The Shtiebel

I grew up with a foot in each of two different Jewish universes.  One was my father’s family’s secular, humanist, socialist, Bundist Jewish cultural heritage, about which I’ve written in other posts.  The other was my mother’s family’s shtetl-bound, traditional, Orthodox, religious Jewish heritage.

My mother’s family was a typical frum or Orthodox family.  My mother and her oldest sister Eda had both married Bundists, and had essentially given away most of the trappings of frumkeit.  Most indeed, but not quite all, as my mother to this day cannot let pork or shellfish past her lips.  But they had given up the strict adherence to the dietary laws of kashrut and the observance of Shabbos, the Sabbath and the yom-toyvim – the Jewish holidays. But my mother’s other sister Sala had married a very observant religious Jew, and they lived with their two sons, and my grandparents, all of them in strict adherence to everything proscribed by the religion.

My grandfather, his daughters, and sons-in-law in early 1953

Now before the boys Chaim and Baruch – or most of the rest of us – were even born, all the religious Jews who had arrived in North Carlton after the War, including my grandfather Yitzchak (Isaac) and my uncle Vovek (which is a Polish version of Velvel, which is the Yiddish version of Zev which is a Hebrew name meaning wolf) had to find a place to pray.  There was a shule nearby – the famous Carlton Synagogue – but nothing in the little area bounded by Lygon Street on the West, Nicholson Street on the East, Park Street on the North, and Fenwick Street on the South.  And moreover, they had to walk there and back since any kind of public transport or indeed private cars (if they could even be afforded) were not allowed to be used on the Sabbath or the Holidays. So, they really needed something fairly close by.

So they got together and created a Shtiebel. Well, The Shtiebel to be exact, because it was always referred to that way, and I only ever knew of one.  The word itself means little house, and that’s what it was.  It was a little house off a back lane that ran off Richardson Street – the main road.  All anyone saw from that main road was a large brick wall on which someone had graffitied in large white letters “PEACE & JOBS, NOT WAR”.  This had in fact been written during the war and had never been scrubbed off – a grim reminder of what was foremost in Australians’ minds less than a decade earlier.

But when I went down that little cobble-stoned lane, which I would do during the high holidays, right at the end, on the left, was a little gate, and through that gate was a tiny little yard that always smelt of cats, and past that yard was a little door into the Shtiebel.

And when I entered through that door, I was in a whole other world.  Like many other houses in North Carlton, there was a long corridor with rooms running off it.  The first room on the right was for the women, since men and women always sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue.  I’d sometimes go in there to say hello and Gut Yomtov to my auntie and my grandmother, and I’d end up spending ten minutes there getting passed around, being pinched on the cheeks by all of their friends, and being fussed over.

But then, I’d walk up the corridor to the main hall, and that’s where the serious stuff took place.  Men and boys, standing in tallaysim, the blue and white prayer shawls wrapped around their shoulders, many of them with beards of various lengths (and various colours), chanting and praying in Hebrew or Aramaic, which I didn’t understand.  The in-between bits weren’t in English, but in Yiddish, which I did understand.

But I wasn’t there to understand… or to pray, or to chant, or to sing.  I was there for three reasons.  One was for my grandfather, my mother’s father Yitzchak.  I was there for him.  As an observant and pious Jew, it made him very happy to see his grandchildren in Shule.

Another was for my Uncle Vovek, who was also very observant.  He was also worldly enough to not only know that my family – my parents, my sister, and I – was not religious in the least bit, but also to be okay with that.  But I know that it gave him great pleasure to see me there and to show off his nephew to all his friends.

And the third was to play with the other kids. We’d speak in the hall when we weren’t supposed to, getting shushed all the time.  We’d run up and down that corridor bumping into people coming in or going out.  We’d play chasey and hidey in the lane, tripping on the cobblestones, tearing our new suits, grazing our knees and our palms.  And we’d go absolutely crazy on Simchas Torah, a holiday which apparently signifies the beginning of a new cycle of readings of the Torah,  but more importantly, a holiday when they’d throw candy around, and we kids would dive on the floor and jump in the air trying to catch as many lollies and chocolates as possible.

I used to have a ball at those high holidays with all my cousins’ religious friends.  I especially liked Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where people stayed in shule the whole day fasting.  But my father would come and pick me up half way through the day and take me to his parents’ house, where my grandmother would give me sandwiches and Coca Cola and Salada crackers with cheese and vegemite.  Talk about the best of both worlds.

But most of all, when I think of the Shtiebel, my mind turns to memories of my uncle Vovek.  He was a truly wonderful man, who like many Eastern European Jews of his age, had had an incredibly hard life.

He was born in Rawa Ruska, a little Polish shtetl on the Ukraine border, in 1917, and was a young man in his prime when the war started.

Rawa Ruska – The market place (from the Yizkor Book)

Little is known about what happened to him during the war.  We do know that he lost his whole family – parents and siblings – murdered by the Nazis.  We also know that he was drafted into the Russian army and served in a labour unit on the Stalingrad front where he somehow caught a bullet or some shrapnel in his leg, which left him with a distinct and very recognisable limp for the rest of his life.  And finally, we know that after the war, a young man without home or family, he made his way to Paris, and became part of the Orthodox Jewish community there.

During this time, movement was also taking place in our family.  My mother’s oldest sister Eda and her husband Jakub left Poland and moved to Paris in December 1947.  It was the initial Western shuffle of their ultimate move to Australia, and they were paving the way for the rest of the family.  There, in March 1948, they had a son, my cousin Charles, and in July 1949, they were reunited with the others – my mother, her other sister Sala, and their parents – who joined them in Paris.

