A sort of synogogue for the secular
Autobiographical writing, 2010, commissioned by Julie Meadows
My feelings for Yiddish Carlton run the whole spectrum from love to hatred. Hate, because Yiddish is associated with being coerced; how it was thrust on me by parents, who were determined to keep it alive in our home. They had enormous expectations of me to excel at Yiddish school – to bring home the highest marks, and they did not spare the show of disappointment if I fell short. There is also the memory of coming home alone on winter evenings after a Yiddish class through half-empty streets, having to navigate past an army barrack, scared of being accosted by a predatory male.
Today, as I mellow, I love it because the language sits so well in the psyche, seeming to just flow from the innermost memories of countless generations. I have had two love relationships in which the bonding was strengthened by the common Yiddishisms we had not heard or spoken for years.
The Kadimah, the focal point of Jewish secular life in Melbourne, was run mainly by the Bund, many of whose spokespeople were from Lithuania or Latvia. They adopted a tone of moral superiority and were convinced that they had precedence over Jewish culture and survival. From my perspective, the Kadimah had two functions: the Yiddishe Shule and the Yiddishe Teater. I had no option but to attend Yiddishe Shule. My parents perceived Yiddish and Yiddishe Kultur as a panacea, a saving grace – it was the only way to maintain a Jewish identity, to protect against assimilation, which for them signified a cardinal sin, even annihilation. It may have been a penance for the guilt they felt for having escaped the Holocaust, whereas their loved ones did not. Adherence to the language, and to the people who spoke it, was a haven from the essential alienation they felt as immigrants. They were not alone in this; our teachers were dedicated with an almost religious devotion to imparting the grammar and literature – the delights of Sholem Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz. Ironically, however, I learnt about Jewish ethics and humanitarian laws as expounded in the Torah, as well as the elements of Modern Hebrew, from a fanatical Bundist.
I always felt that Kultur and Bildung (education) took the place of religion and ritual, which had been so strenuously rejected by the progressives in their youth. The Kadimah was a sort of synagogue for the secular. The Admor was Joseph Giligich, an imposing intellectual, immaculately turned out and a great linguistic authority, as he had been in his home city of Riga. He worked tirelessly to maintain the school and the cultural activities. The rituals were annual elections for all sorts of welfare and cultural committees and the annual school concert, the latter in keeping with the tradition in the Yiddish schools of Europe, where children’s performances were always a very important part of the curriculum. Yours truly was always obliged to perform: even when I grew up, I resided in the memory of many people as, “that cute little girl who recited poetry”.
My Yiddish adapted like a chameleon with the environment. At home we only communicated in Yiddish (woe to me if I tried speaking English). It was the “Yiddishe Yiddish” of central Poland, soft, slurred, and even sensuous speech, with expressions which came from the deepest levels of your soul – Yiddish redt sich. Upon reaching the gates of the Kadimah, I switched to the Litvishe (Lithuanian) Yiddish, a sort of equivalent to Oxford English for that language. To me it sounded cerebral, calculating and stunted, and was characterized by clipped vowels, and an exactness in articulation so that “voos vestde teen”became, “vos vest du ton” (what are you going to do).
We lived in Park Street, Brunswick, on the outer perimeter of Jewish Carlton, just across the railway track, which was the demarcation line between Carlton and East Brunswick. Our street was not as densely populated with Jews as say, Drummond Street. The Smorgons’ beautiful white house was concealed in a secluded lane near the Lygon Street end, but further up towards Royal Parade, which seemed a very long distance but was probably about seven minutes’ walk, there lived the wonderful Rachel Holcer and her husband Chaim Rosenstein. A little closer to us lived Yacov Waislitz. They were good friends of ours and shaped my conception of the Yiddish theatre and Kultur at its best. Generally kultureile menshen considered Yiddish theatre as shunde (an expression I learned in Israel, where I live), melodramas which could put current tele-novellas to shame. It was these two personalities who were mainly responsible for presenting a higher art form to the public with plays by Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, Anski’s Dybbuk, and even translations of modern Hebrew plays. Waislitz had been an actor in Warsaw. He looked something of an eccentric, with strong features, statuesque bearing and a wonderful bass voice. He had a dramatic way of speaking, with powerful accentuations and sweeping gestures. He had no compunction about rehearsing his roles – not in silence – while waiting at a tram stop. His talent for theatricals and dedication to us children as a Yiddish teacher were undeniable, and we remember him with great reverence and love.
But it was Rachel Holcer, the lady from Cracow which had been a thriving Jewish centre, who topped my list. She excelled in recitations; could entrance an audience for two hours with wonderful selections of poetry and prose delivered with perfect diction, timing and true artistry. She was a beautiful woman with aristocratic, chiseled features, hair swept into an elegant bun, and who dressed in impeccable taste; and she would never, never let anyone forget that she was an actress. And actress she was – in life and on the stage. My parents were very close to this childless couple and her love for them and for me particularly (she called me katzele), was sincere. She always felt a notch above them all, as many artists do. I suppose that is why they did not have much of a social life. Unfortunately, in old age, she ended up in the Montefiore home, a shadow of her wonderful self.
In retrospect, I am thankful for experiencing (it is the only expression I can find) Yiddish. It carries inherent memories of the many generations; it expresses human weaknesses and strengths better than any other medium I know. Although I was born and educated in Australia, and have been living in Israel for 50 years, speaking only Hebrew with my children and friends, and reading Hebrew-language newspapers, when pushed for words to express “the real thing”, some wonderful Yiddish phrase just pops out – to the enjoyment of my Ashkenazi friends, and even the Sephardim.
A recent survey in Israel, made by a prominent statistician, shows that about one million people, apart from the ultra-religious, still speak Yiddish. There are courses in Yiddish language here at a Tel Aviv cultural centre and at the university, which young people attend. I have heard it from a number of sources that Yiddish plays here are always well attended. Surprisingly, many young people of Iraqi and Moroccan origin love the sound of Yiddish. Yiddish may not be the lingua franca as in previous generations, but is it certainly not dying.