At the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre, in a southeastern suburb of Melbourne, a single, cistern-like room houses Australia’s largest collection of Yiddish books. I am standing before the shelves, looking at a photograph of four writers—Bialik, Sholem Aleichem, Ben-Ami, and Mendele Mocher Sforim— together, improbably enough, posing before a white dinghy and trompe-l’œil riverbank, when a woman from New York appears at the door. ‘Do you know where the Holocaust Centre is?’ She stops to let her eyes adjust to the dark. Abstracted, she tells me that her parents, Holocaust survivors, for a time considered Australia as their choice of refuge, a country she never visited until today. ‘Strange to think this could have been everyday life for me—just like that.’ Just like that it could be otherwise, as it was for some of the writers on these shelves. To distinguish them—writers like Pinchas Goldhar and Herz Bergner—from those from New York, Montréal, Buenos Aires, and Odessa, the library has fixed an icon of a red kangaroo to the spines of their books.
Beyond Melbourne’s Jewish community, Herz Bergner and Pinchas Goldhar are mostly remembered as ‘multicultural’ writers avant la lettre. It is worth stopping to consider precisely how this is an anachronism. Bergner and Goldhar began writing while the White Australia policy was still in effect, and well before cultural pluralism found a place in Australia’s national ethos. Theirs was an Australia more ethnically homogenous than Britain; a country, in the words of J. M. Coetzee, ‘still a cultural colony…, repressed, puritanical, and suspicious of foreigners.’ In 1937, when Yosl Bergner, Herz’s nephew, arrived on the Pierre Loti, its cargo of 33 Jews, Russians, Greeks, Albanians, and Syrians was announced with the headline: ‘Polyglot Influx in Sydney.’
One of the first English-language collections to feature Goldhar and Bergner was Southern Stories, Poems, and Paintings (1945). Brian Fitzpatrick, the editor, opens the collection with an essay on ‘The Australia Tradition’, as he calls it, defending the inclusion of its Polish Jews with the subdued statement: ‘I do not think the term “Australian” is so narrow that it does not cover them.’ This hesitant avowal owes to the fact that, at a time when ‘Australian’ indeed signified something narrowly monolingual and monocultural, Bergner and Goldhar wrote in a language other than English and thought themselves as contributing at once to Australian and Yiddish literature. Both were writers before they emigrated to Australia: Goldhar, from the industrial city of Łódź, Poland, arrived a poet and journalist, aged 27; Bergner, from the town of Radymno, Poland, was the author of Stiban un Gasan (1935), a short story collection, when he disembarked in Australia, aged 31.
Paradoxical though it may sound, I suspect that in the way these writers resist the ‘Australian Tradition’, they belong to this tradition; that their resistance anticipates a more capacious and plural vision of Australia. Anxious to assert a national literature, Fitzpatrick’s introduction echoes a view shared by many in his day: that his country has been ‘tardy’ in finding ‘some distinctively Australian’ style and subject. In this spirit he quotes, approvingly and at length, from Vance Palmer’s ‘National Portraits’ (1940), where the author lampoons early settler writing for having ‘the tone… of an outsider’ and the ‘pose of detachment from this strange colonial life.’ But what more fitting description for the diasporic writer in Australia?
In the place of Fitzpatrick’s project of ‘cultural settlement’, we might speak of the other tradition, one of ‘unsettling difference’, in Philip Mead’s terms. In his essay ‘Unsettling Language’, Mead counts both ‘Indigenous narratives of place and history and the plural knowledges of the multicultural present’ as ‘unsettling’ in his specific, punning sense of the word. No doubt, Indigenous and migrant experiences diverge in fundamental respects, and yet at times there is a flash of identification; one that allows us to entertain, if only for an instance, the idea that what is distinctly Australian is that sense of homelessness Palmer and Fitzpatrick wished to repudiate. To take two pertinent, non-literary examples, from the late 1930s: the young painter, Yosl Bergner described the Indigenous Australians he met in Fitzroy as ‘exactly like Jews, dispossessed people’, and set out to paint them in the spirit of ‘what I imagined was happening in Poland.’ Around the same time, as news emerged of the so-called Kristallnacht, an Aboriginal activist and Yorta Yorta man, William Cooper, lead a contingent from his Footscray home to the German Embassy on Albert Road to deliver a letter condemning the ‘cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government.’ Perhaps Cooper’s activism was, as Gary Foley suggests, a strategy of reasoning by analogy, of petitioning for the intelligibility of Indigenous suffering by mapping it onto another, more recognisable instance (consider, likewise, the title of the Noongar poet, Graeme Dixon’s first book, Holocaust Island). But the striking thing is surely that such vastly different experiences could—in a moment of symmetry—lend intelligibility to each other at all.
This is how Melech Ravitch, father of Yosl, Herz Bergner’s brother, saw Australia when he arrived on the Ville d’Amien in 1933. Ravitch was a significant figure in Yiddish letters and sought out Australian thinkers of equivalent stature, visiting Nettie Palmer within a month of his arrival. Palmer notes in her journal that he spoke no English and typed his questions ‘in Hebrew characters with green ink.’ He wrote: ‘Australian history, near its beginning, had two great wrongs—the convict-system and the ill-treatment of blacks. To what extent are these matters reflected in your literature?’ Palmer does not record her answer. She notes only the ‘battery of his truth-compelling eyes.’ To update Ravitch’s thesis—that Australia is defined by distinct but inextricable wounds—we might cite Klaus Neumann’s Across the Seas (2015), a history of Australia’s response to refugees: ‘Australian history is marked by two key themes: Indigenous dispossession and immigration.’ The question, as Ravitch would add, is how is this manifest in our literature? We might read the Collected Stories of Goldhar and Bergner’s Between Sky & Sea in light of such a question.
