Literarishe bleter ('Literary Pages', 1924-1939) was the central weekly in the Yiddish world in general and in Poland in particular devoted to literature and culture. Its pages are a major source for anyone who wants to become acquainted with Yiddish culture during its flowering between the two World Wars – its nature, major trends, possibilities and limits. It is also a testimony to the stubborn struggle to develop and broaden its scope, despite the great difficulties that stood in its way.
The advent of the weekly in 1924 illustrates the feverish entrepreneurship and the great amount of energy that was invested in producing Yiddish literary journals during those years. The publication that stood as an example for the founders of the Literarishe bleter was the Polish literary weekly Wiadamosci Literackie, which began its run in Warsaw in 1924. It very quickly became an extremely lively journal known among others for the prominence of Jewish contributors or contributors of Jewish descent in its midst.
Literarishe bleter came into being through a partnership between four very different writers: Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) was then a promising writer whose greatest accomplishments as a Yiddish novelist were still to come; Peretz Markish (1895-1952 was already popular as an avant garde poet whose innovative verse was considered a breakthrough for Yiddish modernism in Europe; Nakhmen Mayzel (1887-1966) brought into the editorial board of the journal his experience in the field of Yiddish publishing, and Melech Ravitch (1893-1976), also an avant garde poet, excelled in his organizational skills. As the birth dates of these writers indicate, these were men of the same generation who started their literary careers shortly before and after World War I.
When these writers met to plan the launching of the weekly, all of them had behind them a long and twisted trajectory of wandering, mostly due to World War I and its aftermath. Markish and Mayzel came to Warsaw from the Ukraine and Volhynia, and therefore we may assume that their knowledge of Polish language and culture was rather limited. In contrast, Melech Ravitch was born in Galicia and lived in Vienna for many years before he arrived in Warsaw. He was intimately familiar with contemporary German literature. However, none of the four founders of the Literarishe bleter were born in Warsaw, and their joint initiative was one of the salient proofs of the renewed status of the city as one of the cultural capitals of Yiddish culture, attracting young intellectuals from all parts of Jewish Eastern Europe. After a short while, three of the four left the editorial board. Soon after, the writer Alter Kacyzne (1885-1941) joined for a short while, and after him, Moyshe Zilburg (1884-killed in the Holocaust, 1941?) who also did not stay long. This left Nakhmen Mayzel as the lone editor during the main period of the weekly's existence, until he left Poland in 1937. Afterwards, his place was filled by the critic Moyshe Kitay (1886-killed in the Holocaust), though Nakhmen Mayzel officially retained his position as editor.
At the outset, the Literarishe bleter was self-published by its founders, but very quickly (starting from no. 44 in 1925) the prestigious publishing house B.A Kletzkin took over this role. When announcing this change the weekly could claim that it has a run of 4,000 copies, an impressive number if one takes into account the poor economic conditions of the Yiddish reading audience. It can be assumed that Jewish communal libraries around the world in general and in Poland in particular were the central venue for the distribution of the weekly, and we may therefore assume that the number of readers was much greater than the number of purchasers, a fact that certainly made the weekly's financial situation rather difficult. The B.A. Kletzkin press was the publisher of Literarishe bleter for most of it existence, until it went bankrupt due to the difficult conditions of Yiddish book production. From 1935 onwards, the weekly was left to fend for itself, and the difficult economic conditions of the second half of the nineteen thirties posed a very serious threat to its existence. At that time, the weekly repeatedly issued warnings to its readership that it was in danger of folding, and it started a fundraising campaign among sympathizers of Yiddish culture all over the world, with limited results. The last issue of the weekly appeared on the June 30, 1939. This date indicates that the weekly stopped its publication right before the Second World War, but irrespective of it. The weekly did not release any information about its folding, and therefore we may assume that its editor did not foresee its final closure. The weekly’s continued existence during a long period of acute economic distress is proof of the profound dedication of a handful of activists to whom Yiddish culture was a cause dear to their hearts.
In the first year and a half of its run (no. 1-66) the Literarishe bleter was published in large format, and each edition had 6-8 pages. Afterwards the format was changed to a more convenient size, and most issues included up to 24 pages. At the end of every year the publisher issued a special cover for all the issues and attached an itemized index, something that was customary then in many journals around the world. The bound volumes of Literarishe bleter were a prominent feature in every Yiddish library proud of itself, public or private, not only in Poland but in the whole Yiddish world.
In the second half of the nineteen thirties, the weekly established its own publishing house that, in small measure, filled the void left by the folding of the Kletzkin press. Literarishe bleter also attached “prizes” for its subscribers, in the form of fascicles, that when bound together, made a whole book (something that was also customary in journals around the world). The concern regarding the marketing of Yiddish books was a prominent topic throughout the issues of Literarishe bleter, present in many ways: Articles that dealt with the state of Yiddish publishing and possible ways to strengthen it, bibliographical listings of new books, adds from publishing houses and theatrical performances in Poland and in other countries.
