25 July 2007

Australia: Jewish convicts and ghosts

Convicts and ghosts: Early Australian Jews were a colorful lot.

In August 2004, I wrote an "It's All Relative" column on this subject for the Metro weekly of the Jerusalem Post, after meeting then 90-year-old Louise Rosenberg of Sydney at the 2004 International Conference on Jewish Genealogy held in Jerusalem that summer.

On January 26, 1788, 15 adult Jews and a baby arrived in Australia on the First Fleet of convicts transported from England.

The stories of some of those Jews, those who followed and their descendants are included in Of Folktales and Jewish Folk in Australian History, by Louise Rosenberg of Sydney. The book details aspects of both early and contemporary Jewish life and, as befits an author deeply immersed in genealogy, aims to preserve traditions and history for future generations.

It's well worth the search for this book; information on obtaining a copy is below.

In 1974, Victoria's Rabbi John Simon Levi and Dr. G. Bergman of New South Wales identified 10 Jews, including the baby Rosanne (born in Newgate prison to Esther Abrahams. Researchers at the Australian Jewish Historical Society identified another 12 Jews, and Rabbi Levi estimated that 463 people, who could be identified as Jewish, came to Australia in the first four decades of European settlement, including 384 convicts, 52 free settlers and 27 children.

"What became of the First Fleet's Esther Abrahams and her baby Rosanna and of Esther's seven children with Scottish-born Lt. George Johnstone? Her son Robert became the first Australian-born officer of the Royal Navy and a renowned explorer. The Sydney suburb of Annandale took its name from a land grant to Johnston in 1793. The farm, with Esther in charge, provided meat and produce during the settlement's early years.

OF some 1,000 Jews arriving in Australia among 146,000 convicts transported 1788-1852, few were convicted of violent crimes. Most, say scholars, were Sephardi rather than Ashkenazi, and some believe that the petty crimes with which they were charged were part of a deliberate plan to leave England, an opportunity for a new life.

Among early Jewish convicts were Sarah Burdo, Rebecca Davidson, Henry Abrams, Daniel Daniels, Aaron Davis, Sarah Davis, David Jacobs, John Jacobs, Thomas Josephs, Isaac Lemon, Amelia Levy, Joseph Levy. Jacob Messiah and Joseph Tuso. Daniels may have been a Hebrew scholar. A 1789 letter found in Gloucester, 100 miles west of London, refers to the nephew of Ephraim Daniel of Mile-End who 'has leave to teach the children of some of your nation to read and write Hebrew.'"

Joseph Levy was the first Jew to be buried in Australia, dying three months after arriving, followed by Simon Bocerah in July 1791, and by 1817, when 30-40 Jews were resident, the Hevra Kadisha (burial society) was founded in Woollahra.

Joseph Samuel, the man they couldn't hang, was convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang September 26, 1803. The first attempt, as did the second and third tries, ended in a broken rope. "It would seem there has been Divine Intervention," said the governor and granted a reprieve. The ropes were tested; each supported nearly 400 pounds without breaking.

Genealogist and author Rabbi Shmuel Gorr visited Sydney some 174 years later and calculated the Hebrew date as Yom Kippur 5564.

Philip Joseph Cohen arrived in May 1828 to perform Jewish marriages, and brought a chumash, inscribed with centuries of his family's genealogy. Today it is in the Great Synagogue's Rosenblum Museum.

Among colorful personalities were:

Barnett Levey, the first free Jewish male to arrive in 1821, became a successful businessman, shipbroker, storekeeper and ship owner, encouraged migration of free settlers, and built the first theater in Sydney.

Israel Chapman, the colony's first police detective, was appointed in 1827. His adventures were featured in the Sydney Gazette and The Australian.

Edward Davis, 18, arrived in 1833 and became leader of a gang of Jewish bushrangers (robbers) north of Sydney. Captured in December 1840, he was hanged and buried in a corner of the Jewish Devonshire Street cemetery.

Isaac Nathan, called the "father of Australian music," arrived in 1841 with his own piano, having set to music Lord Byron's "Hebrew Melodies." Nathan, born in 1790, was the eldest child of Cantor Menahem Mona, who believed he was the illegitimate child of Stanislaus Poniatowski, the last Polish King.

The Sephardi Montefiore family went to the West Indies and to New South Wales (in 1828), headed by Joseph Barrow Montefiore. In Adelaide, graphic artist E.L. Montefiore established the first circulating public library and the Adelaide Art Galley in 1844.

Rosenberg's book also highlights early Jewish women: kindergarten education pioneers Lillian Daphne de Lissa and Zoe Benjamin as well as Gladys Marks, the first woman lecturer at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Arts and the first female professor in Australia (1929).

