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New Zealand: Modern (Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries)

by Norman Simms

The Jewish population of New Zealand has remained small from the time of the arrival of the first Jewish traders in 1829. It reached between 5,000 and 6,000 only at the end of the twentieth century and for much of its history has accounted for about 0.2 percent of the country’s population, which now stands at 3.8 million. Most of the early immigrants were from England, which administered the colony, and some from Australia. The small size of the Jewish population and its frontier location vis-à-vis Europe has led to a greater openness to the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men, who have been active in the community.

The first Jew born in New Zealand, on January 10, 1843, was Sarah Nathan. Her sister Julia (Catherine?) or Gitel was the first buried, a year later; both were children of David Nathan and Rosetta Aarons, the first Jewish couple to wed in the colony, in 1841. In 1844 Esther Solomon, then eighteen, married Benjamin Levy in the first ceremony of its kind in Wellington. Other Jews, married or finding their mates en route to the Pacific, played a disproportionate part in the foundation of the new nation. Of these pioneer women, many of whom made the long sea voyage while pregnant, little is noted in the formal histories beyond their names. Yet like a certain Mrs. Nathan, who ran a kosher kitchen on the Otago goldfields in the mid-nineteenth century, they were anything but passive figures. Nor were they always dutiful. Liba Singer, daughter of Polish immigrants, had an illegitimate daughter, Annie, who as a shande (disgrace) was “adopted” by the family; the girl never guessed in her lifetime that “Aunty Liba” was her mother, something only her nine children by Samuel Henry Morris discovered.

Other aspects peculiar to the situation in New Zealand were that there were not only men who “married out” in general to non-Jewish spouses, but who married Maori women—or who did not marry and yet produced offspring. David Asher married a Maori woman in Tauranga, and his wife, Katarina Te Atirau of Rotorua, held her own against David’s family and communal opposition; although their children were never recognized formally by halakhic law, they continued to honor their Jewish heritage. Samuel Yates married Ngawini, of the Rarawa tribe, known as Annie, a Maori from Northland, and their marriage was long, cooperative, and prosperous. There were also some women who married out, like Ethel Caselberg who wed Albert (Arapeta Tapui) Poteka. Only a few Maori men married and converted to Judaism. One of them, Tom Wilkinson, while on service in World War I, met a Jewish girl in Glasgow, married her, converted, and returned to New Zealand, becoming a respected member of the Orthodox community. Of his wife, however, we know nothing. Special relations between the Maori people and the small Jewish population of New Zealand have been a marked feature throughout the nation’s history. Not least among the reasons is encapsulated in the life of Pearl Baker in the twentieth century. As a member of the Auckland Regional Authority and a Manukau City Councillor, Baker spent much of her time visiting, advising, and socializing with the people of Te Puea Marae, where she earned the honorific and affectionate title of Nanny Pearl.

Thus there is an official history and an unofficial history of Jewish women in New Zealand. In the official history of New Zealand Jews, as elsewhere, mostly until very recently, the men dominate in public life—in synagogue, in the civil and commercial spheres: their stories and their pictures are everywhere. There, too, the Jewish women are traditionally referred to as wives, daughters, and mothers. These women support the men’s activities, working in support organizations of the synagogue, and at home; they bear the children, educate the boys and girls, tend the sick, and run the households. They also bring the yikhes (pedigree): they forge the links between the families in New Zealand and those back in Europe. If they survive to old age, they are at last recognized in local newspaper eulogies as matriarchs, the mothers of the dynasties of the dozen or so great founding families of New Zealand Jewry.

In the unofficial history, or rather histories, however, there are women of great power and influence who are recognized inside and outside the traditional boundaries of Jewish life; and those who, whether declaring themselves as Jewish or not, helped to establish and define New Zealand’s social democracy, and so shine in the memory of Jewish accomplishments. Transiency also characterizes Jewish life in New Zealand. Given the small size and the distances from the fullness of Jewish institutional life, many women—like many men—had to look abroad for spouses and for educational or commercial opportunities; of these, in the past a great number did not return, although more recently, thanks to air travel, Jewish families can move freely between New Zealand, Israel, Australia and England. Additionally, life is so safe for Jews in New Zealand compared to their European homelands that it often becomes too easy, so that acceptance slides into assimilation, which threatens the very Jewishness of individual and community identity, particularly when viewed from the perspective of Orthodox definitions. Anyone who wishes to be an observant Jew also finds herself compelled to move at least as far as Australia for companionship and the full range of Jewish activities and institutions, including a full range of kosher food.

