Friday, July 12, 2013

The Kangaroo Valley Torah


This is a true story.

Kangaroo Valley  is a small rural community in the Kangaroo Valley in the Southern Highlands of NSW about 160 kilometres south of Sydney. According to the last census there are only 844 people in the little town and region but very likely there would have been many more a hundred years ago. The region boomed after the passing of the "free selection" land reform legislation in the 1860's and settlers from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and the towns and cities made claims for plots of prime farm land across the state. 

The Kangaroo River that runs through the valley has a history of floods as angry and dangerous as in many parts of the country. The little town's bridge over the river is Australia's oldest suspension bridge and was completed in 1898 two metres higher than the original timber bridge that washed away in a flood months after it was constructed. These mistakes are not uncommon in Australia. In the mountains to the west of where I live there are the remains of two tall large bridges across the head waters of the Tweed River, arches standing like pyramids,  that didn't last the first wet season after the forties. There are people in Brisbane who are only now able to reclaim homes destroyed in the 2011 flood that swept away miles of pontoons, wharves, decks, moorings, river front restaurants and but for the bravery and skill of a sole tugboat skipper very nearly a bridge along the Brisbane River after the mismanagement of a major dam that was built after the last great flood of 1974 that as a young student I witnessed first hand. 

All but a tiny minority of Australians are new to this country, even those of us who were born here into Australian families and know no other country.  This is a land settled by people who paid scant regard to the indigenous people who had a lot to teach about a land that we still have much to learn. An Australian river in full flood is a terrifying thing to be in the way of and so it would have been one day in the 1920's when the Kangaroo River again burst its banks forcing the people of the town and valley from their homes and farms. 

Among them were Charlie and Hannah Cox  who with family ran the local general store.  But Charlie Cox was an unusual man. After getting his young bride and family to safety he returned to the home to salvage whatever could be saved from the rapidly rising waters and one thing in particular that was precious to Hannah beyond words . An expert horseman as all the men in the valley would have been, he rode and swam his horse to the abandoned homestead and grabbed and strapped to his belt what he could. From a cupboard he retrieved Hannah's treasured possession, wrapped it in oilskins and belted it tightly to his back. Riding and swimming for miles in torrential rain he and his horse made their escape through the flooded valley to high ground where Hannah waited anxiously.    

What was this object that Charlie Cox, brave man that he indisputably was, risked his life to save without a moment's second thought?  It was a Sefer Torah.  For non-Jewish readers a Sefer Torah is the hand written scroll which records in Biblical Hebrew the Pentateuch, the holiest book in Judaism.  Written by special scribes they can take more than a year to produce and must be faultless. They are produced to the most exacting of standards according to specifications that are from the ages. They are venerated in Jewish religious tradition. The surface must not be touched by human hands. Even the accidental dropping of a Sefer Torah requires the severe atonement of all present and years ago when the Central Synagogue in Sydney burned down destroying the Sefer Torahs it housed, Sydney rabbis directed forty days of mourning and fasting.   

Hannah Cox was Jewish from a Jewish family in Sydney but that does not explain why she was in possession of a Sefer Torah. Sefer Torahs are kept in the "ark" of a synagogue where they are central to the service with a portion read melodically every few days. Once having found a home in a synagogue a Sefer Torah is not supposed to travel. If they move it could only be because the Jews have been moved. 

So how did Hannah Cox come to have a Sefer Torah which her gentile husband rescued from a flood? You can be certain there were no synagogues in Kangaroo Valley and Hannah may have been the only Jew. But the answer lies not in her family's history but in her husband and in Australian history.  

Charlie Cox had been Private Charles Edward Cox of the Australian Fifth Light Horse Regiment who had been a 22 year old tinsmith from Horse Shoe Creek, NSW when he enlisted in Brisbane in the AIF on 19 October 1914 and when his unit embarked for the Middle East on the 21 December 1914 where he was to be wounded in action and awarded the military medal for gallantry. Earlier the regiment saw action at Gallipoli without its horses and later served as long range patrols in the Sinai. In December 1916 it advanced into Palestine when Charlie was wounded most likely in one of the battles for Gaza.

