David Burstin

Carlton, a Yiddish shtetl

Autobiographical writing, 2010, commissioned by Julie Meadows

To my way of thinking, North Carlton was as close to a Yiddish shtetl as one can discern compared to any other suburb in Australia with a high concentration of Jews.  According to the 1933 census, the Jewish population of Carlton was 2800.  The community was relatively small, but their shtetl in Carlton was thriving.  Growing up in Carlton, or more specifically North Carlton, it was difficult to recall Jewish adults speaking any other language than Yiddish.  It was a migrant district, an area where new migrants congregated.  The established institutions reflected the attitudes of the period.  If you were secular your life revolved around the Jewish National Library, Kadimah, and the Yiddish Sunday School, which was later called the I.L. Peretz School.  If you were Orthodox, there was the Talmud Torah for education as well as various synagogues.  The Communist sympathizers had a meeting place called the Progressive Centre and there was also a Bialik Sunday School teaching Modern Hebrew.

Sender and Faige Burstin with (left to right) Ben, David the toddler and Maurice, 1939
Sender and Faige Burstin with (left to right) Ben, David the toddler and Maurice, 1939

What was significantly different about Yiddish Carlton, compared to present day Jewish Caulfield, was the relative absence of black coats.  The black coats had been cast aside by our parents who had embraced secularism.  They considered themselves free of the yoke of nineteenth century Jewish clericalism.  They were not as extreme in their orthodoxy compared with modern Jewish Melbourne.  They did not need a uniform and I felt that they were comfortable with just the wearing of a hat.  Also, there were not too many beards.  I cannot recall anyone wearing a shtreimel in Carlton during the 1940s or 1950s.

In our home, our parents always spoke Yiddish to me and my brothers.  My father looked on Yiddish as the link that bound Ashkenazi Jews.  Nothing infuriated Dad more than people referring to Yiddish as a jargon.  He felt that those Jews that didn’t recognize Yiddish as a language were undermining a language spoken by millions of people.  There was no need to discuss self-evident facts.  Of course, Yiddish was a language that needed to be preserved and cultivated.

With the birth of my brothers Ben in 1931 and Maurice in1933, my father and mother became concerned that there was no suitable Yiddish school for their children in Melbourne.  My father had been active on a committee raising money for the secular Yiddish Schools in Poland; now the need was for a Yiddish school in Melbourne.  My father recalls receiving a letter from Melech Ravitch (a well known Yiddish writer of the period) in June 1935, advising of his imminent arrival in Australia.  On his arrival Ravitch indicated that he wished to remain in Australia because antisemitism in Poland was worsening.  Since his needs were modest, feelers were put to him to run a new Yiddish school in Melbourne to be based in Carlton.  He accepted the offer.  The foundation committee, which included Yiddishists of all political persuasions, met in October 1935.  The new school opened its doors on first Sunday in November 1935 with over 30 students.  The Melbourne Cup to be run in two days time didn’t deter them.  Since the school did not have its own building, the Kadimah placed its new building opposite the Melbourne General Cemetery at the school’s disposal.  The school offered to pay a nominal rent of one pound a week. It was not collected.

It was only natural that my father, who was ideologically committed to secularism, would be on the foundation committee of the Yiddish School Movement in Carlton.  The school taught Yiddish language, Jewish History, Tradition and Ethics. Our family has been involved continuously in the Yiddish schools since their inception.  As a matter of interest, Sender Burstin’s great-grand daughter is the current School Captain at Sholem Aleichem College.  The Yiddish school was perhaps the only area where the Bundists, the Progressives and Communists worked co-operatively.  It was truly non-political.  The Yiddish School that was established would best be described with the Yiddish word veltleche.  The words secular or humanist are close but not perfect translations.

You could say that our home was a hotbed of anti-Communism.  My father said that he was the victim of a Jewish Communist purge in Carlton.  During the 1930s he was the secretary of the “Gezerd”, an active Yiddish-speaking Social Democratic organisation operating in Carlton.  During the political debates that they regularly held, he described the newly-founded Jewish Autonomous Region in Eastern Russia, Birobijan, as a deception on the Jewish people.  He questioned why the Soviet Communist Party had chosen such a forlorn area on the Chinese border to house the Jewish independent state.  He was asked to withdraw his opinions, but he refused.  Subsequently, at a convened meeting of members, a trial was held and he was expelled from the organisation.  Dad said that his accuser, Aaron Perl, at the point of expulsion said, “There goes the real social fascist.”  A few other members followed him in sympathy.  Those that were left reformed the “Gezerd” into the Progressive Centre.

Many of my attitudes towards life were developed by Mr. Giligich, who was the head master of the Yiddish School.  He was feted within the Yiddish community and highly regarded as a great pedagogue.  However the teacher that influenced me most during my ten years as a student of the school was the writer Ber Rosen.  It was he who guided us through the literary works of I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch.  He was able to relate to students whose level of Yiddish was only average.  Every Tuesday after Yiddish classes he would come to dinner at our home in Lygon Street.  Because of his inspiration, I was able to read the Yiddish novel Kein America by Sholem Asch in the original.  He passed away in 1953 from a sudden heart attack, two months before our graduation.  He was never adequately replaced.

