Der fraynd ("The Friend"), was the first Yiddish daily newspaper in Czarist Russia. From a later perspective it can be said that this was the highest quality Yiddish daily published in Eastern Europe over the years. Therefore, the paper earns pride of place in several contexts.
Beginnings: The authorities in Czarist Russia set up many barriers to block the development of Jewish newspapers in general and the Yiddish press in particular. In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth requests for daily Yiddish publications piled up on the desks in government offices, to no avail. In light of this consistent policy, the decision of the authorities in 1902 to allow the publication of a Yiddish daily came as a welcome surprise.
In his late memoirs, the newspaper’s first editor, Shaul Ginsburg (1866-1940), attributes this change to a desire on the part of the government to encourage Jewish emigration from Czarist Russia, under the mistaken assumption that a daily Yiddish paper would further this goal. It is also possible that they hoped a licensed Yiddish publication would help curtail the radicalization that was starting to have a profound influence on Jewish public life.
When Ginsburg, then a resident of St. Petersburg, heard that there was a possibility of receiving permission to publish a Yiddish newspaper, he hastened to take advantage of the opportunity. To this end he joined forces with Shabtay Rapoport, a publisher who invested his own funds into the project.
The decision to publish the newspaper in St. Petersburg, the capital of Czarist Russia, had far-reaching consequences: As is well-known, Jews were forbidden to live in St. Petersburg at the time, with the exception of small, distinguished groups. Therefore, the city did not have a large Jewish community, and the number of its Yiddish speakers was smaller still. Although the Hebrew newspaper Ha-melitz was published at that time in St. Petersburg, all the technical equipment required for the publication of a Yiddish newspaper had to be brought from the outside, including typesetting, printing presses and the like.
Ginsburg recruited the best Yiddish writers for his project. At the time, these authors lived mainly in Warsaw and other cities from which they could not, of course, move to St. Petersburg. The most prominent of these were Mendele moykher-sforim, Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Mordkhe Spector, Yankev Dinezon. The editor’s recruiting efforts attest to the decisive importance he attributed to the literary quality of the newspaper, at the expense of the news and journalistic sections. When permission for a daily newspaper was granted, the weekly Der yud decided to join the new initiative, and its editor Yosef Luria joined Der fraynd’s editorial board (until 1906) together with Ginsburg (until the end of 1908), Khayim Dov Hurvitz, and Shmuel Rosenfeld.
Up to that point, Shaul Ginsburg had served as a Jewish journalist and historian who wrote mainly in Russian. So far, his major contribution to the field of Yiddish culture was the groundbreaking collection Yiddish Folksongs from Russia (1901), co-edited with P. Marek; but even this book was basically geared towards a Russian-speaking Jewish readership. Ginsburg’s decision to devote himself to Yiddish journalism was thus indicative of the return to Yiddish of some members of the Jewish intelligentsia, even if they continued even afterwards to be loyal to Russian as their main linguistic outlet.
After the inevitable logistical difficulties were overcome, the first issue of the newspaper was published at the beginning of January 1903, under the subheading: "Di ershte teglikhe zhargonishe tsaytung in Rusland" ("The first zhargon newspaper in Russia"). Although the use of the term "zhargon" as the name of the language was considered neutral at the time, it was soon recognized as bearing negative connotations, and was changed for the term "Yiddish" already by the end of 1903.
From the earliest stages of the newspaper, Ginsburg sought to publish the works of the best Yiddish writers. Amongst others, he invited Ch. N. Bialik, already acknowledged as the major Hebrew poet of his generation, to contribute to the new Yiddish newspaper. The poem Bialik sent, "Glust zikh mir veynen" ("I would like to cry"), included a difficult term that the editor did not see fit to change on his own accord, without first requesting the poet’s consent, and only when permission was granted was the poem published.
