Yiddish Press

A once thriving industry.

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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.

At the same time that the Yiddish press acted as an Americanizing agent, it was, like the Yiddish theater, and the landsmanshaft [Jewish mutual aid society], and so many other Jewish immigrant institutions, an important part of the transitional, religiously based, ethnic culture of the Lower East Side. This culture, sustained by the largest, freest, and most heterogeneous Jewish community the world, became a Yiddish culture richer and greater than any achieved eastern Europe.

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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.