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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XV — A Ghost Synagogue

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Chapter XV
A Ghost Synagogue

When the gold-rush started in Hokitika in 1865, the Jews who flowed into the West Coast, to their credit, did not only think of their material position, but also paid attention to their spiritual welfare. In the beginning, the town was like bedlam. Thousands lived in tents. Two hundred public houses stood within a small area not more than a mile long. Some of them had Jewish owners. It was not an uncommon profession for London Jews, who comprised the majority of the Jewish population in Hokitika. Crowds packed into these hotels, where they paid three shillings a night to sleep in a blanket on the floor. Most likely, the Jews went to the hotels kept by their co-religionists such as the Hotel Shamrock and Thistle conducted by S. M. Solomon in the main thoroughfare of Revell Street, or Jacob Wagman's Shamrock Hotel in the same street, or to Mrs Levy's hotel or the Adelphi owned by Raphael and Marks. For amusement they attended the large wooden theatre which opened every night, or met at Levy's Prince Alfred Oyster Saloon or at W. Wulff's restaurant. Those who liked dancing went to Phineas Solomon's Cafe de Paris.

As the buildings went up, the Jews settled into their trades and professions, mostly as shopkeepers in Revell and Weld streets. Selling tobacco seemed a popular trade amongst them. M. Mendelsson, M. Jaffe, Bernard Mendelsson, Marks and Fuerst, M. Nashelski, Alexander Singer, Isaac Benjamin, B. Falk, Shier and Goodman and Michael Pollock were registered as tobacconists. Henry Levy, H. Hyams, Raphael Levy, Hart & Hyams, Hart & Levy, John Isaacs, Levi & Raphael, A. Louison and Company, H. L. Marks and Company, and John Solomon sold groceries and provisions. Watchmakers and jewellers were represented by Solomon Shappere, S. and S. Cohen, M. Hayman and J. P. Klein. Amongst the ironmongers, general storekeepers, dealers and fancy-goods sellers were numbered the Benjamin Brothers, Samuel Myerstein, Behrend Susman and Company, J. Hirsh, Joseph Jacobs, S. Jacobs and Jacob Moses. D. Cashmore, Isaacs and Company, and S. Goldston sold clothes. W. Moss and, later, George Hyman Moss conducted the local stationery, book and newsagent shop. E. N. Marks and Company, and D. Isaacs, the local loan and money agents were never short of business. Cohen Brothers, furniture dealers, upholsterers and cabinetmakers drew many customers who believed their stay in Hokitika would page 109 be permanent. M. Rehfisch dealt in leather. H. Marks hawked at Three Mile and Israel Pollock all over the countryside. For clients who desired to consult a Jewish solicitor, Joel Barnett Lewis was available.

When the gold leads were opened up in the countryside of the West Coast outside Hokitika, some of the migrating Jews set up their businesses or branches in the new settlements. At Stafford Town, H. Marks and Company opened the Beehive Stores, D. and A. Benjamin the Johnny All-sorts Stores, Joseph Samuels the Little Wonder Fancy Goods Repository, and R. Isaacs the Greatest Wonder of the World Outfitting and Clothing Establishment. Levy and Raphael traded as storekeepers without any fancy names. D. Hayman earned his livelihood as a tobacconist, and N. Marks as a hairdresser and barber. At Ross, T. Chaim combined the occupation of tobacconist with that of hairdresser, whilst Marks and Wiener worked as watchmakers and jewellers. The port of Grey, later called Greymouth, appeared to the migrants as a settlement which would become permanent, and attracted the general merchants Ralph De Costa and Company, and Cohen and Company to establish their businesses there. Hyam B. Davis worked there as a carpenter, Alexander Solomon as a fruiterer, and Abraham Levinski as a hairdresser as well as acting as a photographer's artist. W. and G. Isaacs, Morris Levy, R. Marks and Philip Sternberg opened shops as general dealers and fancy-goods merchants. H. E. Nathan plied as an auctioneer and agent.

