seek new horizons that broaden our perspective and fill us with wonder.
It is, for us, almost a religious imperative to gain a deeper appreciation for the marvelous things that the Almighty has created, and to be able to repeat, time and time again, the famous reflection to which King David gave voice in his Psalms: “How amazing are the works of the Lord; each and every one of them is filled with wisdom.”
As I write this piece, we are on our way back from an incredible trip to Australia and New Zealand, two countries on the other side of the world which have been on our bucket list for many years.
Australia – which was once a penal colony – is anything but a prison. The largest island in the world, it contains sights and sounds that fill you up the moment you step outside. The area in which we stayed, Bondi Beach, is a hip, happening place that appeals to anyone looking to engage in that ever-popular enterprise called chilling out. Surfers abound, shoes are optional, and – lo and behold – several kosher cafes and restaurants dot the area. It seems we Jews instinctively know where the action is. After all, Australia’s largest city, Sydney, has a nice Jewish ring to it, eh what, mate? But for all the great places in Ozzy-Land, after climbing the steps of the impressive Opera House in Sydney Harbor and crossing the Harbor Bridge, it was on to New Zealand, the main objective of our trip. We had heard so much about Kiwi-land that we had to see it for ourselves.
New Zealand was an untouched, uninhabited place until 1,000 years ago, and it still retains that pristine, unsullied character. Its vistas and rolling meadows, its combination of fertile mountains rising from the deep blue waters, create picture-postcard scenes everywhere you go. The mind can only absorb so much of this stunning grandeur; after just a day or two, all one can say, quite appropriately, is, “Oh my God!” And that pretty much says it all.
But, as we always do, we seek out the Jewish or Israeli connection to any place we visit. And so I want to share with you just two experiences that we bring home with us in our suitcases. Both revolve around the city of Dunedin.
Dunedin was the largest New Zealand city in area until superseded by Auckland. It is home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university, established in 1869. It also has an interesting Jewish history.
Its first congregation – the world’s southernmost synagogue – opened in 1863 with a tiny group. But the Gold Rush that soon followed brought with it an influx of Jewish entrepreneurs, and eventually, in 1881, a grand synagogue with imposing Doric columns was built, boasting 600 seats. That synagogue closed in 1965, and a more modest one was built near the university.
Upon entering Dunedin, we noted that the city’s welcome magazine contained a reference to the synagogue and its current address. So we decided to walk there (I’ve always observed, with a chuckle, that Israelis tend to visit synagogues more when they are abroad than at home!). It was not easy to find the place, but eventually we came upon a nondescript, small, square edifice. There was no outward sign that this was indeed a synagogue, until we eventually spied two tiny windows near the roof with a stained-glass set of the Ten Commandments. Upon further investigation, we could make out a small name plate – obscured by overgrown foliage - with the name “Bayt Yisrael.” We tried to enter, but the gate was locked. And then I saw something that gave me the chills: The gate was covered by cobwebs.
If ever there was a silent, succinct statement about Jewish life in the Diaspora, this was it.
Later, we read online that the synagogue holds services “occasionally on a Friday night,” but the cobwebs tend to differ. We also read that Chabad was attempting yet another rustic revival, but that image of the locked and rusty gate stays with us.
New Zealand was one of the first places settled by the Maori tribes, the indigenous people of New Zealand, the first inhabitants who arrived by canoe from Polynesia between 1250 and 1300. They found an abundant paradise. There was abundant fish and game to live on, and the Maori thrived for centuries.
But it was only a matter of time until their idyllic life was forever disrupted. The famous British navigator Capt. James Cook discovered Australia and New Zealand in 1769, and it wasn’t long before England cast its eyes upon this virgin territory. Traders, missionaries and sailors began to come to New Zealand in the 1800s, and in 1840 the Crown claimed the land for its own. It signed the Waitangi Treaty in 1840 with the tribes, which brought New Zealand into the British Empire and ostensibly gave the Maori equal rights with British citizens. In reality, it subsumed 90 percent of the land for England, leaving but 10% for the original peoples.
The primary symbol of the raping of the land was the fate of the kauri.
These mighty trees, which reach a height of 45 meters and can last for over 1,000 years, once covered more than a million hectares of land on the islands. But the British coveted the kauri, a soft and beautiful wood that they deemed ideal for building furniture, and ships for the Her Majesty’s navy. And so they cut down more than 70% percent of the beautiful trees, until they finally were declared an endangered species in 1987.
I had the occasion to have a long discussion with a modern-day member of the Maori, who today account for 17% of New Zealand’s population and hold six seats in its Parliament.
He lamented the fate that was imposed upon his people by the doctrine of eminent domain, and his voice broke when he described the suffering his people had endured at the hands of a more powerful, aggressive force that even the valiant Maori were in no position to overcome.
As he spoke, I could not help but relate his story to our own, as time and again the Jewish people has been imposed upon by outsiders, who would try to force their will upon little Israel and attempt to control our own destiny. I told him that our own Jewish “tribes” continue to battle on, determined to protect our little country and preserve our ancient heritage.
At one point, I asked him why the Maori had agreed to sign the Waitangi Treaty, which formally ceded their ownership of New Zealand, and he said something I will not easily forget.
“We don’t believe that we own the land,“ he said, “but, rather, that the land owns us.”
In other words, he felt that the land is a living thing, which does not become subjugated to a master, no matter what the master may think. The land is greater than that; it confidently survives those who may live on it, or off it, even for many years, and it remains eternal, unchanging and unalterable in its essence.
And with that I return to our one and only Holy Land, Israel, and the sway it has, and will always have, over the Jewish people. 
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]