Yiddish Press

A once thriving industry.

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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."

Jewish & American

Although it promoted a serious modern Yiddish literature, the press was also a powerfully effective agent of acculturation, nourishing the process of Americanization for the Jewish masses in their own language. Poems and stories dealing with the realities of America and the difficulties of adjustment helped the immigrants understand their new environment and to be less "green." Yiddish newspapers focused on specifically Jewish problems, but editorially they frequently commented on purely American issues. They consistently emphasized the acquisition or development of "desirable" qualities and manners, "taught" American history and geography, and made untiring efforts in correcting civic "deficiencies" in their readers.

Even Abe Cahan's Forward,which was dedicated to the propagation of socialism, was equally dedicated to Americanization. As early as 1903, Cahan advised immigrant parents to let Jewish "boys play baseball and become excellent at the game." After all, he admonished, we ought not "raise the children to grow up foreigners in their own birthplace."

Cahan was a moderate socialist, whose anti-capitalist views were tempered by American conditions. His paper, which excluded theoretical pieces and instead presented the class struggle in the form of stories and news from the marketplace, home, and factory, remained attractive to non-socialist Jews. At its height, the Forward published 12 metropolitan editions from Boston to Los Angeles, with a circulation of a half million (more than quarter million in New York City alone).

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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.