Judah Waten, Jewish migrant writer (1911-1985)

Judah Waten was born in Odessa of Russian Jewish parents who migrated to Perth in 1914. In 1926, his family moved to Melbourne where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually settling in Box Hill where he lived for thirty-five years. In Melbourne he became involved with a group of rising Jewish writers and painters with strong socialist views. Although he wrote only in English, he was strongly influenced by his Yiddish background. Among the many books Waten wrote, the ones that made the most impression, according to Itzhac Kahan, treat the Jewish immigrants' struggle to adapt to the new land, Australia.

The title of his most successful book is Alien Son, a series of thirteen stories. The time frame is set immediately prior to World War I, and examines the problems of assimilation. The mother has all the nostalgia of the expatriate and longs for news of the old country, never quite adapting to life in the new land. His father's optimism and hopefulness endear him to the reader as he battles with a precarious livelihood in his adopted country. The children are caught up in the revolt of childhood against parental domination. The writing in Alien Son moves surely and lightly. Quiet humour and warm human sympathy infuse the prose with a quality of sensitive realism born of deep understanding. The reader is impressed by the delicacy of phrase, the pathos, human warmth and subtle comedy. The book can be considered as a classic of Australian literature. As an Australian writer, Waten was committed to the tradition of Henry Lawson, in bringing the written and spoken word together in the seemingly artless form of the yarn. He was also influenced by Pinchas Goldhar.

Waten has been credited as being the first immigrant from Eastern Europe to have made a reputation as an Australian writer. His works have appeared in the more important literary journals and were included in anthologies and annual collections of the best short stories of the current year. His short stories were more popular than his novels, probably because of their more modest targets. His first novel, The Unbending (Melbourne, Australasian Book Society,1954) financed by a Commonwealth Literary Fellowship provides a sensitive, yet humorous portrait of the life of a migrant Jewish family coming to Australia before World War I and living through the turbulent period of 1914-1918 in an industrial West Australian town. The novel was controversial with its partisan account of the 1916 anti-conscription struggles and shows the wider conflicts of a conservative society facing the radical international Workers of the World. On the publication of this book, the Fellowship of Jewish Writers arranged a reception on June 20th, 1954, at the 'Tarbuth'. As there was a large audience, it developed into a symposium where Maurice Isaacs, Gavin Casey and Hyam Brezniak spoke, the latter taking up the features by which Waten is connected with other Jewish writers such as Scholem Aleichem and Pinchas Goldhar. The latter two writers were gifted at characterisation. Goldhar also spoke about the difficulties and experiences of the migrant Jewish community in a different kind of country.

Waten was a member of the Communist Party and because of his socialist leanings was not always regarded as member of the inner circle of Australian novelists, until later in life when the merit of his writing and changing Australian social attitudes broke down the prejudices against him. In the 1940s he played an active role in the activities of the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism. Once Australian Jewry's pre-eminent left-wing organisation, the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism was formed in May 1942 by a group of activist (mainly established Eastern European) Jews concerned about increasing anti-Semitism, both locally and internationally. Other prominent Council activists included Sam Cohen, Norman Rothfield, Sam Goldbloom, and Ernest Platz (Records of this organisation are held in the Archive of Australian Judaica).

In his later work, Waten moved from the Jewish community to an empathetic engagement with other migrant communities that were enriching the life of postwar Australia. One short story, The Knife its style singularly detached and very different from the Alien Son vividly etches the isolatation of the village boy removed from his community and the horror projected on him not only by idle Australian youths but also by the magistrate who judges him harshly and out of ignorance of his background. In another novel, Shares in Murder (1957) based on actual cases, the three main characters investigating the murder of a young woman in a fashionable Melbourne suburb disclose the relationship between organised crime and respectability. Waten's view of law and justice, influenced by his three month imprisonment after his involvement in the unemployed marches in Britain in the 1930s, is evident in this novel which implies that in the society described, crime does not pay.

Other books include So Far No Further (1971), The Depression Years: 1929-1938, Australia Since the Camera (1971), and Bottle-O (1973) which explores once again the theme of racial prejudice and misunderstanding, and is set in the streets of Carlton, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Love and Rebellion (1978), Waten's second collection of short stories, is a book of autobiography and reminiscence, written over a period of twenty years, and demonstrates the same compassionate and superb storytelling skills as in Alien Son , the work by which he is most often remembered.