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.

Find out more

Sultan Mahomet (ca. 1836-1905): Picturing Canterbury

Sultan Mahomet (ca. 1836-1905). File Reference PhotoCD 18, IMG0048.

Mahomet was a Muslim from Asia and he was one of a very small group of Muslims then living in New Zealand. His death certificate states that he came from northern India. A hawker, he lived in Dunedin but, at about age 69, came to Christchurch in Dec. 1905. He stayed at Brightling’s Lane in the Avon Loop, the address of his son, Sali, or Icecream Charlie, probably intending to attend Sali’s wedding. He died of a stroke at Brightling’s Lane and is buried in Linwood Cemetery

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you have any photographs of the Mahomet family? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

220th birthday anniversary of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

In June 1816 a young woman awoke from a terrifying nightmare. Later, she would recount the vision which had left her so unsettled.

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, at the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”

What was the source of this night terror?

In the days prior, she, and a group of other English expatriates had spent their evenings gathered around the fireplace of Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Climatic changes, brought about by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Sumbawa, Indonesia, on April 10-11 1815, had left the world experiencing what later came to be termed ‘The Year Without Summer’. Temperatures plummeted and terrifying lightning storms raged across Europe. Forced to stay indoors, they read Das Gespensterbuch (German ghost stories which had been published in French in 1812 under the title Fantasmagoriana). Naturally, this gloomy atmosphere soon led to further discussions about ghosts, vampires, and the theories of reanimating the dead.

Frontispiece to Frankenstein, 1831. Wikimedia Commons.

Such was the impression that the nightmare had on the young woman, that she soon took pen to paper, turning it into a tale of her own. In doing so she was joining a Gothic literature tradition started by earlier novelists, including Eliza Parsons (1739-1811), Regina Maria Roche (1764-1845) and Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823).

When it was published in 1818, under the title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, its author remained anonymous. Only later would the reading public learn that it had in fact been written by a woman.

Her name was Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. Wikimedia Commons.

An unconventional life

Born 30 August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the daughter of two intellectuals. Her father, William Godwin (1756-1836) was a writer and philosopher. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) also a writer and philosopher, was a proponent of women’s rights who, in 1792, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth, but her ideas would be inherited by her daughter who would often read her works during visits to her grave. From her father, Mary learned of the latest scientific endeavours. These included the experiments of Italian physician Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) who exposed the limbs of dead frogs to electricity in order to observe the movements, and his nephew, Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834) who built upon his uncle’s work by running electrical currents through the heads and bodies of executed criminals, causing their limbs to twitch and their mouths to open.

In 1814 Mary met the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), at her father’s house. Although he was already married, the two formed a relationship and in July of that year they eloped to Europe. Accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, they roamed through France before eventually arriving in Switzerland. Unable to survive on Shelley’s meagre savings, they eventually decided to return to England, via the Rhine River. In doing so they passed through a landscape of castles set atop prominent cliffs and hilltops, some of them in a ruined state. One such ruin they may have learned of, during a brief stopover in Mannheim, was the nearby Burg Frankenstein which was associated with alchemist and theologian, Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734) whose mysterious experiments had earned him a sinister reputation.

Burg Frankenstein, 2004. Wikimedia Commons.

Upon returning to England, the couple continued to live together. Mary later gave birth to a daughter on February 22 1815. Unfortunately the child died, leaving Mary to confess in her journal that she wished for a way to restore life to the deceased. In January 1816, she gave birth again, this time to a son.

The creation of the monster

By 1816 Percy Shelley’s health was deteriorating and his unpaid debts were increasing. In May they left England returning to Switzerland, where they joined another Romantic poet, Lord George Byron (1788-1824) and his physician companion, John William Polidori (1795-1821) on the shores of Lake Geneva.

On June 15, as a storm continued to rage outside Villa Diodati, the group decided to hold a ghost story competition. A few days later, Mary would soon find inspiration for her own story in the nightmare of a scientist reanimating a lifeless corpse. Although Frankenstein contained elements traditionally found in Gothic novels (ruined castles, dark forests, storms), it departed from the standard Gothic novel of the time in that, rather than dealing with the supernatural, its horrific features had their origins in science.

The success of Frankenstein allowed Mary Shelley to embark on a career as a novelist at a time when writing was still considered a masculine domain. She would proceed to write further titles, including the post-Apocalypitc novel, The Last Man (1826), before her death in 1851.

Interested in Gothic literature?

Rebecca Vaughan. Image by Ben Guest. Image supplied.

WORD Christchurch presents Madwomen in the Attic: where speakers Rebecca Vaughan, Karen Healey, Moata Tamaira and Rachael King discuss the appeal of the gothic woman in literature.

Madwomen in the Attic. Great Hall, The Arts Centre, Wednesday 6 September, 8.30pm.

Read our Quick Questions interview with Rebecca Vaughan

Find out more

Two Young Women: Picturing Canterbury

Two Young Women. Kete Christchurch. PH14-097. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Glyn Williams. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

Unknown subjects. Photo reproduced from a glass negative by Glyn Williams.

