Growing up in Auckland, I knew I was a bit different.
Christmas wasn’t a big deal for me. My family didn’t have a Christmas tree and a wreath on our door, and 25 December was the most boring day of the year. Often, we would travel to a holiday destination on that day. Once, we excitedly discovered the movies were on, and had pretty much the entire theatre to ourselves.
Around Easter, my customary school lunchbox sandwiches got replaced with thin, dry tasteless crackers that my friends would ask to try, but only once.
On Sunday mornings, I begrudgingly went to a special school – listening to Bad Jelly the Witch on the radio as we carpooled there – where I learned a script we read from right to left. Sometimes I would use words I thought were part of every family’s lexicon, but when I was greeted with blank stares I realised they were Yiddish. When the subject of World War II came up, or what was happening in the world, I often sensed a raw and bitter pain in my grandmother.
Yes, I knew I was a bit different, but I was proud to be Jewish. My family, although not religious, was observant. I had a bat mitzvah (a coming-of-age ceremony) when I turned 13. Some of the highlights of the year for me were the Jewish festivals, when we took a day off school to attend synagogue and gather together with close family friends for a ceremonial dinner that included much rowdiness and hilarity.
The joke (Jews often use humour as a coping mechanism) is that most Jewish festivals can be summed up as, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” Actually, it does exemplify much of what it is to be Jewish: the almost overpowering weight of history and persecution that is embedded in our shared consciousness; our miraculous survival as an ancient people through to the modern era; our determination to look forward and celebrate life; and our fondness for family and food.
Indeed, my favourite festival was and still is Passover (Pesach). This is when we sit around the table and recall the Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt, leaving in such a hurry they didn’t have time to finish cooking their bread (which is why we eat the thin crackers, matza), and the start of their wandering towards redemption in the Promised Land.
The genesis of the Jews as a people is in the Levant, where Israel is today, in the second millennium BCE. In the land of Israel, around the first millennium BCE, they founded a sovereign state and built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Under successive occupations – Babylonians, Romans, Arabs and so on – they were forced into exile throughout the diaspora, but continued their practices, and preserved their heritage and coalescence as a people, yearning for the return to their ancestral homeland, “Zion”.
St Cuthbert’s, the Presbyterian school my sister and I attended in Auckland, was very respectful of our Judaism. We talked about our customs in assembly. We were likewise respectful. We went to Bible studies and learned about Jesus; we went to the carol services; we learned some te reo and about Māori myths and legends. It was just how things were as Kiwis. We never questioned it. It wasn’t conflicting or burdensome. We knew who we were, and that learning about and respecting the history, practices and predominant religion of the country we were lucky to be born into, did not change that.
I believe my experience is not unique. The New Zealand Jewish community began with the earliest European settlers. In 1876, Thomas Bracken, who penned the lyrics for New Zealand’s national anthem, wrote (under a pseudonym): “The Jews are a strange people. They are our fellow-countrymen, yet are not of us. They live under the same government, and enjoy the same rights and same privileges as we do, but they still remain a separate and distinct race. They are as useful and as loyal citizens as we are, and take as deep an interest in all things pertaining to the State as Christians do, but yet they preserve their nationality and guard their distinctive character as jealously as did their fathers of old. Other nations and races have been swallowed up in the whirlpool of time… but the children of Israel have preserved the blood of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob unadulterated to the present time.”
While this sentiment might be expressed today in more politically correct terms, it remains largely true of the community, which now numbers less than 7000, according to the 2013 census. In fact, in the introduction to the 2012 book Jewish Lives in New Zealand, Professor Leonard Bell noted that Jewish people have double lives, living both inside and outside the mainstream. “In a wide variety of ways,” he writes, “people of Jewish descent have had an impact on New Zealand society and culture out of all proportion to their numbers. This is most notable in politics (especially at regional and local levels), in commerce and business, the garment and fashion industries, medicine, law, journalism, academia and education, the arts (particularly music), architecture, photography and arts writing, as well as in film and entertainment.”
There have been three prime ministers of Jewish descent (Julius Vogel, Francis Bell and John Key), six Auckland mayors and two chief justices. The country’s first female lawyer and first female doctor were Jewish. Jewish families such as Myers, Nathan, Levene, Hallensteins, Fisher and Paykel became household names in New Zealand, through successful merchant and manufacturing businesses, and the philanthropy that often followed.
Like many of New Zealand’s earlier Jews, my forbears were mostly Russians who escaped the pogroms. My paternal grandmother, Dorothy Katz, was born in New Zealand, the daughter of a Russian-born but American-based rabbi who was posted to New Zealand. She was a freelance journalist, covering every royal tour from 1953 to 1990; interviewing the Beatles, Indira Gandhi and Jimmy Carter. She married my grandfather, Sidney Moses, a fifth-generation New Zealander who was, among other things, a champion road-racing motorcyclist and well-known businessman, overseeing the country’s transition to decimal currency. His brother Ken, for whom my father is named, is buried in Crete, where he was killed in action in 1941 at age 26. His gravestone there bears both the silver fern and the Star of David.
