A Trek to (Jewish) Tasmania

19th-Century Pioneers Built Jewish Life in Down Under Island

laura kramer

By Laura Kramer

Published May 03, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Koala bears, kangaroos, blockbuster beaches, food festivals, mouthwatering honey and exceptional wine: customary expectations on a visit to Tasmania — but Jews? On Australia’s largest island, a triangular land of exotic woods and quaint cities, I encountered a history of remarkable Jewish life and the two oldest synagogues in Australia, each dating from 1845.

The 2003 book “A Few from Afar” chronicles the lives of a small number of Jews from Hobart, a city on the Australian island state, as they were absorbed into life in Tasmania. These Jews, originally from England, first built an unofficial “Temple House,” and later a synagogue next door and a small cemetery.

Picturesque Hobart, with its multicolored doorways and sandstone buildings, was founded as a penal colony in 1804. The city has an unusual Jewish past and lies at the crossroads of Dutch, French and British history. (It is also the birthplace of actor Errol Flynn.) This capital city — the second oldest in Australia — is on the southern rim of Tasmania, an island separated by the rolling waters of the Bass Strait, 155 miles from mainland Australia.

The synagogue on Argyle Street is a few minutes’ stroll from Hobart’s central business district and in walking distance of waterfront Salamanca Place, a bustling hub of unspoiled Georgian and Edwardian sandstone buildings bulging with cafes, restaurants and art galleries. The flyer on the synagogue door lists the times for the monthly egalitarian service and various holiday observances, and a phone number to organize a synagogue visit. It was Purim, and the gentleman who answered the phone and arranged to meet me invited me to his home for the reading of the Megillah. He promised excellent hamantaschen.

When we met outside the synagogue the next day, I felt at home even at a great distance from everything I know. The synagogue is a rare surviving example of Egyptian revival architecture, a style with motifs of ancient Egypt (the other is on Tasmania’s north coast in Launceston.) Immediately inside the synagogue’s stone façade — a door flanked by two columns — is the foundation stone: Louis Nathan, the president of the synagogue, laid it August 1845 in the “Eighth Year of the Reign of Queen Victoria.” The synagogue’s commemorative plaques and memorabilia describe the story of a thriving Jewish life beginning in the early 1800s. The ark and the Sefer Torah are cloaked in rich maroon velvet and are clearly cared for. An oddity are the convict benches, created for Jewish prisoners to attend synagogue, that run along one side of the bimah. The synagogue is adjacent to the massive Temple House that dates from 1825. The Hobart police department has used it for offices since 1994.

A five-minute car ride away in Cornelian Bay is Hobart’s sizeable Jewish cemetery, part of the Cornelian Bay Cemetery, and the oldest graveyard in Australia still in use today. A plaque at the entrance commemorates Mr. Bernard Wolford: “He was the person when living who applied to his Excellency Governor Arthur for permission to appropriate this spot of ground for a burial place for the Jews.” The graves date from the 1820s. Nearby is the waterfront Boat House Restaurant, which serves excellent food and offers a grand view of the bay.

Hobart’s non-Jewish sites are also worth visiting. A block from the city’s waterfront is the Maritime Museum, originally financed by Andrew Carnegie. The exhibits illustrate the history of Hobart’s seaport and the French explorers who competed with the Dutch and British seamen for Tasmania’s treasures.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery on MacQuarie Street is directly across from the Maritime Museum. In addition to permanent collection of drawings, historical objects and special exhibitions (often sourced from Antarctic explorations), it has a great view of Hobart harbor from one particular gallery.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.