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    “He ministered excellently” – the Australian career of Rev. Zalel Mandelbaum

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the annual general meeting of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney, 29 November, 2015.

    Mandelbaum House, Sydney

    Mandelbaum House, Sydney

    Mandelbaum House at Sydney University perpetuates Rev. Zalel Mandelbaum and his wife Freda, parents of the donor, Rachel Lipton. Rev. Mandelbaum’s full name was Rabbi Bezalel Mandelbaum but he was known by the nickname Zalel and in Australia followed the (then) British custom of styling oneself Reverend. The surname Mandelbaum means “almond tree”, but from historical studies of the town of Turov it appears that the name was really Mendelbaum, deriving from an ancestor called Mendel. Perhaps it was one of the “nice” names paid for by a bribe to the authorities, and was subsequently Germanised to Mandelbaum.

    Born in Turov, about 400 km from Minsk, on 6 February, 1865, Bezalel was the second child of the Turever Rabbi, Baruch Mandelbaum (1834-1905) and his wife Leah nee Teitelbaum. Jews had been in Turov from the early 1600s and in the late 19th century they were half of the population of the town. Rabbi Baruch (and therefore Zalel) had an impressive lineage. He claimed descent from Rashi — and before him from David, King of Israel — and was connected with the Maharal of Prague. The author of the rabbinic work Noda BaShe’arim (“Known in the Gates”), Rabbi Baruch moved his family to Palestine when Zalel was an infant. Their emigration from Russia, entailing arduous travel, was in order to escape antisemitic persecution as well as for ideological reasons; like the Talmudic sages, the Turever Rabbi would have regarded walking four cubits on the holy soil as the high point of his life (Talmud Ketubot 111a).

    Zalel’s education in Jerusalem was traditionally Talmudic, undoubtedly guided by his father. He gained a range of practical skills as a shochet (animal slaughterer) and mohel (circumciser). He probably also had some ability as a chazan (cantor). He may have been a sofer (scribe).

    Amongst Zalel’s siblings the most famous brother was Simchah, born about 1870, who went back to Russia and married Esther Liebe Epstein (a daughter of the Rabbi of Kobrin, who was also interim Rebbe of Slonim). Simchah was a scholar whilst his wife was a businesswoman, and they had eleven children. They stayed in Russia for a number of years but finally succeeded in making aliyah in 1921. The four-storey mansion they built in Jerusalem to accommodate their children, children-in-law and family, was known as Mandelbaum House. Its location became known as Mandelbaum Gate, at the seam of Israel and Jordan. When the foundations of the house were being dug, coins from the Bar Kochba period were discovered, indicating the historicity of the site. Simchah did not live long enough to witness the exciting things that later years brought to Mandelbaum House; he died on 3 May, 1930.

    At the time of armed struggle in Eretz Yisra’el, Mandelbaum House became a Haganah headquarters. Arms were hidden there under Grandmother’s bed and when the premises were checked for illegal arms, the authorities were told that Grandmother was ill and no-one could disturb her in her bedroom. The building itself was eventually blown up but was later rebuilt and today houses a Breslover yeshivah. There is a Mandelbaum Park nearby. The name Mandelbaum House was known to Zalel’s daughter Rachel, who years later, at the other end of the world, left instructions that this was to be the name of the college she endowed at Sydney University.

    Apart from Simchah, Zalel’s other siblings were Menachem, Yitzchak David, Hendel Steinbuch, Naomi Ginzberg and two more. At least one settled in the USA. There were other Mandelbaums in Australia, but it is not known whether they had any connection with the Rabbi of Turov.

    In Palestine, Zalel married Chaya (her maiden name was something like Kancel). They had one daughter, Tsipporah (Celia), born on 27 March, 1892. The marriage did not last. Zalel and Chaya had a divorce, and for some years the daughter stayed in Palestine with her mother.

    Zalel’s second wife was Frieda. The daughter of Shmuel Joffe, she was born in 1875. They married in Palestine in the mid-1890s and in due course two daughters were born in Port Said — Rachel in 1897 and Rosa, about 1900.

    Zalel and Frieda left Palestine for Port Said in the 1890s, perhaps because he was unsettled after his divorce or due to economic depression in Palestine, or both. I have so far been unable to ascertain much about his life in Port Said. Though he was an Ashkenazi it appears that he was involved in the Sephardi community. It is likely that he had some kind of business, possibly as an innkeeper, and served the community as a shochet. Port Said had quite a small Jewish population and was liable to antisemitic outbreaks, so the Mandelbaum family would not have wished to remain there for long. As ships to and from Australia brought a number of Jewish visitors to Port Said, Zalel made the acquaintance of some of them and gave them hospitality. From them he would certainly have heard that Australia was a good place for Jews. He is likely to have kept in touch with his father, who lived until 1905. As Palestine was not far away, Rachel was possibly taken back to Jerusalem to the Evelina de Rothschild School and began to learn English.

