Australian Jewry and The AJN: a 120-year journey

December 25, 2016

Written by Karen Klein, Author of The Australian Jewish News 120 Years: the people and events making the headlines.

Producing a book to celebrate 120 years of The Australian Jewish News was my dream project. But where would I start? What would it contain? How would it look?

The impressive coffee-table book Pages of History published for The Australian Jewish News (AJN) centenary in 1995 primarily covered the paper’s illustrious history, though there was also plenty of information about Australian Jewry. Which makes sense, as the two are inextricably intertwined: the news of Australian Jews is the news of the paper.

Members of the Haskin family standing outside their garment manufacturing business in Fitzroy in 1918. The family arrived in Australia 18 years earlier from Rishon LeZion in Palestine.

Much has happened in the 20 intervening years, but rather than continue the Pages of History story, we decided to go in a different direction for The Australian Jewish News 120: 120 years: the people and events making the headlines. Our aim was twofold: to showcase key newsmakers and events for Australian Jewry over 120 years and to reflect their reportage in The AJN and its predecessors.

This publication is photo heavy, not because we were short of eloquent wordage, but because we recognise that strong imagery can tell the story equally as well, sometimes even better. But first and foremost we’re a newspaper and words are our stock-in-trade, so there had to be plenty to read too.

AJAX Junior Football Club U12s team, celebrating its premiership win in 2011, is one of many junior sporting sides that Maccabi Australia fields across the country. Photo: Peter Haskin.

Of course producing a book of this type presented different challenges all along the way. Having decided on the style, I commissioned essays on key themes from the experts. We started with 12 subjects – one for each century – but quickly discovered we had to widen the net. The list kept growing until we finally stopped at 38. And we still didn’t manage to cover everything.

You would be forgiven for assuming that the recovery of material – especially when it’s been published in the pages of The AJN – would be a relatively simple exercise. Wrong. Newspapers are notorious for poor record keeping and archiving.

Communal leaders and other members of the community rallying for Soviet Jewry outside the Soviet Consulate in the early 1980s. Russian immigration to Australia peaked in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s.

The same is true for organisations and businesses, which are typically focused on day-to-day operations rather than on preserving their past – apart from museums of course. Up until 15 years ago when The AJN began digitising each edition, we had to do everything manually; sift through photos in overflowing filing cabinets and locate stories by scrolling through index cards and perusing bound copies.

Regrettably the cards and many of our historical photographs had disappeared; casualties, we suspect, of several company office relocations over the years. Bottom line? We utilised what we did have and relied on a host of helpful members of the Jewish and wider communities for additional material.

Co-chair of Reconciliation Australia Mark Leibler celebrating 2008 Reconciliation Week with members of the Neminuwarlin Dance Group for the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Photo: James Braund

Another major challenge concerned what made the cut, the same dilemma faced by our newspaper editor every week. There were some obvious omissions, but with good reason. There’s no section on prominent Australian Jews, though we debated the inclusion criteria ad nauseum. In the end we agreed not to go there as we boast so many achievers, so many deserving names – and so much risk of causing offence by exclusion. Ditto a section on community leadership. Again, the repercussions of omission loomed too great, so we contained both subjects in one chapter on the undisputed three giants in Australian Jewish history: Sir John Monash, Sir Isaacs Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen.

Enough about what wasn’t included. Plenty made the cut: from immigration to the arts; from Israel and Zionism to food; from media to fashion; from education to sport. And so much more. The Australian Jewish News: 120 years journey was demanding and overwhelming, but at the same time illuminating and rewarding. As all undertakings of this magnitude, it was a collaborative effort and would not have been possible without the guidance of historian Suzanne Rutland, a living encyclopedia of Australian Jewish history, and The AJN’s former editor-in-chief Sam Lipski, a constant source of knowledge and wisdom.

The companion exhibition at the Jewish Museum (until August 10) provides a snapshot of the book, celebrating 120 newsworthy years in the life of Australian Jewry.

Teacher Elisheva Hildesheimer reading to young children in 1943 at Australia’s first day school, North Bondi Jewish Kindergarten and Day School, which opened the previous year and later renamed Moriah College. Photo: courtesy Moriah College Archives.