Throughout the years, Nakhmen Mayzel’s eclectic literary taste left its imprint on the Literarishe bleter and its content almost faithfully reflected the common denominator of Yiddish literature and culture. Articles and reports on various cultural subjects, including literature, theater, publishing activities, cultural and educational initiatives, all enjoyed a central place among the pages of the weekly, while poetry and short stories were given a relatively smaller amount of space. The limited number of pages of Literarishe bleter prevented the publication of longer works, even if occasionally some issues included chapters of books before their publication.
In the first years, contributors to Literarishe bleter came from all over the Yiddish world; however, the constraints of the cultural policy in the Soviet Union from 1928 onwards brought about a situation wherein its Yiddish writers were explicitly prevented from contributing to the weekly. Despite this, Literarishe bleter was very interested in the Soviet cultural world in general and its Yiddish scene in particular.
The list of contributors to Literarishe bleter, both in prose and poetry, is long and impressive. It includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, who published in it his first piece (it won the first prize in 1925 for the best short story), and after that often contributed to the weekly until he immigrated to the United States. He also served as a proofreader for the weekly, a job he secured on the recommendation of his brother. Other Yiddish writers from Poland who contributed to the weekly were Chaim Grade, I.J. Singer, Kadya Molodovsky, Itsik Manger, Abraham Sutzkever, Joshua Perle, Aaron Zeitlin, Rachel Korn, Melech Ravitch, and Israel Stern. For those whose literary production encompassed a number of genres, such as Aaron Zeitlin and Israel Stern, Literarishe bleter served as a home for their articles, but not for their poetry. The weekly also nurtured young writers at the beginning of their careers: Chaim Semiatitsky, Israel Rabon and others. One of two books by Chaim Semiatitsky was published by its press. Major American Yiddish writers who contributed to the weekly were Josef Opatoshu and H. Leivick, while the modernist Yiddish poets played only a minor role in the weekly, an additional evidence of the conservative literary taste of its editor. Literarishe bleter also paid attention to the minor centers of Yiddish literature, and devoted special issues to Yiddish cultural activities in Germany (1932, no. 20) Galicia (1932, no. 27), Vilna (1932, no. 45) and Argentina (1933, no. 6). In each issue, one of the last pages included a rich literary chronicle with a lot of factual material.
The weekly and its editor held an explicit "Yiddishist" stance, taking up the cause of developing the language and its culture. Mayzel's consistently cultivated the awareness regarding the historical development of Yiddish literature, and allocated a significant space for publishing research in all fields of Yiddish culture, as well as articles devoted to Yiddish theatrical activities in Poland and around the world, and Yiddish secular education. He encouraged and closely followed the establishment and development of YIVO – Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut (nowadays: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research), and the YIVO's newsletter was published in its beginnings as a supplement to the weekly. A significant feature of the "Literarishe bleter" in its strivings to foster the creation of a Yiddish literary tradition was the publication of special issues dedicated to commemorate central dates in the live and work of Yiddish writers. The list of personalities who deserved this is indicative of the clear literary hierarchy that characterized the Yiddish world at that time. These issues were devoted to the classic writers of Yiddish literature including Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, as well as the contemporaries Joseph Opatoshu, Sholem Asch, Dovid Bergelson, H. Leivick, amongst others. Literarishe bleter also turned the spotlight on what was happening on the scene of world literature, but this topic played a secondary role in the weekly.
The success of Literarishe bleter on the one hand and the eclectic cultural and literary taste of Nakhmen Mayzel, its editor, on the other hand, spurred other factors in Poland, on the left side of the cultural and ideological map, to launch other journals of this kind, even if they couldn't compete with this weekly in terms of breadth, liveliness, and regular publication. Communist activists and those close to them published the monthly Literarishe tribune from 1930-1933. Cultural activists connected to the "Bund" published the weekly "Vokhnshrift far literatur kunst un kultur" between the years 1931-1935 as well as its successor "Foroys", Journal for Literature, Theatre and Culture (1937-1939). In other countries as well, weeklies and monthlies that emulated the model of Literarishe bleter came into being; however, the difficult conditions for Yiddish publishing did not allow for their prolonged publication. The nature and scope of this initiatives serve once more as a proof of the central position played by "Literarishe bleter' in the Yiddish cultural world of the interwar period.
The rich and varied content of Literarishe bleter
is registered in the "Index to Yiddish Periodicals" and can be accessed online from http://yiddish-periodicals.huji.ac.il
. This database includes all the articles bearing the name or pseudonym of their authors. In addition to it, anonymous items about literature, theatre and Yiddish culture are also included in this database. It has a detailed index according to subject, and is integrated into the search engine of the JSTOR website, allowing for easy access to the immense amount of information found between the pages of this significant weekly.
Prof. Avraham Novershtern