yiddish melbourne

by anzya

“It wasn’t til I was 15 I realised Yiddish was a language that could be spoken, not just shouted.”

The ACJC’s  new “Yiddish Melbourne” website has a write up in The Age today, so I had a look around. I was moved and  surprised, even, by some of the memoirs of Yiddish life in Melbourne. They are well worth a read, as is this extract below:

My feelings for Yiddish Carlton run the whole spectrum from love to hatred.  Hate, because Yiddish is associated with being coerced; how it was thrust on me by parents, who were determined to keep it alive in our home.  They had enormous expectations of me to excel at Yiddish school — to bring home the highest marks, and they did not spare the show of disappointment if I fell short.  There is also the memory of coming home alone on winter evenings after a Yiddish class through half-empty streets, having to navigate past an army barrack, scared of being accosted by a predatory male.

Today, as I mellow, I love it because the language sits so well in the psyche, seeming to just flow from the innermost memories of countless generations…

The Kadimah, the focal point of Jewish secular life in Melbourne, was run mainly by the Bund, many of whose spokespeople were from Lithuania or Latvia.  They adopted a tone of moral superiority and were convinced that they had precedence over Jewish culture and survival.  From my perspective, the Kadimah had two functions:  the Yiddishe Shule and the Yiddishe Teater.  I had no option but to attend Yiddishe Shule.  My parents perceived Yiddish and Yiddishe Kultur as a panacea, a saving grace — it was the only way to maintain a Jewish identity, to protect against assimilation, which for them signified a cardinal sin, even annihilation.  It may have been a penance for the guilt they felt for having escaped the Holocaust, whereas their loved ones did not.  Adherence to the language, and to the people who spoke it, was a haven from the essential alienation they felt as immigrants.

-Aviva Kowadlo Silbergeld

The site has a great bibliography for books and other resources on and in Yiddish, and an overview of the history of Yiddish in Melbourne, which is pretty valuable too. There’s a biography of many famous Melbourne Yiddish figures, such as the legendary Melbourne Yiddish actress Rachel, or Rokhel, Holzer, In fact, after reading about her on the site, I found this compelling write-up about her  in the Jewish Women’s Archives, which I couldn’t help but include part of here:

…Holzer’s most legendary moment was in Melbourne, in March 1966, at a recital given by visiting Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Before an audience of six thousand, Holzer recited Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar, which tells of a ravine near Kiev where thousands of Jews were murdered by the Germans. Holzer whispered and roared as she became the mothers who had lost their children, she trembled as she embodied the grief and the loss of thousands of her people. Yevtushenko was visibly moved by Holzer’s haunting Yiddish recital, as were all present. There was not a dry eye in the audience. The Australian press described her recital as electrifying…

Holzer’s stage career extended across continents, lasting more than fifty years. She was a powerful presence in the Yiddish theater, a warm, wise, gentle and dignified actor and director, who was highly respected and deeply loved. Yiddish poets Y. M. Levin and A. Cykert published odes to Rokhl Holzer in Di Oystralishe Yidishe Nayes in 1979 and 1980 respectively.

While Holzer did not give birth to any children, believing that the world was an unfit place for a child, she became like a mother to the young actor Paula Kochen, whom she called mayn tokhterl [sic] (my little daughter). With Holzer as her mentor, Kochen too became a star of the Yiddish theater, first appearing in the Holzer production Be-Arvot ha-Negev (In the Negev Desert) in 1950.

Holzer lived her last years in the Smorgon Wing of Montefiore Homes before dying on November 14, 1998. In an interview for her ninetieth birthday, she told Australian Jewish News journalist Peter Kohn, “I was born with this love [for the stage]. If I had my life to live again, I would choose a career on the stage again. Definitely.”

Melbourne Yiddish actress Rachel, or Rokhel Holzer on stage

On a side note, what seems missing from this site are resources about contemporary Yiddish language and culture, as the tone of the website seems to be very much an archive of a past era. This kind of Yiddish revival may not be huge in Melbourne, but is definitely something I know Melbourne yids my age (such as the writers for this blog, for example) are interested in, and have access to in this internet age. I mean bands like The Shondes, organisations like The Workman’s Circle, and projects like radio 613.