Descendants of the original owners of St Kilda's Monarch Cakes (from left) Rany Friedman, Pam Dempster, Greg Levine, Joseph Kay and Max Kamien.
Descendants of the original owners of St Kilda's Monarch Cakes (from left) Rany Friedman, Pam Dempster, Greg Levine, Joseph Kay and Max Kamien. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Shane Green

The grand story of immigration to Australia is told in many ways. In Acland Street in St Kilda, it is a narrative built on baked cheesecakes and vanilla slices.

Pastry chef Joseph Levine had emigrated from Poland and, in 1928, brought his wife Pearl and their four children to Melbourne via Perth. Forging a new life through what they knew best, they set about creating and selling magnificent cakes based on traditional Polish recipes.

First came the Monaco Cake Shop in Lygon Street, Carlton, followed by a shift to St Kilda and shops in Acland Street. The iconic Monarch cake shop survives and thrives to this day, under different owners, who have embraced its history, still using some of the original recipes.

Great cakes are one thing; appreciating what they symbolise is another.

So on a spring Sunday morning, a crowd is gathering on the footpath to recognise what the labours of Joseph and Pearl Levine have meant for the generations that followed.

As the street stirs from its overnight slumber, more than 30 descendants gather for a photo under the Monarch canopy. Traffic pauses politely to allow an uninterrupted shot. It is a moment to savour, like a slice of the shop's famed chocolate kugelhopf.

The idea for this family reunion came from Pamela Dempster, a grandchild, to mark what would have been the 100th birthday this month of her father David. A journalist who worked on the old Argus, David took over running the family business after the death of his parents in the 1940s.

"They arrived in Australia with really nothing, and they've got this fabulous family that's expanded from that," she said.

The family is indeed fabulous. Her brother is Greg Levine, a former head of the Children's Court, and sister Judi is an Oscar-nominated film producer (The Sessions). We are joined by cousin Joseph Kay, a former judge of the Family Court of Australia. The wider family includes leading academics, business people, teachers.

"It's the migrant story, that's what it is," offered Greg Levine. "It's being able to look back and say we're part of that migrant experience."

The youngest at the gathering were Soleil, one year, and Jude, 2. At the other end of the experience scale is Rany Friedman, 81.

She lived above the Monarch as a child, the shop run by her mother, Rosa. The cakes were baked by the Levines at the nearby, now-gone, Piccadilly.

"Acland Street wasn't cosmopolitan then," she said. "This was the first continental cake shop in the whole area really. It set the trend."