Australian Shtetl: Inside Melbourne's Yiddish Culture Renaissance

There may be cities where the language is more widely spoken, but no city rivals Melbourne's passion for Yiddish language, life and culture. The fourth in a five-part series on the Jews Down Under

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A scene from the sell-out production of "Yentl" at Arts Centre Melbourne earlier this year.
A scene from the sell-out production of "Yentl" at Arts Centre Melbourne earlier this year.Credit: Jeff Busby
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Melbourne
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Melbourne

MELBOURNE – Yiddish theater groups have been performing for more than a century here in the coastal capital of the southeastern state of Victoria – which is often referred to as the “Shtetl on the Yarra.”

But this was unprecedented.

In mid-March, “Yentl,” an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous short story, opened at the Arts Centre Melbourne. It was the first time a Yiddish-language play had ever been performed on the main state theater’s stage. During its short two-week run, it played to a full house every night – as well as to rave reviews. Time Out called it “by far one of the theatrical experiences of the year, a holy and aspirational work.”

“I had to pinch myself to believe this was happening,” recounts Rachel Chrapot, CEO of the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre that spearheaded the production.

David Slucki, a professor of contemporary Jewish life and culture at Monash University in the city, calls it a crowning achievement. “Yiddish theater has long been one of the cornerstones of Yiddish life and culture in this city,” he says. “Bringing Yiddish into an audience that would have barely engaged with it before was the culmination of a very rich history.”

Melbourne is one of the last remaining places on Earth where Yiddish is not only surviving but actually thriving. And what sets it apart from other cities where the language is still relatively widely spoken – say, New York and Bnei Brak – is that many of its devotees are proud secularist Jews.

Australia’s second largest city (after Sydney), Melbourne is known for its diverse Jewish community, which includes an ultra-Orthodox enclave where Yiddish is often spoken as a first language.

But it is also home to the world’s last stronghold for the Bund, which was one of the largest Jewish movements in the world at the turn of the 20th century. The Bundists were proudly secular and non-Zionist – even anti-Zionist, many would say: Jewish socialists who were passionate about the Yiddish language.

Quite a few of them, including well-known Yiddish actors, arrived in Melbourne before World War II. The vast majority, however, were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Australia after the war. These Bundists would end up playing an outsize role in sustaining Yiddish language and culture in this city of 50,000 Jews.

By now, however, the mamelashon has developed a fandom in Australia’s biggest Jewish city that transcends the pockets of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Bundists.

How many Melburnians are fluent Yiddish speakers? Clearly, fewer than there were a generation ago, because many of the original Yiddish speakers – the Holocaust survivors for whom it was a mother tongue – are no longer around. Excluding the ultra-Orthodox community, Slucki says he would be surprised if there were more than a few hundred.

David Slucki. Yiddish provides Jews "with an alternative way to express their Jewishness."Credit: Erin O'Connor

But it would be a mistake, he cautions, to judge the strength of Yiddish culture in this city on the basis of the number of fluent speakers. “That would belie the breadth of Yiddish learning here,” he says. “Even though there aren’t a huge number of fluent Yiddish speakers left, there are a lot of people engaged today in Yiddish classes and Yiddish activities. What I would say, then, is that Yiddish is flourishing in Melbourne in ways that it isn’t in other parts of the world.”

In addition to promoting Yiddish theater, the 110-year-old Kadimah Jewish Culture Centre offers a variety of Yiddish-language classes, as well as weekly Yiddish “schmooze” groups that target the more fluent speakers. It recently added to its offerings a special “kinderloshen” class designed to help older Yiddish speakers teach their grandchildren songs in the language.

Among those studying Yiddish today are many baby boomers – Australians who grew up with Yiddish, often the children of Holocaust survivors, who are taking advantage of their retirement years to brush up on the language.

Young people, often students of Jewish history and culture, comprise another key group. But no less significant is a group Slucki describes as Jews on the political left, who are either ambivalent about Israel or downright anti-Zionist, and for that reason uncomfortable with Hebrew.

“Yiddish provides them with an alternative way to express their Jewishness,” he says. “It gives people a thick way of being Jewish – thick, as opposed to lox and bagels and shul three times a year.”

Yiddish is also enjoying growing popularity within the LGBTQ community in recent years. “I think that’s because it offers a way of being Jewish that’s nonnormative and kind of out of the mainstream,” Slucki suggests.