On High Holydays, the Jews from all parts of the West Coast would gather at the Hokitika Synagogue in Tancred Street, half-way between Stafford and Weld streets and opposite the Methodist Church. The local Jews met there regularly every Sabbath and Festival. Devout, loyal and aware of their responsibilities, the Jews who came to Hokitika took steps to form a congregation immediately they arrived, and in August, 1865, appointed B. Marks as President, J. Moss as Treasurer and M. Harris as Secretary. They asked the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation to intervene on their behalf, and to request from the Superintendent grants of land for a synagogue and cemetery. The Canterbury Congregation also wrote to the Wellington Jews to lend a Sefer Torah to their brethren in Hokitika. Like all other denominations, the Hokitika Hebrew Congregation received a grant of land for the erection of a house of worship, and on Plot 665 the adventurous young Jews built a beautiful, small, wooden synagogue on traditional lines, with the Bimah in the centre and a ladies' gallery. The synagogue seated about one hundred and twenty-five persons. Attractive in its interior, although compact and lofty, it also impressed externally by its tall, wooden, Doric columns which, with its colouring, made it a distinctive building in the township. The Superintendent also did not hesitate either to grant the mining community a section of land as a cemetery on a hill overlooking the sea page 110 to the north of the settlement. Fortunately, it did not have to be used for many years. The first Jewish burial in Hokitika took place in 1872. Afraid that the mining community would soon disperse, the Wellington Jews refused to lend a Sefer Torah to Hokitika, which had to purchase its copies from overseas. The congregation was more fortunate in the loan of another synagogue requisite, a Shofar, which the Canterbury Congregation kindly lent it year by year for the High Holyday Festivals.

Besides building a synagogue, the Hokitika Jews lost no time in appointing the Rev. Isaac Zachariah as their minister and Shohet. Many of them knew him in the Victorian mining community of Ballarat where he had married and settled after serving the Sassoon family as a private Shohet in Bombay. Probably his friend, Newman Freidel Spielvogel, a prominent Ballarat identity, induced him to leave India for Australia. The prospect of an easier livelihood in a township of newly-won gold urged him to leave Australia for New Zealand. His happiness must have known no bounds when he dedicated the synagogue on 23 September, 1867, assisted by the lay Reader, Alexander Singer. Zachariah's task involved him in difficulties. His congregation came originally either from England or from the German-Polish area of Europe. He looked foreign even among the foreigners. He came originally from Baghdad, and had lived many years in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he won popularity, for he was a lovable character. He slowly picked up the English language and idiom, but never mastered it thoroughly, with the result that his innocent errors endeared him to all. In order to satisfy the English element, he endeavoured to preach to them in English, but not knowing how to write the language, he wrote it down phonetically in Hebrew characters. His knowledge of oriental languages proved useful to himself and to the courts, where he often acted as an interpreter.

Zachariah cared for the spiritual welfare of a well-conducted flock. Although Hokitika looked like a western mining town, and its main thoroughfare, Revell Street, like a typical, narrow, wooden-shop-lined, ramshackle, muddy, winding road, the inhabitants did not behave in the manner of the miners of the wild west coast of America. They were migratory, but orderly and organized. A markedly sobering element amongst them was the Jews. Nurtured in a tradition of sobriety, with emphasis upon the virtues of a peaceful home and communal life, they contributed a leavening influence to the crowds which flocked to the West Coast. They helped to raise the standards of citizenship equal to that found in established cities along the eastern littoral of New Zealand.

The representative for the Goldfields Towns in the House of Representatives was a Jew, Julius (later Sir Julius) Vogel. A. Behrend and P. Susman filled the posts of Treasurer and Secretary of the German Society. A beloved, popular figure in the township, John Lazar, exerted a happy influence in the page 111 area. He combined the rare qualities of immaculate dignity and witty joviality. As Town Clerk of Hokitika, he was the man behind the scenes responsible for the welfare and progress of the borough. In 1873 he received promotion to County Treasurer, followed a year later by promotion to Provincial Treasurer, but when the latter position became an elective office within the Provincial Council, he retired. On the West Coast he continued his active interest in Freemasonry. He occupied the position of Past Grand Master of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Westland, and at the time was thought to be the oldest Freemason in New Zealand. The Lazar Lodge, Kumara, was named after him. He installed more Masters in their Chairs than any other Freemason in the country.

