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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XVI — Zeal in the Antipodes

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Chapter XVI
Zeal in the Antipodes

Like Hokitika, the settlement of Nelson blossomed into a flourishing township in 1866, when prospectors found gold in the district. The eager miners and their watchful followers bought their provisions and started along the footpaths across the mountains from the seaside resort awakening from its slumber. For the Jews who arrived and wished to form a community, a minister waited eagerly with open arms to serve them. David M. Isaacs had settled in Nelson for reasons of health after long experience in the ministry. He suffered severely from rheumatism, and Nelson's climate suited him. A warm welcome awaited any new Jewish arrival. Isaacs, working as a photographer, longed for Jewish company. His first official duty as a minister in Nelson, however, involved him in a frightful and melancholy experience. He escorted a man to the hangman's rope.

In June, 1866, an alarm arose in Nelson over four men from Canvastown who had set out for Deep Creek, but who did not arrive there. Suspicion fell upon a man who was spending a lot of money in a bar at Deep Creek. When arrested he had £63 on him. Inquiries revealed him to be Philip Levy, an unconvicted, professional receiver of stolen goods who had previously resided in Hokitika. Originally from London, he had migrated to Victoria and then to Otago, where he traded in Dunedin before moving to the West Coast. Levy, a man of about forty years of age, dark and of medium height, had been seen by a fellow Israelite, Joseph Leverstam, and a lady companion, on the track over the Maungatapu mountains on his way to Picton, seventy miles from Nelson. Levy was accompanied by three men. With little delay, the police arrested a known gang of bushrangers, Richard Burgess, the leader, Thomas Kelly and Thomas Sullivan, and charged them with the crime of murder. At the trial held on 16 September, 1866, Sullivan turned Queen's Evidence. All three companions were found guilty. Levy protested his innocence to the last. Short of money, he had joined the bushrangers with the intention of robbing travellers walking along the mountain footpaths. When the others had revealed their intention of killing the wayfarers, Levy had protested and said he could not do it, "for as a Jew he could not kill". Both Sullivan and Burgess exonerated Levy, but public indignation demanded blood and revenge. It is doubtful whether, in a modern court of justice, Levy would have been found guilty of the major crime. Sullivan, page 114 after several years in gaol, received a free pardon and shipped to England. On the voyage passengers recognized him. They led him a dog's life. People followed him in England, and eventually Sullivan returned to Australia where he died. The other three culprits paid the extreme penalty on 6 October, 1866, David M. Isaacs accompanying a bewildered Levy on his last walk. Levy asked Isaacs to convey a message to his mother in London and to tell her of his innocence. Another prisoner, awaiting trial for robbery, acted as the hangman. As a reward, this prisoner received his immediate release. The gruesome gaoler, believing the ghastly crime deserved a sterner punishment than hanging, dug up the bodies, severed the heads, and stuck the skulls upon the prison walls. Thirty years later, when the authorities discarded the gaol and pulled it down, they exhumed the bodies buried in the yard, for re-interment. Three bodies had no heads. It remained a mystery for some time, until a prominent Jewish citizen revealed the grim secret of the headless bodies about which his father had told him.

Happier days awaited Isaacs, for the men who came to the Nelson district gained the respectful esteem of the inhabitants for their absolute integrity and dignified demeanour. They had already won a reputation for good citizenship from the days of the inauguration of the settlement. A Quaker, commenting in his diary concerning the shortage of such staples as flour and sugar in 1842-3, stated that one Jew refused to charge extortionate prices, and helped to bring the cost of food down. The diarist did not think many Gentiles would have done likewise. Some of New Zealand's finest sons originated from the Nelson district. Morris Levy, the hero of Opotiki, came to live there, and lies buried in the Jewish portion of the general cemetery. It had been granted to the community by the authorities, but like other rarely used Jewish cemeteries in New Zealand, has been encroached upon by other denominations.

Hyam Davis, whose son Moss and grandsons Sir Ernest Davis and the Hon. Eliot Rapinski Davis, gained prominence in New Zealand affairs, came to Nelson from Sydney in 1864 and set himself up as a merchant. He became well known amongst the farmers in the "Kent of New Zealand", from whom he bought hops and barley which he sold to the brewers. In 1876, after rearing a large family, he settled in Christchurch, selling his Nelson interests to his son Moss, who succeeded by buying future harvests of the same crops from the farmers. Both parties were satisfied. The farmers gained security, and Moss Davis, on account of good seasons, gained a fortune. Cultured, democratic, prudent and popular, he never hesitated, however, to express his opinion in the cause of justice. In 1885, he sold out his business in Nelson to another well-known local Jewish personality, Robert Levien. Davis settled in Auckland, where he joined Hancocks, the brewers. His hobbies included visiting auction sales at home and abroad, where he bought paintings and page 115 antiques of New Zealand interest, most of which he presented to the Auckland Public Library, Art Gallery and the Old Colonists' Association. To the Auckland Public Library he also presented letters written by Robert Burns, as well as many articles of historical interest relating to Nelson.

