Going home again

A writer revisits Jewish Melbourne through photography.

jewish greer art 88 298 (photo credit: )
jewish greer art 88 298
(photo credit: )
'You can't go home again," wrote Thomas Wolfe, and indeed even in cases less extreme than the plot of his novel about a writer ostracized by his home town, home is never quite what it was to those who've been away from it for a long time. Thus it was with a sense of both anticipation and trepidation that I went to see "Dreaming in English," Angela Lynkushka's photographic exhibition of portraits from the Jewish community of Melbourne 1989-2006. Melbourne is the city of my birth, the city in which I was raised and educated, the city in which my character was formed. It was and is a most beautiful city, which constantly changes yet remains the same. Like every major city, it has given way to modernity, but in most of its older sections, it has preserved many historical cottages and monuments. I left Melbourne for Jerusalem in 1973, and 13 years passed before I returned. It had changed in that time - but not radically. Certain places had been spruced up a little but were still instantly recognizable. The cluster of suburbs in which most of my relatives live, and where I once lived, has undergone a face-lift here and there, but is basically the same as it was more than 30 years ago. While the exhibit at Beth Hatefutsoth does include some buildings, most notably the East Melbourne Synagogue, which is the oldest functioning synagogue in the State of Victoria, the main focus is on portraiture. The East Melbourne Synagogue dates back to the gold rush era of the 1850s. The synagogue was built in 1877, and has been classified by the National Trust of Australia. Every ANZAC Day, when I was a child, thousands of children, dressed in their distinctive school uniforms, would march in the ANZAC Day parade honoring the memories of soldiers who fell in World Wars I and II and in the Korean War. I went to Mount Scopus College, a Jewish day school, and we always completed the march at the East Melbourne Synagogue. It is understandable that Lynkushka became a member of this congregation, since her decision to document Jewish life in Melbourne was inspired by the sale of another synagogue, the Brunswick synagogue, which had outlived its congregation. Brunswick is one of several northern Melbourne suburbs that once pulsated with Jewish life. Working-class Jews, who came to Melbourne primarily from Europe, settled in Coburg, Brunswick, Carlton and Princes Hill. Those who made money in the late 1950s and 1960s crossed the Yarra River to settle in the more affluent Brighton, Elwood, St. Kilda, Elsternwick and Caulfield. Those who were extremely rich lived in the more grandiose suburbs of South Yarra and Toorak. Technically speaking, there are up-market suburbs, such as Kew and Balwyn in the northern part of the city - but they're a far cry, both in distance and substance, from the Carlton of my youth. Lynkushka, a very young looking 59, came to Brunswick in the 1970s. A librarian by profession, she had been living in Sydney, and returned to Melbourne with her now former husband who had secured a high school teaching position in Brunswick, which was a very long way from Sandringham, the isolated outer suburb in which Lynkushka had spent her formative years. BRUNSWICK, THOUGH almost totally bereft of Jews, is still a working-class area with immigrants from every continent. Lynkushka was fascinated by them and decided to become a photographer. She also took on a new surname as a permanent sign of appreciation to her grandmother. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post less than two hours prior to the opening of the exhibition, Lynkushka said: "I chose my grandmother's name because she was my mentor and guide and inspiration. She was a journalist. She was Jewish and foreign. There was a lot of racism then, and women were not supported in the media. It was a boys' club. I decided that if she could be a journalist in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, I could be a documentary photographer." Pursuing her chosen vocation was almost as difficult for Lynkushka as it had been for her grandmother. "Photojournalism and documentary photography were dominated by men. Women were marginalized. I still think it's tough for women." Undaunted by the obstacles, Lynkushka persevered. Working with a friend, she started a small business specializing in child photography. She took on small jobs assigned by local community services, particularly child services, and soon developed into a community photographer. The 1980s saw the founding of the Community Arts Movement, and most of the artists, according to Lynkushka, addressed themselves to the working and cultural life of Australia and the immigrant experience. It was through their work that Australia finally called itself a multicultural society, she said. Out of community arts evolved Multicultural Arts, dealing specifically with migrant experiences as seen through the eyes of photographers, painters and muralists. As an outcome of her work with migrant communities, Lynkushka became more aware of her own Jewish community. There are still a few Jewish shopkeepers and old people in Brunswick and Carlton, she said. In her quest to capture them for posterity before it was too late, she became acutely aware of the transition of the Jewish population from the northern suburbs to the southern suburbs - mainly to St. Kilda and Caulfield. This, together with the sale of the Brunswick synagogue in 1988, prompted her to do a cultural and social history of the Jewish community of Melbourne, and to look at post World War II Jewry not only in terms of Holocaust survivors, but also Australian Jews who had fought in the war, and those who had simply been born and bred in Australia. She didn't put her subjects into categories. She simply went about doing portraits of people in the Jewish community. "This is why this exhibition is mainly images of individuals, which is universal," she explained. "You see the connection between people and the strength of a community which has not only survived, but leads a vibrant cultural life and is contributing to Australian life." Although this particular exhibition is devoted to Jews, Lynkushka was quick to point out that her work is not just for the Jewish community, but for the wider public. It illustrates how an immigrant community thrived in Australia and contributed to the social and cultural fabrics in so many different ways. In 1990, the first time that the exhibition went