At one of the “Yentl” performances, Chrapot recounts, there was a moment when her jaw dropped. “I was standing there handing out programs when suddenly a large group of drag queens started making their way down the stairs,” she says. “I stood there with one of our board members and said, ‘I think our audience has just shifted.’”

Yiddish weekend retreats

Melbourne is probably the last city in the world with a Yiddish-speaking school that targets secular Jews. Alongside its day care center and elementary school, the Sholem Aleichem College also offers special Yiddish classes for high school students, which can be used toward their diploma requirements. And though Bundists exist elsewhere in the world, Melbourne distinguishes itself as the only place left on Earth with an active branch of SKIF (an acronym for Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband, or Socialist Children’s Union) – the Bund youth movement.

Once a year, Melbourne’s hard-core Yiddishists take off for a Sof-Vokh, or weekend retreat, where only Yiddish is spoken for the duration of the three days. Sponsored by a group called Yiddish Australia, this event, which typically attracts about 80 people – among them both purely secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews – is modeled on the weeklong Yiddish retreats that used to be held at the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.

“We actually test people before they come because quite often, it turns out, people think they know Yiddish when they actually don’t,” says Michael Zylberman, a proud Bundist who, together with his wife Bobbi, hosts a weekly Yiddish-language news, music and comedy radio program in Melbourne.

“We don’t want people who only speak a bit of ‘kitchen Yiddish’ joining us on this weekend,” he adds.

Why Melbourne?

On the eve of World War II, about 11 million Jews, the overwhelming majority of them in Europe, spoke Yiddish. Today, it is estimated that there are only about 600,000 left – the vast majority Holocaust survivors and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Why Yiddish has survived and thrived in Melbourne, of all places, has much to do with the Jews who settled in this city and when they settled there. The vast majority came from Poland after the war. Indeed, Melbourne is home to the largest per capita population of Holocaust survivors in the world outside of Israel.

“For the most part, these were people raised and reared in interwar Poland who were trying to create a slice of that here,” notes Slucki.

The fact that Melbourne was pretty much a Jewish wasteland when they arrived ended up working to their advantage. “The survivors who came to the United States after the war were entering a world that already existed, whereas here in Australia, because there wasn’t much that existed, they could have a much bigger say in shaping Jewish life,” Slucki says. “And so, they quickly took over key positions at Kadimah and the Bund; they established a Yiddish-speaking day school; and they breathed new life into the Yiddish theater.”

It was not by accident that Yiddish flourished in Melbourne, but rather, as Zylberman notes, by design. “The original Jewish immigrants knew that if the language and culture were to survive, they needed three elements: a Yiddish school, a Yiddish cultural center and a Yiddishist youth movement. That’s the formula, and it’s been the formula ever since,” he explains. “They brought these elements with them from Europe, and were able to plant them here easily because there was no established Jewish community to stand in their way.”

In the case of the school, there was also outside help: Sholem Aleichem College receives funding from the Australian government, which see the establishment of such institutions as key to its policy of promoting multiculturalism.

Named after the famous Yiddish author and playwright, Sholem Aleichem was established in 1951 as a kindergarten and Sunday school. Nearly a quarter-of-a-century later, it expanded into a full-fledged elementary school.

“We started out with six students, and people said we’d never survive,” says Helen Greenberg, the current principal. “But here we are, thriving and growing with nearly 290 students today.”

Young students during a Yiddish class at Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne.Credit: Judy Maltz

Quite a few of the children attending this school are third-generation students to walk through these corridors. A not insignificant number are the children of Israeli expats, drawn to the school because it offers Yiddishkeit without religious indoctrination – and perhaps more importantly, because tuition here is significantly lower than at the other Jewish day schools in town.

There are also a surprising number of ultra-Orthodox children enrolled. “They say their prayers at home before coming to school,” Greenberg says.

Although it is officially a Yiddish school, Hebrew is taught here as well and, although it advertises itself as secular, the yom tovim – as the Jewish religious holidays are known here – are marked. The children have one Yiddish class every day, though it varies by grade.

“Although many of our students don’t necessarily come here for the Yiddish, once they’re immersed in it, they develop a love for it,” says Greenberg.

In recent years, it has become commonplace in Australia to recite an acknowledgement of country – a statement expressing respect for the original inhabitants of the land – at the start of every public event and function. It is not unusual, then, to find taped to the window of the Sholem Aleichem kindergarten a tribute to the Boonwurrung people who once lived in these parts “for sharing your land.”

