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New Zealand's Jewish achievers


A new book examines the positive impact of Jewish people in New Zealand

Three New Zealand prime ministers have been Jews.

So have two chief justices, six Auckland mayors, the country's first female lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, and first woman doctor, Emily Siedeberg, who enrolled at Otago University in 1891 with the consent of dean John Scott who told her to give "no encouragement for frivolity".

The record of achievement from a small community rolls on: in education, the law, arts, business, medicine, civic affairs, philanthropy, architecture and film.

"Punching well above their weight" was the late writer Michael King's observation about the Jewish community in New Zealand. Art historian Len Bell, co-editor of a handsome, richly illustrated new history of Jews in New Zealand, firmly agrees. The impact, says Bell, of the smart, often secular mid-century professional migrants, displaced by the rise of Nazi Germany, has been vast.

He says many were motivated to succeed, encouraged by family, education and tradition, driven to high levels of accomplishment. So, with the help of author and historian Diana Morrow, Bell set out to collect in one place the achievements and works of Jewish people in New Zealand.
  
The sweep is broad, from the pioneering writer Joel Polack, who by 1840 had written three books about the country and Maori customs, to the successful businesswoman and Top Model judge Sara Tetro.

There have been previous books about Jewish communities and practices, but none, says Bell, that observed Jewish life in a broader New Zealand context. Together the editors enlisted nine other contributors to identify people of Jewish descent who have made an impact on this country's life, culture and economy.

Bell says they did not set out to be exhaustive and expects a few howls of protest from some excluded at the expense of those who made the cut.

And he made no concession to religious observance. The book includes many who practise Judaism, and many who do not.

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