Ours may not be one of the greatest or grandest of Jewish communities. For most of our history we were too far off the beaten track to be considered particularly significant in world Jewish terms. We were never famous for passionate intensity of Judaism or great cultural creativity. Few Australian Jewish events could match the dramas (and traumas) of other places.
But for all that, our history has a colourful fascination of its own. The Jewish life maintained so tenaciously in relative isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, the personalities who loomed large in general Australian history whilst generally fully identifying as Jews, our share in the post-Holocaust reconstruction of Jewish life, the growth and maturing of the community over recent decades – all are part of a story that deserves to be known.Ours is probably the only community that can pinpoint precisely when the first Jews arrived, for the First Fleet brought at least 16 Jews to these shores. From then until 1852, when transportation to Australia ceased, about 1000 Jews came on the convict ships (out of a total of 145,000 convicts).
The first 250 Jewish convicts included clerks, butchers, shoemakers, tailors, jewellers, merchants and dealers. There were also messenger boys, orange sellers, furriers, an actor, a soldier, pen and pencil makers, hatters, chimney sweeps, peddlers, unskilled labourers, and prostitutes. The majority could probably read and write.
About one in ten finally found his way back to Britain. Of the rest, a number eventually did quite well in Australia. Some made a significant impact on Australian life. Jews became detectives, merchants, boxers, landowners and shipowners. Some became leading figures in Australian cultural, social and economic life.
Probably all were known by their contemporaries to be Jewish. But these days, hardly any have any Jewish descendants (although recent years have seen a handful of people returning to Judaism after nearly two hundred years without Jewish identity or affiliation).
One of the problems was that there were nine men to every woman. Of the first 250 Jewish convicts, only 45 married in Australia. None married a Jew. Over 60 children were born to them; none was Jewish.
Yet the convicts did not lack Jewish feeling. When Sunday church parades were compulsory the Jewish convicts were conspicuous by their absence and the punishment registers contain a disproportionate number of Jewish names.
The first Jew to die on Australian soil was Joseph Levy, but he was buried in April, 1788, without Jewish rites, as was another Jew, Uziel Baruch, in July 1790.
The first time anyone is officially recorded as a Jew was in June, 1791, when the Christian chaplain, the Rev Richard Johnson, buried “Solomon Bockron (or Bockroh), a Jew”. By 1803, fifteen years after the First Fleet, Jewish prayers – at least in anticipation of death – could be openly recited in the convict colony. In that year, Joseph Samuel was about to be executed and a fellow Jew provided him with spiritual ministration. Remarkably, however, when they tried to hang Samuel (on Yom Kippur!) the rope broke, three times. Samuel was reprieved, but died by drowning three years later.
There was still no regular Jewish worship. It was not only the lack of Jewish background on the part of the convicts. The pressures of life in Australia were so harsh, and religion was so bitterly linked in the convict mind with hated authority, that even the Christian convicts had little time or patience for creed or clergy.
It was 1817, nearly thirty years after 1788, when what might be called the first steps towards a community were taken. The 1845 report of the Sydney Synagogue states that in that year “the twenty Hebrews in the Colony… formed themselves into a Society, and raised a subscription for the interment of their dead”. The fact is that by then there were closer to two hundred and twenty Jews in New South Wales, though possibly only ten percent were interested enough to be part of the historic first manifestation of Jewish community spirit.
But it was not just a burial society that began about 1817. A German-born Jewish convict, Joseph Marcus, “an intelligent, peaceable and well-disposed man, who had spent much time studying the scriptures in Hebrew”, occasionally assembled his fellow-Jews for worship. Presumably Marcus had been able to bring a Hebrew prayer-book, and perhaps a Bible too, on the long voyage to Australia, and thus though he married a Christian woman in church he served as the unofficial Jewish minister.
Marcus died in November, 1828, and his tombstone, now in the Pioneer Memorial Garden at Botany Cemetery, is inscribed in Hebrew with the last two lines of Adon Olam – possibly the first public use of Hebrew lettering in Australian history.
That same year, 1828, suddenly brought a flurry of Jewish activity. A free settler, 25 year-old Philip Joseph Cohen, arrived in May bearing recommendations from the Chief Rabbi of England, who had hitherto not wanted (or been able) to take an interest in the Jews of the Antipodes. Cohen soon began holding Jewish services in his house in George Street, on the corner of what is now Martin Place. The old emancipists resented Cohen, and so a rival group embarked upon its own services. The beginning of 1828 had seen no Jewish congregation in the colony; by the end of the year there were two.
A reconciliation was brought about in 1831 by the first rabbi to set foot on Australian soil. He was Aaron Levy of the London Beth Din. Sent by the Chief Rabbi to arrange a divorce for a woman in London from her convict husband in Sydney, Levy re-united the congregation, provided its first prayer-books and scroll of the Torah, and probably carried out Australia’s first conversion to Judaism. The first known Ketubah (Hebrew marriage document) in Australia, in fine Hebrew calligraphy, was presumably also drawn up by Levy, with details of the date of the wedding in 1831 and other information inserted by a less expert hand, probably that of Philip Joseph Cohen.
A petition to Governor Darling for a Jewish house of worship had previously been refused. Now, however, there were 25 free Jewish settlers including Joseph Barrow Montefiore, and it was felt the government would take more notice of them than of the emancipists.
The formal establishment of the congregation came on 2 November, 1831, and by 26 September, 1832 the Sydney Monitor could report:
The New Year’s Eve and Day of the Sons of Abraham: The Jews of the colony assembled at the Jews’ Synagogue held over Mr Rowell’s shop in George Street which was elegantly fitted out as such on Monday evening, being the last night of the year according to the ancient chronology of the tribe of Judah, when prayers were said. On Tuesday morning and again in the evening, other meetings took place and worship was again performed.
Pesach had likewise attracted the observance of the Jews and the attention of the public. The newspaper wrote at length about the making of matzah in 1830. The Australian said “The quantity of unleavened bread made, and likely to be consumed during the present Paschale exceeds former seasons”. James Simmons’ Seder was described by one of the participants in terms of “richness of plate… super supper… plenty of Matza Klice, but alas no Kugle” (and that’s Australia, 1830!).
Judaism had arrived!