A long and colourful journey…

The “Kadimah” was founded on December 26, 1911, at 59 Bourke Street, just down from the Victorian Parliament in central Melbourne. The founders were predominantly recently arrived immigrants, Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. The inaugural Kadimah Committee and its first 80 members led by President Yehushe Rochlin chose to launch this secular, cultural initiative “davke on Boxing Day, perhaps illustrating both their confidence in, and deference to, the “arumike svive” (environment). This was 60 years before the launch of multiculturalism as a national cultural policy.

Melbourne’s existing Jewish population at the time, about 5,500 Jews of predominantly of Anglo-Germanic background, were not particularly welcoming of their new brethren from overseas.  Most of these “folks yidn”, or folk Jews, were escaping the turmoil of the old world and the failed revolution of 1905. As recent arrivals, they threatened and embarrassed the previously settled and more established “Melburnians of Hebraic persuasion”.  From the very start of the Kadimah’s founding, the disparate member factions began wrangling over languages and the character of the new institution.  English and Hebrew were at first the preferred languages of the majority of members and Yiddish was still looked down upon by many.  And so, it was not surprising that the Hebraic-Yiddish name “Kadimah” (meaning progress or forward) was chosen by the founding committee.

Just prior to WWI as the membership rose steadily to more than 200, the Kadimah decided to move to larger premises. In 1915 it was relocated to 313 Drummond Street Carlton, where cheap rent was attracting new migrants in greater numbers.  At the end of WWI came a lull, which saw Kadimah’s activities almost cease completely. Then in 1919, a struggle amongst the membership, essentially a battle between the leftist supporters of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Zionist supporters of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, led to the Kadimah being absorbed by the pro-Zionist Hatchia organisation.

When one of the shining lights of the East European Yiddish literary renaissance, Peretz Hirshbayn, arrived for a series of lectures in 1921, he was welcomed like a movie star and proved to be a harbinger of a new, dynamic, Yiddish-dominated era. In 1926 the Kadimah broke away from Hatchia, again forming an independent organisation. By 1933, as Hitler came to power in Germany, marking the beginning of the end for Eastern European Jewry, the Kadimah blossomed into a fully-fledged cultural centre and built new larger premises at 836 Lygon Street, Carlton. The new building also contained a 400-seat capacity theatre/hall and library. Boldly renamed the Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library Kadimah, its numerous activities included lectures, recitals, concerts, debates and plays. A youth committee was formed to co-ordinate special activities aimed at the growing number of younger members.

With the worsening situation in Europe and the arrival of such Jewish luminaries as the writer/poet Melekh Ravich and the pedagogue Josef Giligich, the Kadimah published the first ever Yiddish book in Australia, Der Oystralisher Almanach (The Australian Almanach) in 1937.  A year later the pioneer Yiddish writer Pinkhas Goldhar published his excellent Dertzaylungen fun Oystralye (Stories from Australia) and a Yiddish weekly, Di Oystralishe Yiddishe Nayes (Australian Jewish News) appeared under his editorship in 1939.  As news of the looming disaster in Europe began to emerge, the Melbourne Jewish community rallied, beginning with a Kadimah-initiated protest against the Nuremburg Racial Laws. And as one tragedy followed another, the Kadimah continued its cultural activities interspersed with further rallies, protests and solidarity meetings.

Appeals, petitions, fund-raising and attempts to speed up the immigration process now became the prime concern of the Kadimah and the community as a whole.  While the war in Europe raged and ravaged Jewish life there, the local ideological battles also continued. A local spat over a 1944 Jewish Board of Deputies resolution, supporting the declaration of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine, nearly split the Kadimah apart. In 1945, as news of the full extent of the Jewish tragedy in Europe unfolded, the Kadimah held the first Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration and in 1948 joyously celebrated the establishment of the Jewish State in Israel. Following the 1948 new immigration policy, the immediate post-war trickle of Jewish refugees to Australia turned into a torrent of newcomers. Many of these new arrivals were Holocaust survivors and those returned from the Soviet Union, making Melbourne the second-highest per capita home of such survivors after Israel.