Probably Robert Levien could claim to be the oldest Jewish resident in Nelson. No doubt he migrated from London to Nelson under the auspices of Sir Isaac Goldsmid, a relative with whom he had many ties, and who, as a director of the New Zealand Company, had interests in Nelson. Robert Levien also had a large family, one of whom, Joseph Henry Levien, achieved prominence in the town when the first mayor, in 1874, found himself unable to manage the finances. The Councillors elected Levien to the mayoral post, considering him to be "a clever man, full of energy and a splendid member of an ancient race". Their confidence was not misplaced. He liquidated all the debts and built up a credit balance. In the middle of his triumph he died.

Others amongst the early pioneers included T. B. Louisson, the painter and glazier, a well-known figure in the town, Hyam and P. Phillips, storekeepers, and M. L. Marks, a merchant. Saul Moss Solomon, outfitter and clothier, and F. P. Josephs came at the time of the gold-rush and remained for many years. All knew Trooper Peter Levy, the policeman. Across the bay at Motueka, the single Jew gained distinction. Simon Bucholz, the storekeeper, traded by barter for the reason that little money circulated in the district. He collected produce from the farmers he visited in exchange for grocery provisions from his store. His brother, William E. Louis Bucholz, who lived in Auckland, acted as the Consul for Germany, Belgium and Italy. A German by birth, he once revisited his native country, where, in order to take possession of certain property belonging to him, he had to prove he was a naturalized New Zealand subject. His papers were not in order, and so that he could complete his transaction, the New Zealand Government passed special legislation, the Bucholz Naturalization Bill, which enabled him to complete his business on the spot. The passing of the Bill was a unique compliment to Bucholz. Simon Bucholz succeeded in his business and later sold out to a Polish Jew, Abraham Manoy, who became one of the most respected men in the district. As he was an orthodox Jew, he was recognized by the Maoris as a particularly upright man. He won their complete confidence because he would never take advantage of their poverty and shortage of money. They knew that if they went to Manoy they would always receive good and fair value for their produce. Another clever, wise, upright and respected Jew, Judah Myers, commenced his commercial career at Motueka as a crockery merchant. He brought up a clever and wise family, one of whom, Michael, attained the highest judicial post in the country, that of Chief Justice of New Zealand. In 1875, Judah Myers moved to Wellington page 116 where, with his sons, Solomon, John, and Phillip, all very astute businessmen, he opened a crockery warehouse in Willis Street which developed into the largest of its kind in the city.

As a very pious and devout man, Hyam Davis yearned to build a synagogue as soon as he had arrived in Nelson. He and Isaacs tried to obtain a government grant for the purpose just as they had received a grant for a cemetery. But the number of Jews in Nelson did not warrant a grant. They never exceeded in number the one hundred and thirty souls of 1867. Nevertheless, Hyam Davis's determination urged him on his own account to buy Plot 454 on the town plan at the corner of Nile Street and Trafalgar Square. With monetary assistance received from other congregations in New Zealand, the small community built an imposing wooden synagogue which David M. Isaacs dedicated in 1870. About 80 feet long by 30 feet wide, it looked almost an exact but smaller replica of the synagogue at Hokitika. Four high Doric pillars ornamented the entrance. Lead-light windows gave the lighting for the interior. Those who worshipped therein regarded it as a delightful gem of a synagogue.

Because of the failure of the leads upon the goldfields, Nelson once again began to revert to a slumbering seaside resort and one by one the Jewish families left the settlement. Even the minister, Isaacs, left, and tried his fortune as an auctioneer at Charleston, a mining town upon the northwest coast which many at the time thought would flourish. His co-religionists who were to be found there included Louis Rich, the tobacconist, J. Solomon, a storekeeper, the Rosenberg family, who conducted a furniture depot, Nashelski, the ironmonger, and Reuben Harris, who, with Isaacs, held office in the Masonic Lodge. Charleston did not flourish, and eventually Isaacs left for his native London where, at the end of the century, as a hale and hearty old man of over eighty, he delighted in receiving old friends from New Zealand.