Date: 1910s

Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Glyn Williams.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you know who these two subjects might be? If so, feel free to contribute by letting us know.

Curragh Cottage, Ferrymead Heritage Park, 3 April 2010: Picturing Canterbury

Curragh Cottage, Ferrymead Heritage Park, 3 April 2010. Kete Christchurch. Ferrymead_Heritage_Park__3_April_2010__IMG_7194. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

Curragh Cottage, Ferrymead Heritage Park.

Originally erected at 104 Holly Road and relocated to Ferrymead Heritage Park in 1972.

Photograph taken 3 April 2010.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you have any further photographs of Curragh Cottage? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Postcard Hilltop Hotel: Picturing Canterbury

Postcard Hilltop Hotel. Kete Christchurch. PH16-044. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

Postcard of old Hilltop Hotel on Summit Road, Christchurch-Akaroa Highway.

Entry in the 2016 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Gladys Gurney.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you have any further photographs of the Hill Top Hotel? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Whalebone Cottage – 704 Ferry Road: Picturing Canterbury

Whalebone Cottage – 704 Ferry Road. Kete Christchurch. Ferry_Road_704. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

The house, situated on the former route from the Heathcote Ferry to Christchurch, was built in c.1867 for Daniel and Maria Scott. At the time of their occupancy it was known as “The Homestead”. However, by the early 1880s it had earned the name, Whalebone Cottage, due to the use of whalebones to form a decorative arch over the front gate.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you have any further photographs of Whalebone Cottage? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

Invisible Indians – World Anglo-Indian Day: 2 August

Some of the first Indians to settle in Christchurch were Anglo-Indians. They arrived as domestic servants with John Cracroft Wilson in 1854 where they were employed on his estate which later became the suburb of Cashmere. They married into the local populace and some of their descendants still live in the Canterbury region.

It was a New Zealand Anglo-Indian who, in 2001 at the triennial World Anglo-Indian Reunion held in Auckland, selected 2 August to be a day of celebrating Anglo-Indian culture, culminating in World Anglo-Indian Day.

A pan-Indian community

Anglo-Indians (originally called ‘Eurasians’) are an Indian community who are the descendants of a historical union between a European father and an Indian mother.

The community often traces its initial origins to the arrival of the Portuguese merchants who settled in India in the 16th century. The British were the next major European power to arrive in the subcontinent, with the British East Indian Company gradually expanding their authority beyond the trading ports where they had initially settled. Originally the officials of the Company encouraged their men to marry Indian women. In the early days of the Company, it was common for British men to integrate themselves into Indian culture, with some converting to Islam, adopting Indian fashions and practices, and raising families with their Indian wives, essentially becoming what historian William Dalrymple has termed “White Mughals”.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, the Mughal princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh, and family. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet by the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change. The loss of the American colonies made the British wary of allowing a community, whose loyalties were not always certain, the responsibility of administering their most prized colonial possession. Measures were taken to restrict Anglo-Indians to lower ranks of the civil service and military in order to prevent them from gaining positions of authority.

By the dawn of the nineteenth century, racism and religious intolerance by the Company board of directors in London also led to the cohabitation of British and Indians being actively discouraged. Relationships between British men and Indian women still continued in secret, but the children were often no longer publicly acknowledged by the father. British regulations meant the Indian mothers had no rights to their children, and many were taken off them and abandoned in orphanages where they were raised to become British and Christian.

During the era of the British Raj (1858-1947), Anglo-Indians often worked in roles where they could act as intermediaries between the British officials and Indian employees. One traditional form of employment reserved for them was the railway department. As such the railway came to play a central role in the identity of Anglo-Indians and even led to the development of certain dishes such as railway mutton curry.

Although they dressed in the manner of the British, had British names and were Christian, they were still not accepted as equals by the British who ruled in India. In order to escape the prejudice they faced, many assimilated into British society by covering up their Indian roots, often attributing their looks to a “Spanish ancestor”. Others, when immigrating to new countries, hid their origins and simply pretended that their family were “British who lived in India”. As a result of this, generations have grown up cut off from their roots and cultural identity.

Because of their identity as subjects of the British Empire, Anglo-Indians continued to arrive in New Zealand throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in the decades leading up to the independence of India in 1947. Although the community in India is estimated to be between 300,000 to 1,000,000 strong, the diaspora following Independence led to many settling in former British colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Today, many New Zealanders of Anglo-Indian heritage are now reconnecting with their culture and heritage, often in the form of making trips to India for the express purpose to research their family’s origins.

The subject of this ‘renaissance’ of Anglo-Indian identity in New Zealand is currently being researched by Dr. Robyn Andrews of Massey University. The oral histories of Anglo-Indians in New Zealand is also the subject of the book, Raj Days to Downunder by Christchurch based scholar, Dorothy McMenamin (an Anglo-Indian originally from Pakistan). Work has also been undertaken by Dr. Jane McCabe of Otago University who has examined the history of the ‘Kalimpong Kids’, Anglo-Indian children who were brought out to New Zealand in the early twentieth century to work in domestic duties.

