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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XII — Gold

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Chapter XII

The settlements in the South Island, Otago and Canterbury, did not encounter the same difficulties as the inhabitants of the North Island. Few Maoris dwelt there. Canterbury progressed apace, provided as it was with fertile plains and rolling downs where flocks, brought over from Australia, rapidly multiplied upon the natural pastures. Fleecy wool and golden grain poured out for export from the gateway of Christ-church, Port Lyttelton. Before the gold-seekers ever came to Otago, Canterbury had attained solidity and prosperity.

A new era began for Otago and New Zealand when a Californian gold-digger won the reward of the Provincial Council in 1861 by discovering a payable goldfield at Tuapeka. Thousands of eager, hopeful miners flowed into Dunedin by every boat, followed by a host of merchants and traders who contrived to supply the digger with his needs. They came mostly from Victoria and New South Wales, where the goldfields around Ballarat, Ben-digo and Bathurst had lost their initial lustrous and glamorous sheen. As in Australia, the miners in New Zealand moved from place to place. The discovery of a lead would attract diggers like flies to a honey-pot. At the hint that gold had been found, a spot where no white man had set his foot before would, within days, be covered with thousands of men hewing into the virgin soil. On the other hand, the loss of a lead would, within weeks, transform a hive of industry into a ghost-town. After the discovery of gold in Otago, some of the prospectors moved over to the West Coast, and in 1865 were successful in finding the precious metal in the Hokitika district. From Christchurch, the pioneers built a road over the mountains to the west. Prospectors also succeeded in the Nelson and Marlborough areas. In 1867, payable gold was at last found in the Thames district of the Auckland Province.

Jews also came with the gold-seeking immigrants. The majority came from England, with a fair sprinkling, too, from the German-Polish border, especially from the district of Posen. A few dug for gold. Most of them, however, sought their fortune in supplying the wants and needs of the miners. They had not yet rediscovered the ancestral love of the soil which had raised then Gentile, pioneer neighbours in Canterbury into wealthy farmers and landowners. The medieval persecution of the Jews in Europe which de- page 91 prived their forefathers of the right to own land, still had its effect upon the Jewish migrants who sailed for New Zealand. Nevertheless, supplying the miner with his daily wants was as risky and as speculative a business as digging for the gold itself. Cold winters, unmade roads and a scarcity of supplies made the cost of cartage almost prohibitive. The price of flour rose in Dunedin to £50 a ton. On the goldfields prices were much higher. When a lead ran out, a well-stocked store could depreciate to a fraction of its original value.

As the gold disappeared from the fields, the miners and their followers would return to the larger towns, and an examination of the fluctuations in the Jewish population in the Provinces of New Zealand from 1861 to 1901 is a fair indication of the migratory movements which took place within the period in the North and South Islands. (See table on p. 92.)

It will be noted from these figures that the main body of Jews arrived in New Zealand between 1861 and 1867, newcomers averaging about one hundred and fifty souls a year. In the next thirty-three years they maintained an average increase of only ten persons per annum, probably a natural increase. Little migration took place. Auckland maintained a steady number of the Jewish faith, the decrease in 1874 denoting a general depression which had started the previous year. At the close of the nineteenth century, the increasing importance of Wellington, which Parliament had selected as the capital in 1865 as being more central than Auckland, attracted more Jews to it than to any other city because of its growing influence. The Jewish population in Otago and Canterbury reached its peak about 1880, receiving numbers who had removed from the West Coast and Nelson, where the extraction of alluvial gold had ceased to be a profitable industry. From 1880 onwards, the Jews in the southern cities began to trickle, family by family, to the North Island. In the 1896 census, a Spanish and Portuguese Jew desired to denote that the Sephardi Jews still retained supremacy over the Ash-kenazim, and insisted on describing himself as a Spanish Jew and as a member of a separate denomination.

English and German-Polish Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century conformed to their religious practices. On the approach of the High Holy-days, Jews would seek each other out so that they could pray together on the New Year and the Day of Atonement. If numbers warranted it, they would arrange for regular Sabbath services, the requisition of a building as a house of worship and the employment of a minister to act as a Reader in the synagogue, as a Shohet at the abattoirs and as a teacher at the Hebrew school. Before the discovery of gold in Otago, only five Jewish families ventured to live amongst the Scots at Dunedin. Wolf Harris, George Casper, Hyam E. Nathan, Joseph Fogel and Adolph Bing formed the basis of the congregation which Hyam E. Nathan assembled in his home in High Street page 92 page 93

By the beginning of 1862, numbers had grown to such an extent as to warrant the establishment of a formal congregation. A general meeting elected Hyam E. Nathan as President, Henry Nathan as Treasurer and Hyman Joseph as Hon. Secretary. The committee consisted of Henry Hart, Ezekiel Nathan, Abraham Myers, R. De Costa, I. Herman and Benjamin L. Farjeon, who proposed that the community be named the Dunedin Jewish Congregation and who later flourished as a world-renowned author. Jacob Fogel, Morris Marks and Mordecai Kutner failed to be elected, the latter in spite of his riches. Dr Samuels, who acted as Coroner at Waitahuna, and George Casper, although elected initially on the temporary committee, did not stand for a permanent position. Solomon Lazarus, C. J. Levien, Samuel Isaacs and S. Collins also attended the initial meeting. Among the foundation members were Henry Hoffman, Louis Sampson, S. Daniels, S. Falk, B. Marks, Edward Solomon, I. Isaacs, Isaac Sanders and I. S. Raphael. Henry Nathan was elected the Honorary Reader with Samuel Isaacs assisting him.