Simon Bucholz carried on as Honorary Reader at the Nelson synagogue after Isaacs departed, but when Bucholz left, services were rarely held in the building. In 1888, the Bank of New Zealand sold the synagogue land by default, but the Davis family redeemed it. Soon after, when the total Jewish population in the province dwindled to less than forty men, women and children, the synagogue, although in a good state of preservation, was never opened except when visited by Isaac Van Staveren, who took it upon himself, whenever he was in Nelson, to pray in the building on the Sabbath, and, as the sole congregant, to read from the only Scroll of the Law in order to preserve it. When Van Staveren ceased to visit the district about 1895, the synagogue never opened again for Jewish worship. As for the Sefer Torah, Abraham Manoy of Motueka took it into his possession for safe keeping.

The strong tradition and desire of small communities to establish their page 117 own houses of worship, impelled the five Jewish families of Timaru, on the east coast of the South Island between Christchurch and Dunedin, to build their own synagogue, employ their own minister and found the South Canterbury Congregation. Led by Moss Jonas, an auctioneer, commission agent and valuer who later became mayor of the town, the small band of Jews acquired a cemetery grant and bought an eighth of an acre of land in Bank Street, opposite the Wesleyan Church, for the purpose of building a synagogue. They appointed the Rev. Jacob Levy, who had then been dismissed from the Dunedin Congregation, as the Reader and Shohet, and he and the elders of the congregation on 21 June, 1875, with due pomp and ceremony and amidst a large number of Christians who had contributed to the building fund, laid the foundation-stone of the synagogue. Papers put under the cornice read: "The foundation-stone of this synagogue was laid by the elders, Chapman Jacobs, Moss Jonas, Morris Salek, Solomon Shappere and the Rev. Jacob Levy on 21 June, 1875—5635. The congregation consists of five families numbering in all twenty-seven people, and may the Almighty God and Holy One of Israel bless and protect them." After corn, wine, oil and salt had been poured upon the foundation, Levy addressed the assembly, expressing the hope that the congregation would be able to reciprocate the generosity and liberality of their Christian brethren, and that the synagogue would be a blessing to all.

Three months later, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Levy consecrated the synagogue before every Jew in the community. The small, unpretentious, utilitarian edifice, only 30 feet long by 24 feet in width, its bluestone exterior ornamented with cement with a Doric style portal, could not be termed attractive. The interior satisfied the aesthetic taste a little better. From the pointed, low, iron roof hung a large bright chandelier which dominated the lower section of the synagogue and the ladies' gallery, situated by the western wall over the door.

On the High Holydays of 1875, the sound of sweet traditional Jewish melodies issued from the Timaru synagogue. The happy worshippers, besides the minister Levy, and the President, Moss Jonas, included Chapman Jacobs, the watchmaker, Morris Salek, the storekeeper, Solomon Shappere who conducted a fancy-goods store, Jacob Levien, the soda-water, ginger beer and cordial manufacturer, Israel Fonseca, a carpenter, Louis Herman, the tobacconist, and Julius Mendelson, a merchant. The pioneer drapers, H. and D. Solomon, and T. Goldstone, the pound keeper, had already left the township.

Timaru held no prospects for the Rev. Levy, who left for the North Island, and after a few years, regular services ceased in the synagogue. The Rev. Zachariah, after he terminated his ministry with the Canterbury Congregation, would come to conduct prayers on the High Holydays only. A Sefer page 118 Torah and a Shofar were tent by the Dunedin Congregation. The community diminished, but A. Levy, a tobacconist who conducted the local baths, and Hugo, Rudolph and Henry Friedlander, also tobacconists, who came from an influential farming family at Ashburton, added to the town's Jewish personnel. When, in the eighteen-nineties, Zachariah returned to his original post in Christchurch, the Timaru synagogue closed its doors, and, like its cemetery, was seldom used. Moss Jonas, who was preparing to leave the town, stated that he left the synagogue intact for future Jewish residents. In a period of over seventy years, sixteen Jewish persons were buried in Timaru. The few Jews who lived in the township would go to Christchurch for the Festivals. As for the synagogue building, being made of bluestone, it stood well preserved as a monument to the praiseworthy zeal of Jews who, although distant from thriving Jewish centres, kept the fires of Judaism alive in the most southern parts of the world.