For much of 2020, the usual buzz and bustle of Melbourne, Australia, was stifled due to the global pandemic. Most people were confined to their homes, unable to gather and see loved ones due to widespread cancellations of any in-person gatherings. The second largest city in Australia had one of the harshest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, with close to six months of curfews, travel restrictions, mandatory mask-wearing, and the closure of all nonessential businesses and facilities.
With most of the city looking for ways to stay occupied over the months of isolation, the Kadimah Yiddish Theatre in Melbourne decided to use the lockdown to create a series of four monologues of Shakespeare in Yiddish, which were released straight onto YouTube. It’s not a surprise that Melbourne’s Yiddish community was able to act quickly and creatively to bring the mamaloshn to the masses; for over 100 years, Yiddish has maintained deep roots in Melbourne, with its speakers and educators displaying a unique passion for the language and culture.
Galit Klas, one of two artistic directors at the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre & National Library, estimates that there are just seven or eight Yiddish theater groups in the world. Melbourne’s is successful enough to have salaried employees to run annual shows, which attract Jewish and non-Jewish theatergoers alike. Their 2019 Yiddish production of The Ghetto Cabaret drew a diverse audience, beyond the local Jewish community.
Melbourne—whose Jewish community numbers approximately 60,000, out of a total of 5 million residents—has a thriving Yiddish language and cultural scene, in contrast to many cities around the world with larger Jewish communities.
Yossi Aron, who has written a number of books on Australian Jewish history and is the religious affairs editor of The Australian Jewish News, said that historical immigration patterns have inherently skewed Melbourne to become a city where Yiddish gained popularity, and continues to be an important element of the local Jewish community.
“In the 1800s, when immigration to Australia began by boat, the first stop was in Perth, Western Australia, and then Melbourne—but it was known that there were Jews in Melbourne, so not many stayed in Perth,” said Aron. “In the 1890s, when people started leaving Eastern Europe, they also came to Melbourne and it became a magnet for other Jewish people, particularly Yiddish speakers. So, when the big immigration wave came after the Second World War, the place to go was Melbourne, as there were already some Yiddish speakers who had immigrated and the Yiddish community—both religious and secular—came to Melbourne because they knew that there were other Yiddish speakers there.”
Many Holocaust survivors from Poland and Russia, who spoke Yiddish as a first language, settled in Melbourne after the war and raised their children with a deep appreciation of Yiddish language and culture. These immigrants were particularly creative and passionate about Yiddish and planted the seeds within the wider Jewish community for Yiddish to flourish and outlast their generation.
“The Holocaust survivors that came to Melbourne loved the language and actively supported it,” Klas said. “That is why it’s so vibrant.”
While Yiddish floundered globally during the 20th century, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe has managed to stay alive in Melbourne, through a new set of dedicated, diverse speakers and educators, representing communities as seemingly disparate as tightknit secular Bundists and ultra-Orthodox Australian Haredim. Children from both communities are learning Yiddish at rates higher than most other places in the world. In fact, in the 1960s, out of the 20,000 Jewish people then living in Melbourne, it was estimated that 14,000 were descended from Yiddish speakers, with the popularity and proliferation of Yiddish in Melbourne continuing to this day.
To this very day there is a Melbourne branch of the Bund—the General Jewish Workers Union that originated in Russia and Poland in the late 19th century—that is still active and growing. This is the secular source of Yiddish’s unlikely continuation, as the Bund’s youth movement stressed the cultural importance of the language.
Michael Zylberman, the head of Melbourne Bund, agrees that it was the type of Holocaust survivors that came to Melbourne, from strong Yiddish-speaking backgrounds, who helped to cement this city as a Yiddish cultural center.
“The people that came to Melbourne were very committed and very organized,” he said, “They came from European communities that were highly established, they knew how to build communities. They continued to speak the language, run Yiddish-based organizations, and started a secular Yiddish community school, Sholem Aleichem College.”
Founded in the 1950s as a kindergarten and Sunday school, Sholem Aleichem College became a full-fledged primary school in the 1970s, providing a strong Yiddish education for children from 2 to 12 years of age.
The principal of Sholem Aleichem College, Helen Greenberg, describes the people that came to Melbourne after the war as being integral to the continued success of the school: “These survivors brought their creativity and desire to educate in the Yiddish language, and they came to Melbourne, which is just about as far away as possible from Europe.”
Today there are over 300 children enrolled at the school, where Yiddish is taught daily as a second language, similar to the way Hebrew is taught at other Jewish day schools. The school uses YIVO standard Yiddish.
While the school was set up to be steeped in secular Yiddish values, it attracts all kinds of Jewish children.
“Children who come to our school are from all levels of religiosity, including families with children who have peyes and kippah,” Greenberg said. “It is very inclusive; it is not about being a big school, it is about the love and joy people have from the learning which includes Yiddish.”
Michael Zylberman’s daughter Reyzl Zylberman, who is the director of Jewish studies at Sholem Aleichem College, noted, “There is a lot of talk in the community that Yiddish is a dying language, but students at Sholem Aleichem College don’t experience this. They experience Yiddish as a living language, learning about different topics in Yiddish, talking about their football team in Yiddish, and using modern technology in Yiddish.”
Sholem Aleichem College isn’t the only Yiddish day school in Melbourne. The other school, Divrei Emineh College, focuses exclusively on providing a Haredi-based Yiddish education to their students. The school, which has dedicated boys’ and girls’ campuses, was established to emulate overseas Haredi schools that teach and educate all subjects in Yiddish, including secular subjects like mathematics.
The very same factors that helped Yiddish survive the 20th century in Melbourne—fortuitous immigration patterns, a creative and dedicated cohort committed to teaching and learning the language, and a willingness to bring Yiddish into the modern world—have in recent years seen a surge in people wanting to speak and learn the language of their parents and grandparents. This has been particularly true during the pandemic.
Esther Singer, who coordinates the Kadimah’s Yiddish-language programs, has noticed a marked increase in students attending events, especially Yiddish-language classes. “Some people were shocked by the number of people coming to Yiddish classes,” Singer said. But she wasn’t surprised.
“Yiddish is the language of survival,” Singer said. “Yiddish has gone through all circumstances, and the pandemic has confirmed it will continue to survive despite all odds.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.