Beth El Synagogue and the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation

A decision had been made.

It was time for Hyam Edward Nathan to give up his seat.

The members of Christchurch’s Jewish community, who arrived at the New Year service on 13 September 1882, knew to expect trouble when they saw that Nathan was already sitting in his self-appointed seat, B29.

The issue of Nathan assigning himself this seat had been raised at a recent meeting of the officers of the synagogue. Nathan, who had been present at the meeting, challenged the others to force him to give up his seat.

The seating of the synagogue, which opened only a year earlier, had been allocated by subscription, with the prime seats in sections A and B costing 3 shillings and 2 shillings a week. Seating in the C section was not allotted, due to the low number of applicants, and despite the free seating available, Nathan had taken it upon himself to sit in the lowest ranking seat of section B. Yet his free occupation of B29 had not gone unnoticed. Since 13 September was a holiday, it was important for the proper seat allocation to be followed, as B29 had been assigned to another member of the congregation.

Charles Louisson, the synagogue treasuer, took it upon himself to deal with the stubborn Nathan. After the ordinary services had finished, he approached Nathan and quietly pointed out that the seat had been reserved. Nathan was then ordered to vacate the seat by Maurice Harris, the synagogue president. Realising the matter would not be so easily settled, Constable Costin was summoned but upon arriving the policeman refused to become involved. Nathan then boldly stated he would not leave unless he was carried out. In response, Harris grabbed Nathan by the collar and with the assistance of Louisson, removed him from the seat and from the synagogue altogether.

Nathan would later take the matter to court, alleging that Harris and Louisson had assaulted him. However, the judge ruled in favour of the latter, showing that as they were officers of the synagogue, and since Nathan had no legal right to the seat, he had been in the wrong.

Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1906]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0008

The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation

The founding a Jewish congregation in Christchurch, the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, was first initiated in 1864, following a meeting held on 12 January at the High Street offices of auctioneer, Louis Edward Nathan (not to be confused with Hyam). Attending was Hyam Marks, Maurice Harris, E. Phillips, Marcus Sandstein, David Davis, Henry Moss, and S.M. Solomon. Gifted a plot of land on Gloucester Street by the government, the congregation built its first synagogue in 1864. To ensure the orthodoxy of their practice, traditional ritual items were sourced from various locations including a shofar (horn), ketubah (prenuptial agreement), and a mezuzah (prayers affixed to a door) from Melbourne, a Sefer Torah (scroll of Jewish law) from London, a lulav (enclosed date palm fronds) and matzah (unleavened bread) from Sydney, and an ethrog (citrus fruit) from the Holy Land.

While there were around thirty five prominent Jewish families in Christchurch at this time, many would soon depart for the West Coast to open businesses on the goldfields.

With the conclusion of the gold rush in 1870, many of these families returned to Christchurch. While majority of the early Jewish settlers in Christchurch were English Jews or Jews from Europe, they would soon appoint Isaac Zachariah, a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad, as their rabbi. Trained in Jerusalem, Zachariah had also served the Sassoon family in Bombay, India as a shohet (ritual butcher). After his time in India, he settled in Ballarat, Australia, before relocating to the Hokitika goldfields.

The wedding of Mr L P Hayman of Sydney to Mrs Lillie Marks, third daughter of Mr Maurice Harris of Christchurch at Beth El Synagogue, Gloucester Street, Christchurch [15 Oct. 1901]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0087
Due to his eclectic background, Zachariah could speak not only Hebrew but Arabic, Hindi, and forms of Aramaic. He was often called upon to translate at court trials involving individuals who spoke the languages in which he was fluent. Despite adhering firmly to his own customs and traditional forms of dress, Zachariah was tolerant of other faiths, and often engaged with members of the Anglican community. He also oversaw the establishment of the Christchurch branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association, an organisation dedicated to promoting the rights of Jewish people in regions outside of the British Empire.

Although a traditionalist, Zachariah possessed a rebellious streak, and often clashed with the congregation’s presiding committee. He was known for disregarding their orders, and in one case, he pre-emptively foiled their plans to export frozen kosher meat by writing to the Chief Rabbi in England to receive confirmation that frozen meat could not be considered kosher.

