Jewish Carlton continued

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Jeff Atkinson

The Jewish population that first settled in Melbourne in the 19th century were mainly from England, that is, they were English speaking and well adapted to living in a predominantly British cultural environment such as that in Melbourne at the time.

In the 1880s and 1890s, however, many Jewish immigrants began arriving from Eastern Europe, fleeing Russian anti-Semitism. These were Yiddish-speaking and culturally very different from the Anglo-Jewish population. Yiddish is a Germanic language historically spoken by Eastern European Jews.

There were pressures on these new immigrants to integrate so as not to stand out or draw attention to themselves. But these people were proud of the Yiddish culture and language that they had brought with them and did not want to see it disappear.

The organisation that became the preserver of Yiddish language and culture in Melbourne was called Kadimah (which means something like “forward” in Hebrew). It was founded in 1911 and became a “home away from home” for newly-arrived Eastern European Jewish immigrants in what was for them an alien Anglo country.

The Kadimah organisation was originally located in the city but moved to Carlton where most of this new wave of Jewish immigrants had settled – first to Drummond St, and then in 1933 to a new purpose-built building in Lygon St, across the road from the Melbourne General Cemetery (see photo).

This building became the centre for Yiddish cultural and social life in Melbourne, fostering pride in the culture and language. It was a centre for Yiddish intellectualism, providing lectures, concerts and plays, publishing works by local writers in the Yiddish language, underwriting a Yiddish newspaper and fostering Yiddish theatre. Among other things, it housed the National Yiddish Library.

Before and after the Second World War, Kadimah, was a refuge for those escaping and surviving the Holocaust, providing an inspiration for maintaining their culture and supporting their settlement in a strange new country.

Within Carlton more generally there was a Jewish community that provided support for newly-arrived immigrants. Former Jewish residents of Yiddish Carlton, such as author Arnold Zable, tend to recall their time growing up there with much affection - the camaraderie and sense of extended family within the community that supported them and their families during their early years in Australia, with Jewish stores and trades of all descriptions, welfare groups, sports and leisure facilities, after-hours Hebrew and Yiddish classes, synagogues, and so on.

By the 1960s the Jewish population of Carlton was moving elsewhere, mainly south of the Yarra. In 1968, after 35 years in Lygon St, the Kadimah organisation moved to Elsternwick, where today it continues to thrive. With it went the National Yiddish Library.

The building in Lygon St was then taken over by the Societa Isole Eolie – one of the oldest of Melbourne’s Italian regional social clubs, for people from the islands off the east coast of Italy. The building is now known as the Eolian Hall. •

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