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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XXVII — Education

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Chapter XXVII

One of the overriding factors in the easy abandonment of religious rites and the frequency of the complete severance of association with the Jewish people, can be attributed to the pathetic manner with which Jewish education was pursued and imparted in the past. Hebrew schools, conducted in conjunction with the synagogues, arranged for tuition to be given on Sunday mornings and occasionally after secular school during the week. Irregular attendances have led to the near abolition of mid-week classes, and the flimsiest of excuses is sufficient cause of heavy absenteeism on Sunday mornings. Hebrew education is not taken too seriously either by the parents or the children. Occasionally, a spark of enthusiasm may be aroused, as in the Wellington area when, at different stages, classes were instituted at Newtown and later at Lower Hutt. A Parents' Committee also became interested in the children's progress, but the enthusiasm waned quickly and the interest flagged. Admonitions by the clergy concerning the effect of neglect of Jewish education made little impression upon the communities. They did not make the sacrifices for education which Jewish communities made in Europe.

Although the congregations have built suitable classrooms for the children, education has not been pursued with the intense zeal necessary in surroundings which easily lead to assimilation. Weak and apathetic organization has not created a system to combat absenteeism. Little attention is paid to curricula or syllabi. Equipment and text-books are frequently lacking. Standards are lamentably low. Most of the teachers have had no training as tutors, and consequently lack method in teaching the little knowledge they do possess. No intensive drive can be made in imparting religious beliefs and principles because the teachers themselves do not observe the precepts they should impart. Perplexity arises in the minds of the children when practices they are taught at school do not coincide with the actual practice of parents or teachers. Very few children continue their Hebrew instruction beyond Bar-mitzvah age. Their sum of knowledge, by reason of all the circumstances, is little. Lack of finance, it has been claimed, has prevented the communities establishing their own denominational schools which would have overcome some of the educational problems. Recently however, the congregation page 194 in Auckland has been fortunate to receive a bequest of about £50,000 for educational purposes from the late B. E. Goldwater. The income from this fund which is subject to a life interest should, when it becomes available, permit of considerable intensification of the congregation's educational efforts. Meantime a full-time teacher is being sought in Israel and England.

When, as in the nineteenth century, Christian bodies arose from time to time, to clamour for religious instruction in state schools, New Zealand Jewry expressed its views promptly and unequivocally. F. E. Baume in the Lower House, the Hon. Mark Cohen in the Upper House and Van Staveren in evidence before a Select Committee of Parliament, on different occasions opposed its introduction on the grounds that state education should be free, compulsory and secular. Each denomination, they claimed, should provide its own religious education. On each occasion Parliament accepted this view. The Jews did provide some sort of religious education for their children, but did not provide enough.

Although New Zealand Jewry sought a high standard of general scholarship and culture, it neglected its own heritage, and there seemed to be little desire to promote Jewish scholarship. Nevertheless, a love of learning lifted many Jewish men and women from lowly stations to high positions in the land and to prominence in the various professions and academic fields. They patronized and encouraged many cultural activities in New Zealand.

One of the most illustrious of New Zealand's sons, Sir Michael Myers, received his early training at the home of his father, Judah Myers of Motueka, and later at college and university in Wellington. Admitted to the Bar in 1897, he soon won acclaim in the Courts in big criminal and civil cases, appearing in the "sugar" trial and later in the "flour case" concerning Distributors Limited. In 1921, he successfully defended directors of the Dominion Portland Cement Company in an action for £200,000 by the liquidators. A year later he took silk, building up a parliamentary practice, appearing before many Royal Commissions and presenting many election petitions. In 1926, he appeared in six Privy Council appeals and won them all. Elected leader of the Bar, he reached the height of his career in 1931 when appointed Chief Justice of New Zealand, being knighted a year later and then raised to G.C.M.G. As Chief Justice, he acted as Administrator of New Zealand on a number of occasions when the Governor-General was absent from the country. When on a visit to England he took his seat on the Privy Council.

When he retired in 1946, he represented New Zealand on the United Nations Committee of Jurists in connection with the International Court of Justice to which he was nominated. Besides his many other talents, he took his notes in shorthand and for a lifetime corresponded with his co- page 195 religionist and schoolboy friend, the Hon. Eliot Davis, in the same manner. Sir Michael Myers died, deeply lamented, in 1950.

Of the two other Jewish King's Counsel, F. E. Baume died not long after he took silk. He filled his days with public activities before his premature death. Besides his Jewish, army and parliamentary duties, he served as a fellow of the University Senate, as the President of the Graduates' Association at Auckland, President of the New Zealand Natives' Association and President of the Auckland Law Institute.