My maternal grandfather, Joe Paykel, was born in New Zealand. His father had emigrated from Russia to the United States and then on to New Zealand. On arrival, after sitting on his suitcase at the dock and crying at the desolation he saw, he set up a general store in Matakohe, before getting into the kauri gum trade. Joe met my grandmother, Eva Stern, when he was studying in the US. He persuaded her to move to New Zealand, where she continued her career as a concert pianist. My grandmother had escaped from the Russian pogroms as a toddler with her family, and my mother recently discovered records from her arrival at Ellis Island, the immigration centre in New York. They described her nationality as “Hebrew, Russian”.
A unique feature of Jewish life in New Zealand is the affinity Jews and Māori have enjoyed since pre-colonial times. My Paykel ancestors had a close relationship with Māori in Matakohe, who addressed them as “Mr and Mrs Jew”. Samuel Marsden and other missionaries noted parallels between Māori and Jews, drawing up a list of 38 of them, including language, customs and metaphysical concepts. Many Māori saw themselves as the lost tribe of Israel, sometimes calling themselves Jews or Israelites. In the 1860s, after Te Kooti Arikirangi’s tribe was dispossessed and exiled, it identified with the ancient Jews and saw the Old Testament as a plan of campaign against the colonialists, as Maurice Shadbolt told in his 1987 novel Season of the Jew.
When Sheree Trotter, a Māori friend, attended my first son’s bar mitzvah, she wrote an article for the New Zealand Herald on the similarities in services. Like a hui, there was a sense of formality offset by casualness as children came and went, the whaikōrero from elders, the songs, the reo (in this case Hebrew), the taonga (the Torah scrolls), the acknowledgment of whakapapa connections and the importance of tīpuna (ancestors). The Auckland University of Technology marae hosted a moving Holocaust service in January this year. Te reo experts have visited Israel to study the revival of ancient Hebrew as a vernacular language. Many Māori look to Israel as an inspiring example of the liberation and sovereignty of an indigenous people, acknowledging the connection to the land, from which all else is derived.
It is notoriously difficult to define Jewish identity. As the joke goes, ask two Jews and get three opinions, and this certainly holds true for our identity. Jews are usually defined as an ethno-religious group or nation, but different Jews experience and define their identity differently, and indeed perhaps this pomegranate-picking helps to explain our adaptability and resilience.
There are atheist Jews, and Jews who have converted to the religion but are not ethnically Jewish (in other words, their DNA will not share the genetic markers that most Jews have in common). Some Jews might call themselves social-cultural Jews, eating bagels and enjoying Seinfeld; others might describe themselves as secular, but believe that the Jewish canon and scholarly tradition prescribe values and guidance for life.
Fundamental to that ethos are “tzedaka” (charity), “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), social justice, philanthropy and communal involvement. When the Jews were first exiled from the land of Israel and sent into Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah instructed them to “seek the welfare of the city into which I have sent you as captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its welfare, you will find welfare.”
And so at every Shabbat service on a Saturday morning, we pray for the people of New Zealand and that we may “be equal to the high responsibility of citizenship, so that we may set forward the cause of love of fellowship and of social justice”.
This sense of community is, of course, what might be described as inward-focused as well as outward-looking. Non-Jewish friends who have attended Jewish events, including the bar mitzvahs of my sons, or got to know the community, have expressed envy at the warmth and closeness they sense, and I realise I took for granted the security and shared values this gave me growing up. We look out for and after one another. We have benevolent societies and many other communal organisations. My parents have been involved with both wider and Jewish community groups, as have my sister and I.
Also integral to Jewish identity, is a tradition – indeed, a requirement – of debate, analysis, questioning, doubting, scholarship and learning. Jews are sometimes called the “people of the Book”. My non-Jewish partner, from southern Presbyterian stock, remarked after one typically rowdy Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) dinner: “You know, when I grew up, we were taught that it’s rude to talk over the top of one another.” I replied that in my family it’s rude not to.
Lately, I’ve been thinking, talking and reading a lot about Jewish identity, and my understanding continues to evolve. Collectively, I believe our identity continues to evolve too, and is still reconciling with the idea and meaning of Jewish sovereignty and agency, after 2000 years of suffering without it.
For me, and many others, Israel is inseparable from and a focal point for our Jewish identity, both as the cradle of our civilisation, a spiritual heart, a sanctuary, a miraculous triumph over tragedy, and as a modern, thriving, dynamic homeland. With some exceptions, I would say New Zealand Jews are Zionist and often strongly so.
A Zionist believes in the Jews’ right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland; Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. As a modern movement, it arose out of the Enlightenment’s philosophy of self-determination and that power came from the people, not from a higher source; it was a secular rebellion against the idea that Jews had to wait for God to return them to the Promised Land. As a reality, it arose out of the ashes of the Holocaust and has provided a refuge, not just for Holocaust survivors, but for millions of other Jews escaping antisemitism and oppression, including Yemenites, Russians, Iraqis, Persians and Ethiopians. Zionism, nowadays a much misappropriated term, does not necessarily mean you are either right wing or left wing, that you support or oppose any particular Israeli governments or policies, that you are religious or secular, or that you don’t support the Palestinian right to self-determination. For my part, I do, and believe the only viable solution to this tragic conflict remains the peaceful coexistence of the Jewish state and a Palestinian state.
