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.
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This charming city of Tasies, Mormons, Muslims, Jews and Baha’is has a host of sights in walking distance of one another: the Theater Royal, the oldest theater in Australia; the Town Hall with its extraordinary balustrade of Huon Pine; the National Trust; and the Battery Point neighborhood. The cafe culture and art scene unfold on the waterfront at the edge of Sullivan’s Cove, linked to nearby Battery Point by Kelly’s Steps, an architectural landmark named after mariner James Kelly, that date from 1840. Nothing surprises like the Museum of Old and New Art that opened in 2011, a bona fide destination for art and architecture mavens.

Next, I went to Launceston, another hub of Tasmanian Jewish history. The scenic Heritage Highway bisects the belly of Tasmania between Hobart and Launceston. The approximately three-hour trip (120 miles) can be made by car, but I chose to go by bus. The highway winds through pristine sandstone villages with names like Oatlands and Ross, past windmills, tall-steepled churches, pastures of Holstein and Angus cows, and abandoned tin-mining towns. It curves alongside the Herrick railroad and the detritus of the 1800s mineral boom. Tasmania produces one-third of the world’s legal opiates. The fields are brimming with poppies.

Eventually the road snakes down through timber-laden hillsides of majestic woods into the Tamar Valley to Launceston. (Tasmania produces 30 percent of the world’s timber.) Launceston, one of the oldest cities in Australia, is famous for many firsts: It is the first Australian city to have underground sewers, the first to be lit by hydroelectricity. It has a unique flooding and levee system, and delicious beer made in the many breweries dotting the waterfront.

I hopped on the free Tiger bus, which was a great way to see Launceston’s assorted Victorian, Georgian and art deco buildings and other key attractions.

The Launceston Synagogue at 126 St. John Street is part of the National Trust of Australia and another rare example of Egyptian revival-style architecture. It is in walking distance of the city proper, where the gardens are laden with bougainvillea separated by neat hedgerows and tidy stonewalls. There are small shops to purchase the famous Tasmanian honey, and many department stores once owned by Jewish merchants. I felt like I had gone back in time to an era of exploration and adventure when Jews were breaking ground literally and metaphorically. While only a handful of Jews live in Launceston today, they manage to conduct monthly services in the synagogue and celebrate the major holidays. The small graveyard is nearby at the northwest corner of York and High Streets.

Huon Valley, the Big Blue Retreat holiday, and the town of Beauty Point, from where you can see the yachts arriving in Coles Bay and the beaches with rocky outcrops that were once underwater reefs; tabletops of eroded mountains formed at the plateau level of a lost landscape. Long stretches of dazzling beaches where the colors are pure and clean — white sand, blue-green seawater, orange lichen on red granite — and Jewish history: This is Tasmania.

Laura Shapiro Kramer is the author of “Uncommon Voyage” (North Atlantic Books 2001). Her new book is “Can You Show Me Tomorrow Today?” She is an avid traveler. Visit her at www.laurashapirokramer.com.


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