The Australian Light Horse went on to help liberate the land from the Turks along side the allies including the Jewish Legion when after the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 the regiments helped take Jaffa, Haifa and  Jerusalem which was then the only city in the world with a Jewish majority. Almost a century later the Australian government, with incredible insensitivity to both Jewish and Australian history, has adopted a policy that declares as "illegal" Jews living in the wrong part of Jerusalem from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. 

The Kangaroo Valley Torah came from Palestine, looted no doubt at some point in the history of the region from a dhimmified and oppressed Jewish community and rescued from a bazaar by Charlie or a comrade who knew what it was and returned with it to Australia where Charlie presented it to his Jewish sweetheart. It had become part of the flotsam of war and revolution that so savagely swept the world. Whether the Torah was native to Palestine or had come to Palestine in the first or second aliyahs with Zionist Jews from Russia or Europe driven by the pogroms of the nineteenth century likely will never be known. Charles was soon to marry Hannah and the Torah became a treasured family heirloom. A family bible with a difference from a time when most families had family bibles.

It is at this point the story gets interesting. 

Charlie and Hannah prospered after the war and they moved north and took over The Wells Hotel in Tweed Heads on the Qld/NSW border before the Second World War. It doesn't look far on a map but Tweed Heads is over a thousand kilometres from Kangaroo Valley, about the same distance as from Istanbul to Jerusalem. They made a fortune during the war aided no doubt by the presence of thousands of Australian and US servicemen whose armies used the region for "rest and recreation" leave. It's an ill wind etcetera.

Later the family bought and ran for decades the Regal Theatre in Coolangatta literally across the street and interstate and later still built the Tweed Heads Drive-In cinema at the height of the drive-in movie craze of the sixties and seventies. 

So where is the Kangaroo Valley Torah now? It has been many years since I last saw it but I know exactly where it is.

When Charlie and then Hannah passed the Sefer Torah was inherited by their three children , Colin, Valerie and Aileen (now all deceased). For a while Colin served as an alderman on the Gold Coast City Council. When the Gold Coast Hebrew Congregation was formed in Surfers Paradise in the early 1960's Valerie and Aileen were foundation members. Proud Jews all their lives they remained members until their deaths. They donated the Torah to the humble Shul in the sixties a few years before the Six Day War. But it had been damaged in the flood and perhaps in war and first it had to be restored and repaired and for this it was sent first to Sydney for assessment and then to Israel.  The work took more than a year and it cost the family more than a man's annual salary but the work was done and the Torah was returned to Australia for a second time.   

It was presented with all due ceremony and celebration to the tiny synagogue which was then on part of the site where the existing synagogue now stands. And there it has found a permanent home in the ark of the synagogue where it has rested for half a century. If you are ever in Surfers Paradise do consider giving Rabbi Gurevitch  a call and ask to see the Kangaroo Valley Torah which has a history that perhaps even he is not aware of and which may well be the most travelled Sefer Torah in all of history. A genuine and sacred relic of Australian history. 

cross posted Geoffff's Joint


  1. This is a beautiful piece, Geoffff.

    Thank you for cross-posting.

  2. L'dor vador. As I said to my son at his Bar Mitzvah "as my father and grandfather before me, so too are you obligated to the commandments". And the Sefer Torah is cherished and protected, as it is passed from one generation to another.

    This story is beautiful Geoff. It reminds me of the story of my grandfather rescuing a Torah from his little shtetl and the pogroms of the Ukraine (at coincidentally, almost the same time as this Torah was rescued from Palestine), safely providing passage to his new little shtetl in Iowa. And as it needed rescuing again, to his much larger shtetl in southern California. And my son read from that same Torah almost 90 years later.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. It's great and I am waiting for it as per my email Geoffrey

    1. BTW I forwarded it ask requested to Rabbi Nir Gurevitch on the Gold Coast, who just happens to be mishpocha

  4. Thank you all for your kind words. I am moved by Stuart's story. I've made a few minor edits but I'll leave it alone now. Shirlee I'll register at your site this evening or tomorrow and a will accept your invitation which is much appreciated.