Delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Chevra Kadisha, Sydney, on Thursday 20 December 2001.
Ben Haneman was a civilized man – as we say in Hebrew, ish shehakol bo, a man with an interest in everything.
He was an eminent doctor, but as a medical historian he was probably aware that Jewish tradition is not always certain whether it approves of his profession. One opinion is: “The best of doctors is destined for Gehinnom”. The opposing view says: “Honour a physician”. Obviously, those who did not like doctors had never met Ben, a man with humanity and integrity in every fibre of his being … and those who praised doctors were obviously thinking of him centuries before he was born.
But before speaking of Ben as a doctor I have to recall the family from which he came. He was born in Florence in 1923 to Nathan and Amulka Haneman. The family arrived in Australia when he was four, together with a significant Hebrew library, some items of which I now have the privilege of owning. Nathan was not only well-read, but also a man of vision and determination, responsible for what is now the Southern Sydney Synagogue. Not long ago Ben gave a colourful historical survey of the early days, struggles and development of the congregation.
Ben graduated in Medicine from the University of Sydney, studied at the Royal Hammersmith Hospital in London for a year, became a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, was an honorary professor in the Faculty of Medicine in Navarre in Spain, received high honours from the Spanish government, and the award of Member of the Order of Australia for services to the Spanish community and medical education.
For Ben, practising medicine, teaching and examining medical students and delving into medical history were an absorbing occupation, and he was immersed in it in Australia and globally. He was mentor to generations of doctors at St George Hospital in Sydney and elsewhere, and if Ben took an interest in you, you knew he would be a source of encouragement.
It was only a few months ago that he gave a celebrity lecture at the Great Synagogue on Jews in Australian medicine. It was typical Ben Haneman. The knowledge of his subject was evident in every sentence, his sometimes quirky personality enlivened every moment, and his idiosyncratic views made for many a smile. I hope a manuscript of this address is extant and that we will have the opportunity of publishing it.
Ben was at home in many languages and cultures, especially Spanish literature and culture, and he was highly esteemed by the Spanish community. His major collection of editions (2,000 of them) of Don Quixote was donated to the State Library of NSW.
At the State Library he was a well-known personality and held leading office. But official libraries were not the only book collections that fascinated him. He was a member of the Great Synagogue Library Committee and had begun a series in the Synagogue Journal of articles revealing the excitement of items in the collection. Book collecting was a personal hobby, and his literary interests ranged across an immense spectrum. For a number of years he wrote book reviews for the Australian Jewish News, the Australian Journal of Medicine and the daily papers. He was always worth reading, though once again the approach was generally individualistic and not always conventional.
He enjoyed his involvement in the Jewish community. He often took up a partisan position in communal debates, and despite his lifetime affiliation to orthodox synagogues he expressed himself clearly in relation to aspects of orthodoxy of which he did not quite approve. In recent years he attended services in the Great Synagogue every Shabbat and probably the greatest compliment he could give the rabbi was to move forward to the front of the synagogue in order that his hearing problems would not prevent his listening to the sermon.
Ben was a loving father to his two sons and daughters-in-law and an outrageously proud grandfather of four. He had plenty of humour and regarded himself as a reconstructionist jokester – he could take the elements of a joke and rebuild them into something unbelievably funny.
He had countless friends and was wonderful company. All in all, a man who made an impact. We say sadly with the Biblical author: “You will be missed, for your seat will be empty.”