A Story Finally Revealed
I'm going tell a story today on which I have been sitting for thirty-six years. I think I am the only one who knows all of the story, but would be most happy if my contemporaries can help fill in any detail which I have overlooked. I think all of the central players are still with us, but some of the peripheral actors are now in the other World. What you read here is my take, my memories, my distortions.
The beginning — a relevant preamble When I was twelve years old, in 1965, my father of Blessed Memory, decided it was time for me to start learning for my barmitzva. Even though we had not previously had any connection with the Great Synagogue, he took me along there one Sunday, and introduced me to Reverend Myerowitz, a really nice guy. He would teach me my barmitva and as well I was to go to the Sunday School at the Great Synagogue into his class. The synagogue is housed in a beautiful sandstone building, combining elements of Byzantine style and Gothic styles. It was designed by non-Jewish architect, Thomas Rowe, and consecrated in 1878. It is often described as the "cathedral synagogue" of Australia, but those who are closer to it call it the Big Shul.
Unlike my synagogue in Coogee, where we then lived, the bulk of the members of the Great were from Anglo Australian families. Unfortunately, this background was very poor in it's Jewish learning and practice. It was almost as if these Australian Jews were just another religion, like Catholics or Anglicans, neither of whom in Australia largely took religion too seriously outside of the actual Church building. Our national destiny wasn't part of the Great culture. I would be surprised if any members of the big synagogue (outside of the clergy) at that point in time were shomer shabat and shomer mitvoth, scrupulous observers of the Torah commandments. I had come from a different background. Most of the people in our shul were then not 100% observant (unfortunately very few in the fifties and early sixties were in Australia [or America for that matter] — our people were all refugees from Europe, whose families had been largely wiped out in the terrible destruction of the Jewish people in Europe, and who had come to this new country without any of the backup family support that one can rely on in normal times). They all originated in religious families and clung to as much as they could re Yiddishkeit and still manage to feed their families and realise their ambitions.
At the new Sunday School I didn't know anyone in the class, but there were a few that went to my high school, Randwick Boys', which we had just started attending at the same time. There was Sam and Lou, and I think Fred was there too. I became great friends with all of them for many years to come. Lou was the golden boy of the Great Synagogue Sunday School. They put a lot of hope into him and much encouragement. I guess it paid off because he is a Rabbi today, though his route was not along the lines that they planned. He had come top of the class every year. Unfortunately (for him), my background was richer than his. My father had taught me many things, and the people in our little shul were an interesting and multi-faceted source of Jewish customs, the knowledge of which still serves me well today. Lou's Judaism was largely from the Sunday School and the synagogue. At the exams at the end of that barmizva year, I was way ahead of Lou, and all that was left was the Hebrew reading test. I think I may have had a slight bout of dyslexia when reading Hebrew, but, just by chance, Lou got 100 for reading and I got fifty. Why is this significant? because Lou duxed the Sunday School by 2 marks!
One other guy in the class was Mick. Mick and I became great friends a year or so later because we swam on the same swimming team. Of the others in the class, I don't recall anyone, so I guess they had no significant or long-term affect on my life. I hope they are all healthy and happy.
Our class, (the top class of the school — it seems in Great Synagogue terms, your Jewish education ends at your bar-mitzva) was held in a room known as the Falk Library. This library contained many books that I believe belonged to Rabbi Falk, who was the synagogue's rabbi in the thirties. There were other books too, many of which were rare and quite valuable. If you wanted to walk out with a book you could do so reasonably easily. My favourite book there was the ten volume Oxford English Dictionary (I know, not a classic Jewish source — but I love etymology).
At the back of the library was a door which lead to the back of the stage in the neighbouring hall. The hall and library were later additions to the shul building, excavations under the original building during the fifties. Thus the hall had no windows. When the lights were off, it was dark in there. We used to remove plastic ends of the chairs, and during the break, have wars in the dark hall, throwing these chair ends at each other. Ouch, they could sting.
During these breaks I learned a lot about the building. The front of building (the Elizabeth Street side) is made up of a large entrance with towers on either side. You could reach the stairs in the northern tower from the stage, the bottom of the tower containing a door opening up right onto the street. This door was not in regular use any more, but I guess it still served as emergency exit.
Wind forward a few years. I am now an engineering student at the University of New South Wales (then still nicknamed Kenso Tech). We have a new Hillel Director who is a rabbi. I am very close to him and he has a somewhat radical (reactionary) approach to the conservative Sydney Jewish community. Most people don't notice this because of his conservative appearance.
One day I am invited to a (secret) meeting at Yossle's [parents'] house. Quite a motley group was in attendance including the Hillel Director. The meeting ended with the formation of the Ad hoc Committee for Saving Jewish Books from falling into Gentile Hands. The background was that the Big Shul had decided that it could not take care of the books in the Falk Library [very true] and had decided to hand the collection over to the Fisher Library at Sydney University [oy vay]. Yes, give the Jewish books as a gift to the goyim. Our sundry group had one thing which bound us together. We were all Jewish reactionaries! We each reached this viewpoint from many different directions, but we all knew we had to stop this action.
I was the youngest participant at the gathering. I'm not sure why I was invited, but it soon became apparent that divine destiny had brought me here. My presence was bashert. As our leaders started to explain the problem, our eyes opened wide in disbelief. But then they presented some possible reactions, all of which would have got us into serious trouble. We didn't want to do anything illegal, but we had to act to protect Jewish pride, Jewish possessions and Jewish honour.
