2019 Victorian Community History Awards – Commendation – Cultural Diversity
They came from an old world to a new land. The Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe brought few material possessions but clung to a language and a culture that defined who they were, a way of life that had endured pogroms, persecution and a genocide that pushed them to the brink of extinction. Melbourne gave them a second chance at life, an opportunity to rebuild a secular Yiddish world that sat at the core of their existence.
Hardship had taught these Jews to be resilient, fiercely independent and great institution builders. A community centre quickly became the beating heart of Yiddish Melbourne. The arts flourished, newspapers were launched and schools were established. But these immigrants also brought their competing political ideals, hotly contested notions of what it meant to be a Jew and how to live life in this furthest corner of the world.
Their arrival in Melbourne was not always welcomed. The Australian authorities only grudgingly accepted them as immigrants, in restricted numbers and under the sponsorship of Jews already living here. Yiddish speakers, with their boisterous demeanour and high visibility challenged the authority of the established Jewish community, which traced its origins to the first settlement and which believed that ‘blending in’ was the antidote to antisemitism.
Using the voices of the immigrants themselves and archival sources, the authors give a compelling account of how these Yiddish speakers came to shape, change and define an entire community.