A tourist in my hometown

Boasting a thriving Jewish community and plethora of culinary offerings, Melbourne runs a close second to utopia.

THE JEWISH Museum of Australia in Melbourne. (photo credit: courtesy)
THE JEWISH Museum of Australia in Melbourne.
(photo credit: courtesy)
MELBOURNE – Whenever I go back to Melbourne where I was born and raised, I never fail to be amazed by how much has changed and how much is still the same.
For as long as I can remember, Melbourne has been a diverse, multi-cultural city, which for many years offered a promise of prosperity to immigrants from all over Europe – but not from Asia and Africa.
At least that was the case when I was a child. There was a Chinese population whose forebears had come during the gold rush era in the mid 19th century, but other non-Caucasians were rare. All that has changed. People from almost every country in Asia have migrated to Australia, as have former residents of various African countries and the islands of the Pacific.
Aside from seeing these immigrants at all levels of society, their presence is most reflected in the glut of eateries which line the streets not only of downtown Melbourne but also the whole of suburbia.
For people who love to eat, especially those who enjoy sampling the traditional fare of other countries, Melbourne is sheer paradise. Over a short distance on almost any main street, there are Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Polish, Italian and Lebanese eateries to name but a few. They range from fast food outlets to sophisticated restaurants replete with starched white tablecloths.
In the gilded ghetto of the Jewish community, there are also a number of kosher outlets, the best of them being Kimberley, a restaurant within a hotel and conventions complex in East St. Kilda in the very heart of Jewish Melbourne. Kimberley is within easy walking distance of more than half a dozen synagogues as well as kosher grocery stores and coffee shops.
Another change is the city’s skyline.
There were several tall buildings in Melbourne when I was a child, but compared to what exists today, they were almost insignificant. Melbourne’s creative architecture, especially in the theater district on the edge of town, is quite mind-blowing.
While developers have torn down a lot of old buildings, there are still numerous examples of the Victorian- and Edwardian-style architecture that was so prevalent during my school years. Even today, there are certain suburbs where long rows of Victorian homes have been preserved and lovingly restored.
Although local councils are less inclined than in years past to allocate land for public parks and gardens, those that already exist are like hallowed ground that cannot be rezoned for any other purpose. There are huge parks and beautifully landscaped public gardens all over Melbourne, including the edge of the downtown core.
In fact, instead of having a sandwich, at lunch time many people go for a jog around the Alexandra Gardens and then go back to work. In Caulfield, the dominant suburb of the gilded ghetto, joggers and power-walkers circle Caulfield Park early in the morning before going to work.
Shopping is a joy in Melbourne. Immigrant sales personnel have learned to adapt to the casual manner of Australia. In most stores shoppers and browsers are greeted cheerfully and are told that if they find something they like, sales personnel will be at their service when the customer is ready. There’s none of the aggressive sales or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the total ignoring of the customer that one finds in Israel.
On the other hand, Australian sales personnel can be quite tough on shoppers who try to queue jump and will politely but firmly order the miscreant back to his or her place in line. Another delight is the fact that there are no beggars. Begging is illegal in Australia so no-one will accost you in a store or in the street to ask for a hand-out.
People who come into contact with Australians usually describe them as laid back, happy-go-lucky people. To a large extent that’s true, but an even more prevalent Australian characteristic is politeness – not cold, upper crust British politeness, but warm politeness.
There’s an innate, spontaneous urge to help the underdog, regardless of the problem.
Please and thank you are ingrained in the lexicon, as are sorry and excuse me.
Even if people accidentally brush past each other without actually bumping into each other in the street, each apologizes before continuing on their way. This politeness is contagious as can be seen anywhere in which there are large concentrations of tourists. Melbourne has the most admirable of tourist services.
Just across the road from Flinders Street station, the main railway station in the city, is Federation Square, which houses the Melbourne Visitor Center. This is the most important place for any tourist to go as soon as possible after arriving in the city. This is where you can find out anything you want to know about Melbourne, from attendants or from an incredible array of brochures and leaflets on scores of different subjects. The staff are all friendly and will arrange hotel reservations, as well as transport to other parts of Victoria or interstate and are happy to help anyone who needs it plan their vacation.
