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    Reflections over a lifetime

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2020, Vol. 24, Part 4.

    In this piece, I reflect on three different aspects of my life, presented here as separate pieces. The first is a book review of Goodbye Christopher Robin by Ann Thwaite, where I reflect on the impact of Christopher Robin on me as a boy. The second is an historical piece as I reflect back on the development of Catholic-Jewish relations during my time in Sydney and involvement in the re-establishment of the New South Wales Council of Christians and Jews. The third is an analysis of my writing career over my lifetime.

    I was a good little boy

    Goodbye Christopher Robin by Ann Thwaite (Pan Books, 2017) had a personal impact on me. Nice little boys like me were modelled on AA Milne’s stories and verses about Christopher Robin. Piglet, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo were our companions. I was Christopher Robin: we all were. How we managed without a nanny I don’t know. Being brought up in Australia we had a sense of being distant deprived colonials. We had to just imagine Harrods and the two little princesses.

    There were two worlds for anglicised Australian Jewish children like me. One was Christopher Robin; the other, which (tragically) hardly impinged on our consciousness, was the one and a half million Jewish children who were destroyed in the Holocaust. Yet, we were so far away geographically and culturally that it was not until maybe the 1950s that the grave reality of the Holocaust confronted us. Until then it was something terrible from which we were protected by distance. I have to admit it. The Anglo-Jewish Christopher Robins in far-off Australia were not torn apart by fear for families in continental Europe.

    We did not even fully comprehend what the Christopher Robin stories and poems were really about. To us they were a mere photograph of the quaint way of life of the centre of the Empire. Christopher Robin was a real person. Tuckbox-loving[1] Billy Bunter and the irrepressible Laurel and Hardy were the real world. We did not realise that the writings of AA Milne had a strong element of social critique, that Milne was not only depicting and shaping the mores of the time but laughing at them as well.

    Christopher Robin was based on Milne’s own son. The author’s stories and verses bring to life the little child’s conversations with his toys. The toys have all sorts of adventures where Christopher Robin is the authoritative grown-up. The drawings of EH Shepard make the cast of characters memorable. The writer was a serious author but once he started with Christopher Robin he had to keep the stories going – not that they failed to help his bank account as well. It all seriously embarrassed the real Christopher Robin.

    My own childhood evokes thoughts of a culture that felt as if all that really mattered was happening in England – Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton as well as AA Milne. How we reacted to the dangers and difficulties of wartime Britain is another story. When I ceased being a little boy, the discovery included the harsh reality of the Sho’ah (Holocaust) and the shock that brave Britain was so unsupportive of the yishuv [pre-State Israel] after the establishment of the British mandate and similarly of the new State of Israel.


    Catholic-Jewish relations in Australia – a personal memoir

    Few documents have produced so much discussion as the Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate declaration on the Jews. It is the leading Roman Catholic statement on Catholic-Jewish relations. A considerable volume of analysis of such documents emanated from me before, during and after my incumbency at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. At times I was consulted behind the scenes by Roman Catholic leaders and some notice was taken of my suggestions, including how to finesse the nuances.

    The story involves two farewells. The first was in Melbourne in early 1958, when a function at the Toorak Road Synagogue hall marked my departure for study in London. In England I gained rabbinic ordination, a wife and children, and I started my pulpit career there, before returning to Australia in late 1972. The second farewell was in 2005 in Sydney, when the Great Synagogue gave me a reception on my retirement. Both functions had Catholic symbolism. In 1958 a Catholic lady who worked in the Jewish Education Board office felt unable to enter a synagogue because she felt it would infringe Church doctrine. In 2005 the synagogue function was attended by three cardinals; no one thought it strange, not even the cardinals.

