Far from the Promised Land?
Ann Beaglehole and Hal Levine
GP Publications, $39.95
There were more synagogues in New Zealand last century than there are today. Hokitika had a synagogue and so did Timaru and Nelson. Many South Island towns had a Jewish mayor at some point. The South Island’s boom years were probably the boom years of New Zealand Jewry. Their numbers were small, but the communities were vital.
Most of New Zealand’s early Jewish settlers came from Britain, like the other colonists. England has a patchy history of tolerance towards its Jews. The English Jews were expelled in 1290 and even after Jews reappeared in England when they were expelled from Spain in 1492 they were not given full rights as citizens. When all legal and political restrictions were at last removed from England’s Jews, the Treaty of Waitangi had already been signed.
By 1870 every significant New Zealand town had a synagogue, though some in the South Island quickly fell into disuse. There was a little Jewish immigration from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century and immigration from Britain continued. As the situation worsened in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, some Jews made it to New Zealand, but up to and during World War II the New Zealand government refused to allow Jewish refugees into the country. There was suspicion of foreigners, a fear that skilled Jewish craftspeople would take New Zealanders’ jobs and a dose of good old-fashioned English anti‑semitism.
The doors opened a little after the war and some survivors of the Holocaust made it into the country. In recent years there has been some Russian Jewish immigration and most recently South African immigration. But New Zealand’s Jewish community remains fundamentally Anglo. It tends to be reserved. It doesn’t make a fuss. Not like the loud American Jews.
New Zealand has orthodox and liberal Jewish synagogues, but you should not confuse membership of the orthodox synagogue with religious observance. Many members of the orthodox community are less observant than those in the liberal community. That is what happens when you have a tiny, isolated Jewish community where the members must sink or swim together. Affiliation to the orthodox community appears to be more based on historical family ties than on degree of religious observance. The liberals have recognised as Jewish the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers. The orthodox accept only those of matrilineal Jewish descent.
The authors of Far from the Promised Land? refer to “a Kiwi style of Jewishness (a style characterised by a diluted, lukewarm type of identification)”. It is not clear whether they mean identification as Jews, identification with Judaism or identification with the Jewish community. In New Zealand it is the last which has traditionally been the most important. Jewish identity in New Zealand is less about religion than about formal affiliation with a Jewish community organisation, be it religious, social, zionistic or educational.
This can be seen in the interviews with Jewish New Zealanders on which Far from the Promised Land? is based. The distinction between most of the informants and those called by the authors “marginal” Jews is that the former have at some stage in their lives been part of organised community activity. The margin is not the edge of the religion, but the edge of the community.
The Jewish childhood seems pretty awful in Beaglehole and Levine’s study. It is a succession of restrictions, embarrassments, discomforts and claustrophobia. The authors briefly refer to their informants’ memories of “family warmth and togetherness” but concentrate on unhappy memories of Hebrew school, hearing stories of the Holocaust, not being allowed to go out on Friday nights or Saturdays, not being understood by non‑Jews, being made to do things they didn’t want to ‑ being restricted all the time.
No informants describe their memories of celebrating Jewish festivals at home, of eating traditional Jewish food, of dressing up as Queen Esther at Purim, of attending the “Jewish picnic”, as it was commonly called, a very Kiwi day of raffles, music, food, races for the kids and baby competitions. Perhaps the authors wanted to concentrate on the conflicts. Perhaps no informants described happy occasions. Maybe they didn’t like the Jewish picnic.
Many Jewish children received some Jewish education, but for most their secular education was more important. Jewish children are often expected to succeed at school, especially children of immigrants. One woman describes the pressure to succeed:
“Jews had to be better than everybody else because it would have been a source of shame and embarrassment if they had been the same or, heaven forbid, worse.”
Beaglehole and Levine do not try to find explanations for many of the apparently extreme attitudes related by their informants, maybe because the authors did not want to be perceived as defending them. The extreme attitudes to Jewish success often stem from a perception that antisemitism will increase if Jews do not perform as well as the other citizens in their adopted countries.
Jewish day schools, Kadimah and Moriah, are now run in Auckland and Wellington. The majority of Jewish children do not attend these schools, but attend state schools or even non‑Jewish secular schools. In one anecdote in Far from the Promised Land? a Jewish girl at a christian private school regularly won prizes in scripture. At home she asked her mother, “Do we believe that?”, and her mother replied that they didn’t. The daughter went back to winning prizes. The most common venue at which Jewish New Zealanders have received a Jewish education is the Hebrew school. These schools are attached to the liberal and orthodox synagogues and operate for about three hours on Sunday. The curriculum includes religious instruction, Hebrew language, Jewish history and study about Israel. Most children begin Hebrew school at 5 or 6 and finish after their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, around 13.
Hebrew school teachers have always faced great difficulties. Many young children do not want their Sunday mornings filled with boring old school when they get plenty of that during the week.
Most significantly, the children rarely receive any formal Jewish education after the age of 13. What they have learned slips away. Much the same problem has been faced by the kohanga reo, where children left kindergarten speaking fluent Maori, then had no alternative to mainstream schools where Maori was taught only a few hours each week.
The informants in Far from the Promised Land? regarded Hebrew school as a waste of time. One informant states that you can come out of Hebrew school as ignorant as when you came in and the authors accept this. It is a pity the interviewers did not go on to test this assertion. Most Jewish children learned to read some Hebrew at Hebrew school and that is a major achievement given that Hebrew bears no resemblance to English. They learned the Shema, the holiest Jewish prayer. The children learned about Jewish festivals and decorated the sukkah (a temporary structure built for the festival of sukkot and roofed with leaves and branches). Naturally we remember being bored at Hebrew school, but I suspect the informants would be surprised at how much they learned of their religion, history and language and how much they retain, however dusty.