Saul Solomon, K.C., busied himself as Councillor and Mayor of the Mornington Borough, as Chairman of the Dunedin Hospital Trustees and as President of the Dunedin Horticultural Society. He continued to show his love of sport by serving as President of the Dunedin Amateur Boating Club.

Other Jews connected with the law who made valuable contributions to New Zealand culture and advancement include Louis Cohen, Phineas Levi and Wilfred Erne Leicester. Louis Cohen, an art critic and leading authority on Maori art and printing, promoted the Wanganui Art Gallery. The first New Zealand graduate to be elected to the University Senate, his interests also extended to music and sport. He acted as President of the North Island Band Association and President of the New Zealand Boxing Council.

Phineas Levi also served as a member of the University Senate as a repre-sentative of the Victoria University College Council. A Treasurer of the New Zealand Law Society, he also served as a member of the Massey Agricultural College Council. His interest in local politics led to his election as Mayor of Eastbourne.

As a literary essayist, especially on art in Australia and New Zealand, Mr Wilfred Erne Leicester acts as a Councillor on the Fellowship of New Zealand Authors. President of the Wellington District Law Society, he showed promise of his calling when, in 1920, he won the Plunket Medal at Victoria University College, a medal presented in an annual contest for an oration on an historical character.

Since the first presentation of the Plunket Medal, three other Jews besides Mr Leicester have gained the award—Sidney Erne Baume in 1925, Alfred Katz in 1933 and Klaus Neuberg in 1943. Through the years of the twentieth century many Jews have completed brilliant courses in the various faculties of the different universities. The Jewish proportion may be above the average. This may probably be accounted for by the general desire of parents in the Jewish communities for their children to take a university course and the inherent intensity with which Jewish students pursue their studies.

The medical faculty has produced a number of men who have added to New Zealand's prestige. As Emeritus Professor of Surgery at the University of page 196 Otago, Sir Louis Edward Barnett served as Vice-President of the College of Surgeons of Australasia and as Chairman of the Otago Division of the British Empire Cancer Campaign. He held high rank in the New Zealand Army in the First World War. Dr Alfred Bernstein, who served in the same medical corps, wrote extensively on tuberculosis. His pamphlets include Applied Pathology in Diseases of the Chest, Consumption—Facts and Fallacies and Notes on Tuberculosis amongst Soldiers. The Director of Medical Services in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the First World War, Bernard Ehrenfried Myers, also wrote extensively on medical subjects as well as writing text-books and a book entitled Reminiscences of a Physician. In the Second World War he acted as a Commander, in the United Kingdom, for the New Zealand Red Cross. A President of the Clinical Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, he received the award of C.M.G. As a leader of the Jewish Health Organization of Great Britain, Dr Leopold Mandel helped extensively in the establishment of the London Jewish Hospital.

In dental science, Claude H. Moses won recognition for his services which took the form of a fellowship from the International College of Dentists. He presided over the New Zealand Dental Association. In the field of pure science, I. H. Boas as a timber expert, acted as a consultant to the New Zealand Government on forestry problems.

Scholarship itself attracted a number of Jews to its ranks. A sister of Sir Michael Myers, Miss Phoebe Myers, presided over the New Zealand Teachers' Association and the Disabled Soldiers' Hostel. She was a notable educationalist, and the New Zealand Government chose her, in 1928, as its first assistant delegate to the League of Nations at the Geneva Conference. Her sister, Miss Isobella Myers, once heard a lad singing in an Auckland blacksmith's shop. She persuaded the Trinity College representatives to hear him, this audition resulting in the fame of Oscar Natzka, New Zealand's renowned bass baritone. Another educationalist, David Wolfe Faigan, became well known in the Auckland district as the Principal of the University Coaching College. S. N. Ziman won a Rhodes Scholarship. He entered the Indian Civil Service and later, as Secretary of the Government of Bombay, sat in its Legislative Assembly.

The honour of being the first Jew to be elected to the professorial staff of a New Zealand university came to Professor W. Heinemann, the philologist, of the University of Otago. Professor Felix Maxwell Keesing, a Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation at Yale and Chicago Universities and the head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, has published many works on the Maoris, especially about the tribes along the east coast of New Zealand. Professor Julius Stone, a rising star in international law and affairs, served for several years as Professor of Law at Auckland University College. Fortunately, too, Auckland page 197 University College was able to obtain the services of Professor Kurt S. Kreielsheimer as a Professor of Physics specializing in radio physics. In 1934, he escaped from the German clutches whilst on an expedition to Norway.

