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    Jewish Carlton comes to life (book review)

    David J Havin, 2007, $40.

    Reviewed by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
    Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

    Passers-by outside my Jerusalem post office must have wondered about the eccentric – me! – standing in the street reading a book and oblivious to the world outside. The book was David Havin’s story of orthodox Jewish life in Carlton, and I found it absorbing.

    When I was a child in Caulfield almost everybody in Carlton was thought of as eccentric. This was modern Melbourne: our south-of-the-Yarra dream of social integration seemed threatened by those outlandish “frummies” who populated Rathdown, Lygon and Drummond Streets. Indeed the divide could be delineated as the difference between those could say “Rathdown” and those who could only manage “Ratterdon”!

    I was a committed shule-goer at the highly anglicised St Kilda Synagogue. I had never heard of “chapping a Minchah“, which I later found was second nature in Carlton. I had no idea how addictive it was to sit at a G’mara shiur; I would have been shocked to discover Rabbi Gurewicz finding enough takers to ensure the whole Shass would be covered in twelve months. To me a minyan was what happened in a house of mourning; the concept of a shtibel with a thrice-daily minyan was totally foreign.

    When did I ever go to Carlton? Once in a while to Habonim at Herzl Hall. Occasionally with my father to the Kadimah (the family did not quite approve of his ability to speak Yiddish). Carlton was something else, somewhere else. We Australian Jews had a vague idea there were kosher butchers, bakers, boarding houses there – but strict kashrut was for the “meshugga frum”.

    Later on, my university studies took me to Carlton every day and I even sometimes wandered, tourist-like, through the Jewish streets, occasionally walking through the Melbourne General Cemetery too. Once a week I taught RI at University High School, not very successfully – a very young-looking “teacher” with huge classes that gave me a hard time. When I did casual reporting for the Jewish papers, I would bring my reports to the editors in Carlton on the way to university. Carlton had its Jewish bookshop which, like Kantor’s in town, I frequented and patronised, but none of this fully opened my eyes to the passion, depth and range of orthodoxy in the area and the surrounding suburbs.

    Rabbis Gurewicz, Danglow, Super & Brodie

    Rabbis Gurewicz, Danglow, Super & Brodie

    Now, thanks to David Havin, I know the truth. Carlton was a shtetl and for many, an oasis. Rabbi Gurewicz, who must have been one of the great Talmudists of the generation, presided over the Carlton Shule and, whilst tolerant of many Australian foibles, was indignant that Rabbi Danglow as acting Av Beth Din could purport to supervise shechitah. Stone’s Shule was the senior shtibel of the area, though its powerful leader might have resented the name shtibel. Other places definitely were shtiblach, often, like Jonah’s gourd, “coming up in a night and disappearing in a night”.

    The names that punctuate David Havin’s book are legendary in Australian orthodox history. There are shoch’tim, mashgichim, chazanim, shammasim. There are also impressive Talmudic scholars, many holding credible rabbinic qualifications though called Reverend in Australia. They include Yoir Adler, who was one of my UJEB teachers and probably the first charedi I ever encountered; we wrote our Hebrew School notes on the back of his Eagle Press invoice forms. There were world-class scholars such as Rabbi Kaplinsky who even in largely unsympathetic Australia still wrote their chiddushim and occasionally managed to get them published. There were great personalities like Rabbi Chaim Dov Ber Silver, still fondly recalled in many places.

    There were Rabbi Rudzki and other fine teachers at Hascola Talmud Torah who tried so hard, with some successes and many failures, to “train up a child in the way he should go”. There were orthodox Jews too in nearby suburbs, Brunswick, Thornbury, Northcote, Coburg (with one of its two Shules run by Rev JZ Jacobs who made sure you knew he was a JP)… even Moonee Ponds (though Dame Edna was neither orthodox nor Jewish). Carlton had its people and institutions which kept you in life, such as the charities and hospitable families, and looked after you in death, notably of course the Chevra Kadisha.

    David Havin is far more than a literary archeologist who has uncovered old records and made them available. He is an orthodox Jew who has recognised how much Carlton meant to the generations of its heyday and the living legacy it has given to the community of today in which, as Rav Soloveitchik used to say when speaking of the orthodox upsurge in the United States, “they don’t laugh at us any more”.

    The story David has told is enhanced by maps, illustrations and a range of extracts from the historical writings of others – even myself. It might have improved this second section of the book if its pages had been numbered, and the whole work would have benefited from an index. There are a few, but rare, errors of fact. A second printing is already under way, and that will provide an opportunity to remedy these defects.

    The book deserves to be read (even in the street outside the post office) as part of the self-understanding of Australian Jewry. I highly commend it.

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