Melbourne's 40,000-strong Jewish community is centralized, more or less, around the southeastern bagel-belt suburbs of St. Kilda, Caulfield and Elsternwick. Its early Anglo-German contingent, set up in the 19th century in the Central Business District, and eventually drifted to St. Kilda, on the south side of the River Yarra. Then, the mostly Polish wave of migration immediately before and after World War II went straight to the working-class cottages and laneways of Carlton, on the north side of the river, where a community of no more than a thousand families had such a profound presence that many still remember 1950s Carlton as the golden age of Melbourne Jewish society
Two separate communities had their day in Carlton at the very same time, one ultra-Orthodox, the other a collection of secularists and Bundists. So, when I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of haredi Carlton in the same month as chatting with Arnold Zable, the secular novelist-cum-Carlton's communal scribe, I expected the two memories of Carlton to clash.
Tour of Orthodox Carlton
The tour leaves from outside Ripponlea train station, in the leafy haredi heartland. Waiting for the bus to load up, I'd never seen so many cake boxes in one place, aside from, perhaps, at a wedding or a bar mitzva. Morning tea is included, in a quantity fit for such a serious trek. On a Sunday, with no traffic, the trip to Carlton will take no longer than 25 minutes.
As we roll off to town, I have an unobstructed view down the aisle. Tour mastermind and barrister David Havin's meticulous interest and many hours of research and planning have led us not only to this tour, but also provided us with a bound booklet of distilled Melbourne Jewish history. He makes an introduction on the coach's crackling PA. It's difficult to make out what he says, and it sets the tone for my experience of the day
Among my male, Orthodox companions, the connection to Carlton varies; some may have lived there or in its surrounding suburbs as children, and then moved on; others lived there their entire lives; and many have only ancestral links to the area.
These days Carlton is the trendy haunt of academics and students from nearby Melbourne University, who populate its cafes, eateries and bookstores. The tour is an unprecedented opportunity to rekindle memories in a part of the city many of these men wouldn't often have occasion to visit.
Initially, only members of the haredi, Yiddish-speaking Adass Yisroel community were invited along for the tour. That restriction was eventually relaxed, to allow for some others to fill the seats and justify the expense of hiring the bus. It's a male-only affair (though a women's tour has since taken place).
We see the original site of Melbourne Jewish infrastructure on Bourke Street, a former school and synagogue, through the windows. We find a way into the oldest extant synagogue building in Melbourne, on the corner of Little Lonsdale and Exhibition streets, which is undergoing conversion to a bar. We stand on Carlton's Drummond Street with David Stone, a seventh-generation Melbourne Jew, who tells us which Jewish families lived in which of its terrace houses. We visit the Hevra Kadisha - the burial society - and hear tales of long-dead rabbis and scholars. There's mention of synagogues, kosher butchers and houses of prominent personalities, as we trundle down narrow streets. By day's end we've dealt with the Orthodox community's genesis, zenith and evaporation to other parts of Melbourne, from the 1920s, through the '30s, '40s and '50s, with only a passing mention of anything secular.
Havin had originally advertised this as a walking tour, but we only get out a couple of times to wander a few paces. No one, it seems, is too bothered. On the bus is a collective of thinkers. They're cerebral, preferring to let Jewish Carlton recreate itself through stories, fables and myths, told over the PA, and screened as we drive, on fuzzy super-eight reproductions converted to DVD.
Arnold Zable's secular fill-in
"They were small in number," says novelist Arnold Zable, "but huge in impact. The Polish Jews, as distinct from German Jews, Hungarian Jews, were a very, very active community."
I meet Zable at the Fairfield Park Boathouse and Tea Gardens in Melbourne's north, near to where he lives with his wife and son. He's due to hand in the manuscript for his forthcoming novel, Sea of Many Returns, the following day. He's weary, but speaking of a time and place so close to his heart seems to invigorate him; in his 2004 novel Scraps of Heaven, he captured the Carlton community's daily machinations with a moving, insider's pathos.
Born in Wellington in 1947, Zable came to Australia as a young boy with his Bundist Holocaust-survivor parents, Meier and Hoddes, and settled on Canning Street, Carlton. His parents continued to live in Carlton well after the community around them had moved on, and Yiddish conversation had vanished from its streets. "My father," Zable says, "lived in Carlton till the day he died."
"The real Carlton era," Zable says, "the heyday, was in the 1950s."
This was when the Yiddish theater company, Kadimah, was so strong that a given play's season would run for 10 weekends. "It was an extraordinary explosion of Yiddish life; of secular life." Then, as people who had arrived in Australia with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs gradually earned themselves better livelihoods, they moved to the eastern suburbs of Kew and Balwyn.
"The turning point," Zable says, "was in 1968, when Kadimah finally, finally sold their building." The theater crossed the river and moved to Elsternwick, performing in what is now the Classic Theater, a contemporary cinema. Kadimah celebrated 95 years of existence in 2006.
Religious life is peripheral to Zable's account of Carlton life in Scraps of Heaven. Maybe twice, ethereal black-hatted, black-coated men flit in and out of the narrative. I'm genuinely surprised when I place David Havin's tour-accompanying book in Zable's hands, and he can't contain his glee. "I never even knew it existed - when did it come out? This is fabulous. I'd love to get this book. The shtieblach, I'd love to write about this!"
Zable does recall tension between the secular and the religious, but nothing monumental. He says most of it was imported from Poland, where the Yiddish theater would have performed on Friday nights purely out of spite. "Clashes between the religious and the secular were fiery [in Poland]," he says. In Melbourne there were still plenty of fireworks.
"In any community which is still close to being a community that is transported from the Old World, there will be big conflicts," he says. "But really, when it came to the Orthodox and the Bundists and the secularists, I think they let each other be, as far as I know."
Zable tells me factions that may have warred in Europe simply stuck out equally in Melbourne. They had to maintain enough unity to survive, and eventually, as they did, to prosper.
It seems Havin's Carlton existed side-by-side with Zable's. Stone Synagogue, central to Orthodox life, was a few streets from La Cumparsita, the Italian function center that featured in Scraps of Heaven, where a wonderfully drunken, irreverent secular wedding is held. Zable even recalls his Bundist father taking him to a shtiebl. "He was a very secular Jew," he says, "but he had a very religious upbringing. He said to me, 'On Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, if you're going to go, it may as well be the real thing.'"
In 1991, about a year after Zable's mother died, Jewels and Ashes was released, an account of a trip to his ancestral Poland. He was asked to give a talk to the Carlton Historical Society at the time.
"My dad was there," he says. "It was fantastic; it was a beautiful autumn night." After the talk, Zable walked his father home to the house on Canning Street, where he had grown up, and which is central to Scraps of Heaven.
"My father said to me, 'The Malach Hamoves [the Angel of Death] has forgotten there are still Jews living in Carlton.' I said, 'Dad, you shouldn't have said that, you've let him know!'" He passed away a few months later.
The writer is a freelance writer and photographer based in Melbourne.
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