Biographical portraits of Pinchas Goldhar tend to stress is that he lived a life of trouble. Born in 1901, in Poland, he was a journalist for the Yiddish daily newspaper, the Lodzer Tageblatt, and a poet of experimental persuasion, inspired by what he called the ‘artistic and creative anarchy’ of the leading Yiddish poets of the day. It was a world of flurry, ferment, and Yiddish cultural revival that he left with some reluctance, arriving in Melbourne almost thirty years old, and suffering what he once named ‘the indignity of starting afresh.’ He lived for a time in a rural Jewish farming settlement in northern Victoria and then moved to Melbourne’s inner north, where he took up employment as a house painter and later as a labourer in his father’s dying factory. His work as a factory-hand provides the setting for his story ‘In a Quiet Street’ (1944), which opens with a vivid sketch of the steam-pressers at Levi Hosiery Mills:
They worked wearing only their singlets. Ceaselessly, their sweaty bodies stretched the socks over moulds, moving them through two searing metal plates… The steam never let up, getting hotter and thicker as the day moved on… Presses and pressers were so totally engulfed that they became invisible.
At least one historian speculates that labouring with dyestuffs contributed to his early death, aged 46, from a heart attack. He wrote fiction by night.
The lachrymose reading of Goldhar owes not so much to his premature death or trying circumstances, but his melancholic disposition. He was, even to friends and fellow writers, a disconsolate, aloof, and, in Bergner’s words, ‘very strange’ man. This outlook stemmed in part from his disappointment with Australia and organised Jewish life in Melbourne. Though he was intensely engaged with the literature of Australia, even embarking on an ambitious project to translate its leading authors into Yiddish (Lawson was his favourite), he sometimes saw his new country’s inhabitants as a baffling and absurd spectacle. Like Descartes, who wonders, when looking from his window at the people out in the street, whether he is seeing anything more than hats and coats concealing automatons, Goldhar writes:
I used to go out into the streets of Carlton [where I] saw an Australian stand quietly, lazily, on a street corner, doing absolutely nothing at all for an hour, maybe two hours. I thought he was mad and that I had wandered into a country of madmen. I used to walk around the streets for hours, weeping and weeping.
Goldhar found the Jewish community an equal, if not greater source of disenchantment. To begin with, he describes the ‘abyss of distrust and, quite often, of enmity… [between] the newly arrived immigrants and the older Jewish circles.’ Goldhar’s stories are populated by polemical caricatures of the established Anglo-Jews of Melbourne—the yehudim, as they were called, to distinguish them from the new arrivals from Eastern Europe, the yidn. To Goldhar, the yehudim were the ‘alrightniks’, the parvenus, who, with a whiff of old antisemitic tropes, are depicted in stories like ‘The Pioneer’ (1937) as ‘wallowing in money’ made from their entrepreneurialism in manufacturing socks and schmattes.
In a strange way, his disappointment intimates a deeper hope: a conviction that Melbourne’s Jewish community and his adopted Australia have great potential. For Goldhar was not simply a Yiddish writer, but a Yiddishist: a proponent of a diasporic form of cultural nationalism; someone who believed in a homeland in language, in a people bound by a textline first, and only afterwards a bloodline. In fact, though Goldhar thought Yiddish the Jewish mameloshn, it was not his mother tongue. He learnt the language by choice, out of ideological conviction, and, by his own account, quickly. His inspiration came from the famous writer and Yiddishist, I. L. Peretz, who wrote, in the introduction to his project of building a Yiddish Library, of diaspora as ‘our teacher’; that ‘because we always eat at a table of strangers, our hopes are for humankind’; a sentiment that receives its most concise reprise in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
The high honour bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language—a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language with possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics… In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.
Yiddishism, then, was at once nationalist and internationalist. It was a humanism, but with its universalism fashioned from the particular historical experience of diaspora. In this sense, it is not far from Heinrich Heine’s aufgeschriebene Vaterland or Isaac Deutscher’s notion of those ‘non-Jewish Jews’, whose Jewishness manifests in the pursuit of ‘a better future for the whole of mankind.’
This is the ideological background to Goldhar’s journalistic endeavours in Australia. He founded the first Yiddish Australian newspaper, Di Oystralier Lebn (1931-33), a ramshackle enterprise that sometimes needed to compensate for the lack of available Hebrew letters by compositing with Roman alphabet substitutes. In an essay printed in his newspaper, ‘Language and Culture’, Goldhar outlines his purpose in forceful terms:
A people’s individuality is expressed through their language, their souls breathe in their language, and only through language can the secrets of the deepest inner recesses, of our essence, be elevated to immortal value… No national culture could exist without a language, just as the ocean could not exist without water, or a forest exist without trees.
