Yiddish Press

A once thriving industry.

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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).

Community Empathy

The masses devoured the information and advice that the Forward and other papers gave them about life in America. One of the Forward's best-read innovations was the bintl brief (bundle of letters), started in 1906. Letters from readers--often corrected and shortened by editors, and perhaps on slower days entirely concocted by them--were printed daily. It was a marvelous outlet for immigrants troubled by the tensions of a new life and an affirmation that their problems mattered.

They wrote about poverty and sickness, love and divorce, unemployment, intermarriage, conflicts of opinion, socialism, generational conflicts, declining religious observance, and just about everything else. The responses, written solely by Cahan in the early years, and later by his staff as well, tried to suggest that the immigrant should not make excessive demands on themselves, that they should even enjoy life a little bit. The editors did not advise immigrants to give up the religious or ideological preconceptions entirely, but they did encourage them to make the needs of everyday life primary.

Yiddish papers, as part of the Americanization process, also tried to acquaint their readers with English. Cahan, opening himself to the charge of corrupting the Yiddish language, encouraged his writers to follow the general custom of incorporating English words into their Yiddish articles. The Tageblatt went further; it began printing a full English page in 1897. These practices no doubt influenced ghetto conversation. By 1900 the immigrants were mingling an estimated 100 English words in their daily speech. Politzman, never mind, alle right, that'll do, and other idioms slipped readily from the tongue.

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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.