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Alexander Turnbull Library
Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington
Aotearoa New Zealand

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The world is a mirror, and one sees reflected in it the image of one’s own deeds and character.
—Herman Van Staveren, 1925
















So becoming would the appellation Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew be for the figure in this outstanding studio portrait, it’s almost a shame that it’s the name of the photographer and not his subject.



Given the forthright, prestigeful demeanour of the figure in the photo-portrait, Andrew’s subject is a personage of stature; perhaps a tycoon of yore, or a statesman before the First World War. With the absence of an ecclesiastical collar, or a yarmulke, the vocation of clergyman likely wouldn’t be the first guess that sprang to mind, yet this indeed was the calling of Stanley Polkinghorne’s client, who wore a very suitable appellation of his own: Reverend Herman Van Staveren.


It’s a name that fits rather well a man who happened to have been a legendary rabbi, and a widely-celebrated personality of his time. was spiritual leader of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Orthodox Jewish community, and the senior rabbi in Aotearoa New Zealand, for more than half a century; from 1877, when he was still in his late twenties, until 1930, when he passed away at the splendid old age of eighty-one.


The photo-portrait by Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew would have been taken at Andrew’s studio at 10 Willis Street, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, around or after 1925. At the time, Van Staveren would have been in his middle to late seventies. It’s difficult to imagine that Andrew could have produced a more striking image—or a more formidable one, though the longer it’s appraised the more reassuring its subject’s presence seems to grow. There’s something organic in the patriarch’s composure: an aura of serenity, while an authority that’s clearly prodigious is knitted into Van Staveren’s bones, accessorised by the stately bell-topper that appears to suit him so well. Judging by the deftly-staged, if faintly unsettling, cigar (an indulgence Van Staveren shared with his male offspring, who imported them into the country) the rabbi is no ascetic—there is no dour denial by the reverend gentleman of the pleasures of life.


But there is a paradox in the image: here is a white-bearded patriarch who, while plainly at home in his own skin, has a gaze that is neither blithe nor mirthful. There’s an inkling in Herman’s face of startlement, and faintly stern sorrow: with eyes wide and mouth open; as if realising that the camera’s presence has exposed him and drawn out a weariness that’s been hidden or a vulnerability long neglected. Then again, Van Staveren’s watery eyes brim with honesty; there’s no hint in them of ambiguity or evasion, any more than glib self-satisfaction.


*          *          *



Herman Van Staveren was born in Holland in 1849, but was sent away, by his own account, at “a very early age,” to be educated in England. His birth certificate reveals the first name Manus. His mother Seentje, née Adelaar, was Dutch; his father, Rabbi Isak Berends Van Staveren, English. The older Van Staveren had been previously married; like his son Herman, Isak would serve his community for over fifty years. Herman had at least two siblings but there may have been more. His sister Jane eventually settled in Toronto; no information has come to light concerning his brother.   


At the time of his ordination as a Rabbi in 1868 Van Staveren was not yet twenty. In 1875 he was married to Miriam Barnett in London’s Grand Synagogue by none other than Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, the Chief Rabbi of the Empire. Displaying a natural-born proficiency for his calling, and showing an early inclination for activity in London’s charitable institutions, the young rabbi might have been amazed, had some oracle tipped him off that his destiny was to lie in a presumptive colony at the other end of the world. Or that of his and Miriam’s many children to come, all apart from their first-born daughter would enter the world as New Zealanders.   


Writing in his landmark 1958 work The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Lazarus Goldman (an Australian rabbi who would, at one time, apply unsuccessfully apply for the very position at the head of Wellington’s Hebrew congregation occupied by Van Staveren for so long), described the guise into which Van Staveren emerged, early-on, in his adopted country:


Tall, dark and handsome with a long, black, flowing beard, Herman Van Staveren became a picturesque figure in Wellington and a legendary personality throughout the country. His very presence and loud, deep, stentorian voice commanded obedience. He used it to effect whenever he had to help the poor and afflicted. Sometimes he would look stern—only, however, when he wanted to gain an advantage for the needy. His sternness was only a pose, for he was a jovial and merry man with a constant twinkle in his eye and a heart as soft and tender as a woman’s.


