How Yiddish Made a Home in Melbourne

The following essay by Arnold Zable was featured in the catalogue for the exhibition MAMELOSHN – HOW YIDDISH MADE A HOME IN MELBOURNE at the Jewish Museum of Australia.

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We begin mid-ocean, moving over the equator from north to south. The destination is an island-continent at the ends of the earth. On board ship are a wandering people of many tongues, but the one which defines them is Yiddish, a language which found its first home in the legendary centres of Yiddishland: Warsaw, Bialystok, Lodz, Krakow and Lvov, Odessa and Vilna, and countless cities, towns and hamlets throughout Eastern Europe, some so small they cannot be located on any map of the old world. Forgive me if I have left out yours.

Yiddish was looked down upon by the snobby elite, the social climbers, while on the street, in the market place, on horse-drawn wagons, in shtetl cottages and city tenements, on factory floors, in tradesmen’s workshops and the smoke-filled rooms of union meetings, it ruled supreme. It was a language of commerce, lullabies and laments, troubadours and poets, of curses and loving diminutives, and of agitators and autodidacts hungering after revolutionary change. And a language in which were debated the great issues of the day: modernity as opposed to tradition, and orthodoxy versus enlightenment.

L Peretz Kindergarten circa 1950. Top row right, Lererin Shulamis Sher and middle, Lererin Cluwa Krystal.
L Peretz Kindergarten circa 1950. Top row right, Lererin Shulamis Sher and middle, Lererin Cluwa Krystal.

And for those on board ship Yiddish was mameloshn, the mother tongue, a way of life. Take for instance the actor Samuel Weisberg, who stepped ashore from the steamship Vulcania in Port Melbourne on a Monday morning, November 1908. Seated at a dining table with immigrant Yidn in a worker’s boarding house in Carlton that evening, a committee was formed and the next day, Hag Ha’susim, the Sacred Day of the Horses, the wheels were set in motion.

The following Sunday, Weisberg performed the melodrama Bar Kohkba, penned by the father of Yiddish theatre, Avrom Goldfaden. A Yiddish troupe was formed, and on 11 January 1909, the actors staged Goldfaden’s operetta Shulamis in Temperance Hall in Russell Street. The performance marked the beginning of Yiddish theatre in Melbourne.  Over the years it would be infused by directors, actors, producers, set designers and supporters who had made the journey from the old world.

Studio portrait of young Jacob (Yankev) Waislitz, 1940s

Among them was Yankev Waislitz, a member of the renowned Vilna Theatre, who stepped ashore on 26 January 1938 while on a world tour. After a series of one-man shows he galvanized the Yiddish speaking community in Melbourne with a production of the most renowned Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, in the Princess Theatre. Waislitz travelled on. In the mean time, Yiddish actor Rokhl Holzer disembarked on 2 April 1939. Born in Krakow in 1900, she brought with her years of experience in Yiddish theatre ensembles throughout Poland.

Waislitz returned from his world tour and, with Holzer, he became marooned in Melbourne. With the outbreak of war there was no going back. They took over the fledgling David Herman Theatre. While the old world burnt, in Melbourne there were seasons of up to eight Yiddish plays per year.

We return to the ocean, 1921. On board ship are the wandering Yiddish writer Peretz Hirschbein and his wife, the poet Esther Shumiakher. As they approached the Sydney Harbour Heads, through The Gap the couple glimpsed “a radiant world,” wrote Hirschbein. The scent of eucalyptus wafted across the harbour. Forested islands rose from its waters. But within days the couple discovered the most crucial ingredient, Yiddish, was missing.

They journeyed to Melbourne and were escorted from the station to Drummond Street in Carlton, the premises of the Kadimah. To their astonishment there was a locale where one could hear a Yiddish word. The couple delivered public lectures and recited their works. After five weeks they resumed their wandering ways, but their impact was profound.

The Kadimah was founded in 1911 as a library and cultural centre by immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. Its first location was 59 Bourke Street. In 1915 the library moved to a more spacious home in Drummond Street. Concerts alternated with discourses on Australian life. Free English lessons featured alongside lectures on Yiddish and Hebrew literature.

