Elucidating a ‘monument to dreams and deeds’

Published 01 July 2010

jewscemA unique “conversation” between art and history is illuminating the lives of people who lived within colonial Maitland’s small Jewish community.

That “conversation” – between an exhibition of recent paintings and an installation including images from the past – is taking place at Maitland Regional Art Gallery.

The focus of the exhibition of paintings by Hanna Kay and the installation designed by David Guy – and of an accompanying book by the historian Janis Wilton – is Maitland’s Jewish Cemetery.

Dr Wilton, an Associate Professor of History at the University of New England, lives in Maitland with her husband Joe Eisenberg, the Cultural Director of Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Her book, Maitland Jewish Cemetery: a Monument to Dreams and Deeds, is the product of a partnership between the Gallery, the Heritage Futures Research Centre at UNE, and the NSW Migration Heritage Centre.

Maitland Jewish Cemetery was, in the nineteenth century, the only consecrated Jewish cemetery north of Sydney. “The cemetery is located on a flood plain approximately three kilometres from the centre of Maitland,” Dr Wilton writes in the book. “Today it rests among horse farms at the end of a narrow, unsealed dirt lane. In the mid-nineteenth century it would have been fairly isolated with few, if any neighbours.”

The book recreates the historical and cultural context of the cemetery, provides biographical details on 52 people buried there, and transcribes and translates the inscriptions on the 42 surviving gravestones. It also documents, in words and pictures, the history of the cemetery itself – from its acquisition by the Maitland Jewish community in 1846 to its last recorded burial in 1934, and then through periods of neglect and flood damage to eventual reconsecration and heritage listing.

“It was intriguing,” said Dr Wilton, recalling her excitement on first becoming aware of the cemetery. She explains in the book how she and Joe Eisenberg set about the task of elucidating the cemetery as – in the words of Rabbi Raymond Apple at its reconsecration in 1979 – “a monument to dreams and deeds”.

They commissioned the Israeli-born artist Hanna Kay to produce a series of paintings inspired by the cemetery, and decided to complement the art works with an installation of historical material that would, Dr Wilton said, “allow the paintings and the history to talk to each other”.

“Through conducting research in preparation for the exhibition,” she said, “I began to realise the significance of the small Jewish community in colonial Maitland – hence the book.” “The rise and decline of the Maitland Jewish community – and of its cemetery,” she writes, “mirrored the rise and decline of Maitland as the key colonial centre of trade and commerce north of Sydney.”

Dr Wilton, whose previous publications include Different Sights: Immigrants in New England (NSW Migration Heritage Centre, Sydney, 2009) and Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional NSW 1850-1950 (Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004), was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 for her services to the community through applied history. In this her latest book she refers to the Maitland Jewish Cemetery as “a place of significance whose survival and documentation adds to the texture and tone of present day Maitland, reminding us of the layered nature of the locality’s history and of a cemetery as one way to respect and explore that past.”

Maitland Jewish Cemetery: a Monument to Dreams and Deeds is published by Maitland Regional Art Gallery. The exhibition at the Gallery continues until the 11th of July.

THE PHOTOGRAPH of part of Maitland Jewish Cemetery displayed here, taken by David Guy, is reproduced in the book.