Yet, since the homeland is Yiddish, it is a homeland wherever Yiddish speakers happen to live. This accounts for the strange dynamics of Goldhar’s fiction—it is fiction not of Australia but from Australia, as the title of his first collection of stories, Dertzeilungen Fun Oystralie, suggests. They are stories that are at once imbued with a sense of the place in which they are written, and yet, missive-like, addressed to a wider, possibly global readership. Goldhar’s translations of Lawson were printed in South America; his short stories set in Australia reviewed by I. J. Singer in New York. If asked how he imagined his readership, one could imagine him responding like I. J. Singer’s brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘When I sit down to write I have a feeling that I’m talking maybe to millions or maybe to nobody.’ Here, Goldhar’s writing resonates with an ongoing discussion of how Yiddish literature—a literature of diasporic, minority communities, without a centre where it is the unquestionable majority—might at once typify and problematise World Literature. This discussion was timely, too, while Goldhar was alive: in 1936, at a P.E.N. International conference in Buenos Aires, the delegate for Yiddish, H. Leyvik, declared his language ‘a symbol of universalism’, whose ‘essential problem … consists in finding a way to synthesize national and universal values.’
Though writing maybe to nobody, the inaccessibility of Goldhar’s work has, in a sense, fortified his mystique. W. D. and Hilary Rubinstein, who dedicated their monumental The Jews in Australia (1986) to Goldhar, declare that his work available in English ‘would not be anomalous in an anthology of Nobel Prize Winners’, and note the tragedy that so much remains untranslated. In this sense, the 2016 publication of the Collected Stories in English is a significant event, even if its only significance is to deflate these superlatives.
Though this collection specifies no editor, though its stories appear without apparent order or chronology, though they reach us through various translations made from the 1940s to the present, the English reader—nonetheless, and all the more strikingly because of it—finds a vision and voice that is distinctively Goldhar. Like Waten, Goldhar turned from early avant-garde models to a realist form of prose fiction—one where, as Waten announced in his magazine Strife, ‘Facts are the new literature.’ What realism meant for these writers was the art of observing the world unflinchingly, in its material and ideological dimensions, which might—or indeed should for Waten, the more ideologically committed communist—contribute to its reshaping. Where these observations subsume characters under familiar social types, it can be a fiction of withering satire; something especially apparent in Goldhar’s earlier stories of provincial Poland, where a character like Reb Shmelke is introduced as ‘the best shofar blower in the village, maybe even in the entire vicinity.’ In other places, where we encounter the Jewish community through the self-estranging perspective of an outsider, it is a fiction of startling defamiliarisation, as in Goldhar’s ‘The Circumcision’, where we witness the procedure through the eyes of Jack Silver’s Christian wife, Katherine. This particular form of the uncanny—one that stems from the migrant experience—is most fully realised, to my mind, in Alien Son, a collection of short stories Waten wrote on Goldhar’s prompting. As Waten’s title suggests, his fiction is concerned with the intimate strangeness experienced by a migrant child growing up in a country where ‘there could be no reconciliation with the ways of our fathers.’ While Waten typifies this stance, Goldhar’s fiction is notable for his shifting preoccupations, from his early sardonic vignettes of Polish Jewish life in ‘The Shofar Blower’ (1931), to his pre-war stories of the migrant experience in Australia, such as ‘The Pioneer’ (1937), through to the sombre, celebrated fictions that directly grapple with the consequences of the genocide in Europe, like ‘Landslayt’ (1943), ‘In a Quiet Street’ (1944), and ‘Café in Carlton’ (1945). What we witness in Goldhar’s Collected Stories, then, is a migrant writer intensely committed to observing the experience of a community at a time when it was undergoing a historic and calamitous transformation.
Of all Goldhar’s stories, the most intriguing for the Australian reader is ‘The Pioneer’—the title perhaps accounting for the often repeated description of Goldhar himself as a ‘pioneer’ Jewish writer in Australia. A more literal translation of the title would simply be ‘On a Farm’ [Oyf a farm]. While it would be wrong to think of this as the Australian version of Herzl’s Altneuland (1902)—the utopian novel that heralded the idea of Jewish state with the maxim ‘If you will it, it is not a dream’ [‘Wenn Ihr wollt, Ist es kein Märchen’]—‘The Pioneer’ has a manifesto-like brooding. It opens with the image of an Australian farmer, Sandy O’Brien, shoving ‘a heap of bloody rabbit skins towards the frames where he was about to hang them to dry,’ and then turns to a depiction of the landscape:
The overcast Australian autumn day had begun to fade. Cold rain had drizzled since morning and thick clouds hung low over the mud-black paddock… A few solitary eucalypts with scrawny branches wavered to and fro under the low sky and, against the rain, the landscape appeared as if viewed through a shimmering screen.
It is only then that we meet Sam Rothman, who sits ‘beside the fireplace, staring dejectedly into the flame.’ According to the ideological lines of time, Rothman is a contradictory figure: at once luftmensch from the Polish shtetl, his impossible ambitions ‘bizarre and out of place in the Australian bush,’ and also Kibbutznik settler, seeking redemption through toil on an unforgiving land. His dream: to settle hundreds of Jewish families out in the bush.
