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    Rolls-Royce Rabbi (book review)

    By John S Levi
    Melbourne University Press, 2005

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple published in The Australian, 16 September, 1995.

    As a child, I did not really know what God was. But when Jacob Danglow stood in his pulpit at the St Kilda Synagogue, I was quite sure that either the rabbi was God or God was like the rabbi. He was that kind of cleric. Sir Zelman Cowen has said, “He seemed to me quite the most important of men”.

    In his time, Danglow was one of Australia’s best known public figures, John Levi suggests that as Archbishop Daniel Mannix was for the Catholics, so Danglow was for the Jews. His handsome appearance and manner were part of the explanation. It helped that he married into the Michaelis Hallensteins, the patricians of Melbourne Jewry, and was friendly with some of the great of the land. In an age when a quarter of the world was British, he was the embodiment of Empire patriotism, was a renowned army chaplain and rose high in Freemasonry. Holding the one pulpit for over 50 years, he seemed invincible.

    Because Danglow filed everything, there was a treasury of material awaiting a biographer. Levi, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, worked long and hard on the Danglow papers, and has produced a fascinating picture of the man and his times.

    For Danglow was very much a man of his times. Coming to Australia from Edwardian England in 1905, he was the right man for a community that was demonstrably part of the Australian colonial cringe. His sermons lauded the Empire and the British flag, and even when other Jews thought, with justification, that Britain had let their people down, Danglow always believed the best of the British. No wonder his critics called him Anglo-Danglow.

    As the leading spokesman for the Jewish community, he moved with military bearing and ecclesiastical gravitas, but he could take up the cudgels with considerable courage. He sprang to the attack against missionaries who sought to convert Jews to Christianity; archbishops who insisted that Australia was a Christian country; antisemites who accused Jews of manipulating the world of finance; animal welfare organisations which alleged that kosher slaughter of animals was cruel; and RSL groups that wanted immigrants to be second-class Australians.

    His public relations work for the Jewish community was energetic and impressive. He was considered the consummate ambassador.

    But from 1930s onwards, some Jews felt he had grown away from his people. Especially at a time of heightened emotions and deep passions for Jews, Danglow seemed insensitive. He tried to help the Dunera boys and other refugees, but many viewed his ministrations with suspicion.

    At first favourably disposed towards Zionism, his attitude hardened in the 1940s; millions of Jews were desperate for survival and escape, but he adopted the anti-Zionist line of Sir Isaac Isaacs, although, after Israel was founded in 1948, he modified his stance. And although he opposed the establishment of Jewish day schools, again he came to change his mind. Many Jews could not understand or forgive what they saw as his indifference. One critic accused him of “clinging to the doctrine of his own infallibility”.

    He believed in a polite, genteel, not very demanding form of Jewish orthodoxy. His synagogue, he said, “has never labelled itself as ‘strong orthodox’ or ‘reform’… A safe middle course has been followed.” His recipe was designed to keep Jews within the fold, but he had to admit that it had not brought about a great improvement. It was eventually overtaken as the Jewish community diversified and built strong movements to the right and the left.

    His not-quite-traditional orthodoxy is partly explained by his lack of deep, rabbinic learning. His rabbinic title was honoris causa and came after he had been the Reverend Jacob Danglow for 30 years. He had made attempts to gain full rabbinic ordination, but decided he preferred dealing with people to in-depth study and, though he was acclaimed everywhere as a remarkably effective minister, his rabbinic credentials were suspect in strictly orthodox circles.

    Within the wider religious spectrum he was a champion of interfaith understanding long before it was fashionable. Every Monday he played golf with his Christian colleagues. Once when he missed a vital shot his friend, a vicar, sadly observed: “Rabbi, that is one of the most profane silences I have ever heard.” He did not believe Australia was an antisemitic nation, but anti-Jewish taunts and insults emanated even from high-placed churchmen and needed handling.

    The energy of the man was incredible. He prided himself on his athlete’s stamina. He did not believe people needed so much sleep, and he kept up a full program of pastoral visiting and high-profile busyness in Jewish and public organisations.

    Danglow is fortunate in his biographer. Levi and Melbourne University Press have put together a book that will enrich our knowledge, not only of Australian Jewry over the first 60-odd years of a dramatic century, but of the religious, social and cultural history of modern Australia as a whole.

    More articles by Rabbi Apple about Rabbi Jacob Danglow appear here, here and here.

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