    The change was mostly due to Nostra Aetate. Australia had a history of Christian sectarian warfare, with Jews as rather bemused onlookers. Our school playground echoed anti-Catholic slogans. In our street, Protestants were hesitant to be friends with Catholics. I do not remember much antisemitism, though I was shocked to learn that (with the possible exception of Archbishop Mannix) the Australian Catholic hierarchy could not weep for Jewish suffering in the Sho’ah [the Holocaust] but blamed the victims. The Church picked the worst possible time to be cold towards the Jews. By 1988 when I joined the Religious Advisory Committee to the Armed Services the climate had changed. Geoffrey Mayne, the Catholic bishop to the forces, was a good friend, and whenever I came to Canberra I brought him a box of matzah. He also said that he wanted me to speak at his funeral; I kept saying, “Geoff, what’s the hurry?” In the end the funeral was on Erev Rosh HaShanah and I sent a tribute to be read on my behalf.

    Cardinal James Freeman attended my induction at the Great Synagogue in early 1973, though some rabbis criticised him for wearing his crucifix. I met the cardinal many times and appreciated his warmth and good sense. He told me he used to come to Flood Street, Bondi, where Chabad had its headquarters, when he visited his sister on Saturdays. In 1973 when a group of us tried to establish a Council of Christians and Jews in Sydney, the cardinal was on side. His Anglican counterpart was reserved, so we changed the plan for the time being, and set up a Christian-Jewish Luncheon Club which met at the Great Synagogue every two months. By this point, Catholic-Jewish cordiality was axiomatic. In Rome the Vatican was constantly refining its policies towards the Jewish people, producing a series of additional documents, often consulting Jewish views. In Australia we welcomed the new documents with considerable pleasure despite our occasional criticisms.

    There was no formal interfaith dialogue structure yet. Some Orthodox rabbis objected to the involvement of liberal rabbis and to a lay body (the Executive Council of Australian Jewry) being the conduit. Further, there were doubts about theological dialogue; the Lubavitcher Rebbe had said that the priority was “inner faith”, not “inter-faith”. Eventually a private meeting of Jews and Catholics took place at the home of Dr Joachim Schneeweiss, the then head of the ECAJ, with the attendance of both Orthodox and liberal rabbis. I was one of the Orthodox participants. It was clear that the Catholic Church genuinely desired repentance and friendship, whilst realising that none of us could get completely inside the head of the other. When news of the “secret” meeting got out, the Orthodox attendees were criticised but did not resile.

    The Catholic Church in Australia realised that amity between Catholics and Jews would not reach grass roots level without the help of clergy and teachers. Though many priests were set in their ways, others needed a positive view of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. Sisters Joan Nolan and Verna Holyhead of the Good Samaritan College initiated a post-graduate course in Judaism and asked my wife Marian to conduct the course, which she did for ten years. She not only taught numbers of Catholic teachers but brought her students to synagogue services and invited them to Shabbat dinner at our home. Some of the students asked us for our views on internal Catholic issues such as women’s role in the Church. So warm were the bonds that for many years, any Catholic teacher I met asked me, ‘How is Marian?’ The course eventually moved to the Australian Catholic University.

    The Sisters of Sion had a major role in the emergent dialogue; they administered the Council of Christians and Jews, they attended Jewish study classes, and they became family, especially Lenore Sharry, Shirley Sedawie and Marianne Dacy. When Lenore died, CCJ planted a tree in her memory outside St Mary’s Cathedral and I spoke about her. Since I lived nearby, I often visited her tree and thought of her.

    The Great Synagogue’s synagogue and museum tours had a constant stream of visitors including groups from Catholic schools; for most it was their first time in a synagogue. They usually came with reasonable questions but we were taken aback when they asked, “What happens at a Jewish Mass?” We had to explain that each faith has its distinctive tenets and practices which can only be understood on their own terms. In time the Sydney and Melbourne Jewish museums attracted large numbers of Catholic visitors, who had not usually realised beforehand the extent of their ignorance about Judaism or known that Jesus was a Jew.

    There was Jewish (and Catholic) debate about the wartime pope, Pius XII. Everyone knew he preached human rights and made at least a token attempt to save some of European Jewry; Jews thought he was morally weak and lacked courage and feeling for the victims. He seemed to see Nazism as a punishment for Jewish “blindness”. In 1998 the Vatican issued a paper entitled “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”, which admitted that the Church bore a “heavy burden of conscience” and many Christians “were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest”. As well, it stressed that Catholics “deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church”.

    Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Australian head of the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said the document was an apology and an expression of contrition. He added, however, that Pius XII “does not have a case to answer”. Controversially, the Vatican document stated that the roots of the Holocaust were outside Christianity in “a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime”. I told the media that the document seemed “to whitewash Christianity”, a point I made in remarks at a symposium held by Christian and Jewish groups at the Wesley Centre. The main speaker was Cardinal Cassidy; the chairman was the Governor-General, Sir William Deane; the Jewish respondents were Professor Colin Tatz and myself. Holocaust survivors headed by Marika Weinberger told the media that the document did not say enough and seemed to want to deflect responsibility.

    Proceeding with this personal account, I now come to the 1986 visit of Pope John Paul II. The pope asked for a meeting with Jewish leaders which took place in the presbytery of St Mary’s Cathedral. The ECAJ president, Leslie Caplan, gave a measured speech of welcome to the pope. The response, drafted by the Australian bishops, was unremitting in its condemnation of antisemitism and admitted that Christianity bore a major share of responsibility for anti-Jewish attitudes. Privately informed beforehand of the tenor of the speech, I urged the inclusion of a positive reference to Israel, though my advice was not accepted. After the meeting I spent most of the day with the media, who wondered why the pope had not mentioned Israel. I responded that the previous day in Canberra the Israeli ambassador had told the pope at a welcome reception, “I bring you the greetings of the President and people of the State of Israel”, and the pope had replied, “Give my greetings to the President and people of the State of Israel” – a hint of the formal recognition of Israel that was bound to come, eventuating in 1993 when the Vatican and Israel agreed to exchange ambassadors.

    John Paul II had actually said in 1948, long before he was a cardinal or pope, “To the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel and sustain on its soil the great value embodied in its history and faith, we wish the longed-for peace and deserved tranquility”. As pope he became the world’s moral leader, though he had issues with modernity and preferred positions from the past. His activities during the Sho’ah in Poland as a young man brought him respect from many of the Jews from Poland who had settled in Australia. He visited Australia a second time for the beatification of Sister Mary McKillop. I was on the organising team because of the support an Adelaide Jew, Emanuel Solomon, with whom I have family connections, gave to Sister Mary McKillop during a very difficult period of her life.

    I constantly found myself witness to and often a participant in the historic stages whereby Australian Jews built good relationships with Catholics. We appreciated the candour of the Catholic leaders. This applied particularly to the formal meetings of ECAJ delegations and the Australian Catholic bishops, starting in 1998. Bishop Michael Putney of Brisbane told us, “How sorry I am that so many Catholics let you down so badly in your time of greatest need”. Looking at social, ethical and even political problems, we discovered many spiritual commonalities. An example is a discussion in 1999 about the approaching millennium. We did not agree on everything, but the walls of distrust were gone, as was the tendency to believe the worst about each other. We could now speak up when we felt particularly upset, and sometimes the bishops even voiced misgivings at Vatican policies and positions. John Paul II said in a 1994 encyclical that the Church was now able to examine its conscience and own up to times “when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel”.

    1992 saw a landmark document on Catholic-Jewish relations drawn up by the Australian Catholic bishops with some Jewish input from me and others. Launched by Bishop Bede Heather, this document was an Australian Nostra Aetate. Its nuancing of Jewish concerns reflected our years of growing understanding. The document placed Australia ahead of most countries in Catholic-Jewish harmony.

    One finds similar language used by every Catholic spokesman, ranging from Father James Scullion who told us at Dr Joachim Schneeweiss’ home that the Church had “irreversibly changed” (especially in its missionary targeting of Jews) to Cardinal Cassidy, who told the Wesley Centre meeting in 1999 that there was now “a radically different relationship between Catholics and Jews” (particularly in relation to the deicide charge). “Irreversible” and “radically different” are highly important terms. Catholics deserve credit for the courage to say them, though they could have saved countless lives if in earlier times they had shown respect for difference and dampened hostility. We acknowledged the Church’s genuine friendship, even when the Sydney Morning Herald headlined a report, “Despite coming closer, Catholics and Jews have old wounds to heal”. I would rather the Herald did not talk about wounds, but the new mentality was better than the old, as we saw at a dinner after the Wesley Centre meeting, when as friends we conversed openly and informally.