Famous Anglo-Indians include writer, Virginia Woolf, comedians, Billy Connolly and Alistair McGowan, and musicians, Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Find out more

Revathi Performing Arts: Mayuram – Bharatanatyam in Christchurch

Ever wanted to know more about classical Indian dance? Rema and Simon explain some of the philosophy and history behind Bharatanatyam ahead of a performance by local group Revathi Performing Arts.

Revathi Performing Arts

The purpose of Revathi Performing Arts is to encourage people to know that these dance routines can be practiced as an exercise for body conditioning, mental alertness, and building stamina. People from all walks of life come to learn and share the experience of being part of this classical Indian dance movement. Initially their performances, held at the end of the year, were largely for family and friends, in order to show case developing talent. Their first public performance was held in 2015. Their upcoming performance Mayuram – which celebrates Murugan (also known as Kārttikēya), the son of the Hindu god Śiva and his wife, Parvati – takes place on 5 August.

Dancing for the gods: the South Indian dance tradition

Bharatanatyam is one of the Indian classical and traditional dance forms from South India. It has its origins in sadir, the traditional dances performed by devadasis, young women who were ceremoniously married to the deity of a temple to which they had been dedicated as children. Such was the respect in which devadasis were held that kings were known to gift them grants of land. Two classical dramatists from the 2nd century have been credited with compiling the theory behind the dance form; Nandikeśvara, who wrote Abhinaya Darpaṇa (Mirror of Gestures), and Bharata Muni, who wrote Nāṭyaśāstra (Treatise on Dramatic Art).

Members of Revathi Performing Arts by JK Images. Image supplied by Uma Varma.

Underlying these works was the concept of rasa, that dance should be means for the individual to transport themselves into a spiritual realm. This illustrative performance is portrayed by a dancer with excellent footwork, impressive gestures and facial expressions accompanied by song. A Bharatanatyam performance includes synchronized movement of eyes, neck, hands (mudras) and feet to depict various moods and expressions. The dancer must remember the whole song, and the associated rhythmic steps and moves, which need a higher level of concentration and coordination.

There are three forms of dance:

Nritta – Dance which is purely without expressions or emotion.

Nritya – Dance where emotion and expressions are conveyed through the use of hasta mudras (hand gestures, of which there can be up to fifty-five) and abhinaya (facial expressions).

Natyam – Dance which is included into a dramatic performance.

Decline and revival

The classical dances of the devadasis were brought by performers to the Thanjavur court in South India. Here, many artists, dramatists and musicians vied for the patronage of the kings. Among such dramatists to receive this patronage were the Thanjavur Quartet, four brothers who synthesised the various sadir dances in the early 19th century. However, the annexation of former South Indian kingdoms by the British in the latter half of the 19th century led to a loss of patronage for many of these dancers and dramatists.

Further damage was done to the dance tradition by Victorian notions of morality, which were being spread by missionaries. This colonial criticism was adopted by some prominent Indians who had received a Western education and led to the tradition losing its social acceptability. The criticism continued into the 1930s, with social reformer and women’s rights activist, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) launching a campaign against it. However, she was countered by Krishna E. Iyer (1897-1968), a lawyer, artist and political activist, who recognised the important role India’s dance traditions played in the movement to reassert Indian culture and independence. He argued against the colonial misinterpretations of the devadasi tradition and is often credited with forming the name by which the dance tradition is now known, Bharatanatyam.

Iyer was aided in his formulation of Bharatanatyam by Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986), a young Brahmin who had rebelled against her upbringing by not only learning Western forms of dance, but also by marrying an Englishman. In 1935, she attended a performance of a form of dance known as Pandanallur, which has been formulated by the teacher Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1869–1964), who was himself a descendant of one of the brothers from the Thanjavur Quartet. From Pillai, Rukmini learned the forms of dance which had once been performed in the Thanjavur court, and later that year she performed at the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations of the Theosophical Society. In the following year, she established the Kalakshetra Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the revival of Bharatanatyam and its worldwide propagation.

If you wish to experience this dance, which has its origins in the temples and royal courts of South India, then come to Mayuram, from 7pm to 9pm at Cashmere High School Performing Arts Centre. For tickets and details please contact info@revathi.ac.nz

Rema (and Simon)

Find out more

Cathedral Square by Night 1959: Picturing Canterbury

Cathedral Square by Night 1959. Kete Christchurch. Ph16-IsTw-C-W-PICT0047. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

“Cathedral Square by night the northwest corner with the start of Chancery Lane under the bright white light. The Tivoli theatre later became the Westend, a huge cinema (scene of many happy nights out in my teenage years) complete with cat known to sleep on seats at the back. The old building to the left was later the site of the AMP building, and the one to the right became the Government Life building.”

Date: 18 August 1959.

Entry in the 2016 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Isabel Tweedy.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch and Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Do you have any further photographs of Cathedral Square in the 1950s? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.