Eulogy delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the funeral service for Sir Asher Joel at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, 1998.
Sir Asher Joel was an Australian legend. He probably would not have liked the word “icon” – nor, in any case, is it such a good word to use in the synagogue. But whatever epithet you choose, he was an exceptional Australian. Read his CV and the achievements it lists on page after page are unbelievable. Shakespeare said, “One man in his time plays many parts” , and that was Asher. Many parts – and service to Australia in every line.
His life story begins in the western suburbs of Sydney. His father, who came from a London orphanage, was a clerk who had little money but gave his sons good plain advice. His mother, the daughter of a Jewish minister, gave Asher the gift of writing. They were too poor to afford membership fees to the Great Synagogue and Asher spent Yom Kippur in Hyde Park looking at the synagogue. Later an attachment was formed to the Newtown Synagogue, which is where, last year, Asher attended what was probably his last Jewish community occasion.
In a formal sense his education ended early, but he was one of the most cultured, civilised people any of us knew. He was warmly involved in university activities, especially at Macquarie and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His intellectual ability, sound judgment, articulate pen and eloquent tongue were admired everywhere. A former fellow Member of the Legislative Council has said that he was “by far the most compelling speaker in Parliament”.
He walked with kings, queens, princes of the Church – and rabbis, leaders of nations, captains of industry, military dignitaries and media moguls – with a genuine aristocracy of personality and presence. He had elegance, style and bearing, but humanity too. He helped countless people without fuss or fanfare, had a nice word for everyone (though he did not feel so good about inefficiency or injustice); an office secretary said it all when she remarked, “He was a lovely man”.
Great events, of course, were his hallmark, but he treasured little moments too. He took care with hosting a few people at home just as he was concerned about grand public occasions. And when now and then something happened that broke his heart, he cried.
Asher was a Jew with a fine old Biblical name – two in fact, Asher and Joel. Whether they ever stood in his way in later life I do not know, but as a child he sometimes had to stand up for himself. His Jewishness had the whole of Sydney on side within the last couple of years when his tallit and kippah were inadvertently left in a taxi and never found. But long before, the thought of the proud Jew organising a papal visit to Australia and later receiving a papal knighthood intrigued, impressed and pleased everyone.
He more or less founded two Australian industries – public relations and events management. His autobiography, on which he was working so hard, will tell the story, and it will place him amongst the Australian immortals.
The record of his career begins as a young teenager when he commenced as a journalist, quickly moving from copy boy to reporter. After the Telegraph he worked on the Labor Daily and before he was 20 was their parliamentary roundsman. His political reporting was so skilful that before long he was in public life as publicity director for the coronation of George VI and the 1938 sesquicentary.
The war saw him in the forces but brought back into civilian life to run the Lord Mayor’s Patriotic and War Fund and the Australian Comforts Fund. Back in uniform he saw service with the navy, occupying delicate liaison postings with the American fleet and MacArthur’s headquarters. He received United States and Philippines decorations and in due course was honoured by his own monarch. This was Asher as an international diplomat, indispensable to Australia’s good name.
The establishment of his public relations business showed Australia that PR is not cheap propaganda or a questionable attempt to manipulate minds, but a constructive means of communication and understanding. In this work others followed; he pioneered.
From organising the VP celebrations in Melbourne Asher developed into the master of Australian occasions – if you like, the national Me. The Waratah Spring Festival, royal, papal and presidential visits, Australia’s 175th anniversary, the Captain Cook bicentenary, the Opera House and NSW Masonic Centre openings – one is tempted to list everything, but the list is so daunting. Everyone knew that the man with a sense of occasion would make an event effective, appropriate and memorable. His events were dramatic but not flamboyant. His instinct knew the right level and the right flavour.
He found that in events organisation, the easiest person to deal with was the Queen; each saw in the other a true professional. Not that things did not sometimes get out of control; 25 years ago when the Opera House opened he had no control over the weather and the wind gave some trouble to the microphone and even the Queen’s hat. Unfortunately Asher had, for once, forgotten to check with the synagogue, which two days earlier had commenced mashiv haru’ach umorid hagashem, acknowledging that God causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall!
Asher became the master of and authority on protocol. His massive book on the subject is today indispensable. He believed and showed that there was such a thing as correct behaviour, whether it came to opening parliament, flying a flag or going to a Bar-Mitzvah.
He spent many years in the NSW Legislative Council, initially as an Independent and then for the Country Party. His speeches were sound and responsible. His criterion of what was socially acceptable was his own family. If something was not good for his own children, it was not good. He shone in the party room, seeing the big picture, saving situations without ruffling feathers. When he left Parliament, I suggested that to retain the input of people like Asher, the Upper House could become a House of Eminent Citizens. Practical? I don’t know, but it was my personal tribute to Asher.
Asher in business and the media – a very important chapter in his life, especially in Queensland. The Asher Joel Media Group is a major entity in the business world, especially in the print media and television. Asher in charity work, on public boards and trusts – again a massive story of involvement, patriotism and wise counsel. Asher and sporting organisations, Asher and the arts, Asher and the universities, Asher’s endowments… One of my teachers who had written a definitive work used to be impatient with our questions and would say, “Read my book! Read my book!” I borrow his words; for the full, colourful, exciting story of all that Asher did, make sure that you do read his book.
One must make a special point of Asher as a Jew. He and his friend Syd Einfeld were the patriarchs of the Jewish community. Since Syd’s passing, Asher has been our sole elder statesman. He began to feel a little weary but his advice remained sound and solid.
For many decades he played a seminal role, especially at crucial and critical moments, in Jewish community life. What he did for Israel was absolutely invaluable. In Australian Jewry he saved many a situation. The synagogue meant much to him and Sybil, and when necessary it gave them comfort and support. He had a wonderful relationship
with his rabbis, and they received great encouragement from him. Jewish teaching, especially the Ethics of the Fathers, moulded his views and deeds, and he could find the right quotation and use it to great effect.
The Jewish profession of faith instructs us to love God with heart, soul and might. Asher epitomised all three – emotions, intellect and energies. His emotions were passionate without being fanatical, his intellect quick but never shallow, deep but never lacking context. His energies went into all he did, but he never chose a cause that would compromise the good name of Australia or his Judaism.
Jeremiah says, “Seek the peace of the city”. That was Asher – a man who ever sought the peace of his community. He did what he did out of good citizenship, not in the expectation of honours – but honours came, including two knighthoods, and they were well deserved.
He was blessed in his family. Nearly fifty years with Sybil, elegant, gracious and graceful wife, partner and support. Distinguished children who in their own ways have all learned from Asher’s traits and teachings. Grandchildren who loved him and whom he dearly loved.
We, his friends, were not quite family, but we each felt Asher was ours as well.
The question is asked in the book of Samuel, “Know ye that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” This was Asher – sar v’gadol, a prince and a great man. We may not ever see his like again. Asher, HaSar Asher ben Reb Moshe, you enriched our lives, our nation, our people.
Lech b’shalom, go in peace. May your memory bless us.