Early Years: In its early period Der fraynd indeed included the best of contemporary Yiddish literature. It featured chapters from the new and expanded version of Mendele moykher-sforim’s "Dos vintshfingerl" ("The Wishing Ring"; the title of the Hebrew version: "Beemek habakha"); Sholem Aleichem contributed, amongst other pieces, new chapters of "Menakhem-Mendl", "Tevye der milkhiker" and the first part of "Motl peysi dem khazns" ("Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son"). He also sent many short stories, some of which are of the best of his writings, such as "Di groyse behole fun di kleyne mentshelekh" ("The Great Panic of the Little People") and, "Dray almones" ("Three Widows"). Y. L. Peretz published in Der fraynd a large proportion of the stories that were later incorporated in the series "Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn" ("Stories in the Folk Vein"). The more notable works of young authors published in the paper include chapters of Sholem Asch’s "Dos shtetl," and stories by Avrom Reisen. David Frishman contributed feuilletons, while Simon Frug's poems written in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom enjoyed wide acclaim.
One of the main contributors to the political-economic section of the newspaper was Khaim Dov Hurvitz (1865-1927), who published some of his many articles under the pseudonym "A soykher" ("A Businessman"). Der fraynd did not openly declare any clear ideological or political affiliation, a stance that was partly responsible for its great popularity, but it had obvious Zionistic and “radical” tendencies, according to the broad meaning of this term in the stifling conditions of Czarist rule.
The very publication of a Yiddish daily aroused great interest amongst Jews in Czarist Russia. In this context one must note the influence of the terrible events which struck the Jewish community from 1903 onwards – the Kishinev pogrom and the others which follows it; the upheavals of the 1905 Russian revolution, and so on. Der fraynd had a circulation that could not have been imagined for an earlier Jewish newspaper in any language: Initially published in 15,000 – 19,000 copies, it quickly increased to 50,000 and more. In his memoirs Shaul Ginsburg refers to 90,000 copies, but that was probably an exceptional case.
Most of its circulation was based on regular subscribers in the Pale of Settlement; only a tiny share was from the purchase of single copies. The intimate ties between the newspaper and its readership are evident in the comments of many of its local reporters, who wrote on events in their communities. In this regard Der fraynd followed in the footsteps of earlier Hebrew and Yiddish publications.
The physical dimensions of the paper were modest – in weekdays it generally consisted of four pages, while the Friday edition had 6-8 pages. On occasion, especially in its first years, it included a supplement in a smaller format, which contained valuable literary material; unfortunately, not all of these supplements have survived.
The years 1912-1913 saw the appearance of a supplement entitled 'Yubileums-baylage' and 'Vokhenblat.' Important literary works were published in this supplement, such as the first versions of some of Ya'akov Steinberg’s stories, which he later reworked and expanded in Hebrew. In 1905 the paper began producing a quality monthly called Dos leben ("Life") but it failed to last. Over the years a satirical and humoristic supplement was also published, entitled "Der bezim" ("The Broom").
Later Years: The newspaper’s glory days lasted about five years. The growth of Jewish journalism in Warsaw and the appearance of the daily Haynt ("Today") in 1908 led to the relocation of Der fraynd in 1909 from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, as a result of which its publication was suspended for three months. The journalist Shmuel Rosenfeld (1869? – 1943), who was on the editorial board of the newspaper from the beginning, now became its editor. Der fraynd was unable to compete with the tremendous popularity of Haynt and Der moment ("The Moment"). Unlike those newspapers, Der fraynd refused to publish sensational or romantic novels in instalments, offerings its readers more worthy substitutes, such as adapted translations of the works of V. Hugo and Walter Scott.
At this stage the editorial board was joined by the theater critic A. Mukdoyni, and the writer L. Shapiro, who translated the news into Yiddish, and was also in charge of the aforementioned translations of those novels. In addition, he published some of his own stories in the newspaper. Among the literary critics who wrote for Der fraynd were some of the most prominent of the age, such as Bal-Makhshoves (Israel Isidor Elyashev) and Shmuel Niger. At the end of 1913 the newspaper was shut down by the authorities. It reappeared briefly under the title Dos leben, a name it had occasionally used in the past, but was disbanded in 1914.
Der fraynd is catalogued in the bibliographical database "Index to Yiddish Periodicals", at: http://yiddish-periodicals.huji.ac.il. This database includes all the articles published in the newspaper, provided that they were signed, either with the writer’s real name or a pseudonym. It has a detailed index, categorized by subject matter, which, together with the search engine of the "Historical Jewish Press" site, offers easy access to the wealth of information once enfolded within the pages of this important newspaper.
Prof. Avraham Novershtern