The Visitor Center also has a “Made in Australia” souvenir store and internet facilities for people who don’t have a smartphone, or have one but don’t want to use it. Further into the heart of the city around Collins Street and Bourke Street, you’ll see the red-capped ambassadors of the city, who there to help you find your way and to answer questions about anything and everything to do with Melbourne.
This is a free service.
Across from Federation Square, but very close by on the Swanson Street-Flinders Street intersection are the free tourist shuttle bus and the free city-circle tram. People can board and alight at every stop, though it’s advisable to remain on board the first time around so as get a good orientation of the city. Like Tel Aviv, Melbourne is a grid city, so it’s easy to follow the map.
Anyone who doesn’t want to take the whole journey by bus and then again by tram or vice versa, but wants to experience both, can get off at Docklands, where both the bus and the tram have stops, though one has to walk through a shopping mall to get from the bus stop to the tram stop or vice versa.
The mall is an interesting diversion.
Even though I am familiar with all the places on the routes of both the bus and the tram, I love the recorded commentary and I make a point of taking these rides each time I return to Melbourne, though I must admit that from a commentary standpoint it’s much more interesting to take the train around the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and hear some of the tall tales told by the tour guides who happily embellish as they answer questions.
In addition to following the wellworn tourist tracks in my travels abroad, I am almost obsessive about looking for things Jewish. In Melbourne, despite the fact that intermarriage and assimilation are on the rise, as they are in so many Jewish communities around the world, Jewish life continues to flourish and there are more Jewish institutions and organizations there now than when I was growing up – and there were plenty even then.
Among the musts for visitors interested in such things are The Jewish Museum of Australia, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Center, whose founders included the late Mina Fink, a dedicated community activist and also the grandmother of Mark Regev, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman.
The Holocaust Museum is coincidentally or perhaps deliberately located within a few meters of the Sholem Aleichem School, which is part of the relatively large network of Jewish day schools and which teaches Yiddish as a living language. Considering that Yiddish was probably the most common language of Holocaust survivors, it is entirely appropriate that the school and the museum should be in such close proximity.
Yiddish was one of the languages we spoke at home when I was a child. My father, though not a Bundist, made sure to send me to the Y. L. Peretz Yiddish School at the Kadima community center, whose staff to a large extent comprised Bundist writers of note as well as the stars of Yiddish theater. My father said that he’d rather laugh at my Yiddish than have me laugh at his English.
On my first visit to Paris, Devi Tushinsky, the great miniaturist, whom I had met through his relatives in Melbourne introduced me to the Yiddish writers of Paris who used to congregate in the Pletzl. They were all Holocaust survivors from Poland who kept close tabs on their fellow Yiddish literati in various parts of the world.
When they heard I was from Melbourne they began asking me about this one and that one and as it turned out, most of them had been my teachers.
That meeting came to mind when I visited The Jewish Museum of Australia to see the mixed-media Mameloshn exhibition, which closes this month after having been on view for a year. Listening to the video presentations, it was somehow comforting to realize that second-, third- and even fourth-generation Australians were still interested in speaking Yiddish and in studying Yiddish literature.
Familiar faces appeared on old photographs and familiar names on old Yiddish newspaper clippings, the spines of books and on Yiddish theater posters. It was almost like taking a trip back to childhood.
Arguably the most well-known of Yiddish writers in Australia when I was a child was Herz Bergner, the uncle of internationally celebrated artist Yosl Bergner.
Herz Bergner arrived in Australia on the same ship as my parents. Another familiar name was that of Yossel Birstein, who came to Israel and became a great Yiddish and Hebrew story teller in this country.
A glimpse at the organization pages of the Australian Jewish News is ample proof of how richly diverse the Jewish community of Melbourne is, how caring it is for the needs of the individual. There are Jewish senior citizens homes, a Jewish hospital, Jewish Meals on Wheels, an organization called Courage to Care which provides programs for people with Alzheimers and similar mental disabilities; umpteen Jewish youth and student organizations, spiritual outlets that cover almost every stream of Judaism, lectures, concerts, plays sponsored by any number of Jewish organizations.
Basically it’s a very cohesive Jewish community where the focus is more on what unites it than what divides it. Of course it has its scandals and its black sheep. No community can be ideal. After all, it’s not utopia, it’s Melbourne – a close second.