    Zalel did as many migrants did; he left Port Said on his own and promised to send for his family once he got settled. He embarked for Australia on the SS Stuttgart, arriving at Fremantle on 24 August, 1904, aged 39. Thereafter he never left Australia again. He must have found some form of subsistence in Fremantle or Perth for an initial period, but then contact was established with the new Jewish congregation in Broken Hill, New South Wales, which appointed him as minister with free accommodation. At that stage Broken Hill had the second largest population in NSW — 30,000 people — and was an important centre. The Jewish community was as dynamic as the town and Zalel must have regarded himself as fortunate to have received this appointment.

    He got to Broken Hill by sea and rail and sent for his family. Frieda, with Rachel and Rosa, reached Australia on 5 April, 1905. Travelling on the SS Seidlitz from Port Said they said they were German, which may have been Frieda’s original nationality. Frieda now became Freda; Rosa became Rose. The congregation liked Zalel but did not pay him well, so Freda took in mending and sewing.

    We presume that Zalel had already picked up some English at Port Said, but he had to learn the language seriously when he came to Australia. He certainly spoke quite good English as a middle-aged man in Broken Hill, though we are not certain whether he was a good preacher and teacher. He was the general factotum of the congregation and spent ten years there from 1905-1914. His house was the headquarters of the community. The centenary history of Broken Hill Jewry praises his efforts and says he was largely responsible for building the synagogue in 1910. Previously the services had been in a Masonic hall. Zalel was naturalised aged 47 in January, 1913, stating that he was a Russian subject; the magistrate who recorded his details calls him “Minister of the Gospel”.

    He left Broken Hill in September, 1914, to be succeeded by Rev. Samuel Nathan Salas from Palestine. Salas was recommended by Chief Rabbi JH Hertz and arrived in Broken Hill on 7 December, 1915, in time for Chanukah. Salas was subsequently assistant minister in Auckland and then minister in Christchurch, where he remained for many years. His brother, Rev. Marks Salas, also came to New Zealand and was assistant minister and shochet in Auckland.

    Rev. Zalel in his youth

    Rev. Zalel in his youth

    Broken Hill, and Australia in general, plunged Mandelbaum into a strange new life. There is a photo of him in his youth, wearing Eastern garb and presumably living in a halachic cocoon. In Australia he encountered Jews of less than total orthodoxy as well as non-Jews. A photo of him in old age shows a completely different man, an anglicised pastor in canonicals and a clerical collar. The change was due to the need to make a living but presumably went with a philosophical dimension. He must have reflected on his life’s metamorphoses, but his papers, which might have contained a clue to his thinking, are not extant or at least not available.

    After leaving Broken Hill, Zalel moved back to Perth, where he was shochet and acting minister whilst Rev. David Isaac Freedman, was overseas as a chaplain. Zalel stayed in Perth for eleven years, during which time Rachel and Rose relocated to Sydney, where Rachel entered Sydney University and Rose became a musician. One historian (Philip Masel) says Zalel “ministered excellently”; another (David Mossenson) notes that the minute books record complaints about Zalel and even say that pork was found in the butcher shop.

    At some stage Celia came to her father in Australia, being registered as Turkish.On 21 June, 1916, aged 24, she married Harry Greenberg (born in Safed on 20 March, 1896) at the Perth Hebrew Congregation, with Zalel officiating. On the documents he called himself Assistant Rabbi. Zalel gave Hebrew lessons to his grandson Leslie in the family living room after school, and on Friday evenings the family gathered in the Mandelbaums’ house for dinner. Harry and Celia shortened their surname to Green and later moved to Sydney to be nearer their family. Celia died in Sydney in February, 1962, and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery.

    Rachel gained a Sydney BA degree in 1918 aged 22, and became a high school teacher of Latin and English. In 1934, she gained an MA. She married Ernest S. Jerdan in 1920 and then (in the 1950s) a German Jew, Harry Lipton, originally a printer. Living in Macleay Street, Potts Point, they were members of the Great Synagogue. They ran a hotel and then a city tobacconist’s shop, and moved into property ownership and development. Rachel endowed a music scholarship in Rose’s name, created Mandelbaum House in Sydney and left a legacy to the Hebrew University. She died on 8 March, 1978. Harry died some years later. Rose never married but became a well-known music teacher. For a while she was secretary of the Ballarat branch of the National Council of Jewish Women as well as a local musical identity. She died in Sydney on 27 August, 1943.

    Zalel retired to Sydney about 1926 but soon afterwards applied for a vacant ministerial position in Ballarat. Dating back to goldrush days, Ballarat was a historic congregation known for its orthodoxy: indeed there was a time when the town had two orthodox synagogues.

    Rev. Zalel & Freda Mandelbaum

    Rev. Zalel & Freda Mandelbaum

    At the request of the board of the Ballarat Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, checked Zalel’s credentials and capacities, and authorised him as shochet for the congregation. Zalel stayed in Ballarat for 14 years, respected by the gentiles and held in affection by the Jews, though it must have been a rather lonely life for Zalel and Freda with their family so far away. Early in the 1930s my own father settled in Ballarat and ran a business, attending Zalel’s synagogue for services and (I think) being invited home by the Mandelbaums for company, meals and Yiddish conversation. Zalel was liked and esteemed, known to be genial and tolerant of his congregants’ foibles whilst rather disappointed at their low standards of observance. At this stage Ballarat was past its peak and paid quite a low salary but gave free housing and tried hard to make the ministerial house comfortable and pleasant. Pictures of Rev. and Mrs Mandelbaum depict them as a nice elderly couple; Zalel himself, as was the habit of the time, wore a clerical collar. Newman Rosenthal notes in his history of the Ballarat congregation that the Mandelbaum family gave “every satisfaction” and “earned the goodwill and appreciation” of the community.

