Tikkun olam, David Zwartz

Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History
Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow (eds)
Godwit, $55.00,
ISBN 9781869621735


“Don’t skite!” said my loving family when I came home with the story of some success at school. Jewish Lives in New Zealand is not a skite. “The book does not aim to be congratulatory,” writes its promoter Gerrard Friedlander in the preface; but even the most critical reader cannot help but feel that it nevertheless brings a measured and fond paean to the achievements and contributions of Jews in New Zealand since 1831.

This is put in perspective by Leonard Bell’s introduction and by the concise and authoritative chapter on anti-Semitism written by long-time academic observer of anti-Jewish attitudes and activities, Paul Spoonley. In the introduction Bell explains what Jewish Lives in New Zealand sets out to do, and what it doesn’t try to do. He gives us a world historical Jewish context as well as a New Zealand context. This is both sensitive and pragmatic – a more objective explanation of what it is like to be a Jew in New Zealand today, and probably what it has been like over the last 170 years, than I have read elsewhere. He gives a comprehensive response to the question he asks himself: “Why a book on ‘Jewish’ lives?”, concluding: “Were the achievements of this book’s subjects incidental to their Jewishness, or were they, whether consciously or not, grounded in their origins and background mentalities?”

There are no straightforward answers to these questions, Bell suggests:

We would argue that in most cases their Jewishness (broadly conceived), whether or not publicly known, and the circumstances and experiences of their personal and family histories, inevitably informed their works. At the same time we recognise that these achievements are not solely grounded in their Jewishness.

This seems to me the next best thing to the Jewish habit of answering a question with another question. Bell writes:

Fundamental to the lives of many Jewish people in various societies is that they have been simultaneously both inside and outside the mainstream, leading of necessity (at least) double lives … . Jewish Lives in New Zealand has been assembled from that perspective.

This non-mainstream, non-public aspect of Jewish life in New Zealand is not always apparent from the accounts of what the Jewish lives did in the public sphere (though it is noted that Chief Justice Sir Michael Myers was actively involved in Wellington’s Jewish community, serving as president of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation and the Wellington Jewish Social Club). The darker aspect of a Jew’s “double life” in New Zealand, as elsewhere in the world – namely, anti-Jewishness – is dealt with in the chapter on anti-Semitism, and perspicaciously in David Cohen’s chapter on journalism where he writes about the current climate of anti-Zionism. The more positive aspects of non-mainstream New Zealand Jewish lives, as part of a subculture that enjoys its own religious observance, community gatherings, youth groups, and social and cultural activity ‒ something that is common to all minority ethnic and religious communities ‒ are not enlarged upon.

One of the book’s strengths is its range of authors, each knowledgeable on their own topic. As Leonard Bell notes:

The writers and photographers who have contributed to this book are a mixed bunch, Jewish and non-Jewish, some of whom have Jewish partners and extended family in New Zealand, Israel and elsewhere. The contributors include the religiously observant and the secular. Some are affiliated to Jewish communities or institutions, some are not; some are on the periphery.

Consequently, Jewish Lives in New Zealand covers the full range of Jewish involvement in New Zealand society, with the arts figuring highly. Of the 11 chapters, the four on music (written by Sarah Shieff), the visual arts (Leonard Bell), writing (Steven Sedley), and the performing arts (and food) (Miriam Bell) take up about 40 per cent of the text pages. The other six chapters on Jewish lives deal with academics (Paul Morris), women in education (Ann Beaglehole), journalism (David Cohen), business in Auckland and Wellington (Diana Morrow), doctors (Derek Dow), and the southernmost Jewish community in the world (Cheryl Pearl Sucher).

The other chapter is Paul Spoonley’s essay: “Anti-Semitism at the end of the world: The politics of prejudice in New Zealand.” This is a well-informed, concise survey of anti-Jewish activity from the 1930s to the present. Spoonley observes:

Compared with other communities in other locations, including those in Australia, the levels and significance of local anti-Semitism are noticeably more modest. Yet this does not mean that New Zealanders should be complacent. Anti-Semitism, like racism generally, is a barometer of any given society’s respect for its residents and citizens, and even if relatively rare, deserves attention.

He concludes: “Anti-Semitism, like any racism and bigotry, should be treated as an affront by everyone who values tolerance and mutual respect.”

Certainly, it is the tolerance of New Zealand society from its earliest days that allowed Jews the freedom to contribute what they have, which is celebrated in Jewish Lives in New Zealand. For me as a Jew, the inclusion of Spoonley’s chapter is a realistic and valuable balance to the description of Jewish achievement in the other 10 chapters. I cannot tell if it reads in the same way for non-Jews, but can say, with reasonable certainty, that the positive attitudes and spirit of creativity and Tikkun olam (repairing the world) that permeate Jewish contributions to New Zealand society have on the whole not been affected by anti-Jewishness.

There are over 400 Jewish lives covered, in varying length and detail. About 140 of these are still living (including Wellington architect Bob Fantl who is noted as having died a few years ago), and this adds contemporary liveliness to a rich parade of what might otherwise seem to be historical figures. The stories of people’s lives are frank and entertaining. Inevitably there is some overlap, either because of a little geographical treatment – the chapter on “the southernmost Jewish community in the world” is one of the most interesting – or because of the wide range of people’s activities. Thus Julius Vogel and Charles Brasch are referred to in four chapters, and Ethel Benjamin, Denis Adam and Fred Turnovsky in three. Any overlap has been cross-referenced, and in any case does not matter.

Jewish Lives in New Zealand is handsomely-designed, in quarto format, with elegant typography and numerous and interesting illustrations. Many, of course, are portraits of the persons being described, and these include outstanding photographs by Marti Friedlander. (See, particularly, the haunting photo of Charles Brasch.) There are also historical images including caricatures, advertising, book covers and documents. Reproductions of art works, photo essays, and photos by contemporaries such as Stephen Robinson and Naomi Bell, add to the book’s high visual quality. It has about 70 per cent text, 30 per cent images, said Leonard Bell at the Wellington launch. The research and scholarship are of a high standard. The endnotes often contain interesting and amusing details that supplement the text (although the figure of 1.9 per cent on page 401 should be 0.19 per cent). The index is comprehensive and the bibliography first class.

My greatest regret is that the book doesn’t include a chapter on Wellington, similar to the “southern” chapter. This is not only because I’m a Wellingtonian, but because there are some notable omissions of Wellington Jewish achievements. For example, there is no reference to Karo Emanuel, founder in the 1930s of the London Lending Libraries, which developed into London Books, eventually a New Zealand-wide chain of 40 bookshops. (Karo and his wife Beulah were also leaders in the establishment of the Progressive Jewish congregation in Wellington, a move that profoundly changed Jewish observance in the capital.) A chapter about Wellington similar to Sucher’s on the south would have told us about (among others) Police Association secretary and sports administrator Jack Meltzer, businessman Sir Jack Harris, and candlemaker Edgar Silestean, who are not mentioned at all. (It would also have avoided elevating Harry Arndt to the Bench, and given Gisi Hirschfeld her correct name.) Out of only 12 Chief Justices, two have been Jews. Out of 118 names in the Business Hall of Fame, 11 are of Jews ‒ a fact not mentioned in the book, though Hallenstein, Davis, Levin, Nathan, Levene, Myers, Fisher, Paykel, Friedlander and the trade names Glaxo, Vogel, Steinlager, are covered. What’s not to be proud of?

So Jewish Lives in New Zealand is, and isn’t, a skite book.  It tempers celebration with sober assessment and delivers a book that is a pleasure to read, look at and handle.


David Zwartz is chairperson of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council.


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