Lest Rothman’s plans seem fanciful, it is worth recalling that around the time Goldhar wrote ‘The Pioneer’, Isaac Nachman Steinberg of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation was campaigning for a homeland for Jewish refugees in the East Kimberley. Steinberg, the former People’s Commissar of Justice for Lenin’s first government, was a consummate champion for the project, and succeeded, as he details in his book Australia—the Unpromised Land, in winning the support of state governments, trade unions, politicians, landholders, and church leaders. He also, in a strange episode that perhaps says something for his charisma, found support from an impressionable Tasmanian, Critchley Parker Junior, who was so taken by the plan that he hatched his own whimsical designs for a future Tasmanian Jewish settlement engaged in mining, fishing, horticulture, perfume-making, viticulture, with its own Olympic games, trade fairs, and leading universities. Parker died scouting the remote bushland in southwestern Tasmania, writing in a final dispatch to Steinberg: ‘To die in the service of so noble a cause is to me a great satisfaction.’
Steinberg had been preceded, in fact, by Melech Ravitch, who travelled to the Northern Territory in 1937, with a letter of introduction from Albert Einstein, hoping, as he put it in Iber Oystralie [Across Australia], ‘to be the first to see the land that is being proposed with great seriousness for large-scale Jewish mass immigration.’ Ravitch’s travel writing reveals that he was at once repelled by the brutal treatment of Indigenous Australians —censuring, for instance, an exhibition in Sydney that placed Aboriginal and gorilla skeletons in juxtaposition—and yet seemingly able to reconcile this with his settler-colonial ambitions for an Australian ‘Zionism-sans-Zion’, writing in his notebook: ‘The blacks cannot be regarded as the owners of the land. A crazy idea! They are on the lowest rung of civilisation. They could be allotted a few thousand square miles of land and be taught to work.’ When it came to the Aboriginal people of the East Kimberley, the plans of Steinberg were little better. Teddy Carlton, a Miriuwung Gajerrong elder, recently told the ABC that he had never even heard of the plan that came very close to settling 75,000 refugees on his people’s unceded land. But ultimately, what spelt the demise of the scheme was its perceived incompatibility with the White Australia policy. In 1944, Prime Minister John Curtin informed Steinberg: ‘the Government is unable to see a way to depart from the long established policy with regard to alien settlement in Australia.’
In this context, we might understand a figure like Rothman—a man who sleeps in a ‘humpy’ built from ‘galvanised iron sheets’, and appears to O’Brien’s enamoured nineteen year-old daughter, Jean, as ‘a pioneer, a true Australian pioneer’; or, as Rothman later recalls it, ‘Jean had said he was a pioneer, a Jewish pioneer.’ Jewish or Australian? In this slight slip we glimpse the story’s central tension—a slip linked to the erotics of settler-colonialism, in which women and land are metaphorically entangled. Rothman’s dream of founding a settlement becomes the choice between Jean, an Irish shiksa, or Rosa, ‘a fine Jewish girl with whom he could have a true Jewish farm, bring up Jewish children, and, in that way, give his work a purpose and justify his struggle.’
Rothman decides the best course is to pursue Rosa. He shows up at her house unannounced, while a soirée is taking place, and feels like ‘a stranger, some invisible intruder’ before her cool, indifferent comportment; a dynamic that is taken to its extreme in another of Goldhar’s stories, ‘There is No God in the World’, where a young man, attempting in vain to capture the attention of a woman, resolves to curse God in her presence. She witnesses his outburst and remains unmoved. Her indifference, the land’s resistance, and the silence of God — all seem, for a moment, aspects of a single condition. Rothman departs without having extracted a word from Rosa. The Jewish community, he decides, will never support his settlement scheme. As one of their party announces: ‘I would gladly do penance to avoid dependence on a piece of land.’
In an ‘act of defiance against them all,’ Rothman returns alone to his ‘isolated farm and flimsy home.’ On the road, he begins to notice a motley assortment of Australian exiles: an Afghan ‘driving a heavy wagon’, a ‘Chinese market gardener’ who waves — those like the Syrians, Italians, and Greeks who appear in his other stories. What to make this sudden vision? Has Rothman reneged on his dreams of settlement and chosen to live a stranger among strangers? In the story’s final, disquieting moment he arrives ‘guest’ and ‘visitor’ at the O’Brien home, and we see him, as Sandy O’Brien does, from the outside, where he is with Jean, their shadows ‘merging into one silhouette.’
Significantly, I think, the word ‘settlement’, or setlement, appears in English throughout the Yiddish text. (In fact, the original Yiddish has far more English words and phrases, like ‘good luck’, ‘come on, boy’, ‘never mind’, and ‘dinkum’, than the English translation has words of Yiddish.) In contrast to a writer like Waten, who frequently dwells on the injustices of settler-colonialism, Goldhar looked to the history of white settlement for inspiration. In his essay, ‘Australian Literature’, he stakes out the commonalities between Yiddish and settler Australian writing, speculating that they share both marginality and the belated struggle to construct a national canon. Here Goldhar is curiously, and much like Fitzpatrick, influenced by the Palmers’ blend of cultural nationalism and socialist internationalism. He viewed Australia’s literature as minor and uprooted, written in a language that had been imperfectly transplanted, exiled even, from ‘the cliffs of Dover’ to ‘the endless plains of saltbush and spinifex, the red dust of the Centre.’ The Australian landscape, he continues, calls for a new rhythm, idiom, and temperament; a new language, perhaps even its own distinctive creole.
