[lg policy] Australia: Growing a Yiddish heritage

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 13 14:47:39 UTC 2011

Growing a Yiddish heritage

Shauna Sherker

YOU may not realise, as you schmooze someone at a party or kvetch to
them about a glitch, that you're speaking Yiddish. The language of the
Jewish street has been around for at least a thousand years, and was
the mother tongue - mameloshn - of millions of Jews across western and
eastern Europe until World War II, when six million died out of an
estimated population of 17 million, of whom 11 million were estimated
to have been Yiddish speakers.

Many survivors who emigrated settled in Melbourne, already home to a
thriving Yiddish-speaking community, curator of a new exhibition Anna
Epstein says. The show, Mameloshn: How Yiddish Made a Home in
Melbourne, at the Jewish Museum of Australia, celebrates this cultural
legacy. The displays combine photographs, posters and books (many
published in Melbourne) with film footage, video reminiscences,
snatches of video performance and an interactive display of Yiddish
writing and poetry.

The world of Yiddish drama is captured in footage from plays and old
photos of actors. These include Yankev Waislitz, from the Vilna
Theatre in Lithuania, and Rokhl Holzer, a star of the Yiddish stage in
her native Poland, who found herself trapped at the ends of the earth
when war broke out and stayed to recreate a glittering pre-war theatre
scene in post-war Melbourne.

The suitcase of poet Meier Zable (father of contemporary writer Arnold
Zable) is featured as well. It contained only books: when he fled
Europe for Australia he decided it was more important to salvage his
collection of Tolstoy in Yiddish than fill it with clothes. A
typewriter with Hebrew letters sits in a case alongside a Yiddish
newspaper, Di Oystralische Yidishe Nayes. The last edition of this
publication, the Yiddish section of the weekly Australian Jewish News,
closed in 1995.

According to Epstein, the heyday of Yiddish in Melbourne was from the
early 20th century to the decades after World War II, and many of its
older speakers are dying. A new generation, in many cases the
grandchildren of those settlers, is striving to keep it alive.
Images from the previous century testify to the vibrancy of the
Yiddish "gas", or streets, in the suburbs of Carlton and St Kilda.

Formal cultural centres such as the Kadimah existed alongside more
informal meeting spots such as Cafe Sheherezade, a St Kilda
institution on Acland street. Avram Zeleznikov and his wife Masha ran
the cafe for 50 years and when it opened in 1958, Avram says, it
immediately became a substitute home for Holocaust survivors. These
were mainly men who had lost their families or who could not afford to
bring loved ones to Australia. When non-Jewish Australians started
travelling, they acquired a taste for more exotic food and swelled the
clientele, Zeleznikov says, adding: "You can see the world through a
bowl of kreplach."

He sees Yiddish as a vanishing language and culture, indicative of a
dilemma facing all immigrant families, intensified by the fact that
there is no Yiddish, as opposed to Jewish, homeland. To keep a
language alive, you have to speak and think in your mother tongue all
the time, he says. And for it to flourish, you have to be fluent in
the language and culture of your host country.
Many new immigrants spoke Yiddish among themselves but didn't teach
their children in case it stigmatised them. His university-aged
grandson has promised to learn Yiddish, he adds, a condition of
inheriting the 1000 Yiddish books in Zeleznikov's library.

Other Yiddish speakers are less pessimistic about the language's
future. Hinde Burstin, a Yiddish writer and poet born and bred in
Melbourne in a Yiddish-speaking household, says there was never any
doubt that her children would speak Yiddish at home.
Aged four and five, they attend preschool and school at Elsternwick's
Sholem Aleichem College. It is one of the few schools in the world
with daily Yiddish language classes and also promotes a philosophy of
secular liberalism and diversity, she says. As a lesbian, she was
touched when her son's preschool teacher wrote a song in Yiddish about
children with two mothers.

Burstin is a lecturer and Yiddish co-ordinator at Monash University's
Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. She says many adults who
were discouraged from learning Yiddish have discovered they want to
reconnect with their cultural identity as they got older and had
children of their own. For Burstin, speaking Yiddish is a political
choice as well as an emotional one. "Yiddish gives people a way of
expressing their Jewishness whether they're religious or not, or
whether they support Israel or not," she says.

She dislikes describing herself as a secularist; although not
religious, she celebrates all the major Jewish festivals. "I express
my culture in a very active way," she adds. Melbourne has a reputation
around the world as a vibrant Yiddish centre and next year Burstin has
been invited to give a talk on Yiddish culture at a UNESCO forum in

Mameloshn offers a global perspective, not just a Melbourne one. We
learn, for instance, that Litvish Yiddish was spoken by Lithuanians
and regarded as higher class; they looked down on Yiddish speakers
from Poland, according to Epstein, and were thought a bit snobbish.

How you spoke Yiddish depended on where you lived. Eastern Yiddish
contains many more Slavic words than western Yiddish, she says, but
the linguistic bedrock of both is German mixed with Hebrew, with a
scattering of Romance and Aramaic words.
The most interesting things about Yiddish, Epstein says, is that it
has always been a contested language. Many people, Jews and non-Jews,
saw it as "horrible jargon", she says, and some argued it wasn't even
a proper language.

"But what is a language?" Epstein asks. "To me a language is something
that has a culture attached to it, literature, poetry, theatre and
public speaking." For centuries it was seen as a woman's language and
the argot of commerce. Its flowering came in the 19th and 20th
centuries, when literature in Yiddish made it a language of
intellectual discourse. The creators of Esperanto, says Epstein, were
also all Yiddish speakers.

While there were Jews on the First Fleet, Yiddish speakers first
arrived in Australia in numbers after the Russian pogroms at the turn
of the 20th century. "The Anglo-Jews were terrified their established
place in society would be threatened," Epstein says.
"They didn't call themselves Jews but 'Australians of the Mosaic
persuasion'. There was a rabbi nicknamed Anglo Danglo who issued
pamphlets saying, 'Keep your heads down, don't wave your arms around
and don't speak that [Yiddish] jargon in public'," Epstein says.

In Europe, the Jewish Bund, a socialist labour movement that supported
a globally dispersed Jewry and the advancement of Yiddish, was created
in 1897. It was also the year of the First Zionist Congress, whose
aims included the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the
creation of modern Hebrew. During the 20th century these two visions
have often clashed, explains Epstein, who comes from a Zionist
background and was not taught Yiddish as a child.

Yiddish will survive, she says, as a secular expression of culture
and, as is the case among orthodox Jews, as a language of the everyday
to distinguish it from Hebrew. "I wouldn't say that there's a revival
because I never thought it went away," she says, "but more and more
people are saying, 'I want to capture my culture, I want to
reconnect.' "

Mameloshn: How Yiddish Made a Home in Melbourne is at the Jewish
Museum of Australia, Melbourne, until March 11.


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