Yiddish Press

A once thriving industry.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

In New York City, the hub of the Yiddish-American universe, over 150 Yiddish dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, festival journals, and yearbooks appeared between 1885 and 1914. Some 20 dailies came into existence during that period, and for a time, at the turn of the century, as many as six competed simultaneously for readers.

Religion, Politics, & Literature

The Tageblatt, founded in 1885, represented the Orthodox religious point of view. The Morgen Journal was also Orthodox and was the first (1901) truly successful Yiddish morning paper. The 1890s saw the beginning of the Forvarts (Jewish Daily Forward), a socialist paper, which, under the guiding hand of Abraham Cahan, became the largest Yiddish newspaper in the world. In the same decade the Freie Arbeiter Shtime was born, representing the anarchists. Even the weekly La America (1910-25), a Ladino paper for Sephardic readers, printed a Yiddish column to attract advertisers in the greater Eastern European community.Jewish Daily Forward- Forvarts

Almost all Yiddish periodicals carried literary pieces. Translated tales of adventure and romance, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Don Quixote, were very popular. Readers even took the time to struggle with translations from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Zola, and to try to follow the original Yiddish work of I. L. Peretz and Mendele Mokher Sforim.

But "all could take instant delight in the homely tales of Sholom Aleichem" and feel the pathos of Morris Rosenfeld's "sweatshop lyrics." Zalman Libin's portraits of life in the tenements and sweatshops and Jacob Gordin's naturalistic sketches were featured in the more radical journals. Buttonhole maker David Edelstadt--who for a short time edited the Freie Arbeiter Shtime--and Morris Winchevsky, who published the first socialist pamphlets to appear in Yiddish, also wrote labor poems for the press and won a wide readership.

A group of poets called Di yunge (the young ones)--Mani Lieb, Moishe Lieb Halpern, H. Leivick, and others--were linked for a time by their desire to write poetry that was not ideological. The majority of Di yunge were still shop workers, but they wanted to develop a freer, more personal poetry that would liberate them from what poet Zisha Landau called "the rhyme department of the labor movement." And they, too, made their first appearances in the Yiddish press.

Whether politically conservative or radical, whether theologically Orthodox or secular, the Yiddish press was often sensationalist and extremist, lashing out at capitalism, socialism, Jewish institutions, or competing papers. Despite this tendency, all soon realized that something remarkable had developed. As Abe Cahan pointed out, "the five million Jews living under the czar had not a single Yiddish daily paper even when the government allowed such publication, while [Russian Jews] in America publish six dailies... countless Yiddish weeklies and monthlies, and [enough] books [to make] New York the largest Yiddish book market in the world."

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Gerald Sorin

Gerald Sorin is Distinguished University Professor of History and Jewish Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz.