MR VAN. A MUSEUM
Hanging at the Wellington Jewish Community Centre on Webb Street in Te Aro is a sizeable oil portrait of the rabbi, painted at around the same period as Andrew’s photo-portrait. On this occasion Van Staveren is shown in his rabbinical attire, with a scroll of the Torah resting against his right arm and shoulder, and his left hand clasping, through the mantle, the nearer of the wrapped-up scroll’s lower handles. The image shows a slightly fierce patriarch, who, in contrast to Andrew’s portrait, does not meet the artist’s gaze, but peers inwardly, or perhaps outside the frame; a beneficently self-possessed man whose expression is poised between the pensive and the humourful.
It’s owing in no small part to this portrait that Van Staveren is recognised by his congregants’ descendants, though he is not remembered; there are few, if any, tales that are still told concerning him. Sadly, the passing of time has only obscured Van Staveren’s prodigious stature and uniquely widespread popularity; in the Jewish community, and in the thriving and evolving civic milieu of the windy city generally, and throughout the emerging country.
When, in August 1925, Herman and Miriam Van Staveren celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, Sir Joseph Ward (a former prime minister; an office he was shortly to occupy again) observed that “there was probably not a man in New Zealand who had a greater number of sincere friends.” According to the New Zealand Times, Ward had “said that he had known the Rev. Mr. Van Staveren for forty years, and was proud to call him his friend.”
Remarked the Times, (“It was characteristic of him that the first thing that the Rev. Mr. Van Staveren had asked [Sir Joseph] was what he could do for him.” And when, in January 1930, Van Staveren passed away, The Free Lance remarked that Wellington had lost “its most popular citizen” and “the poor, destitute and suffering of all creeds and conditions, a helpful and compassionate friend.”
A newspaper column that had appeared earlier, in 1888, in The New Zealand Times, for a series titled ‘Wellington Pulpits’, written by a scribe signing off as ‘Syntyche’ gives the measure of just how impressively Van Staveren was perceived (if bearing in mind the sensibility of the time which revelled in lofty, if not flowery, words of tribute):
Few ministers are better or wider known in this town than the Rev H. Van Staveren. His tall commanding figure, his black “cataract” beard, his quick decisive gait, his genial smile and outstretched hand of welcome are familiar signs. A skilful student of men and manners, with the quick discernment of the Semitic race, a naturally buoyant and jovial nature, a heart tender as a woman’s, full of the deepest sympathy, a mind bound by no narrow notions of class or creed, the Rev H. Van Staveren stands upon a broad platform as a man amongst men—a humanitarian of the highest type. Wherever in this city is found sin and shame, want and suffering, pain and misery, his well-known form is seen as a minister not of a creed but of a sacred duty. Wherever the bitter cry of one in sore distress is heard the name of Van Staveren comes as a light in darkness—as a draught of water in a thirsty land. It is to break through his official life and penetrate into his daily work that one has to admire and revere the almoner of the poor—the Rev H. Van Staveren.
Skipping a turn of phrase or two that would raise today either or both eyebrows (including a simile that clearly inspired L. M. Goldman’s own account) the description of Van Staveren is a fairly remarkable one. At the time that ‘Syntyche’ wrote the column, having visited and sat in on a Shabbat service at the Terrace shul (and of which he would proffer a vivid description), Van Staveren had not yet reached forty.
Receiving the reporter from the Times in his drawing-room on The Terrace, Wellington on his, and Miriam’s, golden anniversary in 1925 (the Times’ headline would laud a ‘life given to alleviate suffering and distress.’) Van Staveren would sum up his life thus:
“The story of my life? Well, I’m afraid it’s a very short one. I’ve tried to do my duty, and succeeded indifferently well. After all, what’s in the longest life more than that? As for the bare facts, I was born in Bolsward, Friesland, in 1849, my father being Chief Rabbi in that town, a position which he held for 54 years. He was, however, born in England, as was his father before him. My Mother was Dutch.
“At a very early age I was sent across to England to be educated, joined the ministry, and on September 1st, 1875, was married in the Grand Synagogue to my present wife by Dr Nathan M. Adler. A few months later, when I was 26 years of age, Mr Joseph Nathan, who was visiting England, sought to obtain the services of a minister for the growing Jewish population in the Wellington district, and I was appointed to the charge. I arrived at Lyttelton on June 25th, 1877, in the ship Waikato, and came across to Wellington in the old Ringarooma on her maiden trip. A short time after my arrival in Wellington I was made senior minister for the whole of New Zealand, and here I have been ever since.” (Here, the reporter notes that Van Staveren made ‘an expressive gesture’). “That is all there is to it … It doesn’t seem very interesting.”
Of course, there was scarcely anything that was uninteresting about Herman Van Staveren. Outside the great prophets of the Māori world, it is rare in Aotearoa New Zealand history for a religious figure to have drawn so much popular attention, or to have made such a wide and strong impression as an outstanding personality motivated by faith. As a rabbinical and humanitarian cynosure, Van Staveren’s interest in theology was squarely in the domain of homely spiritual uplift, broad religious unity and goodwill, and unfailing aid to those in need. Impassioned, lucid, far-seeing, and affectionate, his influence upon the development of his congregation can probably not be overestimated.
Though the embrace of the underprivileged and underpaid with his boundless, benevolent Victorian charm would be accounted somewhat paternalistic today, it is plain that Van Staveren was no self-satisfied do-gooder. Reports from the time attest to a figure whose compulsive self-sacrifice, or seemingly endless impulse to serve the broader community, as well as his Jewish congregation, compelled him to push himself past the reasonable limit of his wellbeing—to the point at which his health lay in jeopardy in his later life, though he did end up achieving what was deemed, in those years, the remarkable old age of eighty-one.
A passage from a lengthy interview with Van Staveren that appeared in Fair Play, a short-lived magazine, 1894, offers ample indication of the rabbi’s unsanctimonious good heart (as a founder of the Benevolent Home, a residence for the underprivileged elderly, Van Staveren bore ultimate authority and responsibility, whenever a complaint was raised):
As you are probably aware the [Benevolent Home] is conducted on strictly temperance principles: well just before Christmas one of the brewers sent up some beer; the master could not officially recognise its presence, but taking the season into consideration, and not wishing to deprive a few of the old fellows of a glass at Christmas time, he good-naturedly refused to notice its appearance. The result was that several of the inmates immediately reported the matter to me. I, of course was obliged to severely deprecate the fact that it had been allowed to be brought into the building, but still … apart from my official position, I rather regretted that some of them couldn’t have had a glass in peace.
>>> Our introduction to Van Staveren continues later on this month, to be followed by Part 2: RABBI VAN.