History and community


Hebrew has been taught as an official subject at the University of Melbourne since 1946 with the establishment of the Lazarus and Abraham Sicree Chair of Semitic Studies and the appointment of the extraordinary foundation professor, Maurice Goldman (see below). Both modern and more ancient versions, such as Biblical prose and post-exilic Hebrew, were offered as units in the curriculum of the new Semitics department as well as Ethiopic and Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages. Changes over the years have meant that modern Hebrew is the prime concern of the remnants of the Semitic department, now known as the program in Jewish Culture and Society. Hebrew studies is located administratively within the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, although it has an arrangement with the faculties of the University of Divinity which offer Biblical or ancient Hebrew as part of the their theology program.

Professor Maurice Goldman

Foundation Professor of Semitic Studies

Professor Maurice Goldman was a talented man who could speak thirty different languages, although with a fairly strong accent, and was able to understand an additional ten to twenty in written form. In Polish, Russian, German, English, Hungarian, Yiddish, Arabic and Hebrew, Goldman was fluent. Furthermore he could translate most languages if he was given time, simply because of his extensive knowledge of word derivations, roots and symbols.

Born in Kolo, Poland in 1898, Goldman was able to speak Polish, German, Yiddish and Hebrew by the time he was five, virtually a necessity in the Jewish communities of partitioned Poland. At the age of ten, Goldman added the Russian language to his repertoire, as it became compulsory in the schools of the further partitioned Poland. At seventeen, he finished school and became a medical student at Warsaw University. He then decided he much preferred studying languages and transferred to the University of Berlin where he studies Semitic languages. By the age of twenty-four, Goldman was a Doctor of Philosophy. He became a private tutor, then a lecturer in Berlin and eventually one of the principal professors at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary, Berlin (1932-1938) and the Rabbinical Academy of Berlin (1935-1938). In addition, he published a five-volume outline of Hebrew, entitled Hebraisch.

In 1923, Goldman became interested in Falashsa, the black Jews of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He was given the chance to lead a research expedition to Abyssinia by the Prussian Academy and the German Government, where he was to search out old manuscripts in monasteries and learn Agau, the language of the Falasha. Goldman studied all possible material, became familiar with the main dialects and started learning to understand the script. Suddenly the expedition was cancelled as an extravagance in the face of pressure from the Allies for reparation payments.

Without ever going there, though, Goldman became a noted authority on Abyssinia. In 1925 he published the first translation from Ethiopic to Hebrew of the Ethiopic Book of Jubilees together with a commentary. He also attempted to compile an Ethiopic dictionary in the early 1950s for the University, as few existed anywhere in the world, and none at the University where it was a language of the Department of Semitic Studies.

In 1938, Goldman, a Polish passport holder, was forced to flee Germany after an uncomplimentary lecture about Hitler attracted the attention of the Gestapo. Before leaving though, he made arrangements to finish assessing his students, completing the corrections of their papers and leaving for Warsaw only hours before the Gestapo came to arrest him. Within days he was on his way to Australia where he had a sister in Horsham, Victoria.

When Goldman came to Australia, he struggled to establish himself teaching elementary Hebrew to private pupils and working in the Sunday school of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. During the war he worked in the Censorship Office, where, it is said, it took three people to replace him when he left. In 1944, the University of Melbourne was given a grant to endow a Chair of Semitic Studies. Originally anonymous, the donor was later revealed as Mr Abraham Sicree who supported the chair for five years and asked that it be known as the Lazarus and Abraham Sicree Chair. In July 1945, Professor Goldman took up duties and the department became a thriving part of the University.

Goldman’s ability to simplify languages was revolutionary, especially in the case of Hebrew and Arabic. He treated language as a tree, and the rules of it as the hundreds of tiny branches. The students were taught by concentrating on the reasons behind the rules and on the phonetic principles on which the rules are derived. Professor Goldman took the tree trunk and outlined the development of the main branches of the tree. His theory was that the branchlets lead off as a matter of course once the students could follow the major branches. An aid in this method was the use of carefully developed slides.

Professor Goldman argued that all language research was an essay in detection. He spent many happy hours eagerly examining translations of biblical passages, for example, to prove the altered meaning of the original because of a misunderstanding of a Hebrew word or phrase. Indeed, Professor Goldman was usually able to identify a person’s mother tongue not by accent but by a turn of phrase, the construction of a sentence or a word used. As a mental exercise in Germany, the Professor listened to Hitler’s speeches to determine who had written what parts of them. For example, Hitler’s geopolitical advisor, Alfred Rosenberg, was from near the Baltic and every now and then a passage would occur in the speeches where purely Russian syntax was employed.

Outside the University he was often called upon by the Government to serve in courts to verify translations of legal documents or to act as an interpreter for Customs when the dialects of new arrivals baffled the ordinary interpreter. During his time in the Censorship Office, Professor Goldman once had to translate a letter written by a Melbourne man to his mother in Baghdad which was a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. Using the symbols of the man’s name and address as a key, he managed a complete translation in a few hours.

In the 1950s Professor Goldman was a solid man of 5ft 10in. He moved and spoke ponderously and had a quiet dry wit, which together with his impassive features often had him taken seriously by those whose leg he loved to pull. He had a broad face, crisp wavy black hair, a pronounced nose and tiny eyes that twinkled. On 15 September 1957, the extraordinary Professor Goldman died. His death evoked many expressions of deep regret from within Australia and far outside it.

Please note: Much of the information on this page previously appeared in an article in People on 13 February, 1952 entitled, “A Man Who Talks with 30 Tongues”. Further information came from “Origins of the Semitic Studies Department, Melbourne University”, an article by Raymond Apple which was read before the Victorian Branch of the Australian Jewish Historical Society on 18 February, 1958.