Goldhar is not alone in finding such affinities—in an essay revisiting his notion of the cultural cringe, A. A. Phillips hazards that his ‘interest in the problems of Australian ambivalence came from my early encounter with the parallel Jewish problem’; that, for him, ‘the status of a colonial’ was ‘like that of a Jew.’ Likewise, Goldhar’s diasporic slant on Australian literary culture finds unexpected contemporary echoes in, say, Charles Bernstein’s ‘Poetics of the Americas’, which John Kinsella quotes with reverence in an essay on hybridity:
English languages set adrift from the sight/sound sensorium of the concrete experiences of the English people, are at their hearts uprooted and translated: nomadic in origin absolutely particular in practice. Invention in this context is not a matter of choice: it is necessary as the ground we walk on.
At other moments, though, Goldhar’s essaying of the symmetries between Australian and Yiddish writing seem less contemporary. In his story ‘From the Carriage Window’, the narrator, a ‘we’, seems taken by what is described as the ‘powerful silent hymn’ of Australian colonialism, its ‘dedication, commitment’, its ‘human sweat and stubbornness in struggling to tame the wild Australian countryside’—until, that is, night falls and we are plunged back into the shabby carriage interior of a ‘tightly-packed train.’ Similarly, in ‘Australian Literature’, Goldhar goes so far as to suggest that Australia could provide inspiration for ‘the very future of Jewry.’ The different lines of solidarity in Waten’s ‘Black Girl’ — the story of Lily Samuels, who, no doubt quite purposely, is given a Jewish surname — provide a pointed contrast. Intended as a depiction of the urban squalor of 1950s Indigenous life in Fitzroy, Waten’s story begins frankly, flatly, with the observation: ‘Samuels lived with her family in a condemned two-story building… because they were unable to find accommodation in any other part of the city and because they were aborigines.’ This should caution against any easy idea of migrant writing as necessarily ‘unsettling’. Perhaps, as Colin Tatz writes in his survey of the Aboriginal-Jewish relationship, ‘[i]n the end, one has to be… disappointed.’
Around the same time as he wrote ‘The Pioneer’, Goldhar began his novella The Last Minyan. This piece, by turns fraught, equivocal, and outright zany, provides a salient contrast to Goldhar’s tale of pioneering. It originated out of a trip to Ballarat, where Goldhar went to visit a museum curated by the writer, Nathan Spielvogel. The trip, Goldhar later noted,
so terribly depressed me, that I could hardly control my actions… it looked to me more like a second hand shop than anything else… and it struck me suddenly that Spielvogel personifies our Jewish fate… In Europe we get exterminated by Hitler, and elsewhere we just dwindle away slowly and painlessly… So at least it appeared to me while watching Spielvogel among the insignificant and shabby relics.
The Last Minyan attempts to capture this mood by detailing the dwindling of a rural town’s congregation. What makes this novella more than a lament for a lost community is the subdued erotics its core—it portrays the bond between a rabbi sent from Oxford to the gold town of Wattle Hill and the loyal reverend Feldman. As a pair, the rabbi and reverend recall the two schlemiels, Benjamin and his ‘housewife’ Sender, of Mendele Mocher Sforim’s Yiddish classic The Travels of Benjamin the Third (1878). In Sforim’s book queer attachment is often, as Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi notes, alluded to in a smattering of biblical, Hebrew locutions: ‘like a loving couple right after the wedding’ [ve-hayu domim be-ota sha’a le-hatan ve-khala be-shiv’at yemei ha-misteh], or a ‘ravishing bridge in the eyes of the groom’ [ke-khalah na-ah be-’eynei dodah]. (I here follow Ezrahi’s transliteration.)
In The Last Minyan, both rabbi and reverend favour the bachelor’s life. In a move that bewilders the community, the rabbi refuses a match with a woman from ‘a well-respected, long settled family… related to the Adelaide Montefiores’, preferring solitude. Begrudgingly, after some coaxing, Feldman marries Miss Montefoire, and then proceeds to treat her with callousness and neglect, eating ‘bits of bread between his fingertips’ in the way he knows she hates. What he really lives for is spending time with the rabbi in the empty synagogue, beneath the stained-glass windows that ‘disperse a multitude of colours across the solid dark wood and benches.’ There, we are told:
Feldman wanted to approach the rabbi, take his hand and sit beside him, but he was too embarrassed to make such a move. Yet, he felt unable simply to remain standing there in silence with words struggling for release, each word hurting him, each word eating him up.
In the novella’s final, charged moment — a characteristic closing for Goldhar — we are left to speculate whether Feldman will overcome his coyness. With a smile forming on his lips, ‘not for an instant taking his eyes off the rabbi’, he approaches him, the last man left in the synagogue.
Between ‘The Pioneer’ and The Last Minyan — pieces composed on the eve of the second world war — Goldhar charts the choices open to a Yiddish writer at a time of historical calamity. On the one hand, there is an attempt at settlement that ultimately turns into the unsettling affirmation of living among strangers, and, on the other there is the alternative represented by a camaraderie — homosocial, or possibly something more — in the husk of a grand but empty temple. Either way, the problem confronting the Yiddish writer at the moment of the Shoah is a profound one, and all the more so for the Yiddishist, who staked Jewish identity, Yiddishkeit, on the vivacity of a language.
