One of the strangest works of Australian Jewish literature is a semifictional book by Abraham Samuel Gordon entitled Mordecai MacCobber: The Story of a Scotch Jew in Australia, by the Late Rt Hon Benjamin Schlimm-Mazel, issued in 1914 and went through three editions in the early 20th century.
The story purports to describe the adventures of a young Russian Jew who spends a few years in Britain and then sails for Australia, where he sometimes finds success, but more often life defeats him.
He learns English and discovers its vagaries. He takes part in historic events. He becomes mayor of a way-out township. He stands for Parliament. His meanderings take him all over the country, including Tasmania. He gives speeches. His name appears in the papers. His Jewishness is not hidden but neither is it particularly evident.
The name is a parody of Dickens’ “Mister Micawber”; the only indication that he is Scottish is that “Micawber” becomes “MacCobber”. Like his namesake he is a dreamer who never quite makes it – a schlimmazel, the pen-name the author adopts for himself. Calling one of the chapters “Mr. Mordecai MacCobber on the Threshold of History” sums it up – always on the threshold, never really making it. The author thinks the audience will see MacCobber as “one more brilliant failure that all history wots of”.
The style is neither particularly notable nor forgettable. The humour is rather heavy. The book must have had its readers – hundreds of patrons are listed in the appendix – but whether they had a high opinion of the work is doubtful. Maybe the only really significant historical feature of the book actually is the subscribers’ list, which includes some of the best-known community figures of the time. His quirky glossary of Jewish terms reflects the acculturation of a number of (mostly Yiddish) phrases; Schnorrers are “an altruistic sect, whose members in their daily life and in every act prove the multifarious benefits of open handed charity without cavil and without question”.
The author, Abraham Samuel Gordon, unlike his book’s “hero”, was a real person, and part of the story seems to be modelled on his own life. Born near Riga, he went to England at 15 or 16 and was regarded there as a barbarian. After five years he came to Australia where he travelled widely and tried his luck on the goldfields and learned English well enough to be able to give talks to high school students in Grafton, Gympie and elsewhere on the difficulties of the language. He reprints reports of his talks from the local newspapers – or are these reports also the product of his own imagination?
Part of his life was spent in Bendigo, but he is mentioned in the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal as living in Carlton, Victoria, and being sued by the minister of the local synagogue (vol. 12, page 116; cf. vol. 9, page 446). We can dismiss the claim that “MacCobber” is Scottish, but what about “Gordon”? Admittedly, it is well-known in Scotland, and there was a famous 18th-century convert to Judaism called Lord George Gordon – but there was also a similar Eastern European place and it was the surname of leading Jewish figures such as the Hebrew writer Aaron David Gordon.