The Yiddish Speaking Population

Demographic information on the Jewish community of Melbourne is available in the Australian census, which was conducted on an average of every ten years between 1901 and 1961 and at five yearly intervals since that time.  More detailed information is available in surveys conducted in the Melbourne community, particularly the major surveys in 1967, 1991 and 2008-09.  This information provides the basis for detailed analysis of Yiddish language competence and usage.


The Melbourne Jewish community grew rapidly in the context of the Holocaust.  In 1933 the Victorian census enumerated a Jewish population of 9,500.  Melbourne’s enumerated Jewish population increased to 14,200 in 1947 and 23,500 in 1954.  This was the period of peak growth.  Over the next seven years it grew by a further 5,000 to almost 30,000 and then stabilised at that level between 1961 and 1981.  The word “enumerated” is used in the above discussion, because this indicates the number who identified as Jewish when completing the census form.  Religion is an optional question in the census and the actual number of Jewish Melbournians was higher than the enumerated total, although by what proportion cannot be established with precision.  For the whole Victorian population in this period, over 10 per cent of respondents did not indicate a religion.

In the 1960s about half of Australia’s Jewish population lived in Melbourne.  There was a national pattern to Jewish immigration – Melbourne attracted a higher proportion of Jews from eastern-Europe, drawn by the original eastern European settlers in a process which has been described as “chain-migration”.  Immigrants followed family and kinsmen and kinswomen.  In a similar process, Sydney attracted more immigrants from central and western Europe.

The immigrants from the Holocaust era transformed the community, which had been largely drawn from, and led by, immigrants from the United Kingdom.  Thus in 1911, over 80 per cent of Victorian Jews were born in Australia (64 per cent) or the United Kingdom (16 per cent).  In marked contrast, by 1961 only 38 per cent were born in Australia.  Yet the transformation was larger than even these figures indicate.  The vast majority of those under the age of 21, comprising some one-third of the Jewish population, were born in Australia – and very few of the adults.  A Melbourne survey in 1961 indicated that only 12 per cent of Jews over the age of 21 were born in Australia.  The 1967 survey found that 16 per cent of adults were born in Australia, another 7 per cent in other English speaking countries; 29 per cent were born in central and eastern Europe; the highest proportion, 39 per cent, were born in Poland and another 6 per cent in other eastern European countries, a total of 45 per cent from the east.

As a result of these immigration patterns, by the 1950s the majority of Jewish adults in Melbourne came from a Yiddish speaking (and Holocaust) background.

The 1967 Melbourne survey asked respondents if their parents could speak Yiddish – 70 per cent answered that both parents spoke Yiddish, a further 6 per cent that one parent spoke Yiddish, a total of 76 per cent.  In a total adult Jewish population of over 20,000, it meant that over 14,000 were the descendants of Yiddish speakers.

Almost 25 years later, in 1991, there had been little change:  80 per cent of those surveyed had at least one Yiddish speaking parent.

Yiddish Language Competence

Some 60 per cent of respondents to the 1967 survey indicated that they could understand and speak Yiddish.  The core Yiddish speakers comprised 27 per cent of the adult population who indicated that they normally spoke Yiddish in the home.  Projected to the adult population, these proportions indicate that some 12,000 adults could understand and speak Yiddish and over 5,000 spoke Yiddish in the home.

With regard to level of active involvement, the sociologist Manfred Klarberg recorded in the late 1960s:

4,000 circulation of the Yiddish edition of the Australian Jewish News (and a higher number read the newspaper)

3,000 attended Yiddish theatre

1,379 members of the Kadimah library

300 children attended Yiddish school

100 active borrowers from the Kadimah library

After the 1960s

Evidence after the 1960s indicates a sharp decline in language competence.  The 1991 survey found that the proportion that usually spoke Yiddish in the home had been halved since 1967 to 14 per cent.  There was a similar halving of those who spoke Yiddish “well”, down to a still sizeable 28 per cent.  The 1991 survey included an additional question which probed the level of Yiddish language proficiency (and which produced slightly different results) – 11 per cent indicated they spoke Yiddish “very well”, 10 per cent “well” and 17 per cent “quite well”.

The 2008-09 survey found further decline, with 11 per cent indicating that they usually spoke Yiddish in the home in Melbourne.  The survey also produced, for the first time, comparative data for Sydney – it found that 4 per cent of Sydney respondents indicated that they usually spoke Yiddish in the home.  When asked for their knowledge of Yiddish (a broader question than one relating to language spoken in the home), 7 per cent indicated that they spoke Yiddish “very well” and 10 per cent “well” – a total of 17 per cent.  When projected to the current estimated adult Jewish population, this means that some 8,000 persons spoke Yiddish at least “well”.

Yiddish language competence, Melbourne Jewish community surveys
Can understand and speak Yiddish 60%   
Can speak Yiddish “well”   28% 17%
Normally speak Yiddish in the home
27% 14%
(1996, 6%)
(2006, 4%)

According to the census enumeration, the proportion who spoke Yiddish in the home was much smaller.  The census proportion was around half that recorded in major surveys; in 1996 the census enumerated 6 per cent who spoke Yiddish in the home, 4 per cent in 2006.   This difference may in part be the result of different wording of questions and the context in which the survey, as distinct from the census, was administered, with the surveys being community undertakings and the census a requirement of government.

As expected, decline in language competence was particularly evident in the younger age groups.  Thus, in 2006, 14 per cent of those aged 85 and above indicated that they spoke Yiddish in the home compared to 10 per cent aged 75-84, 4 per cent aged 45-74, and 2 per cent aged 15-44.