In February 1950, Eda, Jakub, and Charles left for Australia, where they again became the Fertig family pioneers and were to start the process of arranging visas for the whole tribe, and, as it turned out, for hundreds of other Jewish refugees.

Meanwhile, in Paris, my Auntie Sala, now in her early twenties, was introduced to Vovek – most likely by a schadchen, a matchmaker.  My grandfather would have been ecstatic because his oldest unmarried daughter now had found a nice, quiet, honest, and above all, religious, man. After a short courtship, they were married on September 4th, 1950, and then in February 1951, left for Australia with my mother and my grandparents on the SS Protea, one of the so-called Immigrant ships, which had changed owners, nationalities, and names about 17 times since being built in 1919 in the USA.  They arrived in Melbourne on March 27th to begin their new life here.

The Protea – docked somewhere

In Australia, like most Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Melbourne, they lived in North Carlton, first with the whole family at Eda and Jakub’s house in Canning Street, and then, in Station Street, a short two-minute walk away, where they settled down with my grandparents.

On board with Sala & Mum

That little house, at 500 Station Street, was a second epicentre for our family.  501 Canning Street and 500 Station Street were like the two foci of the Fertig ellipse.  We’d all always be at one or the other, and in some ways, they were almost identical – warm, family oriented, friendly places with the smell of cooking and cigarettes predominant.  However, while Canning Street was a very political, secular Jewish, Bundist environment, Station Street always had the other end of the spectrum.  It was a religious Jewish house, where frume yidn would congregate, all wearing kippot – little skull caps that my grandfather, a hat-maker had probably made for them.  All eating kosher food – because that’s all that was available there.  And all speaking about shule politics, religion, and Jewish life in general.

500 Station Street

Vovek, who had been trained as a furrier, started a little business making all sorts of garments for Australian women who could afford it.  But we children had no interest whatsoever in mink stoles, fur coats, or fox wraps. What we loved were the little Davy Crockett coonskin hats that he made for us, complete with the little tail.  So, regardless of the season, no matter how hot it was, you could always find us – all the cousins plus a few assorted friends – running around Station Street whooping it up, pretending to be Davy Crockett.  And…. of course, singing the song, which had become famous because of a television show….

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree
He killed him a bear when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

And my most enduring, and endearing, memories of Vovek – aside from his limp – were that whenever we’d see him, he’d always give us a hefty pinch on the cheek and he’d always call us ‘sausages’ or ‘silly sausages’.  He was a terrific uncle and was a lot of fun.  A gentle man and a gentleman.  And a lover of life.  He was also a man of great integrity and tolerance who although he was very orthodox had a real understanding that different people expressed themselves – and their Jewishness – differently.  A real mentsch.

Vovek and Sala and my cousins Chaim (Haiml) and Baruch (Butchie) moved out of North Carlton in early 1966 and bought a house in Caulfield where they lived with my grandparents.  Vovek still had his little factory and shop in North Carlton and, not having a drivers’ licence, got a ride to work every morning and a ride home in the evening.  He still made the Davy Crocket hats and also made little sheepskin vests for all the kids who were now pre-teens and teenagers.  I imagine that years later, he probably would’ve also made his version of Ugg boots that we would’ve all loved too.

Alas, on September 2nd, 1966, two days before their sixteenth wedding anniversary, Vovek was walking in downtown Melbourne, about to go see a prospective customer, when he suffered a massive heart attack and died within minutes.  He was 49 years old.

It was a terrible shock to the family – one which took us years to get over.  And fifty years on, many of us, especially his sons, have still not fully come to terms with it.  For me, at age 13, it was the first encounter I had with loss – loss of life, loss of an uncle, loss of innocence.

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I was at my Auntie’s house in Caulfield when the hearse drove past, and then spent all the next week there.  Apart from our family – parents, two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there were around two hundred other people there every day.  Most of them came three times a day – for each of the important prayer times.  And although I only recognised two or three of them, they all knew me.  They knew me from the old North Carlton Shtiebel.  They knew me as Zev Gelber’s nephew.  They knew me as Yitzchak Fertig’s grandson.  They knew me as Haiml’s and Butchie’s cousin.  They remembered me as that little scoundrel who used to talk during the high holidays and run around pinching candy.  The Shtiebel which no longer existed physically was still alive, and in fact still lives on in our memories today.

And so indeed does Vovek.  Haiml’s oldest child is Ze’ev and Butchie’s youngest child is Itiel Ze’ev – both named for their grandfather whom they unfortunately never met.

Vovek Gelber – Koved zeyn ondenk – Honour to his memory!

8 Responses

  1. Love love love reading our shared memories of life, family and love. And of course in this one, tragic loss of our uncle at such a young age. Your writing took me to the cobble stoned laneway off Richardson street once again xx

  2. Beautiful Moshe! Thanks so much for sharing this . I loved reading that and it makes me so proud of him even though I never met him: keep writing and keep sharing all of these amazing stories ! We all really appreciate it and is so important for all of the kids who don’t know their special family legacy ! Blessings …

    1. I’m so thrilled you liked it Zevi. I tried to authentically recreate the Shtiebel and our family, and particularly your grandfather. Remember that the last time I ever saw him, I was 13 so this is all as seen through a little boy’s eyes.

  3. Brings back memories.I was also one of the kids playing with you in the lane leading to the Shtiebel – and I even had a Davy Crockett hat too.

    1. Ha, that’s great. I think we have a lot of common experiences from Carlton, Alan. I look forward to sitting down with you one of these days…….

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