From Australia’s Jewish Past:
Heaven-born instructor of youth
First published in J-Wire November 8, 2022
Louis Pulver was the son of Isaac and Rosetta, who met and married in London in 1840.
Isaac and Rosetta set sail for Melbourne in 1851, when Isaac was almost fifty and had dabbled in business without much success. However, the story goes that when he had money, he gave five guineas to the synagogue building fund and bought some or all of Dr David Hailperin’s Hebrew Library.
The Pulvers had six children – four born in England and two in Australia. The two born in Melbourne were Solomon and Louis, neither of whom married.
Louis was born in 1855 and was educated in Melbourne. He gained good Jewish knowledge and training in synagogue traditional melodies through his father. His secular education came from the Jewish day school and the Melbourne Model School. He specialised in music and gained a certificate from the Victorian Education Department. He financed most of his studies by working as a warehouse assistant for Feldheim, Jacobs and Company for three or four years. He became a competent violinist, pianist and organist, as well as other instruments. He was honorary secretary to the local orchestral society, composed music for some of Longfellow’s poems and taught music and singing.
His main focus was within the Jewish community with his Jewish career initially centered on the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, where he was choirmaster, secretary, teacher and headmaster. He did not enjoy the secretarial work as well as feeling dissatisfied with his work with the choir, in part because he could not recruit enough boy choristers.
He loved his teaching and, although he did not have any formal qualifications, he did have a philosophy of teaching. He said “My first and principal duty is to make my pupils good; to instil knowledge comes next.’’ Louis had an excellent rapport with his pupils; and it is said that there an electric current in his classroom. His classes were so popular that money had to be spent on enlarging the synagogue classroom. Classes took place on Sunday mornings and three afternoons a week after school. There was a carefully crafted syllabus and boys and girls were taught separately with no child to be promoted to the next class without passing Pulver’s test. The day’s lessons concluded with the singing of “God Save the Queen” – in Hebrew.
Louis was also very creative and organised extracurricular activities which everyone loved. He was like everybody’s uncle inviting them all to amazing picnics at Brighton Beach, and his birthday parties and, as far as being an educator – he was more than ahead of his time.
Louis involved himself in fundraising for the Young Jewish Men’s Russian Relief Fund, the Melbourne Jewish Club, and the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, where he was secretary. His musical interests included the Melbourne Artists’ Society, dedicated to classical music, where he was the librarian.
As popular as he was, he often thought he was being taken for granted and following the early death of Hyman Isaacs (headmaster of the Sydney Jewish Education Board) in 1884, Louis applied for the position and was successful. He continued in this position until ill health forced him to resign in 1896.
Once it was known that Louis was moving from Melbourne to Sydney, the East Melbourne community tried to retain him, but it was all too late. He was definitely well thought of and attended many farewell functions. The farewells organised for him included everyone from young to old, and it was evident that everyone was saddened by his departure. On 7 January 1885, he set off for Sydney and was overwhelmed by the crowds who came to the station to see him off. Melbourne never knew another teacher like Pulver.
Louis was still in his twenties when he moved to Sydney and, unfortunately, he only spent thirteen years in his new role before he passed away at the age of forty-two. Whilst he did not marry and have his own children, he was very much like ‘’Mr Chips’’, always with a following of children. Louis, as headmaster of the SJEB continued his work with the same remarkable energy and ideas as he had done in Melbourne. He worked on educational ideas and policies that reflected and enhanced the thinking of the time.
He became the musical stalwart of the community, acting as choirmaster and master of ceremonies and occasionally gave sermons when the Chief Rabbi – Rev Alexander Davis – was away. Sabbath afternoon services for children were a highlight with most of the children gathering from the local surrounding community.
Louis was never idle. As he had done in Melbourne, he was involved in musical organisations and literary societies and began writing and was recognised for his achievements. If there were no textbooks, Louis the ‘’superhero’’ wrote them, as well as guides to prayer books and the Bible, vocabulary exercises, and explanations of Hebrew grammar – all composed by his pen. It might be said that in Louis, the Australian Jewish community had a greater educator than many of his counterparts in England. Amongst his books was his famous First Bible Stories for Little People, which was first printed in 1889 and subsequently reissued several times. The last edition was published in 1930 by the Rev Morris Rosenbaum of the Borough Synagogue in South London. The work’s success has much to do with the author’s ability – as he explains in his preface – “to bring down to the mental capacities of young children the histories contained in the earlier portions of the Bible, and the principal moral truths which they teach”.
It went without saying that his classes were run professionally, with syllabuses, teaching aids and discipline standards. Right of Entry classes in public schools were introduced through the NSW Free Secular Public Instruction Act of 1880. Pupils had no chance of being bored. They and their headmaster were friends. The Jewish Herald said that in him, children had “a true friend, a loving companion and a sympathetic instructor”. In the history of the NSWBJE, Maurice Kellerman says that Louis’ influence “cannot be over-estimated”. An obituarist called Pulver “a heaven-born instructor of youth”.
Louis was a tall, black-bearded, energetic man (with large feet!). His energy and stamina were evident and yet energy and stamina can both be sapped by illness. Still in his early 40s, Pulver became unwell and was lovingly tended to by his sister. He died on 4 November 1897, at the age of forty-two, of “tubercular disease of the kidneys” having spent the last couple of months of his life in Sydney Hospital.
When he died he was described in a poem published in the Jewish Herald as:
The teacher, rarely gifted to instil
The love of God in childhood’s budding mind;
Who from the mouth of babe and suckling strove
To established strength in Jacob’s tents;
Whose loving heart called forth responsive love,
Implanting gentle virtue’s elements.
In his honour, a prize known as the ‘Pulver Prize’ was established and generations of Sydney Jews were proud to say, “I won the Pulver Prize”. In a Jewish sense, this carried almost the same cachet as the Pulitzer Prize in the United States, named after a Jewish newspaper publisher.
The Pulver Prize honoured a late nineteenth-century Jewish educator and musician whose pupils would have echoed the phrase made popular in Reader’s Digest many decades later, “My Most Unforgettable Teacher”.
- Oz Torah by Rabbi Raymond Apple
- AJHS Journal – June 2015, Vol. 22, Part 2
- A Bibliography of Australian Judaica (Sydney: Mandelbaum Trust, 1987 ed)