As in most colonial communities, the congregation concerned itself firstly with the requisition of a cemetery, and secondly with the arrangements for acquiring a permanent place of worship. The original Jewish settlers had received a small section of land for a burial-ground but, with migrants pouring in, Hyam E. Nathan, Henry Nathan and Benjamin L. Farjeon had to seek a larger piece of ground from the Superintendent of the Province, who courteously granted the request, appointing the former two gentlemen as trustees. In accordance with the custom at that time, the trustees set aside a section of the cemetery for the burial of suicides and other persons considered unfit to be interred amongst the members of the community. Another custom of the period necessitated the appointment of an honorary official, "Gabbai d'Beth Almin", whose task included looking after cemetery affairs and the supervision of funeral arrangements on the death of any Jew in the province. Only the honoured could receive such an appointment, for the duties were regarded as sacred.

With the initial business concerning the cemetery completed, the congregation occupied itself with the requisition of a building to serve as a house of worship, and leased a small wooden edifice in George Street where the Plaza Theatre now stands. It proved to be too small for the number of page 94 worshippers who wished to attend the High Holyday services of 1862, so the committee hired the Oddfellows' Hall. These premises proved to be unsuitable, and at the last moment the congregants had to accept the offer of Hyam E. Nathan of the use of his business rooms in Stafford Street. Besides the regular readers, Jacob Frankel and R. Furst also assisted at these services. Jacob Frankel had plenty of experience behind him. He had acted as a Hazzan in Greenwich, England, in California, in Hobart Town as well as in Melbourne, Victoria.

Customarily, after a colonial congregation had procured a cemetery and synagogue, it sought to engage a minister. Dunedin did not hurry. It had to be urged to fulfil its duty by a picturesque figure, Rabbi Jacob Levi Saphir, who came out on a visit to Dunedin in March, 1862. He may not have been altogether welcome. His object in coming was to collect money to erect a school and synagogue over the historic site of the grave of Rabbi Judah the Pious in Jerusalem. The Dunedin Jews did not object to giving money for worthy causes in the Holy City, but they were concerned with the establishment of their own communal requirements. When a request arrived from Melbourne to assist in the mission of Rabbi Zvi Sneersohn, who collected funds for the starving in Palestine, the Dunedin Congregation replied that the request could not be entertained. Sneersohn and Saphir, two distinguished, learned luminaries of Israel had by coincidence arrived in Victoria about the same time. Saphir had arrived a few days after Sneersohn and, as a clever and discreet man, he decided to visit Dunedin after making short calls at the Victorian country towns of Ballarat and Bendigo and at Adelaide.

Rabbi Jacob Levi Saphir possessed distinctive qualities and ability. Born in Vilna, Lithuania, he had settled with his parents at Safed, Israel, at the age of ten. A brilliant linguist, he learnt to speak Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German and Yiddish, and could make himself understood in English. When he was thirty-five years old, the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem sent him on a world-wide mission for its school and for the poor. Like the medieval Benjamin of Tudela, the Jewish Marco Polo, Saphir travelled in many lands and published his experiences in a two-volume book entitled Eben Sappir. Its preface and contents mark him as no ordinary emissary, but as a keen scholar with open eyes, studying the life of the Jewish and general communities of the countries which he visited.

He wrote of the mud of the unpaved Dunedin streets caused by the melting snows of the winter, which, he stated, lasted for nine months in the year. He considered the Maoris intelligent, and subscribed to the view that they originally came from India. His magnetic personality and scholarship soon won him popularity and respect. Samuel Edward Shrimski, who later became prominent in parliamentary circles, inaugurated on his behalf the "Fund for the Relief of the Poor in Palestine". It also received the approval page 95 and support of the Board of Management of the synagogue. Saphir's zeal is portrayed by an incident which occurred immediately on his arrival. He disembarked from his ship on the Friday before the feast of Purim, which that year fell on a Saturday night. To his dismay, Saphir discovered that the Dunedin Jews did not possess a Megillah. He spent his first day in Dunedin perspiring over parchment that he had bought in Sana, Yemen, for the purpose of writing a Sefer Torah during his travels. Before the inauguration of the Sabbath, Saphir had completed writing the Scroll of Esther. Forty people attended the Purim night service, and a Minyan came the next morning.

With sadness, Saphir noted that even the most orthodox in the community who observed the Sabbath and closed their places of business on Saturday, did not eat Kosher meat. One woman told him that in the first year of her living in Dunedin, she and her family did not eat meat at all, but after the birth of her child she had no alternative but to buy trefah. Like many living in the colonies where no Shohet was engaged, she salted and rinsed the Trefah meat in accordance with the dietary laws, and separated the meat vessels from the milk utensils. Members excused themselves to Saphir by claiming that they had a synagogue and Reader, which in their eyes had preference over a Shohet, whom they could not afford to bring out from London. In Saphir's opinion a Shohet had preference, and he kindly urged the congregants to rectify their error.

Saphir remained in Dunedin for the Passover Festival. The community had ordered Matzah from Sydney, and Saphir made the Kosher wine and "kashered" all the utensils, but he himself would eat only potatoes and fish. All who had no family met at the home of Hyam E. Nathan for the Seder. About forty persons sat around table. The members of the congregation persuaded Saphir to remain for the dedication of the George Street synagogue in which he took part and during which he once again exhorted the worshippers to engage a Shohet. On the day following the Feast of Pentecost, Saphir embarked to return to Melbourne, well satisfied with his visit to Dunedin both from the material and spiritual point of view. The congregation had promised to appoint a ritual slaughterer.