Low population density and distance from urban communities have, according to some, led Jewish women in New Zealand, to fill only a narrow band of occupations. They entered community service, became educators, followed the liberal professions, created and performed in the fine arts. But they tended not to enter politics, except occasionally as city councilors or mayors; they work in the political parties, but do not go into Parliament. A few have worked independently in business or taken leadership roles in the union movement, though more worked in family enterprises and did not seek individual advancement or lifetime careers. Inge Woolf, however, as President of the Zonta Club of Wellington, demonstrated her reputation and commitment to the business community, as well as dedication to the community, for which she received the Queen’s Service Order in 1992.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the traditional picture began to change markedly. Now Jewish women tended to dominate the community groups of Jewish life, and outside the Orthodox movement also became leaders in the synagogue. At one point, albeit a fleeting one, three of the six rabbinical positions in New Zealand were held by women, beginning with Paula Winnig in 1983 in Auckland, and then Ruth Langer in Wellington, both students who quickly left for overseas. Subsequently, Aviva Kippen was appointed and, following her, Patti Kopstein received a joint appointment with her husband David. In addition, like these female rabbis, there are other strong Jewish women who have come to New Zealand for relatively short periods, made their mark, and then left. Thus, two Israeli ambassadors, Lydia Choukron and Ruth Kahanoff, for instance, played major roles in shaping New Zealand Jewry’s response to troubled times in the Middle East.

Yet there is another dimension to this picture: the history of the women who, whether as converts or as non-Jewish wives, entered the Jewish community and sustained it in various ways. As the distant South Pacific colony developed into an independent nation Jewish women played an increasingly articulate and powerful role. Indeed, outside the four main centers—Auckland and Wellington, with two synagogues, community centers and day schools, and Christchurch and Dunedin, with synagogues and some community institutions—women provided strong and essential input and thus bound the communities together. For instance, in Hamilton, a small city near Auckland, with a population of about one hundred thousand people, thanks to a number of women, there developed a strong and active Jewish community of about one hundred souls. In Palmerston North, not far from Wellington, Mona Williams, a Black woman from Guyana, where she grew up as a secret Jew, stood tall and represented her community in many of the capital city’s Jewish organizations. A well-known storyteller, she also lectured in pre-service Teacher Education at Massey University. If these smaller communities are not rabbinic ally pure enclaves of Jewishness, they are Jewish nevertheless and sustain the history, the education and the rituals of Judaism. They also lead the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

New Zealand, which was the first nation to give women the right to vote, in 2002 has a woman prime minister, a woman governor general, and many other women in high prestigious roles. While this tradition of liberalism opened the way for Jewish women to move into private, community and state careers from a very early point in the country’s history, it also meant that the small, isolated Jewish community suffered the strains of this opening up of opportunities outside the home and traditional synagogue committees.

One of the truly outstanding women in the history of Jews in Christchurch and New Zealand in the middle years of the twentieth century is Grace Shellie (née Goldsmith) Hollander, born in Christchurch in 1922, who received civic awards for her service as a Justice of the Peace and member of such organizations as the Consumer Council and Standards Institute. After retirement, she remained chair of the Finance and Foundation Committees of the Christchurch Polytechnic Council. Among her numerous awards was the title of Commander of the British Empire, bestowed in 1979. This followed a long career as wife, mother and grandmother, as well as a full life of public and community service. In 2002 she was President of the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation.

Coming from Glasgow in 1954, Doris (née Segal) Lewis was the first woman member of the Board of Management of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, and later the first woman on the Management Council of the Wellington Jewish Community Center. In local politics, Helene Ritchie and Stephanie Cook have served on the Wellington City Council, while Cook, together with Ruth Gotlieb, an Irish Jew by birth, was prominent on the Capital Coast Health Board. Ritchie was for a short period Deputy Mayor. Gotlieb, daughter of Rabbi Joseph Wolman, also served three terms on the Wellington City Council, the longest-serving and highest polling Councilor to date; the library at Kilburnie was named for her.

Auckland women were involved in Jewish charitable organizations, including the Auckland Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society. Those who served in general philanthropies include Olive Margaret Manning, who received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal for her services to the community, ranging from President of the Onehunga Plunket Society to membership on the National Council of Women. During the 1970s, Barbara Goodman DBE served her uncle, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, as Mayoress; she also acted as founding Chair of the Odyssey House Trust. Jews have also been active in the smaller centers, where they play their part in both Jewish and public affairs.

