This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 13 November, 1998.
It is 75 years since Rabbi Israel Brodie – later Chief Rabbi of Britain from 1948 to 1965 – came to Melbourne. The son of Aaron and Sheina Brodie, a pious couple from Newcastle upon Tyne who struggled to ensure he could gain a good education, he described himself as educated both in the ways of Kovno and Oxford, combining talmudic knowledge and western culture, the passion of the Jew with the properness of the Englishman.
At Jews’ College. Chief Rabbi Hertz himself soon saw the young man’s potential and encouraged him to gain the professional growth that came from an overseas posting. But first, Brodie served as a chaplain in the First World War and gained further experience as a people person doing welfare work in the East End.
His rabbinical diploma in 1923 was followed by fourteen years at the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation as rabbi, chazan and Av Beth Din.
A bachelor rabbi was a good catch but he fended off Melbourne mothers who dreamed of shidduchim with their daughters. Young, energetic and imaginative, his youth club (known colloquially as Rabbi Brodie’s boys) replicated in Australia the Jewish youth clubs of London’s East End.
His mellifluous diction and classical type of preaching were widely admired, though they failed to stem the contemporary tide of out-marriage and assimilation threatening Australian Jewry.
But he did not lack triumphs. He gave public lectures on Jewish topics, and often the synagogue hall was too small for the numbers. He recognised, though, that Melbourne was not a place – at least in those days; things have changed radically since then – for shiurim for the layman. So he had to be contented with sitting and “learning” with Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams, Rabbi JL Gurewitz of Carlton and also a few old-timers at the Montefiore Homes, in order to maintain his own Talmudic studies.
Always a passionate advocate of the Zionist cause, he was a dynamic president of the Australian Zionist Federation and did not hesitate to criticise the British agovernment at the time of the Wailing Wall incident of the late 1920s, nor did he flinch from attacking the anti-Zionist views of his Empire-patriot colleagues, Francis Lyon Cohen of Sydney and Jacob Danglow of Melbourne. In his recently published history of interwar Australian Zionism, Eliyahu Honig has highlighted Rabbi Brodie’s contribution to the cause.
To all this must be added his masonic and public relations work. When Nazism arose, as an ambassador for his people he skilfully rebutted the allegations of anti-semites, explaining the Jewish position with firmness and tact.
He left Melbourne in 1937 pessimistic about the future of Australian Jewry. Events proved him wrong, and he said so when he later came back as Chief Rabbi and saw a community transformed.
He returned to academic life on the staff of Jews’ College, and expected to complete a doctorate. The war interrupted both. He lost his greatcoat and Ph.D. notes at Dunkirk, but his chaplaincy work brought him a remarkable relationship with serving men and women. As Senior Jewish Chaplain his uniform was not always too tidy, but he kept up morale and attracted affection wherever he went.
After the war he returned to Jews’ College and finally married; his wife, Fanny Levine, was a teacher whom he had known for many years. His British birth, Oxford education, overseas experience and chaplaincy reputation all helped to secure him election as Chief Rabbi. Following upon the often turbulent years of the aggressive Dr Hertz, the electoral college now went for quietness and urbanity.
As Chief Rabbi he had at first two powerful guides – Dayan Abramsky and Sir Robert Waley Cohen – but as time went on it was clear he was uncomfortable with the rough and tumble of communal politics.
The rabbinic principle that one should not be hasty in issuing rulings was part of his nature, but it cost him dearly when some felt he only acted against Rabbi Louis Jacobs under pressure from the right wing.
Attempts were made to persuade him to modify his stance and to keep Jacobs within the establishment. He declined to accept this advice, assuring his colleagues that his decision was his own. He believed Jacobs had placed himself outside orthodoxy. History will judge him as a Chief Rabbi who looked outward and saw that Anglo-Jewry needed to take the lead in salvaging whatever it could from the ruins of European Jewish life. It was largely Brodie’s achievement to create the Conference of European Rabbis and to build a rabbinic structure in postwar Europe.
Another achievement was the purpose-built West End home for Jews’ College. That Montagu Place building was his pride and joy; he, who had no children of his own, saw the student body as his metaphorical offspring. After Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein retired, Brodie became acting principal of the College.
Brodie’s ministers were immensely proud of their Chief. He had a courtly presence with a mildly episcopal dignity. Our elocution lecturer at Jews’ College rightly regarded him as one of the finest preachers in England, with a sonorous voice, an elegant, measured, Biblical turn of phrase, and a wonderful way with a Midrash.
Mid-1965 saw his retirement at age 70; I was the last minister to be inducted into office by him as Chief Rabbi when, in May, 1965, I moved from Bayswater to Hampstead. He recalled on that occasion that he had known my parents in Melbourne and had watched me prepare for the ministry.
He returned to what he called “the still waters of academic tranquillity”. He spent much of his time working in the College library. He inducted his successor, Lord Jakobovits, in a moving ceremony; his brief address was Brodie at his finest.
In his retirement he travelled much, and loved to revisit Australia. During his last few months he was rather frail but lacked none of his humour, humanity, sound wisdom and remarkable memory. He did not produce nearly as much writing as his predecessor or successors, but he wrote volumes on the hearts of human beings. He served his Maker and his people well.