In one story, ‘Landslayt’, written in the midst of the war, Goldhar imagines the impossibility of transplanting the old life of Jewish Poland to Melbourne as a failure of translation. The story opens with Henekh Bootcher being informed that his hometown, Zharnev, has been destroyed. Someone from Zharnev — a landslayt, or compatriot — points out for Bootcher, who can’t read English, the town’s name where it appears in the newspaper. In an imaginative feat, an anguished linguistic act, Bootcher attempts to relocate the lost shtetl into very letters of English:
[He] spread [the newspaper] on the table at every quiet opportunity in the butcher’s shop and stared at the indecipherable script. Whenever he opened it, the word Zharnev that Sam had pointed out to him sprang before his eyes. It looked warm and familiar in the midst of the surrounding mass of foreign letters. The ship-like shape of the ‘z’ reminded him of the Zharnev church with its high, pointy tower. The ‘A’ recalled the house of the town tycoon, Reb Bunim Aychner, with the red roof that covered its porch. The ‘W’ at the word’s end brought to mind the Kroshtshitzik’s pharmacy with its glazed double doors and its wide display windows down which large waterfalls rained down in coloured waters, red, green and blue.
More than five million Yiddish-speakers were murdered in the Shoah, which meant the loss of a readership. But more than that: the old world to which Yiddish referred — the places that formed the envelope of daily life, the towns where it had been spoken—were also destroyed, or altered beyond recognition. Yet here is Bootcher, and Goldhar for that matter, for whom Yiddish is still a living language, wishing to find a place for its referents in English.
There was never any sense for Goldhar that literature could be an act of salvation; that it could preserve in anachronistic wholeness the lost shtetl, with all its folkloric enchantment and perversity, as it might have for Isaac Bashevis Singer. Goldhar was persuaded that the old world could only be seen in the convex mirror of the samovar in his story ‘Off to Cheder’, where, in its ‘ever gleaming roundness’, the whole house becomes ‘elongated … gross and awkward’ and ‘things appear to be hanging from the ceiling.’ The shtetl, viewed from Australia (and, indeed, from an industrial city like Łódź, where Goldhar was born) seems ‘foreign and distant’—with its ‘unmade streets’ and ‘pools of mud’, deluded small town Zionists dreaming of Palestine, and ‘greasy food’ — just as Australia is viewed from a position in which one is, like Bootcher, overwhelmed by its strangeness. In the place of Herzl’s dream-willed reality, one of Bootcher’s landslayt’s declares: ‘I have kept dreaming about our home [and] in my dreams Zharnev and Australia get mixed up… I just don’t know where in the world I belong anymore.’
In 1948, the Australian Literature Gold Medal was won for the first and only time by a novel translated into English. Herz Bergner’s Zwischn Himl un Waser, or Between Sky & Sea, was declared by the prize committee ‘the most important contribution to Australian literature in 1945-7.’ That this occurred before the White Australia policy was formally dismantled — a policy enforced by an infamous language test — is all the more remarkable, especially given Yiddish was for a time classified as a ‘non-European language’ under the Australian Immigration Act of 1901, its speakers considered by the senior Department of Interior official assigned to assess the refugee situation in Europe as ‘the poorest specimens outside blackfellows that I have seen.’ The deliberate republication of the novel on June 20, World Refugee Day, points to Between Sky & Sea’s continued pertinence. It depiction of a group of Jewish refugees adrift on an old Greek tramp steamer remains significant in a time when Peter Dutton is arguably the most powerful person in the country; when the leadership perseveres in its staunch—and bipartisan—resolve to stop the boats.
The novel is narrated from the viewpoint of a chorus of Polish Jews, ‘a large family with the same worries and hopes’, each first differentiated by a single, satirical stroke. There is Mrs Hudess, ‘a Warsaw woman who was proud that she came from a big city’; Fabyash, ‘an energetic young man who always knew more than anyone else’; Reb Lazar, grocer; Ida and Nathan, lovers; a Warsaw doctor, Bronislaw Mirsky; Bronya, ‘a plump, pretty young married woman’; Marcus Feldbaum, communist; and, in the background, a presumably Greek crew portrayed as an undifferentiated mass, often said to be looking at the Jewish passengers with ‘a malevolent insolence’, speaking in their own, unnamed language.
Seldom do these characters transcend their role as types. Unchangingly, for the most part, they undergo the novel’s trials and tribulations — its episodes that fail to cohere into a linear narrative, which is fitting, given that the people on the tramp steamer are not progressing anywhere, but aimlessly suspended at sea. The narrative itself is only permitted to escape its confinement to the ‘fetid, dirty, dark’ cabins of the ship in brief interludes of memory and anticipation. Its opening sequence, for example, is a communal attempt at anticipation — the task of imagining Australia — which stands, in a sense, as a synecdoche for Bergner’s undertaking as an author restricted to Australia, trying to empathically recreate the plight of Europe’s Jewish refugees:
[T]hey outdid each other in knowledge of the new country for which they were bound—Australia… Although no one knew much, or had even heard much, about this new land, each one had a great deal to say about the country, its people and their customs. Fabyash knew for certain that the country was surrounded by water on all sides and the people lived by catching fish, which they exported to the rest of the world… Zainval Rockman… said the new country… is still wild and has plenty of forests, and so people export timber to the rest of the world. Hearing this, Mrs Hudess… said neither Fabyash nor Rockman knew what they were talking about. The country lives neither on fish nor timber. Australia is a country like any other, with many big cities. Let Rockman and Fabyash stop talking nonsense and making Australia into a rural wasteland.
