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    Moses Baker & the Australian matzah

    The first Jews in Australia were convicts who recognised one another from London’s Jewish streets. All, apart from a handful of Sephardim, knew Yiddish; few could read Hebrew. Some knew a mispronounced b’rachah or two and maybe the first line of the Shema. It is unlikely that their families belonged to synagogues, since shule membership was expensive. Few had been to school, since parents preferred their children to hawk pencils and oranges rather than gain book learning, though some could read and write.

    In the 1820s, free settlers started to arrive. One was Phillip Joseph Cohen, a 25 year old Londoner who came in 1825 with letters from Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell permitting him to conduct marriages. The 1845 report of the Sydney Synagogue says that Cohen registered his credentials with the NSW Colonial Secretary, though we cannot trace the documents.

    We can assume that the early Jewish convicts more or less knew when Pesach fell, since the Colony was aware of Easter. Some of the Jews knew how to say Mah Nishtanah… but where were they going to get matzah?

    Matzah-baking began in the 1820s, since the “Australian” reported in 1830, “The quantity of unleavened bread made, and likely to be consumed during the present Paschale exceeds former seasons”. A correspondent noted that there were three Passover “banquets” in Sydney that year. The emancipist James Simmons’ Seder was marked by “richness of plate… superb supper… plenty of matza clice”. A rival Seder was conducted by PJ Cohen and his associate Lawrence Spyer. The reference to “former seasons” shows that this was not the first matzah to be baked in the Colony.

    Who did the baking and where, and how was the matzah distributed? We are not sure, but it must have been known that the ingredients were flour and water. Free settlers and emancipists had cooks and bakers, and some were Jewish. John Moses, formerly a pastry cook at Government House, Hobart, and later a publican at Penrith, was brought to Sydney to bake matzah in the early 30s, though one does not ask how kosher it was. Before long matzah was sent to Norfolk Island. Convicts who wanted matzah probably tried to bake their own.

    Matzah machinery had already been invented, but in Australia all matzah was baked by hand. Some London families were famous for their matzah, such as Moses Levy (known as Moses Baker!) of Wentworth Street. But the product was expensive, and it is unlikely that it was ever exported to Australia. Australian Jewry eventually developed matzah-baking firms such as Solomons, Sniders and others. Someone should write the story.

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