Beth El Synagogue

It was during Zachariah’s tenure that the new synagogue, Beth El, was built to replace the original wooden synagogue. Designed by Thomas Stoddart Lambert, the foundation stone was laid on 8 February 1881, whereupon it was sprinkled with corn, wine, oil and herbs. The synagogue was officially consecrated on 15 November 1881. Presided over by Zachariah, the ceremony was also attended by Anglican officials, some of whom had learned Hebrew from Zachariah.

Landau carriages arrive with the wedding party at Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1901] File Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0079
The committee’s relationship with Zachariah deteriorated until he was eventually forced to resign. In 1889 he was replaced by Adolf Treitel Chodowski. Originally from Posen in Prussia, Chodowski had studied in Berlin before being admitted to the Jews’ College in London. Despite his popularity, the congregation could not afford to maintain his salary and he was forced to take up another position in Brisbane in 1894. The committee’s inability to provide a professional rabbi in the years that followed the departure of Chodowski eventually led them to allow Zachariah to return to the position. He would continue to serve the Jewish community in Christchurch until his death in 1906. He was buried in the Jewish section of Linwood Cemetery.

The Beth El synagogue would remain an iconic feature of Gloucester Street until it was demolished in 1987. In the following year a new synagogue was consecrated at 406 Durham Street. Although it suffered damage in the Canterbury earthquakes, it was repaired and reopened in 2013, where it continues to offer services every Shabbat.

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Strange relationships – John Safran meets Te Radar: WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

The appearance of Mr John Safran in Christchurch managed to pack out The Piano venue on Sunday with a fair audience. He was matched with NZ’s very own version of himself, Te Radar Esq., who pointed out that although they both looked very similar, you could easily tell them apart as John was the one with the accent. Unless of course you were from Australia, in which case Te Radar was the one with the accent. Simple really.

Te Radar and John Safran
Te Radar and John Safran. Flickr IMG_2509

Yet simple John’s new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue With Australian Deplorables is not. In fact it might be claimed that one reason for writing the book was because most other media didn’t like the tangled web of stories John had discovered in his very own Aussie backyard. What he’d found happening in the world of political radicals was not easily reduced by the popular media spotlight to black vs white, or local vs outsiders.

There are many reasons people are in involved in anti-Islam rallies, and it’s not always politics.

In the world of Australian extremist groups things have become very complicated, says John. “Out in the street things are so messed up, it’s hard to pick things apart.”

John has found a very diverse range of cultures and people marching for the reclaim Australia and anti-Islam causes, some of them strange and unexpected bedfellows. An anti-immigrant campaigner with Aboriginal and Italian lineage hanging with white nationalists, a Sri Lankan pastor opposing multiculturalism, and leaders of anti-immigrant rallies opening their speeches by acknowledging the land they were standing on as belonging to the Aboriginal community.

Some have claimed the lack of media interest in John’s stories proves the “bubble” caused by social media and the internet is real, the so-called echo chamber where we only pay attention to things and ideas that meet our world-view and beliefs.

Yet people have always filtered news and read newspapers and magazines selectively. We read what attracts our interest and reading things that don’t fit our understanding of the world can be challenging, so often we don’t. The internet hasn’t created that effect, it’s just made it quicker and easier to achieve – such is the way of computers.

What John has discovered is that thanks to social media on the internet, the “unsayable often becomes normal when repeated over and over”:

The world changed as I was writing the book. The anti-Islam street movement tried to portray the rallies as ‘normal’ not extreme, but I found they were led by some very extreme people. It was like the fringe and alternative had become mainstream or at least mingled up with the mainstream.

John Safran
John Safran. Flickr IMG_2501

Te Radar asked John if he’d become less optimistic about the world as a result of writing the book? John’s response was that he had definitely got a bit paranoid hanging around with extreme people. Ironically he thought that getting out on the streets got him out of the echo chamber that the average person might inhabit.

But the idea that he may be humanising these people by writing about them in a book was not something he was trying to achieve. He is more driven by the comedian and artist in him, not so much the need to be a writer:

I can’t moralise about anything ‘cos I’ve always done something in the past I shouldn’t. But I don’t think people read my book and think the things these groups are saying and doing are ok.

