The following description of Sholem Aleichem College is based on visits to the school in May 2009.
"Mein Mame is fantastish." "Mein Mame is shein." Cross-legged on the floor, the three year olds at Sholem Aleichem kindergarten repeat after lereren Freydi. It is almost Mother's Day and Freydi reads from children's books translated into Yiddish. "Arum und arum mit di hantalach" "Round and round with your little hands to show how you hug your mothers." Her tiny charges are immersed and engaged in their early Yiddish lesson. Principal Helen enthuses "It's the warmth of the language." Certainly Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne's southeast exudes warmth and wraps the two hundred students – one hundred and fifteen in the school, and eighty-five in the kindergartens – in an intimate, supportive and uniquely Yiddish environment.
Israel's Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut is approaching and the school is decorated in blue and white. Helen is proud of the secular, inclusive elementary school. At Friday's weekly assembly students are greeted. Welcome, bruchim habaim, in Hebrew, zeit bagrust in Yiddish. The Israeli and Australian flags hang on either side of the room. The parents around me chat in English and in Hebrew. Helen has explained that the largest immigrant group in the school is Israelis who seek a secular, but Jewish environment for their children.
Prep to Grade 6 sit in the Assembly Hall and listen intently to the Yiddish instructions and explanations. Enthusiastic singing in Hebrew and English earns "Zee hobn zeyer gut gemacht." You've done well. One child lights Shabbat candles and awards are given for "honorable mentsh behaviour", reinforcing a clear code of moral behaviour.
After the assembly sweet challa is allocated to each class and lereren Anne dispatches a grade 6 student with a plate to wish each class "a gut shabbes'. She chatters with students about the challa, vi azoi es shmakt - how it smells, oib es is geshmak heint, whether the challa is tasty today. As she speaks, she uses the familiarly diminutive forms of the students' names, Nechamele, Yosele, Yashele. These students have grown in the school since they were 3 years old and they've heard, absorbed, imbibed the Yiddish language and the warm, nostalgic culture.
Like so many others who grew up in the post World War 2 Yiddish community, lereren Anne attended Sholem Aleichem Sunday school and Skif and grew in a Yiddish speaking home environment. She recalls "wonderful teachers. Lerer Diner was a beautiful man. Studying literature with him was special." But "when I was a kid, everyone spoke Yiddish at home, throughout their childhood. It's quite different today because kids don't speak it at home. You have a handful of families, but they are rare. Most of our students hear no Yiddish outside school...Even the grandparents who speak Yiddish is diminishing."
Anne explains that Yiddish is very much like any other LOTE (language other than English), taught in Australian schools. "Except we give much more time than other LOTE.... We do try to give them a love of Yiddish so that once they leave the school, they come back to do the year 7 program."
I notice colorful, contemporary readers produced in the school which "we keep on producing because we can't have too many readers." Anne continues, "We've got all the books I read when I was a little girl, like "Der naye onfanger" New Beginnings, in hardback. Some of the stories are adaptations of Sholem Aleichem's or Peretz's stories."
When asked about sourcing Yiddish teachers for future generations, surprisingly, Anne answers, "It's less difficult than it used to be. We have a small cohort of young women who are training to be teachers and who extend their Yiddish through professional development, involvement in all things Yiddish in our community and also studying at the Yiddish courses offered in New York City. It's less difficult than it used to be and it's exciting to see a future. This is promising. In the 1980s we were a little sad, wondering who would come after us."
The Penina Zylberman Yiddish Cultural Trust supports teacher training and development and it is as if a seed is planted at the school and love for the language and culture is fostered by the small community.
Generally seven lessons each week are devoted to Yiddish language and these include studying Jewish traditions. The grade 6 play about chalutzim (the pioneers) in Israel is studied in preparation for Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. Additionally, students are engaged with the community through visits to the Mitvoch clubbe at Kadimah or to the Jewish old age facilities. "The kids respond amazingly, beautifully, instinctively and they do try to speak to the older generation in Yiddish."
Bobby teaches an after- school class of students who graduated from Sholem Aleichem College and moved on to Jewish and non-Jewish high schools. They want to continue their Yiddish studies. It's dusk and damp outside, but these students are content to extend their school day in the light, bright elementary classroom. There's a sense of camaraderie amongst the students, dressed in a variety of school uniforms. Bobby varies the lesson and pushes the pace along with a quiz and some text work and browsing a broadsheet newspaper, Veiter, "Further" a monthly produced by the New York Forward, which includes articles of Yiddish interest for people studying the language, life and culture.
Then one by one, the students read the Yiddish stories they themselves have prepared. In 2009, eight students are taking matriculation Yiddish in three Melbourne Jewish day schools.
I walk away from the Edwardian building that is the central and defining space of the school. There are a number of large and aged trees under which several generations of students matured cultivated by the warmth and belonging of a school that advocates "make mine a mentsh".
In 2011 the school and kindergarten combined have 250 students enrolled. The numbers will grow in 2012 and beyond. Helen believes that the sense of community, the warmth and cultural elements attract young parents. "And the Yiddish adds value."
Reflecting the Federal government's BER (Building Education Revolution), there is a new kindergarten room, a new library and a special education room, an updated hall and new furnishings, all of which promote the positive feeling of moving ahead.
The College campus is used for numerous additional Yiddish classes. Raizl Zylberman, an old collegian and recently qualified Yiddish teacher, teaches five year 7 and four year 8 students as well as four B'nei mitzvah Sholem Aleichem graduates from a variety of high schools. Freydi Mrocki and Tomi Kalinski teach two adult beginner's Yiddish classes. Recently Sholem Aleichem College became the first elementary school in Victoria to be accredited for a V.C.E. (Victorian Certificate of Education) subject. As a result, there are 13 adult and two school age students studying Units 3 and 4 V.C.E. Yiddish with Alex Dafner. Additionally Tomi Kalinski teaches six Sholem Aleichem graduates Units 1 and 2 V.C.E. Yiddish. Thus, the 15 AYTA (Australian Yiddish Teachers Association) members who meet regularly and focus on Yiddish education and building a Yiddish profile in the community, are fulfilling their goal of turning Sholem Aleichem College into a community college.