The Kadimah soon became the focal point of the cultural and intellectual life of the growing Jewish community, concentrated around the inner Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Brunswick. By 1950, the Kadimah had a thousand members and a paid librarian had to be engaged to cope with the growing demand for books, magazines and newspapers. A year later yet another schism threatened the future of the institution. The leftist youth section was at odds with the Kadimah committee. Yet indicatively, both the leftist Bundist-SKIF and centrist Zionist-Habonim youth movements were allowed to use the Kadimah premises for their respective meetings. The 1953 protest rallies against the Soviet Union’s persecution of Jews, the Doctors’ Plot and the Slonsky Show Trials galvanised the community around the Kadimah.  Surviving prominent actors and artists such as Yankev Waislitz and Rokhl Holtzer, who were amongst the immigrants to find refuge in Melbourne, began to build on an earlier, amateur local Yiddish theatre tradition.  They established a new ensemble and renamed it the Dovid Herman Teater By Der Kadimah, after the famous director of the renowned Vilne Troupe.  So began a rich era of theatrical productions of a high calibre. By 1953 they were staging five separate productions a year and the Kadimah membership had reached 1300.

Melbourne’s reputation as an important centre of Yiddish and Jewish life soon spread around the world and so did the Kadimah’s cultural and theatrical achievements.  From the early 1950s until the present day, a steady stream of well-known performers, directors and lecturers have visited and toured. Prominent guests of the Kadimah included Mandl Man, Yankev Pat, Avrom Sutzkever, Shimon Dzigan, Zygmunt and Rosa Turkow, Jankev Malkin, Sidor Belarski, Ida Kaminska, Josef Shayn, Prof Eliezer Naks, Dinah Halpern, Josef Rotboym, Leah Kenig, Tzvi Shtolper, Rabbi Dr Heshl Klepfish, S Berkowicz, Shmuel Rudensky, Shmuel Segal, Shmuel Atzmon, Wolf Tambur, Melekh Frydman, Nekhama Lifshitz, Yehuda Elberg, Prof Eugene Orenstein, Prof Dov Noy, Prof Gershon Winer, Prof Moskowicz, Prof Avrom Novershtern, Michael Alpert, Adam Gruzman, Rafael Goldwaser and Shane Baker.

These visiting luminaries unfailingly packed out the auditorium of the Kadimah and their guest presentations and performances were augmented all year round by an impressive array of local talent, artists, actors, lecturers, writers and poets, such as Avrahm Kahn, Dr Mark Varshtendik, Lova Frydman, Bono Wiener, Avraham Cykiert and others.  Many of the local writers and poets also published their work in the Kadimah’s literary journal Di Melburne Bletter (The Melbourne Chronicle). The Yiddish section was, since its inception, edited by writer-broadcaster Moishe Ajzenbud and the English, by a number of writer-editors, Ron Abel 1975-1977, Serge Liberman 1977-1984 & 1991-1996, Yvonne Fein 1984-1990, Zoi Juvris 1992-2001, Alex Dafner 2002 and Arnold Zable 1988, 1991 & 2012.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60’s, as the Jewish community became more settled and prosperous, it began to shift from Carlton to the leafier, more middle-class suburbs of Melbourne.  Firstly, south to St Kilda and Elwood and then gradually south-east to Caulfield and Brighton.  The Kadimah was being gradually abandoned by its former migrant patrons and had to follow the trend, moving south east and building its present premises, the Leo Fink Hall, in Selwyn Street, Elsternwick.  The choice of position was no doubt influenced by the availability at its rear of a unique facility and investment opportunity, Melbourne’s oldest operating picture theatre, known today as the Classic Cinema.  With a little renovation and building of additional changing rooms, the Classic doubled as a theatre stage for the performances of the very active Dovid Herman Teater By Der Kadimah.

