We don’t know the world that you and he came out of
Autobiographical writing, 2010, commissioned by Julie Meadows
Jewry north of the Yarra was Polish/Russian, and they all spoke Yiddish. When the people got together as for the big annual Kadimah bazaar, they didn’t come half an hour the Bundists, half an hour the Revisionists. They all came together to get a bargain and to have a shmues in Yiddish. After all, they had settled in Carlton so they could live with fellow Jews, people who understood who they were. Everybody knew everybody else, the businessman and the man who worked on a job. It was a village, if you like, a ghetto, but a voluntary one without walls.
The common denominator, whether you were from Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, or any part of Poland, was Yiddish. I don’t remember any Germans, Austrians, Czechs or Hungarians.
The first question my father would ask a person he did not know was, “Fun vunnem kimt a yid?” (literally, where does this Jew come from? meaning, where are you from?) If you came from such and such a place, “Yes, I already know a lot about you,” because they shared a common background and history, a common language and probably, interests like the Yiddish papers and the Yiddish theatre.
There were places where, if you did not have Yiddish, it was a waste of time going – for instance, Carlton Shul. The Rav Gurevich, who was a very well respected personality, would give his droshe in Yiddish, except if it was a bar-mitzvah boy he was addressing, and then he would do it in English. It’s interesting that the Rav Rudski would teach the boys in English, because many of them were already not that familiar with Yiddish. But in Shul on Shabbes, or on holydays, the buzz of conversation by the adults was only in Yiddish.
It is interesting to look back and see that it was that it was the Polish Jews who strove to keep their children speaking Yiddish. Many of those from Russian backgrounds spoke a fair bit of Russian at home, and moved more readily to English.
For the second generation of Polish Jews, we who were born in Australia or came here very young, it was inevitable that we should also lose our attachment to the past of our parents, and to speaking Yiddish. I remember our teacher, the writer and poet, Ber Rozen, reading Der tillem Yid and crying. He couldn’t understand that we weren’t all that moved, and we tried to explain to him, “We can’t know this person. We don’t know the world that you and he came out of.” The Yiddish theatre at the Kadimah was also about another world. There were characters with beards and shtivl (boots) and the women were always coy. Carlton was full of different personalities, some of them very colourful, but none of them reminded me of the characters I read about or saw in plays.
When my father told me stories of his youth, it was as if he had come from another, distant world. Most of his stories, even if that was not necessarily his intention, made it clear why people wanted to leave. He said there was no guarantee where you stood for the future. He told me, “You’ll never go hungry. In Poland, there were so many people who did not know where their next meal was coming from. Try to imagine that!” And I just couldn’t. His migration and a few short years removed that reality for his children – and then it disappeared forever, except in the stories and the literature. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy Yiddish, the literature or relate to the community were I grew up. I think a lot of kids in my generation were simply glad to move on.
I was totally at home in Carlton and felt no contradiction in being Australian and Jewish. One image that remains in my mind is of Dad and me walking on one side of Rathdowne Street, which is very wide, and old Mr Zukert, a lovely old man with a big beard, walking in opposite direction on the opposite side. We all stopped and the two men carried on a shouted conversation in Yiddish. You could do that in Rathdowne Street in the 40s. There was very little traffic and nobody was going to look at you funny or beat you up for speaking Yiddish. That said, I think that a lot of the kids, Jewish, Greek or Italian, were ashamed to talk “foreign” in the streets.
My father used to get Yiddish newspapers and journals from Poland and if a new book came out, he and people like him ate it up, they were so hungry for the Yiddish word. The Holocaust swept everything in Europe away. After the war, some Yiddish publications continued in the Jewish Diaspora for three or four decades, but the next generation of children, even if they could speak and read Yiddish, didn’t have the same use for it.
I suppose it was bound to happen.