Jews in NZ

How Jewish migrants played a key role in creating N.Z.

(Special review by Eva Rawnsley)

The Kapiti Independent has asked a well-known resident and writer, Eva Rawnsley, to review a vital new book which shows just how much this country owes to its Jewish immigrants.

They’ve made an amazingly varied contribution to our National life — as they have to our life here on the Coast.

Eva, for example, is just one of a highly talented group of people of Jewish descent living in Paekākāriki. Read her review of Jewish Lives in New Zealand….


Authors: Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow

Published by: Random House

Reviewed by Eva Rawnsley


When I was asked if I would review this book I was very uncertain and had mixed feelings, being Jewish myself and all that this has meant in my life…

I need not have worried. As soon as I read Leonard Bell’s introduction, I felt comfortable and started reading it with interest.

His description of who is, or what makes a person Jewish is very broad and includes anyone who considers himself Jewish be he an atheist or an agnostic, orthodox or ultra orthodox. There are no pigeonholes here, it is very inclusive.

This is a very comprehensive work divided into sections dealing with professions and occupations and eras.  It starts with the first Jews to come to New Zealand in pre-colonial years.

I was surprised, naively, that Jews had come to New Zealand for other reasons than as immigrants and found this section especially interesting. They came as businessmen, impresarios and adventurers.  For example, the Simonsens, who brought an opera troupe to Dunedin.

The eleven sections in this book cover various areas in which Jews participated in New Zealand life.

Jews and music

The first section deals with music. It covers individual musicians and the introduction of chamber music to New Zealand.  Many of the overseas visiting artist were Jewish. These visiting artists heightened interest in music and increased audiences.

Modern dance, a form of movement to music, a new type of gymnastics was brought to Wellington.  This I remember well as I attended classes run by Gisa Taglicht. Her method was adopted in schools for P.E.

The second section covers the Visual Arts. Architecture is covered extensively as architecturally designed buildings were not  common practice in NZ till well into the20th century. Builders drew up plans for buildings and architects were considered as an expensive and irritating  extravagance.  The Government Housing department employed oversees-trained architects and, by and by, some set up private practices.

Jewish photographers play major role

Photographers play a considerable part in this book as Jewish photographers took many of the beautiful photographs in it.  Painting and other art forms are also covered in this section.

Section three covers Jewish writers. These go back to the mid 19th century with Joel Polack and Julius Vogel, the latter much better known as a larger-than-life politician.

Charles Brash, a poet,  started ‘Landfall’, a periodical that covered poetry and other forms of writing. The poet John Caselberg was a friend of Colin McCahon, who used a number of his poems in his paintings.

Section four covers academics.   Jewish academics pop up in many areas. We find them in the universities and in jurisprudence, many of the latter are household names, lawyers and judges, Sir Michael Myers,  Ethel Benjamin, and the list goes on and on.

One name we have often heard over the decades is Wolfgang Rosenberg, a Canterbury academic economist and Socialist.

Section five deals with education. Here three women particularly feature. Ethel Benjamin was the first NZ woman lawyer, Emily Siedeberg the first bwoman medical graduate and Ann Gluckman was the first woman principal in a co-educational school.

‘Jews are News’

Jews are News is the caption of section 6.   Here Vogel pops up again, as he does in so many of the chapters in this book.

Journalists were very active in New Zealand. In spite of the small percentage of Jews in the population, Jewish journalists played  a major part in the media and communication.

They recorded the news and sometimes they made the news, as did Constance Grande, when she crossed the Copland Pass in 1903.  The Jewish Chronicle lasted continuously for 65 years. It started off as a newsletter and became a fully-fledged Monthly paper.

Anti-semitism rare

The section on Anti Semitism, number six, is fortunately for the Jewish people and for society as a whole, quite slim. There was Eric Butler and “The League of Rights” and R.A. Lochore, a racist and anti-Semite who worked in the Government service for thirty years and ended his career as New Zealand’s ambassador to Germany, now there is an irony for you. We also had our own “White Supremacist” group.  On the whole though, there was little discrimination and racism in New Zealand.

Section eight is headed “Enterprise and Obligation, Jewish Business in Auckland and Wellington.”  Many  names in this section, Hallenstein, Nathan, Myers  are as well known today, as they were a hundred or more years ago.

They started businesses, many of which were carried on by younger members of the family and are still going concerns today.  Two

examples are Fisher and Paykel and the Dixon Str. Deli. Jews were very successful in business, hard working and resourceful.   The successful ones were often benefactors of the city they lived in.

Eminent doctors but not dentists

Section number nine covers Jewish doctors, the first of whom arrived in Dunedin as early as 1850.   Some doctors became eminent in their field. As well as doctors, Jews can be found in other parts of the health system, although I could find no mention of dentist, which surprised me.

A wave of doctors came to New Zealand during the rise of Hitler and anti Semitism. Dr Erich Geiringer became both famous, and infamous because he fell out with the establishment. And it would appear that Jews brought Psychotherapy to N.Z.

Section 10 tells about the early settlers in the far South. The discovery of gold gave an incentive for pioneering  spirits  and enterprising  Jews went to the goldfields and from there to Dunedin and started businesses in the South Island.

The successful ones became eminent citizens and philanthropists. The Vogel family and the Nathans pop up again. Other notables were Mark Cohen and his wife Sara and Ethel Benjamin.

Performing arts and food

Performing arts and food are covered in section 11. As in all the previously mentioned pursuits, Jews were also to be found in

the entertainment world. Food is very much part of Jewish cultural life and in Wellington and Auckland there are Jewish delis and restaurants.

This is a thoroughly well researched and readable book. The extensive photographs are of a very fine quality and the layout is good. It makes a quick overview easy with every opportunity to find what you want in greater detail.


I have only two criticisms, the print is very small and the book is

difficult to hold. However I can recommend it warmly to anyone interested in the history of Jews in New Zealand.



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Best wishes,

Alan Tristram

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Hello Harriet
Happy Christmas, first ofd all!
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Mmmm… with regard to dentists I would have done my homework before going to print.
In the past 20 years alone
1- Dr Clive Ross, president of the Dental Council
2- Dr Peter Bolot, President of the NZ Dental Association
3- Dr Robert Max, President of the Orthodontic Society of New Zealand