The Only Goy in the Village

Interest in Yiddish is booming and finding new speakers all the time, says Hinde Ena Burstin.

SOME FOLKS ASK, “WHY Yiddish?” My answer: “Why not?” Yiddish, my mameloshn (mother tongue), the first language I spoke, has nourished my life. When I speak Yiddish, a deep sense of pleasure radiates through me, making my toes curl up with delight. Yiddish is my home and my haven, grounding me and connecting me to rich, treasured roots.

But the problem with Yiddish is that it has had a shlemiel (good-for-nothing oaf) for a PR agent. Or maybe a shling-un-shlang shlepper (lazy bum). In any case, better publicity it could do with. It’s probably been that way since Yiddish first emerged more than 1000 years ago. It was certainly that way in the old countries. In the new countries, this vibrant living language has been relegated to the realm of remembrance. And in Australia? Well, we don’t call it Oy-stralia for nothing.

Yiddish got off to a slow start here, with very few Yiddish-speakers arriving down under in the first century after colonisation. After 1881, following pogroms in Tsarist Russia, Yiddish speakers started making their way to ek velt (the edge of the world).

If settlement in Australia can be described as a bagel, with non-Indigenous Australians sticking to the coast and leaving a hole in the middle, Jewish immigration is like the poppy seeds, with some seeds scattered throughout the bagel, but most collecting on one side – the east coast, especially Sydney and Melbourne.

By the late 1920s, tsores (troubles) were brewing abroad. With antisemitism on the rise in eastern Europe, especially in Poland, and more restrictive immigration policies in the USA, many Yiddish-speakers sought a new home in the ancient land down under. Most settled in Melbourne, where they established Yiddish schools, newspapers, communal, social and political organisations. Oy, were they busy!

The borders of Australia slammed shut before World War II with the declaration “Australia does not have a racial problem, and is not desirous of importing one”.

If you think it was easy to gain entry into Australia after World War II, think again. Of the first 170,000 displaced persons arriving in Australia after 1947, only 500 were Jews. The tsores weren’t over for those able to overcome the barriers. Immigrants were coerced to cast off their “cultural baggage” and adopt Australian cultural norms.

Such pressure the Yiddish-speakers didn’t need. After all, “cultural baggage” was often the only baggage Holocaust-surviving refugees brought with them.

Despite unsupportive attitudes in Australian society and the mainstream Jewish community, Yiddish institutions in Melbourne flourished.

In the 1950s, the Melbourne Yiddish theatre entertained an audience of more than 6000. Yiddish education also thrived, growing from one supplementary school with 30 students in the 1930s, to two Sunday schools and two kindergartens teaching 500 children in 1967. Such nakhes (pride)! The election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 saw massive changes in government policies around ethnicity and cultural diversity. Multiculturalism became official government policy.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of Yiddish communal and educational activities, particularly for the younger generations. Nowadays, with Yiddish being taught from kindergarten to university level you can become a certified meyvn (expert) of Yiddish.

As well as Sholem Aleichem, Jewish high schools King David, Mount Scopus, Bialik and Leibler Yavneh all offer Yiddish classes, some up to VCE level. Yiddish can be studied at the universities of Sydney and Monash . The University of Sydney also offers masters and even PhD programs in Yiddish for the super meyvns to become real Yidishe doctors.

Australia’s Yidishistn (Yiddish lovers) are extremely diverse. Many are young. Some are children or grandchildren of survivors. Others trace their heritage to South America, South Africa, North America, Israel or Australia. Yidishistn may be continuing a tradition of Yiddish spoken at home or learned at Yiddish school, or may be recent converts to Yiddish. All recognise the rich, enduring roots Yiddish offers.

The growing interest in Yiddish is timely. The younger generations are returning to their roots, seeking out what their parents rejected. As Gershon Weiner writes, “Immigrants arrive with their social baggage; the children throw it out the door and the grandchildren bring it back through the window.” This attraction to Yiddish is not simply because of nostalgia.

Yiddish occupies a special place in the Australian Jewish psyche. Yiddish words are commonly sprinkled into conversation, even among Jews who do not speak Yiddish. To me, this signifies how deeply the connection to Yiddish is rooted in the Ashkenaz Jewish neshome (soul). Given all the pressures on Yiddish, the survival of the language should be considered a simkhe (joyous occasion) and celebrated.

And where would Jewish humour be without Yiddish? I’ll tell you where. In hotseplots (“woop woop”). Without Yiddish, Jewish humour would be gornisht mit gornisht (nothing with nothing). Yiddish is the very essence of popular Jewish humour. Humour draws people to Yiddish.

The humour inherent in Yiddish words also appeals to non-Jews. As American scholars Novak and Waldocks write, “Yiddish has frequently been celebrated for being so rich in comic possibilities that even those who don’t understand it are apt to chuckle at many of its terms; F. Scott Fitzgerald, so the story goes, used to wander into a Jewish delicatessen just to hear the word knish.” Even in Australia, where Jews are a tiny proportion of the population, countless Yiddish words have crept into the colloquial language.

In my experience as a Yiddish teacher and lecturer, attraction to Yiddish goes beyond the cultural sumptuousness of the language. Jewish students are inspired to learn Yiddish, not only to connect with their grandparents (as is often assumed), or to reacquaint themselves with a language that they heard spoken during their childhood (often so that the children wouldn’t understand), but also because Yiddish offers a warm, embracing expression of Jewish identity and pride that challenges and overcomes internalised antisemitism.

Yiddish gives Jews a sense of belonging, particularly attracting those who are disenfranchised from other forms of Jewish expression. In difficult times, Yiddish encompasses the bitter-sweet irony of hope and survival. As Isaac Bashevis Singer declared, Yiddish is “a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses almost no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics”.

Yiddish can also offer an alternative to religion. It is a haven for those who feel out of place in synagogue, or shut out by the scriptures. My students are thrilled to learn Yiddish stories, poetry and songs about yom toyvim (festivals), providing them with a worldly way of celebrating festivals.

Like a gum tree after a bushfire, Yiddish in Australia remains strong, proud and determined to survive. In spite of all the efforts to kill this language, mir zaynen do, we Yiddish-speakers are still here.

This is an edited extract from Yiddish in Oystralia, by Hinde Ena Burstin, published in New Under the Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion Politics and culture, edited by Michael Fagenblat, Melianie Landau and Nathan Wolski, Black Inc, $34.95.

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