The heart of Yiddish Carlton was the Kadimah.  It was the shul for the secularists.  The Kadimah held literary evenings, social events, discussions on current affairs, plays and concerts.  It was the symbol of the strength of the Yiddish Community in Carlton.  It was the home of the David Herman Theatre, a Yiddish Library, the Yiddish Sunday School and Jewish Youth organisations. During the 1930s and 1940s the library was very active and was strongly supported by the members.  Many members would come just to read the overseas Yiddish papers that were available.

Jacob Waislitz (originally from the Vilna Troupe), who was the director and leading actor of the David Herman Theatre Group, used our home as his mailing address.  He was always asking my brother Maurice and me to act as ushers at performances of his plays.  The plays were strongly supported by the community, and plays such as the Dybbuk often had up to ten performances.  I do not know why we agreed to act as ushers at his plays, since patrons with reserved seats would sit anywhere.  One still has to acknowledge the success of the David Herman Theatre Group.  It is amazing that at the time Melbourne did not have a regular theatre, yet our small Jewish Community had a flourishing semi-professional one.  At its peak in the early fifties, the Kadimah had over 1000 members.

The Kadimah was meant to be a cultural non-political establishment.  However, by the end of the 1940s the Kadimah was controlled by Communist sympathizers.  They were in a state of denial regarding the destruction of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. With the influx into Melbourne after the war of a large number of Bundists from Shanghai, Brussels, Paris and European Refugee Camps, the Bund was no longer a group, but an entity with hundreds of members.  They decided that they wanted to change the direction of the Kadimah and return it to its original ideals as a cultural entity.  I recall Bund faction meetings in our home at 639 Lygon Street, North Carlton where Jacob Waks, Bono Weiner and my father worked out “how to vote” cards to ensure that the extreme Progressives would be defeated at Annual General Meetings.  At the time, there were some strange bedfellows.  The Bund and the Revisionists, who were led by Jehudah Honig, combined to organize the defeat of the Progressives at the 1950 Annual General Meeting attended by an over-full Kadimah Hall.

The Kadimah was the home of youth organisations.  During the 1940s the Kadimah Youth Organisation (KYO) was both very active and pro-Soviet.  Even though it had no problem sending representatives to so called Communist Peace Conferences, it remained blind to Soviet antisemitism.  The changed leadership of the Kadimah decided to expel the KYO, since it stated that the KYO no longer represented the ideals of the parent organisation.  They did not want a Communist front youth organisation to use its premises.

The expulsion of the KYO left an opening for Habonim and the newly formed SKIF movements to operate from the Kadimah.  Habonim used the premises on Saturday and the SKIF on Sunday.  SKIF was the only youth organisation in Melbourne that actively promoted the Yiddish language.  I recall two great Yiddish concerts that the SKIF organized and played at the Kadimah. The first concert in1953 featured the ballet “Bontsche Shweig”.  Based on the I.L. Peretz short story, the music for the ballet was written by Felix Werder and the choreography was arranged by Ruth Bergner. The second concert in 1955 featured a Yiddish musical “Mister Twister”.  The two Yiddish concerts which were held at the Kadimah were directed by Pinye Ringelblum.  He was ably assisted by Simche Burstin, one of the founding leaders of the Skif in Melbourne.  The concerts were great achievements of the SKIF.

Yiddish Carlton could be identified by the shops in the area.  The strip shopping centres of Carlton and North Carlton had shops run by Jews and there generally was a kosher butcher shop and Jewish baker nearby.  The strip shopping centre which was near our home and close to the intersection of Lygon and Pigdon Streets, North Carlton, had approximately a dozen shops.  Over half the shops were run by Jews. It was sixty years ago, but to me it is like yesterday, as I recall the names of all the proprietors of the Jewish shops.  There was Batagol the kosher butcher, Ernest the baker, Mick Saffer the grocer, Harry Halprin the chemist, Schwartz the greengrocer, Tobias the men’s hair dresser, Borenstein the boot repairer, and Frenkel the dry cleaner.  Four houses from our place, Dr. Mark Ashkenazy (brother of Maurice) ran his general medical practice.  Only a couple of blocks further on, there were Kurop’s delicatessen, Pahoff’s dairy and Glickman’s pastries.  You could service all your food needs from Jewish owned shops.

There has always been something special about Yiddish Carlton.  We wear it as a badge of honour.  I believe we are prouder of our Carlton heritage than Jews from other suburbs.  No one is prouder of that background than my dear friends, the journalist Sam Lipski and the writer Arnold Zable.

Carlton with its wide streets may look the same.  The old Kadimah building is still there – but its name changed to the Eolian Hall.  The Kadimah shifted to Elsternwick in the late 60s.  The Jews of Yiddish Carlton moved on to new suburbs.  They are different now.  They are secure and settled.  The part-time Sunday schools have been replaced by day schools.

Yiddish Carlton is now a community bonded only by the memories of a fading generation.