Another prominent figure in Hokitika, Charles Louisson, helped in the formation of the Volunteers, the First Westland Rifles and the Westland Light Horse in which he served. Although he had worked as a station-hand and miner in Ballarat, he traded in Hokitika as a merchant. Occasionally, the militia had to be called out, as at the disastrous fire in July, 1869, which started at Levy's Prince Alfred Oyster Saloon. They stood on guard over the goods taken out of the shops built from wood. A number of Jews suffered severe loss in the fire. The Hokitika Volunteer Fire Brigade worked hard to extinguish it and none harder than J. Levy, the foreman of the Hose Company. As a result of the conflagration, the Town Council issued a proclamation signed by John Lazar that every dwelling and building had to have a tank available at all times filled with fifty gallons of water in order to fight fires. Another occasion when the Volunteers were called out occurred at the time Henry James O'Farrell fired a bullet in Sydney at the Duke of Edinburgh. The Fenians in Hokitika turned the occasion into a riot. Responsible citizens led by the Jewish carpenter, David Benjamin, formed a loyalist group and marched with pickhandles and shovels against the irate Irishmen, sympathizers with Irish Home Rule. Probably Benjamin received support from his co-religionist, the popular, kind-hearted Barney Ballin, an enormous, heavyweight prizefighter on the goldfields, who derived his fame from the fact that he was prepared to accept any fight at any time for any amount.

All the bustling excitement around Hokitika lasted no longer than five years. By the year 1870, the miners and tradespeople were marching out in droves. At its peak, the population numbered around 50,000 souls. During the eighteen-seventies the numbers diminished to between 10,000 and 12,000, and at the end of the century less than 2000 persons dwelt in the town. After four years' service the Hebrew Congregation could no longer afford to pay their minister, Zachariah, who left for Christchurch with happy memories of the West Coast and its Jews. He did not entirely sever his connection with them. For any circumcision or any other special religious page 112 ceremony at which his services were necessary, he would be called to revisit Hokitika, and on his arrival all the town folk knew that something was happening in the Jewish community.

After Zachariah's departure, Alexander Singer conducted the services, and worshippers would come from afar in order to hear his sweet renditions of the liturgy. He was often assisted by John Lazar, who could not only sing a fine song at a concert, but could chant the Hebrew liturgy as well as any cantor. He could also preach a comprehensive sermon. In synagogue he demanded strict decorum, and woebetide the worshipper who took it upon himself to snatch a whisper with his neighbour. The only Hebrew tuition which the Hokitika children received was that given by John Solomon after synagogue worship on Saturday mornings. On 9 June, 1879, John Lazar passed away at the age of seventy-six years, to the deep sorrow of all Hokitika. The greatest number of persons ever seen in a funeral procession in Hokitika followed his bier to the Jewish cemetery, led by the town band, County Council members and Government representatives. As a mark of esteem, the Freemasons erected over his grave a large memorial which towers above the other tombstones in the Jewish portion of the cemetery.

Missing Lazar's inspiration and the families which had left the town, the members attending the synagogue could be counted upon one person's hands. The days when the small synagogue overflowed with worshippers had ended. Nevertheless, Alexander Singer, who had become a hawker, carried, on bravely, and opened the synagogue on Festival mornings, chanting the service with his sweet Polish melodies to the few who attended. At the end of the century, only five or six Jewish families lived in Hokitika, including those named Singer, Pollock, Solomon and Benjamin. The synagogue was literally falling to pieces. Dry rot and white ants ate into the woodwork, and nothing could be done to remedy it. The curtains and covers were turning to mould and shreds. The Ark and Sifre Torah were better preserved, and a visiting traveller, Isaac Van Staveren, the eldest son of the Wellington Jewish minister, whenever he came to the township would not lose the opportunity of airing the Scrolls of the Law which he, the sole worshipper in the synagogue, would read on the Bimah. Hokitika's house of worship had become almost a ghost building. The sun, the rot and the ants had completely changed the colour to white.