For a significant, albeit brief, period in modern Jewish history, in the interwar era, more newspapers were published in Yiddish than in any other language in the Jewish world. This was the climax of a long process. The Yiddish press developed in a convoluted manner, with twists and turns: a difficult beginning in the second half of the 19th century, followed by a speedy, impressive development at the start of the twentieth, before its tragic demise in Eastern Europe due to the Holocaust, as well as a slow decline in other Yiddish-speaking countries. The main causes of this drastic and swift contraction in the scope of the Yiddish press were external: the physical extermination of the Yiddish speaking communities of Eastern Europe by the Nazis, and the destruction of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. However, the decline of Yiddish must also be attributed to other, internal and long-term factors.
Yiddish was the spoken language of most Eastern European Jews in their homeland as well as in their new countries, both before and after the Holocaust. Yet rising secularization and growing linguistic assimilation into the larger society undermined the status of this unique Jewish language in the modern world. In this respect, mass immigration to the west was a double-edged sword. Over the course of two or three generations Yiddish speakers flocked to large cities in the Western World, creating large communities with unprecedented numbers of Yiddish speakers, but linguistic assimilation soon curtailed the viability of the once-vibrant language. From a different angle, Zionism considered Yiddish an impediment to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. The fate of the Yiddish press thus embodies one of the richest and most complex chapters in the history of modern Jewish culture.
The first Yiddish weekly in Czarist Russia, Kol mevaser (1862-1873) was published in Odessa. Like most of the Jewish newspapers of the time, its articles and literary material were more prominent than its news coverage. It was in this weekly that S.Y. Abramovitsh, better known as Mendele moykher-sforim, published his first work in Yiddish, whose date of publication – 1864 – marks the beginning of modern Yiddish literature. Kol mevaser set indeed a precedent: Yiddish press has always served as a home for Yiddish literature, especially for prose, starting with S.Y. Abramovitsh, through Sholem Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz, all the way to Isaac Bashevis Singer.
When Kol mevaser folded it left a void that was not quickly filled. Only in 1881 was a new Yiddish weekly published in Czarist Russia,Yidishes folks-blat, and when it too closed down in 1890, there was once again a break in the continuity of the Yiddish press in Eastern Europe. However, in these years its new center gradually took shape. In 1881, when the Jewish migration to America began, a first attempt was made to publish a daily Yiddish newspaper in New York, Yidishes tageblat. Although this first effort was unsuccessful, two years later it renewed publication, which lasted until 1928. Its conservative stance and avowed loyalty to Orthodox Judaism did not prevent this newspaper from printing sensational material of various kinds.
The highly diverse ideological leanings of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in America found their expression quite early in the Yiddish press. The 1890s witnessed the first Yiddish periodicals that served as platforms for socialism and anarchism – weeklies, monthlies, and even daily newspapers. In 1892 the monthly Di tsukunft was put in print. At first it sought to disseminate socialist and radical ideas as well as popular science, but in later years it became the central Yiddish literary journal worldwide.
In 1897 the daily Forverts was launched in New York under the editorship of Abraham Cahan, espousing an explicit socialist ideology. Its early years were rather modest, and for a while its existence was in question when its editor left office, but upon his return the newspaper grew impressively. Cahan’s ability to balance the official socialist ideology with his sensitivity to the various needs of the immigrant masses transformed Forverts into the leading and most successful Yiddish newspaper of all time. Its circulation and scope reached their apogee in the 1920s. However, the severe restrictions upon immigration to the United States, which came into effect in 1924, closed the gates for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Eventually this sealed the fate of the American Yiddish press.
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, new possibilities opened for the Yiddish press in Czarist Russia. The weekly Der yud(1899-1902) combined its Zionist ideology with a marked interest in the development of Yiddish literature. It published a variety of writers, from the classics – Mendele moykher-sforim, Y. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem – to younger writers. In 1903 this journal made way for Der fraynd, the first Yiddish daily in Czarist Russia. It was first released in St. Petersburg and moved later to Warsaw, where it lasted until 1914. Warsaw, which boasted the largest Jewish community in Europe, soon became the capital of the Yiddish press. Between 1908 and 1910, two newspapers were launched there – Haynt and Der Moment . Both of them garnered immediate popularity and were published until the early days of World War II. Despite their relatively limited means, these were highly dynamic publications. They included a mixture of news items, opinion columns on current Jewish topics, and literary works of different kinds – mainly short stories and novels in installments, both by well-known and established writers, as well as those of a sensationalist character which catered to a popular audience.
The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday of Yiddish press worldwide. Roughly fifty daily newspapers were published in many countries – Argentina, Canada, England, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Uruguay. Alongside the daily newspapers, the Yiddish press comprised an impressive number of weeklies published in dozens of cities, as well as monthlies and journals of irregular frequency. They covered all areas of interest for the Yiddish reading public – current affairs, ideological questions and party politics, literature, theater, professional issues, education, children’s newspapers et al. In smaller Yiddish-speaking communities, such as South Africa and Australia, weeklies served as a mouthpiece for the promotion and discussion of communal issues. Every ideological camp in the Jewish world endeavored to have its own publication wherever Yiddish speakers were present in significant numbers. Thus Yiddish journalism reflected a variety of opinions and views – Orthodoxy, different brands of Zionism, the “Bund,” anarchism, and communism. By sheer number of publications, Poland led the way, while New York's daily press was ahead in terms of circulation and scope. The Warsaw Yiddish daily press included, besides Haynt and Der moment, the Bundist daily Folkstsaytung, an Orthodox newspaper and several tabloids. In the 1930s four dailies were published in New York:Forverts, committed to socialism, nominally at least; Der tog, which provided a platform for a wide range of views on Jewish issues; the more conservative Der morgen zhurnal; and the communist Morgn frayheyt.
The Soviet Union was the only Yiddish cultural center of those years whose newspapers had to follow the official political line. Both the scope of Jewish cultural life in this country and its press started to decline towards the end of the thirties. Following the war years and the Holocaust, mere traces remained of the Soviet Yiddish press, which was finally wiped out by the authorities in 1948. After a hiatus of several years, the monthly Sovetish Heymland (1961-1991) was issued in Moscow. Most works of Yiddish writers printed in this journal had to toe the current ideological approach, and they reflected a rather conservative literary taste. The attempt to keep the journal in a new form after the collapse of Soviet rule proved unsuccessful.
In the wake of the Holocaust new Yiddish publications were established for and by the survivors, mainly in Poland and in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany and elsewhere. However, the scale of these publications gradually decreased, both as a result of the waves of post-war Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe and due to the communist takeover in Poland, which put an end to the journals published by different Jewish parties.
The Yiddish press was still vibrant in the 1950s and 60s, numbering about fourteen daily newspapers in Argentina, Canada, France, the United States, and Uruguay. In addition, an impressive range of Yiddish journals were published in Israel, including the daily newspaper Letste nayes, weeklies and monthlies sponsored by various parties, and last but not least the quarterly Di goldene keyt(1949-1995), the central literary publication of the Yiddish world in the post-Holocaust era.
Prof. Avraham Novershtern