In 1830, Rabbi Aaron Levy of the London Beth Din, arrived in Sydney, sent by London's chief rabbi to find the husband of an Englishwoman who required a get. Levy brought the first sefer Torah and prayerbooks, located the missing husband and stayed for four months.

In the early community, according to Rosenberg, there was one woman to seven men, with frequent intermarriage. The leadership declared that children of a mixed marriage would be regarded as Jews, a tradition also followed among Caribbean Sephardim. However, Levy's arrival meant that, after 1833, this would cease; the mother must be Jewish for the children to be recognized.

A fascinating contemporary woman is Nanette Green, whose search for her biological father Issachar Weingott led to her intense connection to Judaism. Although never converting, she continued learning and lecturing on the Jewish experience, and served as president of a synagogue steering committee in 1997. A pharmacist, she founded many cultural companies in a rural city.

Along with the living, came a few ghosts:

Joseph Levy, 20, arrived in August 1820, married a non-Jew in 1832. His daughter Rebecca, born 1833, married Maurice Solomon in 1853 and died in 1930, at 97. Her descendants and those of her brother are counted among today's Jewish community. Joseph died September 25, 1862. Within a month, strange noises were heard on Friday nights at the Victoria Inn, Berrima. On July 9, 1967, the Sydney Daily Telegraph wrote about the ghost, "Is the ghost looking for a minyan?"

Says Rosenberg, another spirit was industrial pioneer Abraham Davis, who arrived from Poland in 1857. He was one of Melbourne's Jewish pearl buyers in northwest coastal Broome. While returning to his sheep station, he was caught on a boat during a March 1912 cyclone; the ship sank with 138 passengers and crew. Abraham had carried a number of pearls, including a priceless one, with the legend that it was cursed and would bring tragedy to its owner.

His Broome home was sold in 1914 to became the home of Anglican Bishop Gerard Trower, who relates Rosenberg, was the first to see the spirit, a tall, handsome, bearded Jew wrapped in a tallit, carrying a prayer book. In 1957, after the building was demolished and an apartment building was built there, the ghost disappeared. Rosenberg believes Davis' ghost was his annoyance that his home was used by a Christian clergyman.

Here's the information for the book. It is a great read.

Of Folktales and Jewish Folk in Australian History, Louise Rosenberg. (Printworthy, 2004). About AU$35. Available through www.printworthy.info.


  1. Very interesting reading. I am interested in your comment on Joseph Tuso being Jewish. Could you please tell me how you know this. Joseph was a First Fleeter convict
    Regards Marleey

  2. Hello, Marleey.
    Thank you for writing to Tracing the Tribe.

    You may want to contact the publisher of Rosenberg's "Convicts and Ghosts."

    There has been much research on the Jewish convicts among the First Fleeters. Other options might be the Jewish Genealogical Society in Sydney, the Jewish Museum in Sydney, etc.

    I do not have access to the original research, but the Australian researchers certainly have the information.

    With best wishes,


  3. Anonymous6:22 AM

    Mavis said, I am a direct descendnat of Joseph Tuso/Tuzo First Fleeter. I know he is acknowledged as one of the Jewish First Fleet Convicts by the Holocaust Museum in Sydney. I would dearly love to know more about my gg grandfather Joseph, especially where he and Rebecca my gg grandmother are buried. If anyone knows I would be grateful. One of Joseph and Rebecca's children Johanna was my g grandmother she married Benjamin Bayliss my g grandfather. Regards Mavis

  4. I'm actually a descendent of Isaac Nathan through his daughter Caroline Louisa Nathan. Such an amazing man, would love to have known him.

  5. Anonymous4:46 PM

    george johnstone is my gggg grandfather

  6. Another Jewish convict was Esther Spencer, who came on the Indispensable in 1796. She was my 5x GGM. In 1855 she was buried in the Jewish section of the Devonshire St Cemetery, and Rev Jacob Isaacs was the Reader. Her daughter's death certificate gives her maiden name as Salamon. She was recorded as Esther Spencer because she was already married by age 19 when she was convicted. I'd love to hear from anyone who knows anything about her, particularly her life in London before conviction. Thanks :)

  7. My 5x ggm, Esther Spencer, was also a Jewish convict. She arrived on the Indispensable in 1796. She was married (hence the surname Spencer) but her daughter's death certificate says her maiden name was Salamon. Esther lived in Sydney and was buried in 1855 in the Jewish portion of the Devonshire St Cemetery. The Reader was Rev Jacob Isaacs.
    If anyone else is descended from her, or knows anything about her family in England I'd love to hear from them. My blog is janellestree.blogspot.com.au