Just as these speculations feel somewhat strained and schematic, Bergner’s claustrophobic fictional enterprise ploughs on, trapped in its steamer, submitting its characters to test after test — storms, typhus outbreaks, mirages — until, inevitably, violently, the steamer sinks. What gives the narrative a visceral power is Bergner’s fixation on the smells of perspiring bodies. We are constantly reminded of the ‘sickly, salty odour of the sweat and dirt of the many people on board who had not washed themselves for weeks’, the ‘heavy, sour[ness]… from the sleeping bodies’, while the passengers dream of village roads that ‘smelt of freshly cut hay.’ Between Sky & Sea depicts, then, something between an ark, salvaging the people of the shtetl, and a floating concentration camp, governed by attrition.
All this has made the passage to English from Yiddish through the work of Bergner’s friend, Waten. ‘Every Saturday we got together,’ Waten recalls, and Bergner ‘wanted every word translated, and if the number of words came out fewer in English he wasn’t very happy.’ There is something touching about this anxious calculus. Bergner fervently wished to write for an English audience even before he could write in English. Waten’s translation, in fact, was published before the Yiddish original.
For today’s English reader, the distance is not merely between Yiddish original and English translation, but between the Australia for which Waten translated and contemporary Australia. Waten’s English is often fusty and solemn, and wholly lacks the surprising shifts of register and accidental music of Goldhar translated in a sentence like: ‘he always wore the same old greasy gabardine which shone as if it were made of plastic and smelt of herring and kerosene.’ Consider, likewise, word choice. Waten had a penchant for Australianisms like ‘larrikin’—a word that appears everywhere from Alien Son (1952) (‘beset by larrikins’), his translation of Goldhar’s ‘A Café in Carlton’ (1945) (‘some little larrikins had drawn a moustache and beard’ on the cafe’s sign), and Between Sky & Sea (where the father admonishes: ‘I’ll tear you up by the root, you larrikin!’), by which he means mostly hooliganism, rather than playful rebellion and mischief. With the relative abundance of Yiddishisms that have now entered Australian English from US English, many of Waten’s decisions seem to unnecessarily domesticate the Yiddish. He translates chutzpah as ‘audacity’, kibitzer as ‘advice-giver’, ploysher as ‘blatherskite’, while ‘larrikin’ stands in for shegetz. But it would be wrong to take this as a critique of Waten. Not long before Between Sky & Sea, the Jewish Herald actively discouraged using terms like shul, Yiddish for synagogue, calling it ‘an ugly word belonging to no living language.’ The drive to assimilate then had a vehemence satirised by Goldhar with characters like Mr Jack Knester, who ‘considered himself a complete Englishman… smoked a bent old-fashioned pipe at the races and… spoke only English in a thick, slow, hoarse voice.’ Moreover, the alternative — to sprinkle the English with untranslated Yiddishisms — is hardly a solution, and risks turning Yiddish into a kind of kitsch, as sometimes happens with, say, popular Jewish joke books. The real reason to favour Waten’s translation is that in its ‘thick, slow, hoarse voice’ we hear the history the book depicts. To tell the story of refugees seeking a home in Australia, Bergner’s text itself must seek entrance into Australian English, with all the compromise that this entails.
Along with the formality of its prose and the narrator’s distance from the events described, Between Sky & Sea is characterised by a strong allegorical dimension. Archetypes continually suggest themselves, like the medieval ship of fools. The passengers’ descent into madness, mass hysteria, and suicide is anticipated at the level of metaphor, in the deep links between water and madness. In The History of Madness, Michel Foucault writes of the persistence of this association, arguing that ‘madness is the manifestation … of an obscure, aquatic element, a dark, disordered, shifting chaos, the germ and death of all things as opposed to the luminous, adult stability of the mind.’ Likewise the eponymous image of Bergner’s novel—the hinge or juncture where ‘sky and sea were fused into one’—might signify something ‘celestial’, a ‘most distant of homes’, as Gaston Bachelard writes in Water and Dreams. Yet, above all, it evokes Genesis, and specifically Noah’s ark floating on a deluge of planetary proportions. And here, too, it resonates with a long tradition in Jewish writing that has repurposed the imagery of sky and sea, like the twelfth-century Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi, who abandoned the indulgences of Andalusian life for the ‘dust of the ruined shrine’ — Jerusalem — writing on his pilgrimage voyage with the rapture of anticipation:
The sea is the colour of
the sky—they are two seas bound
together. And between these two, my
heart is a third sea, as the new waves of
my praise surge on high!
The passage in Bergner’s novel is not one of pilgrimage, however, nor the kind familiar in Yiddish fiction—the circular itinerary of quixotic, wandering schlemiels as in Sforim’s The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Between Sky & Sea is a journey marked by the rupture of the Shoah. In a simultaneously written short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, one that details a similar passage from a Polish town to the docks of New York, we encounter the same imagery. As Abba stares through the porthole over his bunk, the ship would leap
as if mounting the sky, and the torn sea… [and then] fall as though the world were turning to original chaos. Then the ship would plunge back into the ocean, and once again the firmament would be divided from the waters, as in the Book of Genesis.
