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.