    The main Jewish problems with Christianity were deicide and proselytisation. Both have been honestly re-addressed by the Catholics (if only the other Christians would follow suit!). Additionally we wanted the establishment of Israel to be seen by the Churches as a seminal event of modern history. Several Catholic bishops assured us that the Vatican knew that the Arab-Israeli conflict was complex and would not be solved without “a spirit of peace”. Not that this removes the question of whether Israel and the Jewish people can be measured only in theological terms. Many Christians think there is a distinction between Judaism as theology and Jewishness as ethnicity. For Jews, the two belong to each other: in Eugene Borowitz’s words, “folk and faith, community and covenant, people and pledge”.

    When the Vatican speaks, Catholics sit up and listen even when they grumble. The Catholic Church is committed to all faiths working together to face global issues and benefit all mankind. Kol HaKavod [lit. all the respect/honour, meaning well done], but there is still much to do. I do not wish to over-estimate my own part in these developments, but if I were a card-player I would have said, “These are the cards I was dealt, and I had to handle them”.


    “Still scribbling, Mr Gibbon?”
    Reflections on being an Australian Jewish historian

    Genesis – the beginning

    My Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) career began in August 1954 during my student years when Rabbi Lazarus Morris Goldman involved me in the formation of the Victorian branch. I was on the committee, and for a while the secretary, and even gave lectures (of limited quality) to the branch. Goldman was friendly with David Benjamin of Sydney, a stalwart of the parent body, and I gained ideas about historical research and writing from them both. Though not professionals in the historical field, both were good historians, able to balance detail with analysis, but both died before they could produce an overall history of Australian Jewry. Since their time much more research has been done, enabling Suzanne Rutland and Hilary Rubinstein to produce better works than they could. At that stage I was more of an antiquarian than an historian and my colourful discoveries were not really serious history.

    Exodus – going overseas

    When I went to Britain, I had Australian historical leads (including looking for Coleman Hyman’s papers) to follow up for Sydney Glass, secretary of our Society, but to no avail. I wrote historical studies of some London synagogues and lectured to the august Jewish Historical Society of England. Because I was becoming an Englishman, my Australian historical interests were now overtaken by Anglo-Jewish history, and Minhag Anglia (Anglo-Judaism) was flourishing. Cecil Roth and Israel Finestein were peak Anglo-Jewish historians; both were kind to newcomers. Toddy Simons, who knew history by heart, urged the United Synagogue to commission me to write their centenary book. I even went to the USA to research Adleriana[2] at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

    Leviticus – rabbinic life

    I combined studies at Jews’ College with youth work, teaching, and then marriage. I entered the ministry and spent five years at Bayswater Synagogue and seven and a half at Hampstead Synagogue. I expected to stay in Britain, but I moved to the Great Synagogue in Sydney and remained there for 32 years. In Anglo-Jewry I was involved in everything and found my historical competence maturing. I wrote a book on the British rabbi and his synagogue, although it is still in manuscript form because publishers need subsidies. Writing always came easily to me – that is, putting ideas into words, and words into sentences. Writing in the technical sense of forming letters into words was a different matter. My handwriting was small and cramped and has further deteriorated.

    When I look at old sermons, speeches, lectures and lesson notes I can’t make out the writing, which is why I find word processing on the computer a great boon. I am still constantly writing, especially my weekly OzTorah.[3] It is said that Edward Gibbon lugged his Roman histories up the stairs to the royal reading room to be met by the king with the greeting, “Still scribbling, Mr Gibbon, still scribbling?” Yes, Your Majesty, Mr Gibbon was still scribbling … and so am I: academic essays, popular pieces, books.

