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My Jewish Carlton -- Recollections
by Esther (Shapiro) Rafaeli
My family arrived in Melbourne from Palestine in 1927, and after a short stay with
the legendary Feiglin family in Shepparton, a country fruit-growing town, we came to Carlton.
first in Palmerston St. right next to the Carlton Synagogue, with its large Succa where we used to eat by
lantern light during that Festival. For a short time we lived in Princes St., and finally in Elgin St.
I attended Lee St. school, both ‘Little’ and ‘Big’ - that is, from grade one to eight.
In the 30’s Jewish life centred in Lygon St. at the intersection with Elgin St. Here we could shop even on Sunday mornings, at Smorgon’s butcher shop, at Bolton’s grocery, at Liebe’s shoe store. Among other stores there was a Jewish barbershop, shoe repair (Mr.Miletzky) and tailoring services. The Markov pharmacy was nearby in Elgin St., opposite the law offices of the late Aleck Sacks, which were close to the Court House on Drummond St. Altshuler’s Jewish Book Shop was in Rathdowne St. near the corner of Elgin St., and the Carlton synagogue was just a block away in Palmerston St. Mr. Kantor had a bookshop in town.
Then there was a Jewish bakery (I think by the name of Glick) and in the next group of shops was Lachman’s Greengrocery and Berenholz’s shoe repair. The shul built by the Stone family was in Pitt St., a short side-street linking Rathdowne with the parallel Canning St.. Rabbi Gurewicz and his family lived in this area, closer to North Carlton, and he made an impressive figure as he walked along Rathdowne St. to and from the synagogue on Shabbat with his sons. And how could anyone forget the sight of Rev. Adler marching along with his Lulav and Four Species held high, and a train of small street urchins following behind. Needless to say all this commercial life and social contacts were conducted in Yiddish, which perforce became the mother tongue of the children of the immigrants, though here and there were families who continued to speak Polish, Russian and some who spoke Hebrew. These families had come from Palestine – Safed, Rosh Pina, Yesod haMaala, Metulla and other moshavim– who left, like my parents, because of the difficult conditions there in the late twenties. It was they who formed the nucleus of the Zionist movement in Melbourne, which started with the Ivriah club in the early 30s, when it was situated in Neil St. I have photos of some of those gatherings. Also in Neil St. near the corner of Lygon St, was the Kanatopsky grocery, where deliveries were made on Sunday mornings by the tall, cheerful son, Abe.
The Ivriah had an active program for the young and old, and the redoubtable Anya Ginsberg used to organise concerts and events for the Festivals. I remember myself appearing in one of these concerts, at the age of three or four, with a doll in my arms, singing in Hebrew, ‘Yesh li buba, v’hi yaffa...’(I have a beautiful doll etc). Mrs Ginsberg continued these activities well into the forties, including street parades on the occasion of the establishment of the State of Israel. As I left Melbourne in August 1948 to make Aliya, I don’t know how long she carried on this work. At all the events which she organised, there were Israeli products for sale, Totzeret HaAretz, the most popular items at that time being made of olive wood. Of course she was not the only person, who activated the Ivriah; there were several members of the large Saks family as well, but I cannot recall them all.
After a short time the Ivriah moved to larger quarters in Drummond St., in the area mentioned above, near the Courthouse and opposite Cohen’s kosher restaurant. These clubrooms became a hive of activity. Zionist functions such as lectures, discussions and meetings were carried on there and I recall being taken for a memorial evening dedicated to Yosef Trumpeldor. This was under the auspices of the New Zionist Organisation, (Revisionists, followers of Jabotinsky) which was headed by Mr.Yehuda Honig, who was a Hebrew teacher and prepared my brother for his Bar Mitzva.
The WIZO was also situated there, carrying on its various fund-raising activities such as Bring and Buy teas, Bazaars, Popular Child competitions, raffles etc. My mother belonged to the Kinneret group. The JNF also worked out of these rooms, and carried out door-to-door campaigns to empty the little blue ‘pushkes.’ They organised other fundraising events, held picnics, and their annual Purim ball was a great occasion for which people made an effort to dress in original homemade costumes. I recall that the printing press of the Australian Jewish News, run at that time by the Rubinstein family, was also in this area. Besides the Jewish News, my parents also read the American Yiddish weekly,’Der Forvards’ which was passed round in their circle of friends.
