It's a unique record of Jewry in Aotearoa but for nonagenarian author Ann Gluckman, her latest book is a two-year labour of love that she credits for rescuing her from the depression of older age.
As the former Weekly contributor and travel writer celebrates the launch of the third volume of Identity and Involvement: Auckland Jewry Past and Present, she's proud of the legacy it leaves for future generations.
Packed with personal essays from more than 120 members of Auckland's Jewish communities, the work is a snapshot of modern Judaism in the city.
It's been more than a quarter century since the first volumes were published, in 1990 and 1993, and Ann says today's community is marked by diversity, with contrasting ideas of what it means to be Jewish in the modern age, and people more relaxed about sharing personal thoughts.
But for the 92-year-old great-grandma, who didn't discover her own mother's history until 13 years after she died, this latest editorial project went beyond writing and curating.
"The book came along because my back got worse and I had to retire from public speaking. I became depressed, my voice started to go and my back bent badly. I said to my doctor, 'I really feel like I've hit old age. I can no longer chase my grandchildren around and do walks at Piha, which I love. I think I'm depressed.'
"He said to me, 'What do you feel passionate about? I know you used to write. Have you ever thought of doing another book?'
"And this is where I've spent the last two years, pretty much," Ann says, her hand sweeping across the light-filled study at her Remuera retirement village apartment.
"My aim was to show that we are New Zealanders and that we've contributed much to the country in many ways.
"I'm trying to bring this forward to present day because there's been very big changes in all religions post-war and this has accelerated, with people knowing more about evolution and realising there are worlds beyond ours, and the total concept of religion and God has changed for numbers of people in many religions," explains Ann.
"There's a marked change between the first volumes to present day, with people openly discussing their Jewish heritage and beliefs, which range along a wide spectrum from the ultra-orthodox to the almost purely secular. And this comes through very much in the essays."
She says the breadth of contributions to the book went beyond her wildest hopes and dreams.
The book has a foreword by former Prime Minister Sir John Key, whose Jewish mother escaped Austria just prior to the 1938 Nazi occupation, and contributions from noted politicians, civil servants, dames and knights – including Ann's son, former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, each telling their unique stories of faith intersecting with life in Aotearoa.
As one of the book's oldest contributors, with an 84-year association with the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, Ann shares a touching essay into her road to belief after her youngest son David was killed in a car accident in 1979.
"David's death was the huge tragedy of my life," she says.
"My husband Laurie and I were in bed when we heard a car crash about midnight. It was an awful bang. David was out at a 21st birthday party. At three o'clock there was a bang on the door. I answered it and there was a policeman. A car had come around a corner on the wrong side of the road and David had gone into a lamppost. He was just about to graduate with his law degree. I suppose after his death I lost religion."
The essay recalls the special chance encounter she had with a young hitchhiking soldier on a visit to Israel a year after her son's tragic accident and how a series of unplanned events led her to renew her shattered faith.
The former school principal and renowned educator tells the Weekly the latest volume, co-edited by Deb Levy Friedler and Lindy Davis, and the earlier works stand out as a trove of information that will keep the history of the community intact.
"It's definitely a legacy work. The synagogue has never had an archivist and when it shifted from its Princes Street site, a lot of material was lost, and then there was a flood in the basement. These three books are really the only works specifically about Auckland Jewry told by each writer in their own words."
While Ann had to piece together her mother's history through letters stashed in an attic, she says there's been a generational shift in people sharing their family stories.
"We never spoke about things at home," Ann says. "My questions went unanswered. I didn't find my mother's story until she was dead.
"When workmen were pulling down the old family home in Remuera, they found a large cardboard box stuffed full of letters wedged in the rafters.
"A workman said to my son Peter, who had been living there, 'Do you want all this? There's a box of old letters here with funny stamps on them.' Peter said, 'My God, they're in my grandmother's handwriting!' In them I found out her whole life story."
Ann remains hopeful that the community, despite its small size, will remain a resilient and productive force.
"The people who are here... Well, you can see from the book what they've done. The Jewish community is minuscule in comparison with other religious groups in New Zealand but what it lacks in numbers it more than compensates for in terms of its contribution to the country.
"This book is a celebration of the many and varied achievements this community has accomplished."
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