Last summer, when Sydney, Australia, burst onto my television screen as part of the coverage for the 2000 Olympic Games, the city struck me as an urban Disneyland, full of fanciful architecture and enchanting public gathering spots. It seemed the ideal place for the multitudes to hoist a pint and sing, "It's a small world, after all." During the Olympics, I hardly considered Sydney as town with its share of Jewish life, past or present. Any thought I might have given to Jewish Australia ended in wacky images of kangaroos in kippot, or koalas wearing tallitot.
That changed when my husband and I spent 10 delightful days in Australia. A visit to Sidney's Great Synagogue, which first raised its twin towers above Elizabeth Street in 1878, taught us that Jews have been part of the city's history since the coming of the first white settlers to Australia's eastern shore.
Our guide through the Victorian-Gothic Great Synagogue was a congregant there. He greeted our group -- which hailed from such far-flung lands as Sweden, Venezuela, the Netherlands and Memphis, Tenn. -- with an apology for the stringent security precautions at the entryway.
"We're fortunate to live in tolerant, multicultural Australia, and that means we have our share of crazy people," he said.
Once inside the sanctuary, distinguished by curved archways and a starry sky painted on the elegantly vaulted ceiling, we were treated to a video presentation that told the story of Australian Jews. When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour in 1788, at least 16 Jews were among the 751 English convicts being transported to this faraway continent. Their crimes were generally petty, like minor theft or a joyride on a neighbor's cart.
They soon learned to flourish in a harsh environment. One female convict, Esther Abrahams, married George Johnson, who was to become the first lieutenant governor of the colony; for others, too, intermarriage seemed virtually unavoidable.
As Sydney transformed from a penal colony into a free society, many Jews gained respect for their civic involvement. They helped start the community's night watch, and Solomon Levy provided Sydney University's first endowment. In the 19th century, both the Father of Australian Theater and the Father of Australian Music were Jews, and the first-ever Australian opera (circa 1847) can be considered a Jewish endeavor.
Though attempts to start a Jewish congregation began in the 1820s, it was not until 1831 that the governor general permitted the public funding that would lead to the establishment of Beth Yisrael. By 1837, the young congregation had 300 adult members.
Philosophical schisms threatened its survival, but by the 1870s, the Elizabeth Street edifice was rising. The government of Australia still contributes to its preservation, and has helped fund the major restoration work now under way.
Today the Great Synagogue has 1,100 member families, but "there's always room here" on Shabbat, our guide said. The women's section is in an upstairs gallery, and board members wear top hats during services.
The Great Synagogue's museum traces the family histories of prominent congregants. Abraham Rheuben (1810-1876) represents the convict generation: at age 16 he was transported to Australia for stealing a purse. His many living kinfolk include breeders of dogs, horses and crocodiles. Elias Green (1851-1941) exemplifies those Jews who came to Australia from Poland, concurrent with the great Eastern European migration to the United States. Among Green's descendants is a rear admiral who later served on Australia's supreme court. A third display focuses on Gabriella Geyer, a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia. She is now a successful caterer, and one grandchild is an Aussie pop star.
Australia is proud that it led the world in welcoming Jews after World War II. One beneficiary was Victor Biggs, whose family we met by chance at a seaside resort in Queensland. Biggs' parents are Polish Holocaust survivors, and his wife, Ellen, was born in Harbin, China, the daughter of refugees. Through the Biggs family, we learned much about Jewish life in Australia today.
The Biggses send their children to day schools, like about 45 percent of Jewish families in Sydney. Such schools have recently flourished, thanks to a major influx of South Africans. (Statistics suggest that 25 percent of today's Australian Jews come from South Africa.)
Both Victor and Ellen Biggs say they worry about Sydney's lack of a strong, independent Jewish newspaper. Perceiving a bias against Israel in the mainstream press, they blame this on Sydney's large Arab population and point out that the home of one outspoken Chabad rabbi has been firebombed three times.
They are keenly aware of Jews in the news, from the colorful Lubavitcher rabbi who is president of Melbourne's Australian-rules football club to the Sydney gangster type who was once jailed for running a drug and prostitution ring. (He can still be spotted around town with a large Mogen David around his neck and a blonde on each arm.)
Ellen Biggs wishes that Sydney had its own Jewish Federation, to oversee community life. On a lighter note, she laments that few Aussies know the Yiddish expressions with which she grew up, the sort of words (like "maven" and "schmooze") that have become embedded in everyday American speech. She's teaching Yiddishisms to her hairdresser, thus helping in her own way to ensure Jewish continuity Down Under.