At first Hebrew and English rivalled Yiddish as the preferred tongue. By 1925 the Kadimah Drama Circle was formed, the first of many Yiddish theatre ensembles based in the Kadimah over the next seven decades. In the late 1920s there were three Yiddish theatre ensembles at one time serving a community of Yiddish speakers of barely two thousand.

In 1933, the Kadimah shifted house to newly built premises in Lygon Street. With its arched windows and mock marble portico, the building resembled a secular synagogue. The hall boasted a modern stage, a prompter’s box and dressing rooms. The building was inaugurated with a performance of Peretz Hirschbein’s drama Green Fields. Set designer Mordekhai Schakhter, who hailed from Chelm, the legendary city of fools, transformed the new stage into an idyllic pastoral scene from the old world.

Melech Ravitch in northern Australia with Aboriginal companion, circa 1933
Melech Ravitch in northern Australia with Aboriginal companion, circa 1933

One of the first guests in the newly built Kadimah was the Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch. He arrived in Melbourne on 30 June 1933 aboard the French boat Ville d’Amien. Ravitch was on a mission to raise money on behalf of the impoverished Yiddish schools in Poland. Seven hundred people crowded into the Kadimah to welcome him. Speakers sang his praises. Actors recited his works.

Armed with notebooks and a Kodak camera, Ravitch journeyed from Melbourne to outback Australia by train and mail truck. His observations were published in Warsaw newspapers. “We are preparing for a long journey my patient readers,” he began. “We are going to get to know a whole new world.”

On a summer night in December 1934, after a journey of twenty-five weeks, Ravitch enthralled the Kadimah audience with a lecture accompanied by lanternslides. Commenting on an image of a waterbag swinging from a train ceiling, Ravitch said, “the passengers would have preferred it to be filled with whisky.” The problems of the outback, he added, could be solved in four words: ‘More water, less beer!’

For this man of letters who moved with ease in the literary circles of Warsaw, the contrasts between Europe and the outback were overwhelming. He identified with the Aboriginals and could see in them a familiar look, the gaze of the outsider, a people estranged within their own land. He now understood the great paradox, that the new world was far much more ancient than the old. Ravitch speculated that perhaps displaced Jews could settle in The Kimberley.  Where else, the poet said, referring to Melbourne’s first Tuesday in November, could one find a country that came to a stand still for a horserace; far better to stop for a horse race than a pogrom.

Ravitch travelled on, but returned within two years. He rented a large room in Parkville. One night in 1937, he surveyed hundreds of poems he had written since his last collection, published in Vienna in 1921. He arranged them in bundles, which he labelled: Asian, American, African, European, Australian, Oceanic, Yiddishe, Philosophical, Pacifist, and ‘personal poems written within the intimacy of four walls’, and tied them together with a blue ribbon. On a piece of cardboard he wrote the title, Oceans and Continents.

It was two o’clock in the morning. The poet was overcome “by both a feeling of frightful loneliness and boundless joy.” He had to share this moment with someone. Just streets away lived the Yiddish writer Pinhas Goldhar. Born in Lodz, he had settled in Melbourne in 1928. By day he worked in a factory boiling dyes, and he wrote late into the night. In 1931 he founded the first Yiddish newspaper in Australia, Australier Leben, a forerunner of the weekly Die 0ystralishe Yidishe Nayes, which until its demise in 1995 served the needs of countless readers.

Ravitch hurried to Goldhar’s weatherboard. A ray of light shone from the front room. He tapped softly on the window. Goldhar rose from his desk and pulled back the curtains. “It’s nothing … I have only just now completed my book of poems … Continents and Oceans … I know you’ll understand … I just had to show it to someone … I couldn’t wait until morning … I would have gone mad with loneliness,” whispered Ravitch, placing the manuscript on the windowsill. Goldhar returned from the kitchen with two crystal glasses to toast the completion of a volume of Yiddish poems, in the most distant of continents from the old world.