When the Liberal-Reform movement came to New Zealand in 1956 it opened new roles for women in religious life, but it was not until 1989 that a woman, Stephanie Markson, was elected President of the Auckland Congregation for Progressive Judaism. Ann Joselyn Gluckman had a long and distinguished career as an educator in Auckland, serving as well on many national and international committees, such as the UNESCO sub-commission on Social Sciences and Education and the Association for Research in Education. In 1975 Gluckman became the first woman to be appointed principal of a state co-educational high school, Nga Tapuwae College in Mangere, a working class and Polynesian suburb of Auckland. Four years later she was appointed President of the Manukau Institute for Educational Research. She was founding Jewish President of the New Zealand branch of the Council of Christians and Jews. Wendy Ross and her sister Lesley Max, both born to the Shieff families, were leaders in many fields of Jewish and community service in Auckland, Ross as President of Auckland Jewish Council and Max prominent in early childhood care and journalism. Czech-born Ruth Black (née Blumenthal) was a pioneer in the field of family planning, founding and chairing the New Zealand Family Planning Council in 1963–1964, as well as representing New Zealand on the International Planned Parenthood Federation of Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The small Jewish numbers have not produced an abundance of intellectuals or high-profile artists of either sex. Yet, just as general cultural and artistic life in the country is often enhanced from outside, so too is the Jewish community invigorated by migrants and by women who marry into the community. Sometimes they remain for only a few years and then move on, but their influence is palpable.

From the very beginning of Political Zionism at the turn of the nineteenth century, New Zealand Jewry has been enthusiastically supportive. The New Zealand branch of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) was the second to be founded after that in Great Britain. Vera Ziman, Simone Nathan (née Oulman) and Lady Joyce (née Paykel) Fisher were among the first members. Mrs. Nathan was born in Paris in 1888 of a French father and a Portuguese mother from the Azores, making her one of the small group of Sephardic Jews in New Zealand. She was President of WIZO for over thirty years, and an active member of Hadassah. Thanks to the efforts of such women, every year men and women, young and old, made aliyah from New Zealand at a higher proportionate rate than from almost any other country, except those where persecution made escape necessary.

New Zealand may be unique in the way Jewish women, including many who are converts or unconverted spouses of Jewish men, have worked together against antisemitism and anti-Zionism. While many women who survived the Nazi Holocaust have given their time and energy to speaking in schools, organizing memorial services and establishing exhibits and monuments, other women have also dedicated themselves to the fight against antisemitism which, though not as vicious as in many other countries, is nevertheless a reality to be confronted.

New Zealand Jewish women have been pioneers in entering law, medicine, and academic professions. Ethel Benjamin, the first woman to train as a lawyer in New Zealand in 1897, braved much opposition from professors and fellow students and from within the profession; finally, conceding defeat, she managed a tearoom in Christchurch. Ruth Bush, an American-trained lawyer, made her mark in the new Law School at Waikato University and throughout the 1990s was active in promoting law reform in regard to domestic violence.

Jewish women, some of them immigrants or refugees from Europe, achieved prominence in the healthcare professions. Emily Seidelberg, after receiving her BS degree from Otago University in Dunedin, studied in Germany and gained a medical degree, returning as the country’s first female physician in 1896. Augusta Klippel (née Manoy), who arrived in New Zealand in 1910 from Latvia with her mother and two sisters, was the first woman to graduate in medicine in New Zealand, receiving her degree from Otago University in 1926, and following this with graduate studies in pediatrics in London and Vienna. After marrying Samuel Klippel, she resided in Sydney and worked in its hospitals for several years, returning to Auckland in 1934. She then helped to establish the Jewish Women’s Refugee Committee and welcomed many families escaping Hitler’s persecutions. Marie Theomin, first treasurer and founder of the Plunket Society, ensured proper post-natal care for every baby born in New Zealand. May Manoy, a New Zealand-trained Karitane (childcare) nurse who served in Britain during World War II, gained further training in medicine before returning home. Selma Hahn (née Roniger) was born in Jablonec Nad Nisou, Czechoslavakia, studied medicine at Prague University, and practiced in that city until the German occupation, after which she served as a nurse. A survivor of the Holocaust, she worked for the British Army from 1946 and then treated displaced Jews on the ill-fated ship Exodus, reaching New Zealand early in the 1950s. She eventually opened a general practice in the working-class district of Blockhouse Bay, Auckland, remarried in 1958, and died in 1988. Another refugee was Rachel Monk, who served for many years as a general practitioner, running clinics, when others would not, for the Maori princess Te Puea at Turangawaewae from 1943–1946; she is perhaps the only woman physician to have a racehorse, Dr. Monk, named after her by her grateful Maori patients.

