AUSTRALIAN GENESIS, JEWISH CONVICTS AND SETTLERS 1788-1860
By John S Levi and George FJ Bergman
Melbourne University Press, 2nd edition, 2002
Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple
After the first edition of Australian Genesis went out of print, anyone who came across a copy in a second-hand bookshop was sure that they had acquired a real treasure. That first edition, a wonderful piece of bookcraft, was not only a basic introduction to the long and colourful history of early Australian Jewry, but led the way in rehabilitating the period of the convicts and early settlers as a creditable chapter in Australian history-writing as a whole.
Dr George Bergman, a Central European Jewish intellectual who settled in Australia after the war and fell in love with the country, made innumerable contributions to researching and writing Australian Jewish history. Rabbi John Levi, with his impressive Australian lineage, was a much younger man, but by the early 1970s when the book was under way, was already establishing himself as a scholar and historian. After Bergman’s untimely death in 1979, Levi continued to research the records of the convict and settler period and was constantly being urged to prepare a new edition of Australian Genesis. The result, long awaited, exciting in its advent, is now in the bookshops.
As with the first edition, the book is a joy to behold and handle. Inevitably much of the material has needed recasting in the light of ongoing research carried out by Levi and others, but it is Levi’s own achievement to have melded both old and new material in such an elegant piece of writing. Levi, whilst not our only Jewish historian, is probably the greatest literary stylist amongst their tribe, and readers will enjoy not only the content and appearance of this book but its sheer readability.
There is a feeling amongst some people that nothing had happened in Australian Jewry until the immediate pre-war and post-war immigration. The claim is understandable, because the community has certainly undergone great growth, maturing and diversification, but it is not valid. There were Jews and Jewish life on this continent from 1788 onwards, and much of the story is told in Australian Genesis. Our community does itself no service by pretending that there were no great characters, events or achievements prior to the 1930s.
One of my teachers was the great historian Cecil Roth. Ruth was impatient with my ignorance of many aspects of Jewish history, and when we asked naive questions he would say in his distinctive Rothian diction, “Read Roth!” To anyone without knowledge of the early period of Australian Jewry, I say, “Read Levi! Read Bergman!”
I wish Australian Genesis, Mark 2, great success and a warm reception.