The future of Yiddish in Melbourne

March 1, 2019 by David Marlow
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The past and future of Yiddish Melbourne were discussed at the AGM of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Vic (AJHS) last night at Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda.

Profr Andrew Markus

Over sixty AJHS members and diverse community members gathered to hear Dr Margaret Taft and Prof Andrew Markus speak about their new book “A Second Chance: The Making of Yiddish Melbourne”.  This is the first book focused on Yiddish Melbourne.

The business of the AJHS AGM was completed with board elections completed, with new board members including David Marlow (former JCCV Executive Director), Erica Cervini (completing her Phd in Australian Jewish history) and Gavin Silbert QC (former Chief Crown Prosecutor).

AJHS President Dr Howard Freeman spoke about the new website being finalised with the AJHS in NSW, the renovated journal and thanked the Pratt Foundation, and notably Sam Lipski, for the confidence shown in the AJHS by their financial support.

He also thanked retiring board members Rabbi John Levi, Lionel Sharpe, Shelley Cohney, Russell Stern, and past Secretary Philip Lipshut.

Dr Taft provided a very interesting, informative and comprehensive review of the history of Yiddish Melbourne and how it fits within the broader Jewish history of Melbourne.

She explained that Yiddish was special as it was the language of a people and not a country.  It was a constructed and hybrid language, which also had regional dialects.

Dr Taft described as the glue that held the Jews of Eastern Europe together. In one year alone, 281 Yiddish books were published.

Dr Margaret Taft

But the Holocaust exterminated millions of Yiddish speakers as well as their books.  Melbourne became a great potential target for immigrant Yiddish speakers, as it was far from any potential WWIII, and it already had a small established community of Yiddish speakers.

The Kadimah was established in 1911, Yiddish based welfare groups had been established and there was already a vibrant Yiddish arts scene in what was a relatively progressive and egalitarian country.  There were Yiddish newspapers and the first Yiddish book was published in Melbourne in 1937.

Dr Taft described the population explosion of the Yiddish speaking community after the war, and noted that the Jewish establishment was different to the “Yaakov come latelies”.  But the new Yiddish speakers bore their differences as a badge of honour.

Today, UNESCO says Yiddish is an endangered language.  Depleted, but not dead.  Surveys suggest that only about 7% of the Jewish community in Melbourne speak Yiddish, down from 28% in the late sixties.  But institutions such as Kadimah and Sholom Aleichem College, as well as the rich reservoir of Yiddish literature give the language some hope for the future.

Dr Howard Freeman

Prof Markus spoke about some of the demographic and sociological issues surrounding the Yiddish community.

For example, having no Yiddish homeland remaining, was a risk factor for the language in Australia.  He discussed how the establishment of Israel with its Hebrew focus and the relationship of Melbourne to the Holocaust, put Melbourne in a very special position regarding Yiddish culture.  After all, it is commonly held that Australia has the largest per capita Survivor community after Israel.  And Melbourne largely received the Polish component of that community.

He described the difficulty Survivors had in getting into Australia and the importance sponsorship played in bringing Yiddish speakers to Melbourne.

A vibrant question time and open discussion involving historians and descendants of Yiddishists followed the presentations.


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