    Numbers – many tasks

    I worked in a host of fields in Sydney, especially as bridge-builder and communicator. I constantly tried to build bridges between ideologies, between Jews, and with the general community. I tried to be a good ambassador for Jews and Judaism, including recording the Jewish and Australian past in order to envision the future. I became a Masonic historian, I held office as AJHS president, and wrote some research papers but never had time to concentrate on the painstaking work of a real historian, although I did write a history of the Great Synagogue. George Bergman, Morris Forbes, Louise Rosenberg, Rabbi Dr Israel Porush and Rabbi Dr John Levi were the great names in the AJHS in those years.

    Deuteronomy – a retrospect

    On retirement I moved to Israel, taking with me the raw material for more Australian Jewish historical research, which still proceeds together with long-envisioned work on the Bible. At last I have time to be a scholar of sorts, grateful for the assistance of friends in Australia who do the on-site investigation which I need for the studies I write. At last I also have the clear mind to think through the philosophy of Australian Jewish historical research and to formulate the principles of my own work in the field.

    Australia has emerged from the wings and taken full stage in the modern Jewish world. The historian has to document the change and analyse its causes, largely the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, the two seminal events of the last century. Their impact on Australia not only transformed Australian Jewry demographically but matured and diversified the community and complicated the life of the historian. No longer can the historian be satisfied to ask whether someone had a mistress or what happened to the Magen David from the Maitland Synagogue. Now we need to follow the sweep of movements and events, and to see if we can find an Australian prehistory: for example, Zionism and territorialism, Chassidism and Reform, antisemitism and ecumenism, Yiddish and Hebrew. We need to ask, was there adequate Jewish leadership prior to the 1940s? Did the community have any intellectuals … or only card players? Was Jewish education threadbare, were the rabbis effective, was there a Jewish vote? Suzanne Rutland has led the investigation into many of these themes.

    I have not limited my historical research and writing to any one aspect of the subject. However, my emphasis as an historian has certainly been on the religious dimension – rabbis, rituals, synagogues, scholars and teachers. My motivation is not the simple wish to promote my own area of Jewish life, but to make a statement, that the central dimension of Jewishness is Torah, in whatever way Torah is understood and interpreted. I am not saying that rabbis should rule the roost or that Jewish peoplehood is unimportant, but that historically it is in religion that Jews have shown their Jewishness and it is through religion that Jews have a purpose and destiny.

    Even more, as Cecil Roth stressed, it is through religious impulses that Jewishness has the task, the will and the way to raise the quality of its environment. Individual Jews have made remarkable contributions to the Australian nation, and some have struck it rich in doing so, but deep down it is Jewish religious ideas such as education, humanitarianism, the dignity of the individual the oneness of the world and the commitment to the future that have been (in Roth’s words) “the ultimate excellence” of the Jewish community.

    What this implies is that Australian Jewish historians are not mere antiquarians, uncovering the picturesque and producing what Israel Zangwill calls “pages filled with coloured pictures”. Nor are they mere historiographers, recording facts (or claiming to) dispassionately, scientifically, academically. They could not be that kind of historian; nor could anyone else. Historians can never disengage from their bundle of opinions and prejudices. Even without realising it, they tell history with a slant.

    Yet, Jewish historians are open about their prejudices. They are Jews who believe in Jewishness. They cannot “do” history (Roth’s phrase) without even the least thrill at belonging to such an interesting people. There is a liturgical element to the historian’s craft. Australian Jewish historians wants to say something – that it is good, despite all the challenges, the antisemitism and the drawbacks, to be Jewish, that they want Judaism to survive and flourish in Australia, and that the way to be a good Australian Jew is to be good as a Jew and good as an Australian. I cannot promise that every Australian Jewish historian is in that mould, but I am. For evidence, look at the range of my contributions to the AJHS Journal.

    1. The Australian equivalent is tuckerbox.
    2. The careers and family connections of Chief Rabbis Nathan Marcus Adler and Hermann Adler.
    3. OzTorah is a weekly email service and website exploring the timeless teachings of Jewish tradition from a contemporary Australian and global perspective: https://oztorah.com

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