Jewish women also became university professors by the second half of the twentieth century. Gerti Blumenfeld (b. 1925), who grew up in pre-war Germany and came to New Zealand in 1939 at the age of fourteen, taught German at Auckland University during the 1960s. Similarly, in the 1960s, Dr. Bell taught German at Victoria University in Wellington, while Professor Prue Hyman lectured in economics at the same university. These women were especially notable, because very few women at all were holding positions in the universities in New Zealand. Among other notable Jewish women in academe were Livia Kathe Wittmann, who established the Feminist Studies Department at Canterbury University; Hannah Brodsky, a teacher of both Russian and Yiddish Literature, at Auckland University; and Elaine Bliss in Geography and Sarah Shieff in English at Waikato University. Margot Deirdre Klippel (née Israel) set up the New Start Program at Auckland University Centre for Continuing Education in the 1970s.

There have been only a few artists among Jewish women—as among Jewish men—and fewer creative writers of note, some journalists and some entertainers. From time to time, women published poems or short stories, but there seem to have been none who did more than self-publish entire books. However, 1996 saw the publication of The Rescue of Memory by the American, Cheryl Pearl Sucher, who spends half her time in Dunedin with her kiwi husband. Hungarian-born Anne Beaglehole’s novel, The Replacement of Memory was published in 2002.

On the other hand, many Jewish women have been musicians, ranging from those pioneer women in the nineteenth century whose good taste and enthusiasm helped bring culture to their families and the new colony, to professionally trained artists known overseas as well as in New Zealand. Other women were music teachers, and their homes often became the heart of musical culture before radio and phonograph became common. Gertrud Narewczewitz (known in New Zealand as Narev), escaping the Holocaust, came to Auckland where she began as a decorator of chocolates, but soon developed her talents as a pianist and music teacher. Gisi (Gizi) Taglich introduced Eurhythmics to New Zealand.

Bette Spiro Baker studied music and singing in Napier before moving to Auckland, where she became well known for her performances in opera, operettas, radio and television. Among the professionally trained musicians, Eva Stern Paykel came to New Zealand in 1931 from New York, where she had already distinguished herself on the concert stage as a pianist, especially among the ex-Odessa circle. She was especially known as a broadcast soloist for Radio New Zealand (and its forerunners) until the 1960s. In later years several Jewish women graced the performances of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Other women contributed to local and regional musical groups.

Marie Theomin was an early and enthusiastic patron of Frances Hodgkins, one of the first major female artists in the opening years of the twentieth century. Among the Jewish artists of note was Mina (Hermina) Manoy (née Arndt), who studied with Frank Brangwyn at the London School of Art and then with Hermann Struck and Lovis Corinth in Germany at the start of the twentieth century and worked several years in Wales before returning to New Zealand, where she continued to paint and etch, as well as teach art; she died in 1926. Emily Leah (née Meltzer) Markham from the 1960s on became a regular exhibitor of painting and etching in Auckland galleries; in 1967 she supervised the preparation of the stained glass windows for the Auckland Synagogue Hall. Virginia Fisher did the interior design for the Progressive Synagogue in Auckland. Meanwhile in Hamilton, Margot Philips, a refugee from the Holocaust, became an outstanding part of the art scene for her landscape paintings and had an exhibition room named after her in the Waikato Museum of Art and History. In Palmerston North, Mina McKenzie (daughter of Ethel Caselberg) was director of the Manawatu Art Gallery.

There is also the outstanding photographic work of Marti Friedlander who, after growing up in a Jewish orphanage in London, came to New Zealand after World War II with her husband. Nor can we forget the multi-talented—poet and print-maker, health researcher, feminist activist—Miriam Saphira and her work on the Lesbian Health Report (2002).

Though Jewish women are not greatly involved in the entertainment industry or sports, there are a few persons worthy of mention. Well known as a comedienne in New Zealand and Canada, where she has lived since the 1990s, is Deborah Filler, daughter of Holocaust survivors. In sports, Amelia Haas was a university swimming champion; she subsequently became a successful passion-fruit farmer until her death in 2001.