When I was 16, I had a Zionist awakening of sorts, when I began attending a youth group. At the end of school, I travelled to Israel for five weeks. I remember being struck with wonder that there was Hebrew signposting and there were Jewish bus drivers and shopkeepers, and every person I passed was more likely Jewish than not. I was bemused when I saw a bus load of Ethiopian Jews and realised Jews could have black skin. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I touched the Western Wall in Jerusalem and sang “Ha Tikvah” (Israel’s national anthem, “The Hope”) on a promenade overlooking Jerusalem’s spectacular panorama. I was happy when I danced in the clubs with handsome soldiers little older than me. And I was shocked when I realised the vulnerability of the tiny state, about one-13th the size of New Zealand, while standing at the borders looking into Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – something beyond my comprehension as a young Kiwi. I sensed that the threat of war and catastrophe, which was never far away in Israel, gave life a vulnerability and intensity and the people a ‘carpe diem’ attitude, but also a hardness, very different to life down at the bottom of the world, comfortably removed from existential threats.
Today, I wonder whether that comfort was misplaced. While it might be overstating it to say Jewish New Zealanders are facing an existential threat, the dark clouds of antisemitism are gathering around the world, and New Zealand is not immune. My family was lucky in that we did not lose any close relatives in the Holocaust, and I don’t have its trauma seared into my DNA like some of my friends do, but I still grew up in its shadow. And all Jews share a collective memory of persecution and suffering. I don’t recall experiencing any overt antisemitism growing up, and nor does my sister, but my children are regularly on the receiving end of “jokes” about showers and ovens. One has been told, “Hitler was a great man”; another that “Jews shouldn’t be allowed”.
They say antisemitism is a light sleeper. Sometimes I wonder if I grew up in the golden era of its slumber. Now, it is stirring, re-energised, as the forces of religious fanaticism, economic disruption, national populism and intersectionality (the alliance of oppressed identity groups) are unsettling the world, causing alliances to shift and values to be discarded or re-aligned. Jews are caught in the crosshairs, and it’s happening before the worldwide Jewish population has even been replenished to its pre-Holocaust number of 16.5 million.
Antisemitism mutates over time. Today, we face it not only from the extreme right, such as the Holocaust denial that social media is awash in, or the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in October last year in which 11 Jews were murdered, or more recently the Poway, California synagogue attack, leaving another Jew murdered. We face it from Islamists who have targeted and murdered Jews in France. And also from the extreme left. This ‘new form’ of antisemitism takes cover in the demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel. To be sure, criticism of Israeli policies and actions is not antisemitic. Israel should be subject to the same scrutiny and standards as every other country. However, it is not mere criticism to erase Jewish peoplehood and history in Israel, or to accuse Jews of ‘dual loyalty’, or to apply the same dehumanising tropes and conspiracy theories to the Jewish state or Zionists that were once applied to Jews – so that the Jewish state and its supporters, rather than individual Jews, are treated as being a uniquely evil controlling force, the source of all ills, whose elimination is necessary to save humanity.
All these forms of antisemitism have manifested in New Zealand, to varying degrees, in social media, leaflets, protests, speeches at mosques, graffiti, vandalism, and some verbal and physical abuse. In 2014, protesters marched down Queen St during the Gaza war, shouting, “Cut their fucking heads off,” and wielding an Israeli flag with a swastika replacing the Star of David. John Key’s election billboards were defaced with antisemitic imagery (his Austrian mother was a Jewish refugee). I wondered for the first time whether my children had a future in New Zealand – a profoundly disturbing thought. I resolved to do whatever I could to fight back. That’s why I am spokesperson for the New Zealand Jewish Council, and speak and write frequently about antisemitism.
The horrific terrorist attacks on the Christchurch mosques have indeed confirmed New Zealand is not immune to terrorism, as the Jewish community has feared for some time. Like all New Zealanders, we are devastated for the Muslim community, struck down at prayer in what should have been their sanctuary. In a stark reminder of the common hatred that Jews and Muslims face, the Poway synagogue gunman cited the Christchurch gunman as inspiration in his manifesto.
Our sense of vulnerability is heightened. Indeed, for the first time in our long and proud history in New Zealand, on police advice our synagogues were shut on the Sabbath immediately after the mosque attacks.
In 1943, as the Nazis were executing their abominable plan to exterminate Jews, my great-grandfather Rabbi Katz delivered a speech to the Wellington Jewish community on its centenary that included these words: “So we meet today… in thanksgiving to God, who directed the footsteps of our fathers to these blessed shores, where they found a haven of peace – a land of freedom, justice and opportunity, where barriers of race or religion do not exist, and a person was allowed to worship God and practice the dictates of their religion according to their own conscience.”
Having seen our fellow New Zealanders so cruelly deprived of their haven of peace in their house of worship, we now know how hard we must work to ensure those words continue to hold true.