The Mikveh which served the community, was situated in the City Baths, which lay between Carlton and the city, I think on Swanston St
Mrs. Segal , who could seat 60 people in her specially arranged home, did catering for simchas and my brother celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there.. In later years she moved to St. Kilda and was the venue for the celebration my 21st birthday.
Hebrew classes were held at the Ivriah club on Sunday mornings, as well as at the Faraday St. school, on weekday afternoons. This school was situated on the corner of Faraday and Rathdowne Sts. opposite the gardens of the Exhibition Hall. The classes were under the auspices of the United Jewish Board of Education, whose principal was Newman Rosenthal, with Rabbi Israel Brodie taking an active part. There were annual prize-giving ceremonies at the Toorak Shul and special children’s events were held for the Festivals.
Rabbi Brodie, who went on to London to become the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, was the first president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, which was founded in 1927. Sir John Monash was the honorary president. There were no Jewish day schools before the founding of Mt. Scopus College in 1948, so the network of the Board of Education was very important. I well remember the arguments for and against the idea of the school which were voiced at that time. Fortunately the ‘pro’ won the day, and eventually Mt. Scopus became one of the leading schools in the state of Victoria, and other Jewish schools and kindergartens soon appeared on the scene. The first principal was Abe Feiglin..
Mention must be made of the King David Scouts, amongst whose founders were my brother Alec Shapiro and the late Izzie Rischin. This group was created specifically for Carlton and neighbouring suburbs, since another Scout group already existed in St. Kilda. They participated in the International Jamboree of 1935, at Frankston, and I have a photo of my mother and I going to visit on Visitors Day.
The Ivriah was also home to Habonim which was founded in the early 40s by Dr. David Tabor, a young physicist from Cambridge. Several age groups were formed and they held camps and had a Hachshara farm for training purposes. So it is not true as claimed in “Bitter Herbs” that Zionist activity began only after 1948.
Another social centre in Carlton was Monash House, on the corner of Kay and Canning Sts., opposite the home of the shochet Rev.Yoffe and his family. Sir John Monash was one of the outstanding Jews in public life, and although an engineer by profession who contributed greatly to large civil projects in Victoria, he was appointed commander of the Australian and New Zealand Forces (ANZACS) during the first World War because of his organisational and tactical abilities. Monash was born in Melbourne in 1865, the son of Viennese immigrants who came to Melbourne in the early 1860’s, having previously been printers of Hebrew books. He was a practising Jew all his life, and a Zionist. He died in 1931, and Monash House ( I don’t know if it still exists) and today Monash University, perpetuate his name.
Originally it was the centre for the more secular activities of the community, like AJAX, the organisation of Jewish ex-servicemen of WW1, and Hakoah, the sports association. My mother used to take me for evening gym classes and there would be exhibition performances every year. Dances, balls and other social activities took place, but the main activity was the Victorian Jewish Competitions held annually in music, elocution (Hebrew and English), amateur theatre, and debating. I have three silver medals, second prize, for my participating in piano (1933,1934) and in Hebrew recitation,(1938). The competitions were immensely popular and people were seen there who never appeared at any other Jewish function.
We returned in 1936 from an unsuccessful attempt to settle in Palestine and lived in North Carlton on a street called Amess St. We liked to pronounce it with a short ‘A’ instead of Aymess so that it sounded like the Yiddish word for Truth. Here again there was a similar concentration of Jewish services – Pahoff’s dairy, Polonsky’s butcher shop, a bakery where my father bought fresh rolls and onion “platzlech” each morning. On Thursday mornings before school, I had to take the Shabbat chicken to the shochet at Porush’s chicken shop. There was a second bakery, Ernst’s, at the corner of Lygon and Richardson St, near the tram stop, and a barbershop where I went with my father to have my haircut.
Dr. Sternfeld lived at the corner of Rathdowne and Richardson Streets and Dr. Mushin was in Lygon St. Dr. Jona did not live in the area, but was a popular obstetrician and was also much involved in Zionist circles. As for dentistry, Mrs. Saks, mother of Izzie and Hala, had brought with her an old-fashioned pedal drill, which looked rather fearsome, but other modern dentists soon appeared in the neighbourhood.
