Travel: Jewish Melbourne — Geographically down under but close at heart

Jewish life in Melbourne is rich with cultural, social, sporting, volunteer and religious outlets.

April 4, 2015 21:29
Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne, Australia. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It happens whenever I’m in an airport in Hong Kong or Bangkok waiting to take a connecting flight to Australia.

The coarse Australian accent, which I’ve spent years trying to disguise, suddenly overrides the carefully cultivated rounded vowels and emerges in full force to match the accents of most of my fellow travelers. The vocabulary also changes so that garbage becomes rubbish; a porch or a patio becomes a veranda, and the trunk of a car becomes the boot. In addition, there’s that innate, laid back sense of Australian optimism in which approval is accompanied by the expression “How good is that” and almost any request is met with the response of “No worries, mate.”

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Suddenly, without yet setting foot on Australian soil, I’m home again. These are the voices and the speech of my growing up years.

But this most recent visit in February-March was almost as if I hadn’t left Israel. The similarity of media reports was uncanny. There was a concerted effort to unseat the prime minister, real estate prices had risen to an unprecedented high and there were problems with unwanted immigrants. Also, there was a move afoot to privatize postal services, reduce the frequency of mail delivery and increase the price of postage, and then there were complaints about the expense of medications.

Nationalists were protesting the predatory nature of the Chinese who had not only put Australians out of business and out of work by flooding the market with much more affordable merchandise, but who were also buying up masses of Australian property.

Misogyny, a common complaint in Israel, exists in Australia too, with a gender imbalance in parliament. But worst of all were the revelations of pedophilia, not only in the Jewish community, but in general.

There were also similarities on specific issues on the political front. Just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fixated on Iran, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fixated over the threat of Muslim extremists. His frequently aired remarks on the subject and claims that hundreds are inciting violence against Australians and his intention to cancel their citizenship and stop their welfare payments have sparked the anger of the Muslim community.

Like Jerusalem, where I have spent just over half my life, my native Melbourne is losing its character and giving way to high-rise buildings.

However, the essential difference between Melbourne and Jerusalem is that Melbourne’s heritage authorities seem to have much more clout when it comes to preservation of historic sites, and whether one objects to high-rise buildings or not, most of those in Melbourne are architectural gems. There are still whole neighborhoods, such as Camberwell, where some of my relatives live, in which there are several streets of single-story Victorian and Edwardian houses with intricate fretwork adding charm to the verandas.

Even in more modern areas such as East St. Kilda and Caulfield, largely Jewish suburbs, there are still spacious double- and triple-fronted one-story homes standing on adjoining plots of land for several blocks. Many of the houses have at least one glass wall, enabling daylight to spread through most of the house. Usually located on large tracts of land, they have breathtaking front and back gardens.

Jewish life in Melbourne is rich with cultural, social, sporting, volunteer and religious outlets. My best friend, Jacqui Corry, with whom I usually stay, is busy every day as the president of a B’nai B’rith chapter, volunteering at the Emmy Monash Home for the Aged, making sandwiches for senior citizens who benefit from cultural activities provided by Temple Beth Israel or organizing a group outing along the Yarra River or a trip to one of the scenic rural towns.

She plays scrabble on a regular basis with a group of Jewish friends, participates in trivia nights, goes to the theater or the opera at least once a week and attends Israel and Jewish film festivals generally held at the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick, which is just around the corner from the Holocaust Museum. Not too far away in St. Kilda is the Jewish Museum, which has changing exhibitions as well as diverse cultural activities.

There are numerous Zionist organizations for youth and adults, study groups for almost every stream of Judaism and friends associations that are affiliated with Israeli universities, medical centers, orchestras and organizations such as WIZO, Emunah and Hatzalah.

A major change from when I was a child is that so much Hebrew is heard in Jewish business enterprises, especially coffee shops, kosher butchers and grocery stores. When I was a child, the dominant language was Yiddish. Many Israelis have made temporary or permanent homes for themselves in the lucky country, and they gather at least once a week to discuss Israeli issues and to solve the nation’s problems from afar, lamenting that Bibi isn’t listening to them.

They are well tuned in to Israel, and actually receive Israeli news ahead of many Israeli residents. Because Melbourne is nine hours ahead of Israel, the Israelis down under are reading Israeli websites while those in Israel are still asleep. They also get local editions of Israeli newspapers.

They keep their fingers on Israel’s pulse due to the large number of Israeli dignitaries who come to Australia on fund-raising and speaking engagements, or to participate in international conferences, or in joint business ventures with Australian counterparts.

Jews have risen to reasonably high places in Australia.

Two, Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen became governor- general. John Monash, born in Melbourne in 1865, was a highly decorated military commander in the First World War. In July of this year, Linda Dessau will take up her five-year term as the first female and the first Jewish governor of Victoria.

Melbourne Jews support a large network of Jewish day schools, Jewish senior citizens homes and day care centers and a Jewish hospital. While the majority of Melbourne’s Jewish families arrived there from Europe just before or after the Second World War, some families can trace their Australian origins back to the first convicts who came from England, while others have descended from families that have lived in Australia for well over a hundred years.

One such family is the Feiglins, whose antecedents as Chabad Hassidim came to Australia 105 years ago and settled in the Victorian country town of Shepparton. Many of their descendants moved to Melbourne and subsequently to Israel. Former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin is one of those descendants. His parents moved to Haifa, where he was born.

Feiglin has a young Australian- born relative by the same name, who recently made aliya and who, although much younger, bears a striking physical resemblance to him. This may explain why the younger Moshe Feiglin, a psychologist, social worker and musician was arrested in London on suspicion of subversive activities. When he tried to explain that he was a different Moshe Feiglin, the British authorities were simply not interested.

The younger Feiglin’s father, Yitzchok Feiglin, who continues to live in Melbourne, chairs the Melbourne Jewish Community Charity Fund, which he founded, and which over the past year alone has given more than $1.4 million in financial assistance to poor families and individuals for rent, food and basic living and medical expenses. They simply aren’t in the position to repay loans, says Feiglin, so it’s much easier to just give them what they need. If finances improve in some cases, they do pay back, but he never asks them to.

Strolling through Caulfield on Saturday en route to synagogue services or to someone’s house for lunch or for a Bible lesson is almost like being in Jerusalem, meeting friends and acquaintances along the way. In fact, I probably bumped into more people I know than I do in Jerusalem.

One thing that remained from the past despite the presence of so many Israelis was that in Jerusalem the greeting is “Shabbat Shalom.” In Melbourne it’s still “Gut Shabbes.”

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