“We promise to look after it, and all the people and animals, too,” the sign pledges.

What stands out is the acknowledgement of country that appears right beside it – translated word for word into Yiddish.

Pictures of some of Australia’s most famous animals decorate the walls, their names written out below in Yiddish. (For the curious, a kangaroo is called a kangaroo in Yiddish as well.)

A tribute to the Boonwurrung (aka Boon Wurrung) people, taped to the window of the Sholem Aleichem kindergarten class.Credit: Judy Maltz

Carrying on with the family tradition of promoting Yiddish, Dvora Zylberman – whose parents host the weekly radio program – is teaching a group of first-graders a few basic vocabulary words. She holds up a picture of the sun and has them repeat after her: “de zun.” They raise their hands and ask her questions in English. She responds in Yiddish. Eventually, to her great delight, one child recites a full sentence in Yiddish.

In a classroom a few doors away, about a dozen children are learning how to type in Yiddish on their laptops. “It’s quite challenging because of all the added symbols,” notes Dvora’s sister Reyzl Zylberman, who serves as director of Jewish Studies and non-English languages (i.e., Yiddish and Hebrew) at this one-of-a-kind school.

Making Yiddish cool

Mia Borowitz, a 20-year-old law student at Melbourne’s Deakin University, currently serves as the forzitzer (chairperson) of SKIF. “I’m all about making Yiddish cool,” she says, “because it is.”

A graduate of Sholem Aleichem, where she learned Yiddish, she went on to attend a public high school. “Since I still wanted to be part of the Jewish community, I decided to join SKIF – and never left,” she says.

Mia Borowitz, head of the Bundist youth movement, known as SKIF.Credit: Judy Maltz

Borowitz’s parents don’t speak Yiddish but her bubbe and zeide do, as does her younger brother. “It gives my grandparents naches [pride] to hear me speak Yiddish,” she says, “and the truth is I love it. It’s not a language you can just translate. It’s a feeling, and a history.”

Samuel Herz, a 20-year-old science and math major at Monash University, started studying Yiddish three years ago with his grandmother. “It was a good way to spend time with her,” he says, “but I also discovered that I really like it.”

As a teenager, he relays, he had been invited to sing the Yiddish song “Mayn Shvester Chaya” (“My Sister Chaya”) at an event sponsored by Kadimah. Much to his surprise, he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“I’m a person who likes languages, and it made me wonder how is it that I didn’t know this language,” he says. “When you think about it, it’s as much a part of my cultural identity as knowing how to daven [pray] and to layn [read from a Torah scroll].”

Samuel Herz. Started studying Yiddish three years ago with his grandmother.Credit: Judy Maltz

Michael Gawenda, one of Australia’s most prominent journalists and former editor of the Melbourne daily The Age, is a fluent Yiddish speaker. But outside the tight-knit Melbourne Jewish community, that is probably not common knowledge.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Gawenda grew up in a Bundist home and attended Sholem Aleichem. During his extended career as a foreign correspondent and newspaper editor, he had few opportunities to use his Yiddish, which grew rusty. After retiring from journalism, he took advantage of the time on his hands to brush up his Yiddish, eventually publishing a book of Yiddish poems dedicated to his grandson. This grandson, incidentally, now studies at Sholem Aleichem.

“He actually comes over to our place and speaks Yiddish with his bubbe,” says the doting grandfather.

Gawenda has also instilled his love of Yiddish into his son and daughter: Husky and Evie are founders of the popular Yiddish folk band named – and how not? – the Bashevis Singers.

Michael Gawenda, former editor of Melbourne daily The Age.Credit: Judy Maltz

Schmoozing sessions

On the second floor of the Kadimah building, about a dozen community members – almost all of them women aged 70 and older – are participating in the weekly “schmooze” session. The subject this week is marriage. Or, more specifically, how it ain’t what it used to be.

“In our day, there was no choice – you had to get married,” says participant Esther Gordon, 71, when asked to share details of the schmooze. “With the young generation today, they live together and don’t feel any need to get married.”

Gordon is the daughter of two Auschwitz survivors who, like many of their generation, chose Australia after the war “in order to get as far away as possible from Europe.”

Although she spoke Yiddish with her parents growing up, in recent years she found her grasp of the language weakening. “One of the reasons I’m here is to improve my Yiddish,” she says. “But I have to say, it’s also great to be with this beautiful group of girls. We have many good laughs together.”

