The Hobart Synagogue is Australia’s oldest. It was not always thus: Australia’s first Jews arrived in Sydney – involuntarily – on the First Fleet and built a synagogue well before the Hobart structure arose in Argyle Street. Fortunately (for Hobart) the Sydney Synagogue burned down.
For one year, my wife and I worshipped regularly at the Hobart Synagogue. Ten males over the age of thirteen are needed for a quorum for public prayer in Judaism. Such a group is a minyan, from the Hebrew word for counting. In 1970 we were a small minyan – we counted just four – my bride Annette, Mr. Fixel, Mr. Lewis and Mister me.
In its heyday in the 1890’s the Hobart Jewish Community numbered fifteen hundred souls. They were as numerous as the community in Melbourne. By 1970 no Jew of my generation had married Jewish and remained in Hobart: if a person had married a Jew they had left Hobart and moved elsewhere to do so. Annette and I arrived to join the last Jews in Hobart. Or so we thought. But Russian Jews and South African Jews arrived after left and the community has never quite completed its dying.
I conducted the services. Mister Fixel was Viennese. He arrived punctually and sat erect, his polished brown scalp and his wide brown face shining in attention. His pronunciation of Hebrew was like my own, a relic of the Germanic, which was distinctive, archaic, and until then -for me – an embarrassing secret. Mr Fixel himself was a relic, elderly, childless, a survivor. His manner was indelibly courteous and sweet and grave. His sister Heide had survived and lived together with him and Mrs Fixel, whose first name was never pronounced in our hearing. Mrs. Fixel was petite and had fine features and singing Viennese-accented speech. Heide, round faced, brown faced like her brother, moved in her orbit around him, ostensibly serene, a silent satellite.
Annette believed the Fixels had lost children in the Shoah. They lived in Macquarie Street, just over the fence from us, near the lower slopes of Mount Wellington.
Mr Lewis interrupted his Sabbath rest in order to join us and resumed it promptly on arrival. Small, stocky, older than the Fixels (who must have been in their late fifties), Mr Lewis wore a large hearing aid. He’d arrive, sit down and get back to business. He’d snore while I sang. I recall my singing never disturbed his audible rest.
There existed a scattering of Jews, totaling about thirty, who had other business to attend to on a Saturday morning. One of these was the president, Clive Epstein, a bookmaker. Clive was old too, a pillar of the congregation, one of those pillars that function at a remove. He was tall, broad, vigorous and ancient. Whatever Clive said was law and whatever he said, he said in a loud ocker-accented voice. His nose was large, curved and red and he bore his vivid Australianness like a badge of office. His was the authentic voice of Australian Jewishness, the voice of legitimate authority. Lesser Jews, European Jews, quivered and subsided before the Traditional Owner.
We left Hobart after one happy year, left the Fixels quietly lamenting in their dignified way. Mr. Fixel’s face shone with a smile of grief, the smile he wore always, the smile that faced a world in which his future had been taken away.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 March, 2013