Speech by Professor Louis Waller

Sh’maryahu Levin, Zionist thinker, orator and author, wrote in his luminous autobiography that:

From Kiev I learnt that cities have souls.

Melbourne, unzer shte’tl Melbourne hot a shtikel a neshome a Yiddishe. Melbourne has always been a throbbing, lively bastion of Yiddish. Next year the Kadimah, which one of its founders proudly described in the first Australian Jewish Almanac, published in 1937, as a modernes Yiddish kultur – vinkel in veitsen vinkel fun der velt: ‘a modern Yiddish corner of culture in the furthest corner of the world’, celebrates its centenary. And there was Yiddish in Melbourne, of course, before 1911. From its Lygon Street citadel the Kadimah’s rays reached beyond the Carlton Yiddish heartland even unto St Kilda, where I grew up, and to South Yarra and to Toorak. The late Trevor Rapke wrote that in the 1930s chutzpe was best exhibited by an all-rightnik who moved from Carlton to Toorak without at least a sojourn in Elwood.

Yiddish language, Yiddish lore, Yiddish learning, Yiddish literature have flourished in our city. We have not only the Kadimah, with its incomparable library, but also Sholem Aleichem College, a primary school faithful to the philosophy of those who originally laboured in the Peretz and Sholem Aleichem chadorim. We have a wonderous legacy of local literary work of international repute. Pinchas Goldhar’s short stories and Herz Bergner’s novels remain jewels in the Yiddish treasure chest of our town. True it is in their English translations that most read and read them. This year Bergner’s searing novel,Between Sky and Sea, translated into English in 1946 by Judah Waten, has been republished, to renewed critical acclaim. A few years ago, a selection of Shmuel Bennet’s famous columns in the Yiddishe Nayes, Schvartz oyf Weiss, “In Black and White” and other essays, entitled Chronicles of a Life, superbly translated by Avram Cykiert, was published and reached a new readership.

This is a real-time real-life Chanukas Habayis of the virtual, of the Yiddish Melbourne website, a wonderful initiative of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. It is perhaps, bashert that Yiddish came to Monash University. John Monash’s grandfather, Baer-Loebel, was, in Geoffrey Serle’s words, “a learned publisher and printer… He preferred to write and speak Yiddish, was learned in Hebrew and probably had only a smattering of Polish, the language of the aristocracy and the peasants.” There is an unbroken thread in our web which reaches back to Baer-Loebel.

When Isaac Bashevis Singer, the giant of Yiddish literature in my lifetime, Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1978, first wrote in Warsaw, he no doubt used a pencil stub or a steel-nibbed pen dipped into an inkwell. When he died in 1991, the information super highway was laid out as a two lane carriageway with but a few intrepid travellers using it. I started using email in 1994 – a late starter in my children’s eyes.  Today – the superhighway is twittered and YouTubed, universal and instantaneous.  I have no doubt that Bashevis Singer vot g’kvelt – would be distended with delight – if he knew what we enjoy. Perhaps he does. This website brings Yiddish Melbourne to the world, and to generations today and tomorrow and tomorrow. There are the accounts of people who grew up in Yiddish, who went to Yiddishe Shul, who davened in shuls and in shtiblach where Yiddish was spoken. Where Yiddish is spoken. There are songs and there are stories.  There is laughter – and there are tears. There will be more, as the website grows and grows. I propose that it should incorporate – among much more of our Yiddish treasures – the wonderful essay written by Herz Bergner’s brother, who wrote as Melach Ravitch, and who captured our shtetl with his pen when he spent some months in Australia in the 1930s. This article, published first in a Warsaw magazine, reprinted later in a book, Iber Oystralie, is entitled Melbourne – a millionenshtot on fisgeyers” – Melbourne, a city of one million – without pedestrians. He begins by writing sardonically that he doesn’t precisely know what our city’s name is.

Einer zogt Melboorn, der tzveiter Melborn and dir driter zogt gor Melbern.

He complains that that’s English all over –

vi du zolst nisht reden vestu altz reden fargreist. Mit der doziken schprach iz tzum besten ingantzen nisht tzu reden…

[…However you speak it, you will always speak it badly. It’s best not to speak that particular language at all.]

So – speak Yiddish instead?


It’s fitting today, as we launch this website, to remember one who opened the door of the Academy to Yiddish. It was Henry Shaw, who crowned a stellar career as Hillel Director in London and in Melbourne by creating the Jewish Studies Program in the Prahran College of Advanced Education – and introduced Yiddish as one of its offerings. Henry secured the appointment of Danielle Charak as the first Lecturer in Yiddish. None better. Danielle’s commitment to Yiddish learning and teaching was conferred on Monash, and today we have again been enchanted by her words, and by her voice. Her diction, unlike mine, is worthy of being called the Queen’s Yiddish.

Henry gave me a book he got for the new course:  College Yiddish by the great and all too short-lived Uriel Weinreich. That book has this epigraph:

A matoné di allé vos bei zeiré kinder in moyl vet Yiddish leben.

“A gift for all those in whose children’s mouths Yiddish will live.”

This website set in our University, “a place of light, of liberty and of learning”, in Disraeli’s inimitable definition, is likewise a matoné – a gift to all those who will visit it, dip into its rich resources, and learn something of Yiddish Melbourne – then and now. May it bring light and learning to all those who find their way to it.

Emeritus Professor Louis Waller
18 November 2010