Prominent for Jewish youth are the two major groups run by and for young people: habonim (the builders) and b’nei akiva (children of Rabbi Akiva). Habonim began in the 1940s. It has a socialist zionist ideology with an emphasis on living on a kibbutz in Israel. In keeping with the need to cater to a tiny but varied Jewish community, it is not as ideologically fervent as it might be. New Zealand habonim has one of the lowest rates of aliya (emigration to Israel) in the world. Most children go to habonim for fun, especially the summer camps, where the attraction of living in a large field containing 120 young people and four grown‑ups predominates over matters of ideology. B’nei akiva began in the 1960s and is an orthodox religious zionist group. Apart from its higher degree of religious observance it is similar in its activities to habonim.
More of the informants in Far from the Promised Land? had attended habonim than b’nei akiva, simply because habonim has been around for longer. The success of habonim’s zionist ideology is perhaps exaggerated in the study as all nine of the New Zealand Jews now in Israel interviewed were ex-habonim members of the same age. No one who had made aliya in the last 20 years was interviewed.
Levine and Beaglehole claim that the youth groups “educated the young for emigration”, suggesting that habonim’s insistence on aliya in fact assisted migration to Australia by persuading the young that Jewish life in New Zealand is futile. This is an interesting claim, only the authors do not provide sufficient evidence. Habonim’s ideology is that only in Israel is a full Jewish life available; Australia is not considered “better” than New Zealand. No statistics are given as to whether youth group members emigrate to Australia in larger numbers than Jews who do not attend the groups, or in larger numbers than non-Jewish New Zealanders. The authors’ claim awaits a more in‑depth study.
Nevertheless, New Zealand Jewish migration to Australia is a fact. One third of the New Zealand-born Jews interviewed by Beaglehole and Levine now live in Australia. Migration rates are not nearly that high, but they are significant. Most of the informants went to Australia for a fuller Jewish life. Australia has a much larger Jewish population than New Zealand and correspondingly has more cultural, religious and educational facilities for Jews. Some parts of Melbourne have very high Jewish populations; one woman enthused that even her travel agent was Jewish. A number of migrants want to find a Jewish spouse, for themselves or their children.
The authors conclude that most Jewish New Zealanders who migrate to Australia do so for religious and cultural reasons. The difficulty here is that the lists of New Zealand Jews living in Australia, which the authors used to conduct a “random” postal survey to compare with their interview group, were prepared by people affiliated to the orthodox community in Wellington. So it’s no great surprise that 80% of respondents described themselves as orthodox.
It is indeed a concern for the study generally that Beaglehole and Levine, despite hinting in their introduction that their interview sample may have been biased, do not state how informants were selected, nor the perceived biases in the selection process, nor how they dealt with those biases. This detracts from the validity they claim for their study as an objective appraisal of Jewish life in New Zealand.
The issue of marriage is a significant and recurrent theme in the study. Most Jewish communities outside Israel are worried that their members are assimilating into the general community to such an extent that they are entirely forgetting their culture. It is a problem with every minority culture where members want to fit in as “ordinary members of society” while not losing their cultural identity in the process. It is a difficult balance.
It is generally assumed that marriage of Jews to non‑Jews is the most potent force in assimilation. But a study carried out by Ann Gluckman and David Pitt has shown that assimilation occurs whether Jews marry within or outside the religion (see their contribution to Colless and Donovan, eds, Religion in New Zealand Society Today (Dunmore Press, 1985, 2ed). The material in Beaglehole and Levine’s study seems to lend some support to that in that some non‑Jewish partners are sometimes very positive about encouraging their Jewish partner’s culture. The liberal community has assisted by accepting those with any Jewish parent.
However Far from the Promised Land? suggests there is quite a preoccupation with the issue of Jewish marriage and intermarriage. Certainly there can be huge pressure from parents. Two of the informants kept their children from socialising with non‑Jews until they could get them to Australia, where God was good and their children found Jewish spouses. This is an extreme approach. Most parents would prefer their children to marry Jews, but New Zealand has a long history of Jewish intermarriage and all recognise the realities of the situation.
However Jewish youth also consider the matter. Most in the sample seemed to have a preference for marrying a Jew. One rather extreme individual does not date non‑Jewish girls for fear of falling in love; he says that dating non‑Jewish girls is like playing Russian roulette. The majority probably have more of a lifestyle preference. Their approach is best summarised by one of the “marginal” Jews, who did not marry a Jew, but explains why he likes seeing Jewish friends:
“We enjoy each other’s company because I have something in common with them, there is just so much more prior reference that you can enjoy; it affects the way that we communicate; it is a particular slant on things, shared observation; it is a common medium with which to be aware of the world…”
The search for shared experience leads not a few to take the step across the Tasman. Nevertheless, the New Zealand Jewish community has survived despite many years of apparently imminent doom. The bonds of culture are deeply rooted and it is hard to see why Beaglehole and Levine consider their study may suggest New Zealand Jewry are merely romantic and nostalgic in their ethnicity because they do not give the same reasons for their Jewish identification as were given by past generations. The creation of Israel, for example, has provided a totally new focus for judaism that previous generations could not imagine. Despite differing opinions on Israeli government policy, almost all New Zealand Jews feel an intense connection to Israel, whether for cultural and political reasons, or simply because they have friends and family living there.
The authors of Far from the Promised Land? suggest that New Zealand might be the most goyishe place on earth, by which they mean it is the most devoid of Jewish culture. This is not true. Vietnam is more goyishe. Even if the Hokitika synagogue is never rebuilt, it seems there will always be a Jewish community in New Zealand.
Adam Levy is a New Zealand lawyer now living in Melbourne. He is a past national co‑ordinator of New Zealand habonim.