Celebrating the Forward
I recently dropped by to look at an exhibit, “The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community,” which is running from April 22 to November 25 at the Museum of the City of New York. The Museum continues to come up with innovative perspectives on the city’s history and ethos. The exhibit coincides with the publication of A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward edited by Alana Newhouse (W.W. Norton, 2007).
The exhibition opened on the 110th anniversary of the Forward’s first issue in 1897. The paper, which is, still publishing weekly in English and Yiddish, was once the leading Yiddish language paper in the world, and had a circulation as large as the major English-language dailies (in the 1930’s, it sold 275,000 copies a day). In 1914, when Jews of Eastern European origins made up one quarter of the city’s population, The Forward was regarded by many of its readers as the equivalent of the Bible. There were other Yiddish dailies - my rabbi grandfather scrupulously read The Day while chain-smoking Camels and drinking a glass of tea with a Domino sugar cube each morning. The Day was a liberal, less ideological, and more middle class and staid paper than The Forward. Among other Yiddish papers there was also The Morning Journal, a conservative paper that supported the Republican Party and appealed to religious readers, and the Freiheit - a Yiddish Communist paper that adhered steadfastly to the Party line.
Still, it was The Forward, headed for almost half a century by a single editor, Abraham Cahan (his The Rise of David Levinsky was the best social novel about the Jewish immigrant experience), that was the main link for ordinary Jews to the larger world. Cahan, who died in 1951, used an informal, colloquial style to encourage his readers to familiarize themselves with the prime elements of American life from speaking English to housekeeping to fashion. However, the paper never advocated assimilation; its emphasis was always on its readers’ need for a familiar Yiddish voice and a link to its own culture.
The paper’s political sympathies were democratic socialist - committed to social justice, and defending the rights of the poor and the working class - and totally entwined with Jewish unions like the needle trades. At first, like many American socialists, Cahan hailed the Bolshevik revolution, but by the middle of 1922 began to retreat - perceiving that the Bolsheviks had brought political repression, not freedom, in their wake. The Forward then became actively anti-Soviet, and ultimately modified its socialist commitment, turning into a liberal/labour paper that avidly supported the New Deal.
The Forward’s most enduringly popular feature was the "Bintel Brief" - literally, a "Bundle of Letters" - in which immigrants adjusting to the New World posted their problems. Cahan felt “Bintel Brief” gave “people the opportunity to be able to pour out their heavy-laden hearts” - to express their loneliness and their despair (e.g., deserted wives pleading for husbands to return home), and to have their problems solved.
Like other Yiddish papers the Forward covered the Yiddish theatre that featured stars like Boris Thomashevsky, Stella Adler, and Molly Picon, and also serialized novels by first rank Yiddish writers like I. J. Singer, and his Nobel-Prize winning brother - Isaac Bashevis Singer. It also exposed its readers to the arts of the larger world. In a sense, it provided the equivalent of a slew of university courses for its dedicated readers.
Both the exhibit and book more fully document much of what I have just written. But what is special in the exhibit and book are the classic photographs from the Forward archives of Lower East Side pushcarts, toothbrush drills for schoolchildren, immigrants arriving in New York, and countless labour rallies (one forgets that the majority of New York Jews were once workers). Most of these moving but familiar photos derive from the Forward’s special Sunday supplement of graphics initiated by Cahan in 1923.
However, there are also photos that evoke less well-known aspects of Jewish life, from a photo of Eastern European shtetl cripples, water carriers and matchmakers to one of Jewish watchmen on guard in Palestine dressed in Arab clothing. And there are photos of wedding anniversaries, beauty contest winners, and graduating classes, heralding the accomplishments of paper’s readers that are the stock in trade of every ethnic newspaper
In New York, only remnants of the Yiddish world that the Forward once addressed have survived. The garment workers are no longer Jewish, intermarriage rates are soaring, inner city Jewish neighbourhoods have, in the main, disappeared, and, except for the Hasidim, almost all of the Jewish population has inevitably assimilated. And anti-Semitism plays at most a marginal role in a society where Jews have achieved political and economic power far out of proportion to their numbers.
But the continued existence of the English language Forward and magazines that deal primarily with Jewish politics and culture (e.g., Moment, Commentary, Midstream, and Jewish Currents), and the rise of a counterculture Judaism built on spirituality and egalitarianism (havurahs, klezmer music, even the celebrity-driven, pop revival of the Kabbalah) bespeak an ethnic consciousness that won’t be obliterated. And even I, who am not a member of any Jewish organization - religious or secular - have never shed my passion for Jewish history and culture. The Forward exhibit serves only to remind me how indelible that commitment is.