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Friedman, Isaac (1805–1875)

by Attila Urmenyhazi

Isaac Friedman was born in 1805, in Pest (part of Budapest before 1873), Hungary, son of Judah and Rebecca Friedman, devout followers of the Jewish faith. Isaac was an orthodox Jew and a learned man who trained to later tutor and minister at the historic Yeshiva (Rabbinical College) in the Kingdom of Hungary at Pozsony (now Bratislava, the current capital of Slovakia). The date and the reasons for Friedman’s departure from Hungary are unknown, but it is likely that he sought a better future in England in business, and his commitment to serving Judaism[1]. Here he heard about Australia, and figured that the opportunity to work for the same ideals better presented itself there. ‘The extensive emigrations of artisans from every part of the United Kingdom; butchers, bakers, pastry cooks, provision merchants, shoemakers, apothecaries, fancy-bread bakers, booksellers,’ would have been common knowledge. As Egon Kunz noted, he ‘also would have known in his time in London that there were about three hundred and fifty people of the Jewish faith in the Colony and that about two hundred dwelt in Sydney town.’[2]

On 24 April, 1833, after a five month voyage from London aboard the barque Enchantress, Friedman, his wife Rebecca, and seven-month-old son, Francis, arrived in Sydney. Their ship had stopped over in Hobart town, and when they stepped ashore, they liked what they saw. The attractive harbour was the second largest town in the Australian colonies, had a busy waterfront, surrounded by leafy streets lined with humble but neat cottages. Isaac Friedman was the first ‘Native of Hungaria’ to arrive on Australian soil.[3] Soon after his arrival, Friedman established a trading house selling ready-made clothing, relying on the work of an assignee convict tailor. A month later tragedy struck when both his wife and son became ill and died. He did not remain a widower long and, on 23 December 1835, he married Maria Nathan (b. 1819), a daughter of Edward Nathan and his wife Ellen, both from Liverpool, England. Securing a town allotment at Appin, New South Wales, he expanded his trading activities by opening a general store that included the sale of spirits, wine, groceries, tools, ironmongery, gunpowder and muskets, stationery, glassware and other general goods. He prospered as he diversified his business ventures, being at different times, the owner of men’s wear shop, a pawnbroker, a general dealer, and an innkeeper, holding licenses in Sydney, at Appin and Maitland. In keeping with his commercial success, he became a leading member of Sydney’s Jewish community.

In 1840, the Friedmans sailed for Hobart, which offered good business prospects, a suitable place to raise a family, and a more temperate climate. He bought Kensington Inn in Argyle Street, which he operated from August 1841 to February 1849, and devoted himself to Jewish affairs, earning the respect of the local community. In 1842, a meeting was held in his home with fellow worshippers where the decision was taken to build a synagogue. Being adept in financial matters and a foundation member of the congregation, Friedman took charge of the fund-raising effort, and made up the difference after a serious shortfall in meeting the costs of construction and refurbishment. Consecrated in 1845, the National Trust building in Egyptian Revival style architecture still stands at 59 Argyle Street, the oldest synagogue building in Australia, and still the house of worship to the local congregation.

Meanwhile Friedman’s commercial operations as a publican and victualler were not without controversy, but he successfully defended himself against every incident and allegation during his eight years as licensee of Kensington Inn. The most damaging allegation in the late 1840s was that he ran a brothel, an accusation brought by a fellow committee member in the Hobart Hebrew Congregation. This was never brought before the Court, as the parties agreed to have the issue resolved through a process of private arbitration within the Congregation, where two arbiters were appointed for each side. As a result, Isaac was cleared and the parties were asked to, and remained, committee members. Yet, although he successfully defended himself, his name remained tarnished in the eyes of many in his community. By then the Friedmans had five children: Moses Joseph (b. 1840), David Solomon (b. 1842), Lewis (b. 1844), Ellen (b. 1848), and Rebecca (b. 1850). To protect their children from such damaging innuendos, the family moved back to New South Wales in 1850.

On 20 June 1851, Charles Fitzroy, Governor of New South Wales, signed Friedman’s naturalisation certificate after he was recommended as a person of integrity and good character. He continued to operate as a general trader, moving from Maitland to Quirindi where he obtained a lease of 160 acres. This he used partly as an inn, as offices, and a warehouse, all in a garden setting and with an eye to investment. By February 1854, his wandering spirit prevailed once more, and the Friedmans returned to Hobart where he kept a butcher shop and became a pawnbroker. His name became widely known from the tokens he started issuing in 1857 in large numbers. These bronze tokens for the value of a penny and a halfpenny carried the inscription on the obverse side: I. Friedman Pawnbroker, Argyle Street and on the reverse side the figure of a sitting Justicia: TASMANIA 1857.

Retiring from business in 1858, Friedman, the orthodox Jew and Hungarian settler, was well known and respected in two Australian colonies (Tasmania and New South Wales). The following year he and his family arrived in the Victorian goldfield town of Sandhurst. The affluent Friedman immersed himself again in Jewish community affairs and as a mentor-adviser to the Congregation. He acted in the capacity of ‘Chazan and Sochet’, received an honorarium, and was entitled to use the title Reverend. With his family, he lived in Dowling Street where the local synagogue was situated and served the Sandhurst, Castlemaine and Echuca areas for the next ten years. In 1868, at the age of sixty-two, he moved from Sandhurst with his family to Melbourne. The remainder of his life he spent on his final calling: delivering lectures and collecting donations ‘for our unfortunate brethren in Jerusalem’, in Melbourne, on the Victorian goldfields and in the countryside, while his wife Maria taught in the Melbourne Jewish Sabbath school. By this time, the Friedman family numbered eight, after the birth of Ann (b.1852), Henry (b.1855), and Abraham (b.1858). Isaac Friedman died in Melbourne on 13 June 1875, predeceasing his wife by five years.

Original Publication

  • People Australia, November 2016

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Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Friedman, Isaac (1805–1875)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/friedman-isaac-26719/text34359, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012