The Kadimah (progress, or forward) was founded by recently arrived Eastern European Jews in 1911. It was originally situated in Central Melbourne, and it was set up to function as a secular cultural institution, including a Jewish library. The choice of a Hebrew name reflected the disparate member factions who wrangled over the very character of their new institution by supporting a more established, anglicised approach as against the few newly-arrived Yiddish speaking immigrants. They wrangled over languages and the character of the new institution. English and Hebrew were at first the preferred languages of the majority of members, while Yiddish was still looked down upon by some older established sectors in the community. Hence the name Kadimah – forward, in Hebrew and Yiddish – was chosen.
The Kadimah moved to 38 Drummond Street, Carlton in 1915, and in 1933 into the purpose built building at 836 Lygon Street. This included a four hundred seat capacity theatre hall and library and became the venue for numerous activities including lectures, recitals, concerts, debates and plays. It also housed a youth committee to co-ordinate special activities for the younger members.
After World War One there was a small influx of Eastern European immigrants and Yiddish became the dominant language used in the Carlton area. During World War Two in Europe, the Kadimah served as a rallying point for protests and solidarity meetings, in addition to its cultural activities. The Kadimah held the first Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration in 1945, as well as celebrations for the establishment of The State of Israel in 1948.
With the influx of post-war immigrants, the Kadimah became the focal point of the cultural and intellectual life of the growing Jewish community. Its membership grew from the original eighty members to over a thousand members in 1950 and to a peak of thirteen hundred members in 1953. A full-time librarian was employed to handle the demand for books, newspapers and journals.
Both leftist Bundist SKIF and centrist Zionist Habonim youth movements used the Kadimah premises for their meetings. The rich, quality theatrical productions of the Dovid Herman Teater by der Kadimah helped develop Melbourne’s reputation as a centre of Yiddish and Jewish life. International visitors such as Shimon Dzigan, Jankev Malkin, Yankev Pat, Avrom Sutzkever, and Zygmunt and Rosa Turkow regularly enriched the local offerings by performing, lecturing, directing and speaking. Local writers and poets published their work in Kadimah’s literary journal Melburner Bleter/The Melbourne Chronicle begun in December 1975 with Ron Abel as the Chronicle’s editor and Moshe Ajzenbud as the Bleter’s editor. Today that literary journal is published to mark special occasions, such as significant milestones in the history of the Kadimah. Moshe Ajzenbud continues as its Yiddish editor and Alex Dafner edits the English Chronicle.
When the community shifted its centre to areas south of the city, the Kadimah moved its premises to Elsternwick in 1968 and in 1970 the long established Dovid Herman Teater by der Kadimah group was supplemented by the youthful Melbourne Yiddish Youth Theatre at the Kadimah.
The post-war Jewish migrants have aged and diminished in number and new initiatives and different priorities have become the focus at the Kadimah. Since 1984, the ‘Wednesday club’, attended by between forty and seventy elderly, Yiddish speaking people, has become a weekly gathering that offers guest speakers, entertainment, and social interaction.
The library is regularly updated and growing with books left as a legacy from those people whose descendents do not speak Yiddish. A handful of people meet weekly for a Yiddish reading circle. Through the Giligich Foundation, the library at the Kadimah collects Yiddish books and, when requested, re-distributes them to new homes. The Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne is one institution that has been enriched by the largesse and hard work of the volunteers in the Kadimah National Library. In 1989 one thousand books were donated in the name of Joseph Giligich.
It is this policy of inclusion that has made the Kadimah the source and inspiration for the Yiddish activities that it supports and facilitates. One of these is the highly successful Sof Vokh, a Yiddish speaking weekend for approximately seventy participants, held annually since 2004, in a rural setting. It is always sold out.
From 1976 the annual Kaluszyner music competition honored the memory of the famed composer and conductor and encouraged young musicians to perform Jewish music and song. In 2010 these competitions are under review. Each month a small group of people meet for a Yiddishe Shpatzir – a Yiddish speaking stroll. Occasional Mit Frentshaft (In Friendship) concerts, begun in 1980 and presented two or three times each year, guest speakers and entertainers ensure that the Kadimah is a community organisation fulfilling the cultural, linguistic, social and intellectual needs of the Melbourne Yiddish community.