    In the late 1930s, Zalel was unwell and wanted to retire, but there were no applicants for the position, possibly because the salary was too low. Zalel therefore stayed in office until he died on 17 August, 1941, aged 77. After a memorial service in the synagogue, he was buried at Ballarat Cemetery by Rabbis Jacob Danglow and Harry Freedman of Melbourne, and both the Jewish and Ballarat papers published appreciative obituaries.

    Zalel’s wife Freda died at Woollahra, Sydney, aged 78 on 12 March, 1953, and was buried at Rookwood by Rabbi Israel Porush. Freda presumably took Zalel’s books and papers to Sydney with her when she moved there, but who knows where they are now? Some of the family records and possessions are supposed to be in the Rachel Lipton collection in the Rare Books section of Sydney University Library, but the material has apparently been mislaid and no—one is therefore able to fill in the gaps in the story.

    Rachel Lipton

    Rachel Lipton

    These gaps include some aspects of Rachel Lipton’s thinking, personality and career. Though I was appointed a trustee in her will I did not know her very well. Like any historian I have all sorts of questions, if only there were someone still alive who could suggest the answers. In a booklet marking the tenth anniversary of Mandelbaum House, Professor Alan Crown, who knew Rachel well and was probably the first person to hear what she was planning, hinted at parts of the story when he said, “In many ways she was a contradictory personaIity… She had a very interesting life, crossing traditional boundaries in many ways and consequently I think she felt she hadn’t done the right thing by her parents. Additionally, as a young girl moving from Broken Hill to Sydney, she looked for a suitable place for a young Jewish girl to stay. So the College would fulfil that need in the community.”

    Without Zalel’s library and papers, we will probably never be able to assess him as a scholar, teacher and preacher. He might have left sermon texts or outlines, but this cannot be verified. It is unlikely that he left any notes on Biblical or Talmudic subjects, but who knows? The Mandelbaum family in Eretz Yisra’el lost contact with Zalel after he went to Australia, though he probably kept in touch with his parents until they died, but not with his siblings and their children. The family thought he had a large orthodox community in Australia and wrote Talmudic studies — a highly unlikely possibility at that time. His great-nephew Dr Simcha Mandelbaum came to Sydney with his wife for the opening of the College in 1996 and was intrigued at the thought that the name Mandelbaum House had been given a new lease of life so far away from Jerusalem…

    Oral history would have been a great help in attempting a personal and professional portrait of Zalel, but it is probably too late to look for anyone who knew him personally. But we do possess sources which if properly utilised would at least place his career in context, though in the meantime we have more questions than answers.

    Zalel had three Australian congregations, Broken Hill, Perth and Ballarat. Because Ballarat is the place where he spent longest and represents the final maturing of his work and outlook, we can look at it first, even out of chronological sequence.

    Ballarat was Australia’s first and foremost orthodox shtetl. By Zalel’s time it was really a place of memory which was in decline. The 1930s when he was there were the period of the depression. Were economic pressures worse there? Did economic necessity make a decreasing kehillah mainly comprising small traders less and less Sabbath-observant? How many kept kosher apart from Zalel? How cohesive was the congregation? What were its relations with the general population? What influence did Nathan Spielvogel, the Ballarat historian, have on the population of the town? Was there any real antisemitism? What were the relationships with other parts of Australian Jewry? Are there any points of comparison with Newcastle, the only relatively similar community?

    Zalel’s ten years in Broken Hill cannot really be compared to his time in Ballarat. Broken Hill’s decline came later. Zalel’s incumbency was at the high point of the community. But there are still questions we need to ask about who the Broken Hill Jews were and how the non-Jews regarded them.

    Perth was a larger and more stable community than either Ballarat or Broken Hill and the only congregation where Zalel was one of a ministerial team. This invites questions as to his professional relationships and whether the relatively elastic orthodoxy of Rev. DI Freedman had any impact on Zalel. Again we need to ask how the Jews got on with the general community, though this was Freedman’s area more than Zalel’s. Internal Jewish issues also need to be looked at in the light of Zalel’s personality, such as Zionism, Yiddish and Hebrew. If only we had the means to answer such questions as these we would have a better picture of Zalel.

    Since his time Australia — and the world about it — has changed for Jews and for everyone. In the new era it is worth recalling that the name “Mandelbaum” means almond tree, and as a verb it indicates to watch over. Thanks to Zalel and Freda’s daughter, Mandelbaum House has enabled the almonds of Judaism to flourish once more, and allowed Judaism in Australia a new opportunity to watch over its own people and its surroundings.

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