For many years, Professor A. Grossman wrote leaders for the Auckland Star and was included amongst a number of Jews associated with the Press who raised its cultural standards. Mark Cohen, besides his parliamentary duties, attended a World Press Conference in 1907 and the first Empire Press Union Conference in 1909. He presided over the Society of Journalists for New Zealand. As a man interested in the advancement of education, he was appointed by the Government as Chairman of the Royal Commission on Education. Frederick Pirani also continued his association with Parliament and the Press. He sold out his share in the Manawatu Standard and bought an interest in the Feilding Star. In later years he was connected with the Dominion, Wellington, and the Newspaper Proprietors' Association. His passion for education led to his election to the Wellington Education Board. When Phineas Selig retired as President of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, it elected him as its first life member. He helped to found a number of athletic organizations including the Canterbury Boxing Association. He also assisted the Canterbury Art Society. M. S. Pitt, who for a time published a local Jewish paper in Wellington, is editor of World Affairs, and for some years edited National Education. He acts as President of the United Nations Association of New Zealand, Wellington Branch. Frank Goldberg, who became very successful in the advertising business, once managed the Petone Chronicle.

Although closely connected with journalism, few Jews succeeded in literature and art. One of the most successful writers is George Joseph, who also writes under the name of "Joseph St George". He has published Oxford in Search of God, Destiny Road, Dangerous Impersonation, The Curtain has Lace Fringes and many short stories. A double Oxford "blue" in boxing and athletics, he acted as a special correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and served as an airman in the International Brigade. A Czech, who escaped from Europe and came to New Zealand prior to the Second World War, wrote the confessions of an orthodox Jewish refugee in a book entitled Who Sow in Tears, under the name of Ben Akiba. It did not attract great interest. Nor did Dr Karl Wolfskehi's writings. He came from Germany and wrote poetry and essays, especially on Jewish subjects, in German. Both the Hon. Eliot Davis and F. Marcus Marks, the supervisor of New Zealand Hansard and the Government Printer, wrote light autobiographies not intended as serious literature. The former called his book A Link with the Past, and the latter called his reminiscences Memories (Mainly Merry) of Marcus Marks. Mrs Marguerite (J. H.) Woolf, the President of the Workers' Educational Association Writers' Club, promises to flourish as a writer and poet. She has page 198 already published Read-to-me-Rhymes and many successful short stories and articles.

New Zealand Jewry has not produced any artist of note, although Minna Arndt (Manoy) reached a high standard. Nevertheless, it had many patrons of art and of scholarship. The more notable include Moss Davis, who served as a commissioner in London for the Auckland Art Exhibition. On his own account, he would visit auctions in England in order to buy paintings and objects of art for the Auckland Museum and Art Gallery. His son, Sir Ernest Davis, commissioned famous artists to paint portraits of Her Majesty the Queen and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, for presentation to the City of Auckland. In Dunedin, Emil Isaac Halstead acted as President of the Public Art Gallery Society and D. E. Theomin as a trustee of the Art Gallery. The latter's other public interests included the presidency of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. Willi Fels, who once acted as German Consul, presented a wing to the Dunedin Museum and Art Gallery building. When the pioneer Jacob Joseph died, he left a provision in his will for three graduate research scholarships for students of Victoria University College, Wellington.

In spite of the generally high standard of culture and scholarship of New Zealand Jewry and the endeavour of individuals to promote their advancement, hardly any effort at all was made to introduce Jewish scholarship or to organize Jewish adult education. Rabbi Katz at Wellington did form an Education and Cultural Circle, a Ladies' Study Club, a University Hebrew Course and a Jewish Literary and Current Events Circle, but all these societies were short-lived and the effort unsustained. The social clubs and Zionist societies did arrange occasional lectures, but their infrequency made their value altogether inadequate. At one time, Wellington enjoyed a Yiddish speaking circle and a Hebrew circle. They, too, did not last long. Almost pure nostalgia accounted for the packed houses when Jacob Waislitz, the Yiddish actor, played in Auckland and Wellington. Personal charm and ability and the thrill of entertaining an Israeli artist soon after the establishment of the Jewish State, contributed to the tumultuous welcome accorded Pnina Salzman, the world renowned pianist. However, the solid basic knowledge of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, the Hebrew language and the Bible, which distinguished old European Jewish communities, was almost entirely lacking amongst the community in New Zealand. A few men like Sir Michael Myers, who presided over the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, or F. E. Baume, who helped to form the Auckland Choveve Zion Zionist Society, were the rare exceptions rather than the rule.