Of course, by the time that S.P. Andrew had taken his photo-portrait Van Staveren, the “black, flowing beard” had turned to white. This many years after the rabbi had originally made his mark on the soon-to-be capital city, the southern-most capital of any nation on earth; a place to whose inhabitants he would endear himself over the decades. Aside from his rabbinical duties, Van Staveren played a famously commanding role in the administration of the city’s charitable institutions, and in the distribution of those institutions’ funds—in an era before most of the mechanics of the welfare state had been set in place. This he deemed his “hobby,” though, judging by every report, the relentless self-sacrifice with which he engaged his “hobby” suggests that he was not being flippant in calling it one.


To fans of The Lord of the Rings, Van Staveren may appear, Andrew’s photo-portrait, like the wizard Gandalf recast as a Victorian luminary, and, while it wouldn’t have been possible, the more that’s disclosed from the available sources concerning Van Staveren, the easier it becomes to fancy him as a real-life model for the great character in Tolkien’s trilogy. It would, all the same, be easy to hyperbolise the analogy; any nebulous influence with which Van Staveren would have had to duel would have been merely theoretical (there was no horde to speak of that had any malignant designs upon his congregation—but had there been so, one would be hard-pressed to think of a more noble, or evidently fearless, figure to have led his people in adversity).


But here was a figure who customers and shopkeepers alike would come out from the shops all along Lambton Quay to stand and peer at as he trotted past on Yankel, having returned from Petone on his visits of inspection at the Gear meat works, which provided kosher meat for his congregation, not least of all for his very considerable family. Van Staveren might indeed have been Gandalf riding through the shire in Tolkien’s trilogy—projecting an image that was redoubtable, even fierce to any watching eye; a picture mellowed by the reputation of his great good heart: a beneficent impulse that seemed to afford him little rest.


Ever-imposing at over 1.85 metres tall, dressed in his black frock-coat and the proverbial bell-topper, with coat tails likely flying in the city’s notorious wind, Van Staveren could be overheard, as he rode along, urging Yankel on in language that may not have been consistently benevolent. The arduousness of the journey to and from Petone, which lay on the distant side of the harbour, thirteen kilometres from his residence on The Terrace, must have rankled a bit with the rabbi. Why he chose not to take the train is unclear; the railway line had been completed in 1874, three years before the Van Staverens' arrival in the country, with four daily services. Nevertheless, Herman used Yankel, saddling him up in the early hours for the journey. When not in service, Yankel was left graze in a paddock at the corner of Clifton and Everton Terraces.


The sole compensation for Van Staveren in these constant journeys was in having been likely the most noted of early recreational fisherman on the jetty at Petone, where he’d take a little precious time for himself after finishing at the meat works, before climbing back on Yankel, and setting off for home. This, when he wasn’t busy pursuing his additional “hobbies” such as raising funds for public works in the midst of an unemployment crisis, or working to secure patronage to put up a large statue of Queen Victoria in Post Office Square (subsequently to be carted into the position it occupies today, in the middle of Kent and Cambridge Terraces). 

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Alexander Turnbull Library
Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington
Aotearoa New Zealand 

the mensch
1. Van
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~~ Herman ~~

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Decades before Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Christopher Lee showed up in Wellington to play influential gentlemen with white beards in The Lord of the Rings, Rabbi Herman Van Staveren played a commanding role of his own: striding (and riding) through the streets and institutions of
the young nation's capital.

Early Wellington's celebrity Rabbi

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New Zealand Free Lance, January 29, 1930

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January 2023

tevet-shevat 5783


© The New Zealand Jewish Archives Trust 2022. All rights reserved.


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