Melech Ravitch moved on in July 1937, but he left an enduring legacy. Twenty months earlier, in October 1935, he was appointed the first principal of a Yiddish school. Named the IL Peretz School, after the so-called ‘father’ of Yiddish literature, the classes opened on Sunday morning, 3 November 1935. Its first home was the Kadimah in Lygon Street. The school was imbued with the principles of Yiddishkeit, perhaps best described as secular humanism, based on a love of language and social justice.

Just over two decades later I came to know Ravitch’s successor, Joseph Giligich, who journeyed to Melbourne to take on the job of principal in 1938. Born in Vilna, Giligich had also taught in Riga, by the shores of the Baltic.

One Sunday morning circa 1960, Giligich led me to a cabinet of Yiddish books in the Drummond Street premises of the Peretz School. I read so voraciously that soon the cupboard was bare. The patriarch announced he would arrange for me to be admitted into the adult library, located in a single-fronted cottage next door to the Kadimah in Lygon Street.

Books lined the passage and the walls of every room. They lay upon tables where readers sat over newspapers and journals imported from Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, Warsaw, London, Moscow, Mexico City, New York and Paris, the many cities where their people had migrated. They were keepers of the Yiddish book, and I had become their latest initiate.

The year 1937 marked a turning point for Yiddish literature in Australia. Pinhas Goldhar’s story ‘The Pioneer’ appeared in the Australian Yiddish Almanac. A volume of essays, stories, poems and translations of Australian literature, it was the first Yiddish book published in Australia.

In 1939 Pinhas Goldhar published his Yiddish short story collection Stories from Australia. In 1941, Herz Bergner, Ravitch’s younger brother, who had arrived in Melbourne from Warsaw in 1938, published his first Australian book of Yiddish stories, aptly titled The New House. Both collections depicted the efforts of Jewish immigrants to adjust to a new land.

Herz Bergner’s novel Between Sea and Sky, published in English translation in 1946, depicts the voyage of a group of refugees on board a Greek freighter bound for Australia. They are a traumatised people tormented by the horrors of their recent past, and the fate of the loved ones they have left behind.

The ship drifts helplessly, like ‘a black hearse’, its passengers an unwanted people. One irate crew member taunts them: “Human beings? Important people? You have been thrown out of everywhere and no one will take you in. All doors and gates are closed to you. We can’t put in at any port because of you.”

Bergner’s most ambitious novel, Light and Shadow, depicts the struggles of a family who emigrate from Poland to Australia in the 1930s. They live uneasily as the only Jewish family in a country town. The mother, Sheindl Zeling, feels isolated. Her husband, Hersh, is often absent, hawking goods in the countryside. Her children, Leslie, Pauline and Morry, are often ashamed of her outlandishness. The surrounding bush intimidates her. In summer the threat of fire is imminent. “Why did you bring me here?” she asks Hersh in despair.

The family moves to Carlton to settle among a community of Jews. Sarah the widow’s restaurant serves chopped liver and apple compote. Hawkers sip tea and borscht, and discuss their prospects in the new land. There is a Yiddish cultural centre, obviously modelled on the Kadimah, where they can attend a play, a library, and an orthodox shtiebl where grandfather Borukh-Itche can pray.

But the news is not good. Bombs are falling over Warsaw. Hersh sees the headlines on the way home from his factory in Flinders Lane. He knows instantly that life will never be the same. Sheindl dreams of her nieces’ and nephews’ ‘soft white hands’, outstretched, ‘crying for help’. She stands naked over a freshly dug grave, and awakens covered in sweat.

Post-war, and again the ships are heading for Australia. On board are displaced persons, Holocaust survivors. Yiddishland and its legendary centres lay in ruins. The new arrivals were welcomed at Station Pier by members of the Jewish Welfare Society and driven to a welcoming banquet at the Kadimah. The community in Carlton helped ease the way to a new life with Yiddish theatre, literary evenings, concerts and guest scholars from abroad. Among those who stepped ashore were Bundists who revered the Yiddish word, Kultur-tuers, cultural activists, and a new generation of Yiddish theatre workers.