A few questions from the audience stirred things up, with a bit of heckling that just came across as try-hard or even embarrassing. Mostly it was all very civilised and well-behaved. I don’t go to a lot of these events, so maybe that’s normal in Christchurch.

I’ve enjoyed reading the book and it’s definitely an eye opener. And thanks to John seeing the irony in much of what he saw happening, very funny too, although perhaps more in a gallows humour way.

John Safran’s ability to just rock up somewhere Louis Theroux styles and ask people the questions going begging, without being beaten to a pulp, continues to amaze me. An audience member shared the story of the New York commuters cleaning anti-Semitic graffiti from the walls of a train with hand sanitser, and John himself thought that the antidote to all this extremism is just to expose these people to the world.

All of which made me think that maybe John Safran is using humour to wake us up to the way people under our very noses think about the world. Does this make him the comedic hand sanitizer of the Aussie extremist world?

Sleeps Standing / Moetū by Witi Ihimaera

“E hoa, ka whawhaitonu mātou, ake, ake, ake!”

“Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!”

Sleeps Standing / Moetū (Witi Ihimaera and Hēmi Kelly)

CoverKia ora readers. What a coup for Te wiki o te Reo Māori this book is.

A bilingual text in Māori and English, Sleeps Standing / Moetū is written by Witi Ihimaera (Te Whānau a Kai, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Rongowhakaata, Tuhoe, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Porou) and translated into Te Reo Māori by Hēmi Kelly (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu-Ngāti Whaoa).

Sleeps Standing / Moetū tells the story of the last battle of the Waikato Wars; the Battle of Ōrākau, 30 March to 2 April 1864. Most New Zealanders know this story as Rewi’s Last Stand, immortalised in two films in the early twentieth century, and the later novel by A.W.Reed.

At Orākau on the banks of the Pūniu River in the Waikato, 300 Māori, defended the pa – an agreed place of safety – against 1700 armed British Soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron.

A third of the defenders were women and children.

They came from the allied tribes of Waikato, Raukawa, Tuhoe, Taranaki, Kahungunu, and Ngati Porou to aid Ngāti Maniapoto, the Tangata Whenua (people of the land). They were led by the great nationalist leader Rewi Manga Maniapoto.

Acknowledging with respect the primary right of Maniapoto to tell this history, a fact that has often been been “trampled all over by historians” (p.87), Witi tells the tale from the point of view of an ancestor of his own Gisborne iwi of Rongowhakaata.

Descended from the great Chief Ruharuhi Rukupō, Moetū whakaaraara (the one who sleeps standing and sounds the alarm), came with other iwi to aid Ngāti Maniapoto against the British.

Many allies were prevented from gaining the pa by the British. The remaining 300 were cut off from water, food and ammunition while facing formidable odds – the British had big guns, they had peach stones and taiaha.

The philosophy of the allied Maori defenders was that if they were to die, it would be in battle. “It came as a forlorn hope with us; no one expected to escape, nor did we desire to; were we not all the children of one parent? Therefore, we all wished to die together.” Hiti Te Paerata, Ngati Te Koihera. p.12).

They lived and died by the warrior’s code; defending the land for future generations:

“Me mate te tangata, me mate mō te whenua.

The warrior’s death is to die for the land.” p.13.

Many question the presence of women and children. The character of Rua Papa explains this on p.87. Rangitira (or royal) families ‘travelled together, a sovereign with his court, wife or hoa rangatira and children. If there was a battle, the rangitira families would always be in it, leading from the front. You never saw them sitting on their horses watching from a nearby hillside.” (p.87)

Governor Grey promoted his war as ‘defensive,”  persuading Aucklanders to fear invasion and brutal murder.

The truth was the reverse. A prayer book found recently and traced back to Ruapekapeka Marae suggests that during the attack on this pa, the inhabitants had been at Sunday prayer.

As a nation, we have set a date to commemorate the New Zealand Land Wars, beginning 28 October 2017. This decision came directly from submissions to the government about the Battle of Ōrākau. This book acknowledges this decision.

A celebration of the bravery and tenacity of Maori, this wonderful book collects haka, waiata, personal accounts, photographs and maps, as well as Witi’s novella. The story is written in Te Reo Māori on the left page and English on the right, enabling the reader to choose to learn from the translated text.

Bilingual Māori language materials