I continued at Lee St. School except for a year at Princes Hill, a neighbouring suburb, while our old building was rebuilt and modernized. Here too there was a strong Jewish presence, and most of us went on to University High School for secondary education. This school in Parkville lay on the further side of the University, which was still Carlton. We usually walked across the campus or the short way through Tinpot Alley, the northern boundary. Boys from the wealthier suburbs went to Wesley College and girls went to MacRobertson High, which was known as the Chocolate Frog school because of the popular frog-shaped sweet produced by MacRobertson’s chocolate factory. The Jewish presence at Uni High was very pronounced and on Jewish Holidays the classes were quite depleted. I recall that at Lee St. Jewish children were exempted from the religious instruction classes, as a matter of course. They were even envied by their classmates.
As the new arrivals of the 30’s and 40’s settled down and acclimatised, new businesses were established and existing ones expanded. Many found employment in the Jewish clothing factories of the old-timers, and professional newcomers, teachers, musicians, Writers and artists, also eventually found their niche. They reinforced the Yiddish-speaking population. True, they looked and dressed differently, spoke English with atrocious accents, and were an embarrassment to the ‘established’ Jews, but they were ‘landsleit’, relatives from the ‘old country’. They were hard workers and anxious to do well, and although most of them were poor in material goods they brought with them a strong Yiddish and Hebrew culture which enriched the community.
The children of these immigrants eventually went on to University and graduated as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Some of the Jewish students were very active in the socialist and communist clubs of the University (or The Shop, as it was affectionately called), but other enterprising students organised the Jewish Student Study Group which had Jewish and Zionist content expressed in seminars, lectures, summer camps, etc. A goodly proportion of those who returned to Israel or made Aliya were the children and grandchildren of those immigrants of the 30’s. Genes will out.
The Kadima, built in the 30s in Lygon St. opposite the cemetery, was primarily for the Bundists, but was also a cultural center for the whole community, not only for Nth. Carlton. I had my first taste of theatre there as a teenager, seeing Goldfarden’s musical, ‘HaMachshefa’ (The Witch) and also Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ in Yiddish. Mr. Braisblatt was the moving force behind the theatrical troupe. There was also a library, a choir, and rooms for other organisations. In the 1940’s I heard Bronislaw Huberman, the violinist, and also the popular European vocal quartet, the Comedy Harmonists. Their concert was serious and the audience was polite, but when they started giving Yiddish songs as encores, the audience was in ecstasy and wouldn’t let them go.
There was no formal synagogue in Nth. Carlton, but services were held in the Talmud Torah on Rathdowne St and in one or two ‘shteiblech’ in private homes. Somewhere nearby was the grocery of Mr. Haber.
My brother and I left Nth. Carlton for Israel in August 1948, not in any formal framework. The Carlton suburbs were being taken over by Italian immigrants as the Jewish population gradually moved across the river to the better suburbs. In the course of time, about 30 years later, Carlton took on a new lease of life because of its proximity to the city centre and the University. The small working-class and lower middle-class houses set in wide well-kept streets were much sought after. With renovation and remodeling inside, and their “iron lace” decorations repaired and repainted, they fetched fantastic prices. The movement to St. Kilda, Caulfield, Toorak, etc. lead of course to new enterprises and new commercial centres. New suburbs were developed, Jewish kindergartens and schools proliferated, and the picture today is far different from that which I knew.
ESTHER (SHAPIRO) RAFAELI
I hope I haven’t offended anyone, or their descendants, by forgetting them in this account. It is not intentional, but 60 years have passed since I walked those streets, years which I have spent in Jerusalem and during which ties to Carlton have weakened. I wanted to recall the variety, creativity and strength of the old suburbs, which pulsed with Jewish activity and where courageous people rebuilt and bettered their lives in a strange land and in difficult times. I wanted to portray how that panorama looked to me as a child, and I know I certainly did not appreciate it then as I can now in retrospect. In spite of the passage of time and changing circumstances, those scenes are still fresh in my mind. The larger picture remains true and lives on in my imagination. I can visit there whenever I wish.
Why Write this memoir ?
I have only recently seen the video Bitter Herbs and Honey, by Monique Schwarz, made in 1996. Although there were some interesting interviews and information, for me the film did not capture the atmosphere of the time, or give a complete picture of what that life was like. I felt I needed to put my memories on paper before they faded away completely.