I said, "no worries — I know that building like the back of my hand" (though it was now a bit hairier than when I attended the Sunday School). I told them how we are going to do it.
There was little time to lose. The following Sunday, I arrived at the Castlereigh Street (back) entrance to the Synagogue at 12:25 along with parents picking up their children after lessons (when I was a kid, we caught the bus home — spoilt Jewish kids). I made my way, unnoticed, down to the hall, along the corridor to the Elizabeth Street side-door at the base of the northern tower. I opened the door to my waiting friends. Mot, who was about to receive his medical licence that week, was afraid to enter, in case he was arrested, so he elected to stand guard (I'm not sure for what, but we had a warm feeling knowing we were being guarded by a medical practitioner who would not come into the very building he was guarding for us — remember this was in the days before cell phones). Myer bought some wire-cutters, just in case there was an alarm to deactivate. "Meir, put them away — I promised I'd open the door for you."
We hid in the dark corridor until we were sure the building was empty. Then we moved across the stage to the rear entrance of library (of course it wasn't locked — but I had already checked this on my entry). We started to pick up books — we knew which books were valuable and took those (but not my favourite dictionary). We moved about three hundred volumes. We carried the tomes across the dark stage, up the stairs in the tower, into the main sanctuary. From here we crossed to the southern tower, which housed the staircase leading to the women's gallery above the sanctuary. Then up some more stairs into the tower above. A large air conditioning duct was located near the roof of the tower. I climbed onto the duct and the books were handed to me. We placed them towards the back of the duct, against the wall, out sight from the room below — which was rarely entered anyway.
We had one hitch. The synagogue secretary suddenly appeared in the hall. He had returned after locking up. Fortunately Yossle noticed him before he saw any of us. Yossle, quick on his feet, came down from the stage and engaged the secretary in small talk. Yes, we were preparing for a function that would be held here that evening. Oh, he didn't know about it? blah, blah, blah. They talked and the books kept on moving across the back of the dark stage, up the stairs, though the main synagogue and up onto the duct above the tower room. When we finished our dastardly deed, we left via the same entrance though which we had entered, and Yossle left with the secretary out to Castlereigh Street.
Well done boys, but since no-one ever used the library, and by now, not even the Sunday School class, we had accomplished the perfect crime. So perfect that the victim may not find out for months that the act had been perpetrated. We realised this, and were ready with a press statement to the Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney's major morning newspaper, for the Monday morning edition.
Well the proverbial dung certainly hit the fan! The Synagogue administration were besides themselves. Their valuable books (suddenly they were of value) had been stolen in a heinous crime. They had been broken into. The police were summoned — but they found no evidence of breaking and entering. The secretary woke up — his penny may have fallen. While he knew me, he had never met Yossle before (nor again) but could not describe him because they had met largely in the dark. The news was all over the radio and television and also the newspapers for the whole week. No-one could solve the mystery of where the books were and who was this Ad hoc Committee. A couple of additional press releases explained what had happened, stating that the books were all safe.
Rabbi Porush, the synagogue rabbi, suddenly realised what was happening. I'm not sure if he was involved in the transfer of the books to Sydney University. Even if he was, he was now prepared to speak against the move. He said he did not know who were the criminals "that perpetrated this act of bravery", but announced to the press, that if necessary, he would pay for our legal defence out of his own pocket.
And then the funniest thing. It was already Friday, Friday afternoon, ten minutes before Shabbat. I was dressed, ready to go to shul (by now I was living in Bellevue Hill and the gabai of the Bnei Akiva Minyan which was then still located under the old Mizrachi Synagogue in Old South Head Road). The T.V. was still on in the family room, in the background, and suddenly I hear a very familiar voice, very familiar with a strong Polish accent. I run to the teev. There was a silhouette of a short man dressed in a hat and trench coat, quarter turned towards the camera. They were discussing the now infamous book theft. This was one of the thieves, on live television. He was explaining why the ad hoc committee had acted the previous Sunday. He revealed that the books never left the building. I remember the interviewer saying, to him, "You're here incognito, but you aren't afraid of being arrested?!" Menachem answered, "No".
By Sunday morning the Synagogue announced that they had decided not to pass the Falk Library over to the University. But now the books had to be returned to their shelves. We did not want to fall into a (police) trap and return the books ourselves. We wanted the return to be carried out by a totally different group of people — a group that nobody would assume had been involved in the removal. We arranged for members of Habonim and Betar to bring down the books and return them to their shelves. We didn't want anyone religious, or any adults, to be there. But try as I may, I was unable to successfully explain exactly where the books were located. It was like I was describing a place in Dungeons and Dragons (an anachronism?) or a cave in the Hobbit. So I volunteered to go (back) there with the group. I took a few members of Bnei Akiva to shield me. So there we were. About a hundred members of the three Zionist youth movements, in the southern tower of the Great Synagogue, climbing over the air conditioning ducts.
One thing that night that stands out in my memory, as if it were yesterday, is the look on the face of the synagogue secretary. It would be an understatement to say he wasn't happy. He was seething. I guess we had invaded his privacy, his realm. He wanted revenge. But with a hundred kids of all ages running around, he just stood his ground, staring.
The books were never moved to the University. The Falk Library is still at the Great Synagogue. They now have a librarian, and a lock on the door. My guess is there isn't much use of the books, but it is on their list of features. They make use of the room for lessons and lectures.
Our reactionary ad hoc committee had achieved its goal and we never again met as a group, each going his own way.
Menachem Kuchar, 7th August, 2008
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