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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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.

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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