“Mir kumen on, mir kumen on! Un fest un zikher undzer trot!”
Late on a recent Friday night, dozens of voices joined this Yiddish hymn – “We are coming, we are coming! And our step is firm and true!” — and hovered from a conference center among gum and kookaburras outside of Melbourne, Australia.
Today, Yiddish is most commonly used in ultra-orthodox communities in places like Brooklyn or Jerusalem. But in Melbourne you can hear fragments of it on certain streets, around multi-generational dinners, on stages and in classrooms.
And one weekend a year, Australian speakers of Yiddish gather at Sof-Vokh Oystralye, or Weekend Australia, for 48 hours of total immersion in the language of a thousand years of Jewish life and culture which, before the Holocaust, was spoken by 13. million of people, mostly in Eastern Europe.
For some of the singers at this year’s retreat, at the end of May, Yiddish is the language of everyday life. For others, it evokes a childhood long ago in an immigrant neighborhood in Melbourne. For many of the youngest participants, including some who have already been sent to bed, it is the language of the classroom, sitting easily alongside Hebrew and English in the world’s only secular primary school where it is a compulsory daily subject.
At Sof-Vokh, attendees in hats and scarves decorated with the insignia of Australian football teams played Dungeons and Dragons, basketball and chess; smeared cream cheese into blintzes in a stainless-steel-wrapped food processor; and played games in which they impersonated animals and translated gibberish into poetry – all in Yiddish.
From an impromptu Twister game set up in the hotel lobby, a falling child let out a loud “Oy vey!”
Beyond the lighting of candles and blessings in Yiddish over bread and wine on Friday night, there were few signs of organized religion. However, the preservation of the language has become, for the founders of the event and others in the Jewish community in Melbourne, almost a holy crusade.
In 1995, when Melbourne’s last Yiddish newspaper closed, Freydi Mrocki, a musician and a teacher, fell on the floor of her dining room, crying, she said. “That’s when I decided that the Yiddish would die for my corpse,” said Mrs. Mrocki, 63. “I gave my life to Yiddish, just as some people give their lives to God.”
Together with Dr. Doodie Ringelblum, she co-founded Sof-Vokh in 2004.
“Yiddish is our contribution to world culture,” said Dr. Ringelblum, 60, “and Judaism is our contribution to the richness of human life.”
Dr. Ringelblum and his wife raised their three children to speak Yiddish as their first language. But with few other Yiddish-speaking families in Melbourne, and scant secular resources – as well as the occasional reluctance of his teenage children – passing it on was “terribly difficult”, he said. “The two words that are most spoken in our family are ‘redt la Yiddish’ – ‘to speak Yiddish’.”
Many of Melbourne’s current Yiddish speakers, including Ms Mrocki and Dr Ringelblum, are descended from a wave of Jewish refugees who settled in the city between 1938 and 1960, giving Australia the largest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country. next to Israel.
Hania Joskowicz, who will turn 100 in February, moved to Australia in 1951 with her husband and daughter.
She spent six years of the war in a labor camp, unaware that the Nazis had murdered her parents and two of her three siblings. It was “no life”, she said in a recent interview at her Melbourne home. “In every minute, you are dead. Every second.”
But in Melbourne, she found a ready-made community in the neighborhood of Carlton, living among fellow Holocaust survivors and other new migrants, and picking up Greek and Italian along with English.
“It really was shtetl Carlton, back then,” said Arnold Zable, 76, a writer who captured the community and area in his book “Scraps of Heaven.”
At the Kadimah, a Jewish cultural center and library in Melbourne, Mrs Joskowicz and her husband attended Yiddish theatre, dances and other events. She remembered the shock of suddenly meeting a close friend from before the war there. “I fell over with happiness,” she said.
As Melbourne’s last generation of pre-war Yiddish speakers fades away, the language comes alive for most contemporary speakers in settings such as Sof-Vokh or in classes, as well as through Melbourne’s thriving Yiddish music scene.
This has been the case around the world, said Rivke Margolis, professor of Jewish studies at Monash University in Melbourne. “There is absolutely no indication that Yiddish is ‘dying,'” she said.
At Sof-Vokh, she led a rapt crowd through monologue by the writer Aaron Zeitlin, in which a Yiddish-speaking migrant to the United States meditates on his assimilated family before realizing, shocked, that no one will say Kaddish, the prayer of Jewish mourners, for him when he dies.
Over time, Melbourne’s Jewish population moved slowly from Carlton to the city’s present-day “bagel belt” south of the river, where the Kadimah later moved. At 111, the organization continues to present plays in Yiddish and teach the language to people of all ages.
Around the corner is Sholem Aleichem College, a secular Jewish elementary school named after the acclaimed Yiddish. a writerwhere around 300 students learn in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
At lunch at Sof-Vokh, Helen Greenberg, the school’s principal of 17 years, laughed as she chatted with former students, and greeted those still in her control.
“Their intonation is spectacular,” she said, of her students’ proficiency in Yiddish. She added, “They don’t just see it as a language, they see it as part of their identity.”
At school recently, in a bright, modern classroom, children as young as 3 or 4 were fidgeting through Yiddish. acknowledgment of the indigenous inhabitants of the earth, before joining to burn the days of the week, starting with “montik”.
The school is now independent, and Israeli flags hang on its walls. But it has its roots in the Jewish Labor Federation, 19th century Eastern European socialist labor union which espoused Marxist and anti-Zionist values and survives today only in Melbourne, together with its youth group, SKIF.
The political philosophy of the Bund, although still socialist and unaffiliated with Zionism, changed over time to a focus on “Yiddishkeit”, a catchall term for Jewish culture that extends to the support of the Yiddish language, and “Doikayt” – supporting Jewish communities where whatever they are is
During the pandemic, many of Melbourne’s Yiddish institutions saw a surge of enthusiasm in online activities that later filtered into the physical world. In March 2022, the Kadimah presented a modern Yiddish-language adaptation of “Yentl”, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which sold out its two-week run in one of the city’s main theatres, and won multiple Melbourne theater awards.
Late Saturday afternoon at Sof-Vokh, a small group led by Joshua Reuben, 27, and Tomi Kalinski, 71, handled two different Yiddish translations of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart,” a 2017 petition for compensation by indigenous leaders, which led to an upcoming referendum on constitutional reform.
Crime from the dining room intensified when they reached the end of the corridor: “We invite you to walk with us,” read Mr. Ruben, in Yiddish, “in a movement of the Australian people, for a better future.”