In 1970, with the rejuvenation of Australian theatre in general, a youth ensemble called the Melbourne Yiddish Youth Theatre at the Kadimah led by the late actor/director Fay Mokotow, began performing translations of English plays and classics of the Yiddish theatre.  While the older Dovid Herman Teater’s performances slowed after the passing of key veterans such as Shiah Tigel and the much-loved actor, editor, broadcaster and Kadimah President Yasha Sher, the younger troupe continued with their productions until the late 1990s.  In the Kadimah’s centenary year 2011-2012, and prior to that at the 2nd International Yiddish Theatre Festival in Montreal, the Zaftik Yiddish theatre troupe of wonderful performers Evelyn Krape, Elisa Gray and Tomi Kalinski devised and successfully performed Ek Velt (Tail End of the World), a roller-coaster journey through the lives and histories of leading lights, actors and directors of the Australian Yiddish theatre.

With the ageing of the post-war Jewish migrant population, other initiatives became a priority.  In 1984, under the dedicated stewardship of the veteran actress Rachel Lewita, the “Wednesday Club at the Kadimah” began to function as an important weekly gathering, which encompassed a program of news and current events, cultural presentations, entertainment and companionship.  It continued its weekly meetings until 2015, led by such dedicated, dynamic volunteers as the co-ordinator Cesia Goldberg and her assistant Tomi Kalinski, amongst others.  The Kadimah library collections and archives have also continued to expand under the dynamic leadership of the former vice president and library co-ordinator Rachel Kalman OAM and her team of dedicated volunteers.

Similarly, four Yiddish chat/shmooz and reading circles, which meet weekly, on Monday morning led by Alex Dafner, on Monday afternoon led by Diane Shonberg, on Tuesday morning led by Beni Gothajner and on Wednesday night led by Dr Yankev Dessauer, have also increased the number of regular attendees.  A weekly Kadimah Yiddish Radio Show is presented by Alex Dafner on J-Air FM and Internet Radio every Thursday at 4pm and special events such as cabarets, concerts and film clubs entertain the public with wonderful artists, comedians, singers and musicians several times a year.  Although membership has dropped to the levels of the early years, the Kadimah still manages to present more than 150 activities per year, making it one of the most active cultural organisations within the Jewish community.

It would be remiss not to mention the literally hundreds of dedicated Kadimah “kultur un gezelshaftlekhe tuer”, cultural and community activists, presidents, office bearers, volunteers and functionaries, who gave of their talents, time and toil for the betterment of the Kadimah’s organisational life and its cultural pursuits over more than a century.  Those interested in these personalities are encouraged to turn to the Kadimah Almanachs, the Presidents’ honour board and other records of the Kadimah. The Kadimah’s more than century-long history reflects much of the story of 20th Century Jewish migration and settlement in Australia.  Its fortunes wax and wane with the influx and decline of immigration in general and Jewish immigration to Melbourne in particular, but overall it is a proud history of exemplary service and self-efficiency, a pioneering example of cultural autonomy within an increasingly dependent, multi-ethnic, multicultural society.

The Kadimah has fulfilled the vital cultural, linguistic, intellectual and social needs of a nascent, dislocated Jewish migrant community. At times it has served as a platform for expressions of anguish and struggle, much of it reflecting the turbulent and tragic Jewish experience in 20th Century Europe.  The challenge for the future is to make the Kadimah relevant to the needs of second and third generation Australian-born Jews, offspring of those migrants who made this country and this institution a real home away from their home that was so cruelly destroyed forever.  For the Kadimah, there’s much cause for celebration and the challenge is currently being taken up by President Renata Singer and a reinvigorated Kadimah board.  So, “L’chaim un biz 120 un nokh vayter!” (To life, may it live to 120 and then some!).

Learn more about the benefits of being a Kadimah member.