Schmoozing in progress at Kadimah.Credit: Judy Maltz

Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, Kadimah has seen a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolled in its Yiddish classes. Chrapot attributes this boom to a combination of people finding themselves with more time on their hands and the convenience provided by online classes. (Melbourne holds the world record for enduring the highest number of days in lockdown, forcing almost all activities to move online.)

Not only did the average Yiddish class size double from about 10 to 20 participants since COVID, says Kadimah’s CEO, but the number of weekly classes offered tripled from three to nine. The online classes have allowed Kadimah to expand its reach, and many of these new students don’t necessarily come from Melbourne.

There may have been another factor at play as well in the growing interest in studying Yiddish. “I think the pandemic gave people time to think about what’s really important to them and about the importance of family, because many families were separated for long periods,” says Chrapot. “Yiddish provided a way to connect to their families and reconnect to their roots.”

Kadimah CEO Rachel Chrapot. Revelation at a performance of "Yentl."Credit: Judy Maltz

Unusual listeners

Michael Zylberman’s Yiddish radio program is broadcast for an hour on Sundays from 11 A.M. “The slot was designed for the nursing home crowd because noon is when they get served lunch,” he explains.

In recent years, though, he and his wife have become aware of a new and rather unusual group of listeners.

“It’s strange, but most of the feedback we’re getting now is actually coming from Asia – like, from Thailand and Malaysia,” he reveals.

And who are these people? “It turns out they’re studying Yiddish, and our radio program is the closest they can get to hearing spoken Yiddish. It’s a language for them like any other language, and they don’t seem to have the cultural cringe that many Jewish people have with Yiddish.”

A pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses an empty street in Melbourne, August 2020. The city was in lockdown for longer than anywhere else worldwide during the first few years of the COVID pandemic.Credit: STRINGER / REUTERS

Melbourne physician Doodie Ringelblum come from a long line of Bundists. Like Michael Zylberman, he makes a point of speaking Yiddish at home with his children. “My oldest speaks fluently, the middle one reads very well, and the youngest, nebach, she’s okay when she focuses,” volunteers Ringelblum, who currently serves as head of the Bund’s Melbourne branch.

Like many of the Yiddishists in this town, Ringelblum is very much looking forward to the weekend retreat in September, which hasn’t been held in the past few years because of the pandemic.

“It’s one of the highlights of the year for me,” he says.

It will fall this year a few weeks before his eldest daughter, a high school senior, is scheduled to take her final exams. “I asked her if she was sure she wanted to go, and she said of course she did because this weekend is much more important than her finals,” relays her father, clearly shepping nachas from his daughter’s principled stand.

If Yiddish remains a thing in Melbourne – more so than any other place in the world – then it is thanks in no small part to the Bundists, says Ringelblum.

“When the Polish Jews came to Melbourne, there was this incredible passion to recreate and reinvent what had been before,” he notes. “The Bund provided the flame. It wasn’t that Kadimah or the Sholem Aleichem school were Bundist organizations per se, but it was Bundists who drove, nurtured and grew them.”

How he and his Bundist cohorts feel about Israel is rather a touchy subject. “We’ve been approached by Jews in multiple cities around the world in recent years who want to set up their own Bund organizations and wanted to consult with us. For me, it’s wonderful that they’re rediscovering the Bund. The problem, I think, is that they’re misreading what the Bund is and was. They see the Bund in terms of what it’s against – as in some anti-Zionist movement – rather than what it’s for.”

So, what is the Bund’s relationship to Israel?

“People think I’m dodging when I answer this question, but I’m really not. My answer is that it all depends on what Zionism means. If it means you can’t be a full Jew outside Israel, as the late writer A.B. Yehoshua has said, then I’m an anti-Zionist. But if Zionism means that Jews have the right to a homeland, while I would prefer the world to be internationalist and get rid of national borders, Jews have no less a right to autonomy than any other people – and in that sense, I’m a full Zionist. I don’t define the Bund in terms of Zionism. I define the Bund in terms of Bundism. Bundism means that Jews have an obligation where they are to build a strong Jewish community.”

The Bund doesn’t require members to pay fees, making it difficult to assess the exact size of the movement in Australia. But most of the organization’s events draw about 300 to 400 participants, says Ringelblum, and nearly 100 children attend the SKIF youth movement camp every summer.

“Of course, everybody who lives in Melbourne and is working to make Melbourne a stronger Jewish community is actually a Bundist, whether they realize it or not,” he sums up.

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