Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History

By Smith, Philippa K. | New Zealand Sociology, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History


Smith, Philippa K., New Zealand Sociology


Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow (eds.) (2012) Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History. Random House New Zealand.

Much has been written about New Zealand's increasing diversity, particularly since changes to immigration policy in the late 1980s opened the doors to migrants from a wider range of source countries. However it can also be argued that New Zealand's population has always been ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse - it is just that minority groups that have historically assimilated or integrated into society have been less visible. Jewish Lives in New Zealand: a History, edited by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, demonstrates the nation's hidden diversity when it comes to people with a Jewish heritage who have lived or are living in New Zealand.

This book spans New Zealand's history from the early days of European settlement through to contemporary contexts in surveying the social, cultural and political impact of Jewish people (never more than 0.5 percent of the total population) on the country. In fact the Jewish contribution is clearly diverse in itself and this is reflected in nine of the book's eleven chapters offering a 'who's who' of Jewish New Zealanders. These chapters are devoted specifically to music, art, literature, academia, education, business, medicine, journalism, and performing arts and food.

Contributors to the book, many of whom have Jewish connections themselves, include a number of academics such as Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University Paul Morris, Associate Professor in the Arts at the University of Waikato Sarah Shieff, historians Ann Beaglehole, Derek Dow, Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, as well as journalists and writers David Cohen Miriam Bell and Steven Sedley, and photographers Naomi Bell, Marti Friedlander and Stephen Robinson. The other two chapters of Jewish Lives divert from a focus on the professions to provide information relating to Judaism in New Zealand. Cheryl Pearl Sucher writes about New Zealand as the southern-most Jewish community in the world, while sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley details the pervasiveness of anti-semitism in reaching even this far away country that has inherently expressed pride in its race relations. These chapters provide important contextual information that detail the challenges past and present for one of New Zealand's lesser known minority groups.

Jewish Lives provides a comprehensive unveiling of significant Jewish men and women who have been influential in New Zealand society in many different ways. I use the term 'unveiling' because a person's Jewish identity is not necessarily observable or known. This is an important thread that weaves itself throughout the book in that it goes beyond featuring those who are religiously observant or belong to Jewish community groups, to encompass people who identify as Jewish in a less religious way or who are totally secular. One of the book's editors Leonard Bell refers to the "alternative and competing" Jewish identities that are possible in modern societies. Jewishness, he says, is a "matter of self-identification and choice, based on history, family, consciousness and culture". As a consequence Jewish Lives is far reaching in the range of people that it covers.

As a reviewer, selecting from the many hundreds of names in this book to demonstrate the wide spectrum of people who feature in Jewish Lives is problematic in that there are too many from which to choose and that any selection might be interpreted as elevating the contribution of some above others. Alternatively I recommend that readers embark on their own journey through the pages of Jewish Lives to learn about the vital roles that those New Zealand-born and immigrant Jews have had and are still having in society on both national and international levels. There is no doubt that some of the names that appear will come as a surprise to many - from the numerous Knights and Dames to those less acknowledged for their achievements in areas such as architecture, broadcasting, publishing, politics and film making. …

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