Jewish women have also made careers in the media. In 1901, Martha Shinwald, daughter of a wealthy San Francisco family, came to Auckland. This talented woman, with a career in journalism behind her, helped to develop the cultural and theatrical life in her adopted city. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Angela D’Audney (1944–2001), who grew up in Brazil in a Polish-Russian family of immigrants, made her mark in public life as a well-known television presenter and newsreader. Dr. Ruth Black served both on the Board of Management of the Broadcasting Corporation and on the Board of TV2. Shirley Horrocks was a television producer. During the 1940s and 50s, but continuing to the 1980s, Dorothy Norma Moses, daughter of Rabbi Solomon Katz, was a well-known freelance journalist in Wellington and was associated with the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly for a quarter of a century. About the same time, Rebecca M. Astor, wife of Rabbi Alexander Astor, helped to found and then long edited the New Zealand Judean Bulletin, which later became the New Zealand Jewish Chronicle. Judith Clearwater, after many years as a librarian in the Wellington area, became editor of the New Zealand Jewish Chronicle. She was a foundation member of the International Jewish Media Association. In Auckland, Jewel Bookman (née Meltzer) was co-editor of the monthly magazine Hashofar, as well as being active in WIZO, the Auckland Judean Association, and the Council of Jewish Women. Cathy Aronson, an investigative journalist for The New Zealand Herald, helped to expose the Holocaust-denial scandal at Canterbury University and the Neo-Nazi affair at Waikato University.

While most women’s business ventures in the early years of the colony and even well into the twentieth century were associated with helping their husbands and occasionally carrying on in widowhood, or in retirement from careers as teachers or social workers, a new crop of Jewish women in the last years of the millennium showed that they could succeed on their own. Mrs. Annie Deckston deserves mention as a pioneer businesswoman and philanthropist, founder of the Deckston Home first as an orphanage but later as a Jewish Old Age Home in Wellington. Ethel Berman was the first woman in New Zealand to earn a Bachelor of Commerce degree. During the 1950s, while the country went through one its many recessions, Lilly Bruell set up Playnit Ltd., a company that not only succeeded in producing fashionable women’s clothing and sportswear but was also a model for employer-employee relations. Susan Gordon (née Kramer) came to New Zealand from New York in the 1970s and undertook a wide variety of jobs; after another dozen years or so in the USA, she returned to Wellington to become a successful real-estate agent. Significantly, this last example highlights several key points about Jewish women in New Zealand as the new millennium began: not only were they independent business persons, but more came from the United States, while most earlier immigrants in the twentieth century came from Eastern Europe, especially Lithuania, Germany and Hungary, first through England and Scotland and then often by way of South Africa and Australia. They brought with them shifting attitudes towards American liberalism in social and religious matters.

Jews in New Zealand have always been a tiny minority, and while their actual numbers grew in the last years of the nineteenth century, particularly through migration from South Africa and the countries of the former Soviet bloc, their percentage in the total population steadily shrinks. Lack of critical mass makes it difficult to sustain all the institutions and services of a fully functioning Jewish community, with the diversity and dynamism characteristic of Australia, America or France. A small number of Jews do manage to live comfortably either as religious or irreligious individuals and families, but all too many have to leave the country to find the social and communal supports—and the spouses—they want.

Bibliography

Albert, Lionel. Some of the Jewish Men and Women who Contributed to the History of Auckland, 1840–1982. Auckland: 1982; Beaglehole, Ann, and Hal Levine. Far from the Promised Land: Being Jewish in New Zealand. Wellington: 1994; Clearwater, Judith, ed. Women of Valour: Stories about New Zealand Jewish Women Written by Themselves and Others. Articles published in the New Zealand Jewish Chronicle during Women’s Suffrage Year 1993. Wellington: unprinted; Gluckman, Ann, ed. Identity and Involvement: Auckland Jewry, Past and Present. Palmerston North: 1990; Gluckman, Ann and Laurie, eds. Identity and Involvement II: Auckland Jewry, Past and Present. Palmerston North: 1993; Goldman, Lazarus Morris, The History of the Jews in New Zealand. Wellington: 1958; Levine, Stephen, ed. A Standard for the People: The 150th Anniversary of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, 1843–1993. Christchurch: 1995; Rosenthal, Odeda. Not Strictly Kosher: Pioneer Jews in New Zealand. Second edition Wainscott, NY: 1991.

How to cite this page

Simms, Norman. "New Zealand: Modern (Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries)." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 1, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/new-zealand-modern-nineteenth-and-twentieth-centuries>.

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