But while Abba’s journey is a three-page interlude before the shoemaker settles in New Jersey, this time at sea is the unremitting entirety of Bergner’s novel. Further, Between Sky & Sea is a journey that ends with the violence of a sinking, when, in the final page, the personified, monstrous sea ‘shouted in triumph, hurried and bellowed, slobbering with joy as though satiated after a wild, drunken orgy’. While this flourish risks histrionics, the more powerful gesture is the violence of imposing closure on the journey. Journeys in Jewish fiction have often, as Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi eloquently details in Booking Passage, been circular, open-ended, provisional, deferred—or, conversely, have pointedly involved arrival, in the case of modern Hebrew writers like S.Y. Agnon. In Bergner, there is something else: a passage extinguished before it can reach its destination, Australia, but also barred from an indefinite suspension in the imaginary, where we might be left to speculate how it ends (as with the ambiguous closing of Goldhar’s ‘In a Quiet Street’). In this way, Bergner is probing the limitations, the futility even, of writing fiction in the wake of the Shoah. After Between Sky & Sea, he wrote A Shtot in Polin (1950), his longest work, a literary effort to memorialise the lost world of Jewish Poland by enumerating everything from prosaic to intellectual life. Perhaps he could not have done otherwise; perhaps this showed a renewed faith in the vocation of literature. ‘In literature, as in our dreams,’ Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, ‘death does not exist. We never say: “the late Anna Karenina.”’
The works of Goldhar and Bergner, newly in print, reach the English-language reader by way of translation, and so it is with their translator I would like to conclude. In his translations, but also in a work of fiction like Alien Son, Waten is preoccupied with the status of what Salman Rushdie once called the ‘translated man.’ And in this preoccupation also we glimpse something of the fortunes of Yiddish in the twentieth century. When Waten arrived in Australia in 1914, Yiddish was the most widely spoken Jewish language, the language of the prosaic, the everyday, while Hebrew, by contrast, and despite early efforts to revive it, was the loshn koydesh, the ‘holy tongue’. At that time, Melbourne’s Kadimah had only a small library in Carlton; most of Australia’s Yiddish books, I imagine, sat on its speakers shelves. But by the time Waten published Alien Son in 1952, a reversal had transpired: Hebrew was the language of a nation-state, while Yiddish had for some acquired a solemnity, even holiness as the language of the martyred and lost. Not long after, the Kadimah library moved to its current location in Melbourne’s southeast, and its shelves swelled from the books donated as many families last Yiddish speakers died. In this light, Yiddish might, as Cecile Kuznitz has argued, be a ‘postvernacular language’, existing, in Jeffery Shandler’s words, as ‘a fragment…, an accent, or a sensibility evoked by means of other languages—anything but a full, vernacular language.’
This is how Yiddish persists in a work like Alien Son. In those moments when the narrative slips from the child narrator’s perspective into the indirect free prose of his mother, the inflection of Yiddish rests beneath the English:
Mother looked up from her sewing. Hirsh was right, it was a foreign country. How could we ever learn to know the people here? At least in Russia we knew where we stood, pogroms and all. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
At the heart of Alien Son, a book widely recognised as the first ‘migrant fiction’ in Australia, there is not only the drama of cultural rupture and acclimatisation, but, I believe, the drama of translation. This is most evident in the final story ‘Mother’, which directly depicts the widening chasm between a son, eagerly assimilating to Australia, and his mother, who is proudly intransigent, pining for a lost world. Though of modest means, she finds a way to impress upon the children something of the richness of the culture they have left. She takes them to a record store and, without intending to buy anything, asks the clerk to play the classics for the children. ‘With each visit,’ Waten’s narrator continues,
Mother became bolder and several times she asked to have whole symphonies and concertos played to us. We sat for nearly an hour cooped up in a tiny room with the salesman restlessly shuffling his feet, yawning and not knowing what to expect next.
When the staff object, as they inevitably do, she asks the boy to translate her defence: a lecture on ‘our right to music and culture’, on ‘the rights of all men’. The boy halts, embarrassed before the salesclerk; his mother, unabashed, presses him on.
Like this, urging to be translated, but refusing to be assimilated, the mother comes to stand for Yiddish. We are told that she seems ‘somehow… apart and other-worldly and different, not of everyday things as Father was.’ The whole of Alien Son is, in this sense, the writer’s effort to recuperate the mother. And yet, cognisant of his failure to translate her truly, it becomes a record of her remoteness, her rejection, her judgement. Alien Son thus gives another sense to the word mameloshn, ‘mother tongue’, as it tries to carry across the unrecuperable; as it bears witness to the fact that ‘in this new land… she would always feel a stranger’ and ‘I… estranged from her.’ Perhaps this carefully documented strangeness, this grappling with translation as mourning, as loss, intimates one sense that Yiddish continues in Australian fiction: as a present absence, a maternal haunting.
acknowledgements I am especially indebted to Pam Maclean, who generously gave me time to discuss Goldhar’s work and provided me with materials I would otherwise not have accessed, and to Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s remarkable Booking Passage. For their edits and support, I would like to thank to Ivor Indyk and Catriona Menzies-Pike. I also wish to thank those whose advice, suggestions, corrections, and guidance influenced this essay: Jordana Silverstein, Odette Shenfield, Deborah Rechter, Brendan Casey, Susan Jacobowitz, Esther Singer, Arnold Zable, Rachel Kalman, and the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library in Elsternwick, Melbourne.
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