on show, it was displayed in the Linden Gallery, St. Kilda, a community gallery. It sparked so much interest that it had the largest attendance of any exhibition in the gallery that year and received excellent reviews. Comments written in the visitors' book testify to the extent to which "people just loved it. This is where art brings people together," said Lynkushka, who is currently on her third visit here. "I'd stay here, but no one would give me a job," she said ruefully recalling a failed attempt at aliya during her first visit in 1997. She'd gone to the British Olim Society office in Tel Aviv, which also deals with Australians, and the person who interviewed her told her that she didn't stand a chance as a photographer because there were too many photographers here already. Australians are flexible, she replied, and she was prepared to make a career switch to anything else. He was still discouraging, until she mentioned that she had three sons (now 34, 31 and 29), at which point he suddenly became interested. The ploy was a non-starter because her sons have no desire to leave Australia. On her second visit in 2005, she came with the idea of meeting museum curators to see if any would want to feature her exhibition. She met several, and received the most positive response from Beth Hatefutsoth, which was then undergoing severe financial difficulties which have since been overcome. However the wheels were put in motion and the result is now here for all to see. Lynkushka and I did not know each other in the old country, but there was instant chemistry, motivated in part by all the people whom I recognized in her photographs, and my enthusiastic reaction to encountering not only friends and acquaintances of my youth on the walls of Beth Hatefutsoth, but also members of my family. Cheered by my almost emotional reaction to the photographs, Lynkushka remarked that even though I had been here for such a long time and that much of what she had captured of the last remnants of Jewish life in Carlton, where I spent so much of my childhood, was gone, it still lived in my memory. Although there are still some Jews in Carlton, the Italians moved in as the Jews moved out and now dominate the shopping area which is like a tourist area. "But they don't live there any more," said Lynkushka. Carlton has also undergone a transformation. Like other former working-class suburbs, it has become gentrified and is now more of an affluent upper-middle-class area than a working-class suburb. NOW THAT she's in Israel again, Lynkushka would love to do another exhibition on Australian immigrants who live here and take it back on tour to Australia. Australians by and large tend to land on their feet and are generally self reliant and successful. They've been settling here since 1948, in kibbutzim, moshavim and urban centers, with prominent figures in medicine, hi-tech, law, academia, sports, banking, community service and many fields of business. However she can't undertake the project without a sponsor, because the work would entail her living in Israel for at least a year, something that she would greatly appreciate because she would then feel less like a tourist and more part of mainstream Israeli society. Depending on who looks at it, a photograph is more than just a piece of documentary evidence of places and people as they were in the recent or distant past. For those who have any kind of connection with the subject matter in the photographs, memories long dormant are stirred and revived. For instance, there are several intimate photos of artist Felix Tuszynski and his late brother Devi, who was an acclaimed miniaturist. Both survived the Holocaust. Felix went to Australia and Devi settled in Paris. The first time that Devi visited Australia, he needed an interpreter, because he spoke no English. I was then one of the volunteers at the now defunct Ben Uri Gallery and was delegated to help him. Mostly I translated from Yiddish to English and vice versa, and occasionally from Polish. In appreciation he did a portrait of me with his signature violin dangling from my ear. Some of the other photos that caught my eye were those of Sam Lipski, one of Australia's leading journalists, who used to be my boss when we both worked at the late lamented Jewish Herald; Chaim Srebryanski, a Chabadnik in whose home I was a frequent guest, Mendel Glick, the kosher baker; the late Miriam Rochlin, who played the piano at almost every Jewish concert; Masha and Avraham Zeleznikow, whose legendary Scheherazde Restaurant on Acland Street, St. Kilda, attracted at least two generations of Jews from all over Melbourne and was always packed on Sundays; artist Mirka Mora, who participated in group and solo exhibitions at the Ben Uri Gallery; well-known lawyer Alan Goldberg, whom I've known as long as I can remember; and brothers Isi and Mark Leibler, prominent leaders of the Jewish community. Other people from Melbourne who attended the opening were no less excited. Complementing the photographic exhibition is an excellent documentary Bitter Herbs and Honey - The Jews of Carlton by Australian filmmaker Monique Schwarz. The film has been shown here before but is much more powerful alongside the exhibition. Veteran Australian Jews talk about how ashamed they were of the postwar Jews who wore long coats, spoke with thick accents, carried briefcases and paid for their tram tickets out of small coin purses. They just didn't fit in with the Australian landscape and were a constant embarrassment. In contrast, another person interviewed in the film is a Holocaust survivor who says that after the war she thought that all Jewish life had disappeared, and then she came "to the end of the world" and found that they had Yiddish theater. On her first trip to Israel in 1997, Lynkushka visited Yad Vashem and purchased a souvenir brooch fashioned into the word Zachor - Remember. She wore it when she went back to Melbourne, and people stopped her to ask what it was. "I told them that it was Remember - Remember the Holocaust," she said. "But how could I remember if I was born after World War II?" In Melbourne, as in other places, she said, the Holocaust was hidden or forgotten until the 1980s when it became the preoccupation of children of survivors. Many of her photos, she noted, reflect histories "hidden by time or denial." "Dreaming in English," is the first exhibition to be held at Beth Hatefutsoth, since the passing of legislation declaring it a National Center for Jewish Communities Worldwide. The exhibition will remain on view till the end of July.