By day they worked in factories, corner milk bars, local shopping strips, the Victoria Market, and in fledgling businesses, while at night they sat on committees, rehearsed plays, staffed the Peretz School, set up the Sholem Aleichem School in St Kilda, founded SKIF, the Bund youth group, and fiercely debated the issues of the day. They expanded the scope of the Yiddishe Nayess with columnists, critics, novelists and poets, polemicists and stirrers, and ushered in a renaissance in Yiddish theatre, which now had an audience of thousands. In the 1950s, Yiddish in Melbourne reached its zenith.

In 1968 the Kadimah gave in to demographic trends and shifted to Elsternwick. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a challenge that has become more urgent in recent years. Can Yiddish survive here, now that mass immigration has ceased, with perhaps the exception of the Russian Jews who arrived in the 1980s and 90s?

Before we attempt an answer, it must be said that what I have described is the mere tip of the iceberg. The story of Yiddish in Melbourne is an epic with a cast of thousands. I have chosen just a handful of those who built and sustained the foundations. It would require several volumes to do the story justice.

Yiddish in Melbourne lives on in many guises: Yiddish reading groups, the sof vokh weekend retreats, Sholem Aleichem College day school, university and VCE courses, Klezmer ensembles, the Bund, and cultural events at the Kadimah. And the library, where Yiddish books are restored and catalogued by volunteers who sort through legacies left by a passing generation, volumes returned from the dead. The language also lives on among the Orthodox who still distinguish between the language of the scriptures, Hebrew, and Yiddish, the language of the streets.

Why Yiddish? Because it is a language of people who did not have a land, people who lived on the edge, never knowing when they would have to pack up their bags and become gypsies again. The Yiddish poet and troubadour Itzkhak Manger personified this. Born in Romania, the son of a tailor, he recited his poems throughout Eastern Europe and elevated the tribulations of the common man into songs and legends. He created magic out of despair, and wisdom out of daily struggle.

In the darkest times it was the tongue of ghetto poets and resisters. Only in hell could the Vilna Ghetto inmate Shmuel Kaszerginski write: Quiet, quiet, let us be quiet, corpses are growing here. Only in Gehenna could the young Vilna poet Hirsh Glick write a song of defiance that is sung to this day at memorial gatherings: Never say you are going on your last way, when blue skies are concealed by skies of leaden grey.

Yiddish as a people’s language is embodied in the genius of Mordekhai Gebirtig, the carpenter-poet of Krakow, who employed a shepherd’s flute to compose instant folksongs about love and nostalgia, childhood years and social injustices. In 1936, as the storm clouds were gathering and the pogroms returning, he conceived his prophetic hymn: It’s burning brother, it’s burning, our impoverished shtetl is burning. He was still composing songs just days before he perished en route to the death camps from the Krakow Ghetto.

2010 saw the death of ninety-six-year old Avram Sutzkever, the partisan-poet who captured the struggles of his people and spent the next six decades in Tel Aviv, much of it as founder editor of a Yiddish literary journal Die Goldene Keit, The Golden Chain. When articles were published in the Hebrew press that Yiddish was going under, he famously replied, “show me where it is gone and I will find and retrieve it.”

My father, Meier, was a Yiddish poet. He sat in the front room of his single-fronted home in Carlton, bent over his beloved Yiddish poets after yet another unrewarding day at work. The one constant in his life, he writes in one of his poems, was the Yiddish alphabet: Through aleph, beit, gimmel I came to know the world, to see the sky, to discern its wisdom.

His words are echoed in the works of post-Holocaust immigrant, Jacob Rosenberg, the poet of the Lodz Ghetto, and a graduate of a Gehenna called Auschwitz. A prolific writer deeply burdened by the tragic loss of family and community, Jacob desperately sought to find light in the darkness. His poems are laments for the murdered, acts of love and defiance, and songs of praise for the Yiddish language, my beautiful mother tongue.

“Why Yiddish?” The final answer is obvious. “Why not?” Of Yiddish, it can be said, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said of free will: “Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice.” Forget about why and wherefore. Abi men zet zikh. As long as we see each other, as long as we meet and argue, discuss and read, sing and breathe new life into mameloshn, the mother tongue, the rest will take care of itself.