The first time I ever saw a Yiddish newspaper, in the late 1990s, I was amazed that such a thing still existed.
I was in Surfside, Florida, at a drugstore luncheonette of blessed memory called Sheldon’s, sitting in the booth where Isaac Bashevis Singer learned he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As if nothing could be more natural, there on a rack with the Miami Herald and The New York Times was the Yiddish Forward, or Forverts, the same right-to-left broadsheet where some of Singer’s most famous work was published. To an assimilated fourth-generation American Jew who knew only 50 Yiddish words, half of them dirty, it was a miraculous survival: not only did the language of my great-grandparents still exist somewhere, so did a press, a public, an entire Yiddish climate of opinion.
On January 16, when The Forward announced it would stop printing its Yiddish and English editions, falling back to an online-only existence while cutting nearly 30 percent of its staff, American Jews lost their newspaper of record. The Forward may continue to do remarkable things, digitally, but is a newspaper of record even possible online, in the age of hot takes and deep fakes? Just over 120 years old, the proverbial Jewish number symbolizing a full life well-lived, The Forward in some ways outlasted the community it served, shaped, and recorded—a community which is now fracturing fast.
Across a century of dramatic transformation in the Jewish world—the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, the collapse of much of the diaspora—The Forward’s evolution mirrored the trajectory of American Jews as they burst the bounds of the Lower East Side and entered the wider American field. On the way, The Forward achieved something vanishingly rare in the history of American journalism: a publication made by and for immigrants and workers, in a language other than English, that became the essential voice of a community and an influential champion of social democracy, solidarity, and justice.
Founded in 1897 and led by the legendary editor and novelist Abraham Cahan, The Forward reached its peak in the early 1930’s, becoming a major player in Jewish life and left politics, with editions in cities across the country and a circulation over 275,000. All in Yiddish, the mother tongue of its Eastern European Jewish immigrant readers and to a lesser extent their American-born children, The Forward ultimately undermined the conditions of its own success by encouraging its readers to switch to English. Columns like the legendary A Bintel Brief (“a bundle of letters”) proved so effective at helping griner, or “greenhorn” immigrants, find their feet in America that many soon walked right off into the non-Jewish world.
More than just a newspaper, The Forward stood for the idea of an organized, progressive American Jewish community, largely secular but in some respects still traditional. For its first 40 years, The Forward’s animating spirit was socialism. Cahan and his colleagues balanced popular, sometimes yellow journalism with a passionate involvement in socialist politics and the era’s gigantic upsurge of trade unionism. That meant raising money to aid striking workers and working side by side with organizations like the United Hebrew Trades federation, the Jewish Socialist Federation, and the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish labor fraternal order. It meant stumping hard for Socialist candidate Meyer London during his historic campaign for Congress in 1914—to the point of printing its own electioneering supplement: page after page of the names and addresses of all 12,000 registered voters in London’s Lower East Side district.
As one of the most powerful socialist newspapers anywhere, The Forward—along with the Socialist-led garment worker unions and the slew of elected Socialist officials who followed in London’s wake—was a vital part of a “Red New York,” without parallel in American history. Yet the paper was never a party organ, instead charting a complex course as Jewish leftists argued and oscillated about the Soviet Union and the early Zionists in Palestine. It was on familiar, vernacular terms with the poshete yidn, the regular-guy Jews, who picked up a copy at the candy store. In 1936, evolving with his increasingly “American” community, Cahan endorsed FDR for president.
During these heady years, The Forward’s original tower on East Broadway, now condos, was a potent symbol of Jewish arrival in New York; its radio station WEVD, ultimately sold in 2003, was a major demonstration of mass media prowess for a stateless language. Cashing in on key assets, including finally its 33rd Street headquarters in 2010, allowed for a generous twilight long after the decline of Yiddish, the decline of socialism, the decline of a distinctly urban, working-class Jewish identity, and (least of all) the decline of print.
For artfully surviving over 70 years in the red, The Forward should be an inspiration to precarious periodicals everywhere. After the Second World War, the paper remained an anchor of the American Jewish scene, reflecting its growing affluence, Zionism, and more cautious liberalism—not to mention a desire to get away from “old world” parents who were in fact much more radical than their American-born children. Nowhere was this apparent than in the separate new English edition, fully launched in 1990, and the short-lived Russian edition, which followed soon after. Journalistic standards may have been higher, but the solidarity and spirit of the Yiddish paper proved untranslatable. In the end, many of the Yiddish paper’s most loyal readers were Holocaust survivors; the unspoken hope, a dedicated staffer once told me, was to keep printing in Yiddish, every week, until the last survivor was gone.
A decade after I saw my first copy at Sheldon’s, I subscribed to the Yiddish Forward. I was living in China researching endangered languages, while also exploring the embattled language that was part of my own family history. I was probably the only Forward subscriber in all of Asia, getting it sent by poste restante to the General Post Office in Kunming. There was an unexpected benefit: Yiddish had the Chinese censors stumped, judging by the careless way they tore at the plastic casing the issues came in.
I would take a stack to a teahouse, dictionary in hand, leafing through recipes, letters to the editor, and the densely packed announcements of deaths, anniversaries, and yahrzeits. I read Itzik Gottesman’s columns on Jewish folklore and reviews of the latest klezmer albums; the learned essays and book reviews of Mikhail Krutikov and Gennady Estraikh, focused on the Soviet Jewish experience; the wild, wide-ranging musings of Yoel Matveyev connecting anarchism and Hasidic mysticism. The Yiddish Republic of Letters seemed to stretch from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires to Bnei Brak and beyond, but in truth no longer existed anywhere but on the pages in front of me.
A reader, in a small or struggling culture, is soon needed as a writer. Thanks to editor Boris Sandler—a tireless musician-poet-novelist-journalist, born into the last generation of Yiddish speakers in post-war Moldova—I became the paper’s unofficial, first-ever East Asia correspondent. Boris wanted original videos for the website, in Yiddish with English subtitles, and so I found myself filing reports from Birobidzhan, Beijing, Singapore, and anywhere else I happened to be, compiling an unlikely viral web series under the moniker “A New York Jew in China.” Viewed online hundreds of thousands of times, the series proved Boris’s hunch: all kinds of people were still hungry for the sound and sense and style of Yiddish, especially if it was something new, even if they could barely understand it.
I later reported, in Yiddish, from Alaska, Hawaii, Occupy Wall Street, and a gigantic Hasidic rally against the internet in Queens. Numerically, the future of Yiddish (and perhaps of Jewish life in New York) is Hasidic, and the Yiddish Forward under Boris made a brave attempt to attract a Hasidic audience, for whom the paper specifically (with its secular, socialist history) and most of the internet generally are treyf. A vibrant, shlocky Hasidic Yiddish press remains, based in Brooklyn, but The Forward was the last Yiddish newspaper in the world where photos of women, for instance, could be printed.
The Forward says it is flourishing online, in both English and Yiddish, where it still breaks important stories, including deep dives into the connections between key Trump aide Sebastian Gorka and the far-right Hungarian group Vitézi Rend, or exposés of the funding of the Canary Mission blacklist (targeting undergraduates critical of Israel) by major Jewish charities. However stripped down it gets, however muddled its stances, there is nothing else like it. Neither Orthodox nor completely assimilated, The Forward speaks in the progressive, secular voice of an endangered Jewish center that, for all its crises and hypocrisies, still turns out for tikkun olam and Chinese food on Christmas. And yet: usurped by a narrow elite, losing its paper of record, the community is now, more than ever, too dispersed, disengaged, and disintegrating to make itself heard.