Kol mevaser was a weekly newspaper published in Odessa between the years 1862-1873. It was the first modern Yiddish periodical in Czarist Russia, and indeed in the entire world, and it laid the foundation for the development of Yiddish journalism.
During its early years, Kol mevaser was edited by Aleksander Zederbaum as a supplement to the Hebrew weekly Ha-melitz, under the subheading "A supplement to Ha-melitz in the Jewish-German language." This subheading was based upon the fact that Ha-melitz, launched in 1860, was supposed to be a dual-language publication: Hebrew and German (in Hebrew letters). In its initial issues Ha-melitz indeed kept to that dual-language format, in order to address the many immigrants from Galicia who joined the Jewish maskilim in Odessa. However, its editors, Aleksander Zederbaum and his son-in-law Aaron Isaac Goldenblum, soon realized that there was little interest in the German material, which disappeared from the paper. Nevertheless, Zederbaum subsequently took advantage of the original license to publish a dual-language weekly, and on October 23, 1862 the first issue of Kol mevaser was published, this time in Yiddish, as a supplement to Ha-melitz. In 1869 it became an independent weekly.
The launching of Kol Mevaser was announced in Ha-melitz in the following terms: (No. 43, 14 August, 1862): “A supplement to Ha-melitz of a full printer's sheet [=16 pages] in the Jewish-German language spoken by our brothers in Poland [meaning the former Polish areas annexed by Russia] to fulfill their wish to know about their brethren both from near and afar, as well as to receive words of wisdom and moralistic stories. It's hard for them in the winter of their life to learn a new language in which they weren't educated in their youth, and we know that this is the way to bring in new light, the light of moral and intelligence to awaken the poor folk." The Yiddish weekly, in keeping with maskilic ideology, was thus aimed at a mature audience, from the “poor folk,” those who were unable to learn another language and yet yearned for news, mostly from the Jewish world. There are grounds to assume that Sh. Y. Abramowitz, later known better as Mendele moykher-sforim, was one of those who encouraged Zederbaum to publish the Yiddish weekly. Another maskil who was engaged in this cause was Yehoshua Mordechai Lifshitz, a resident of Berdichev.
Like many other maskilim active in Odessa, Zederbaum (1816-1893) was not a native of the city. He was born in Zamość, in central Poland, before moving to Odessa in 1840. Contemporary accounts describe him as blessed with inexhaustible energy to deal with Jewish causes and public affairs. Without his zest it would have been impossible in those days to put into practice any plan for a Hebrew weekly, let alone a Yiddish one. In late 1870 Zederbaum decided to transfer Ha-melitz to St. Petersburg, together with a Jewish weekly in Russian, for which he also served as editor. However, the authorities did not permit him to relocate the Yiddish weekly he edited to the capital of the Russian Empire as well. Zederbaum was therefore compelled to hand over the editorship of Kol mevaser to Moshe Leib Lilienblum and Moshe Eliezer Beilinson, the owner of a printing shop in Odessa who also nurtured literary ambitions. This decision initiated the decline of the weekly. Beilinson quarreled with Lilienblum and became sole editor, but the publication of Kol mevaser ceased after one issue in 1873 (some of the last issues have not reached us, and therefore it is hard to outline adequately the weekly’s final period).
Over the years Zederbaum expressed various attitudes towards Yiddish, but overall he did not stray from the consensual maskilic position that Yiddish should be gradually substituted for the state language, i.e. Russian. However, in one important aspect he differed from other maskilim: He assumed that until that desired goal is achieved, it is possible – and perhaps even desirable – to develop the Yiddish language and establish standard rules of grammar and spelling. This basic viewpoint can be contrasted with the stance taken by Yehoshua Mordechai Lifshitz, who emphasized the intrinsic value of Yiddish as an important means of educating the people. Yet his was a lone voice at the time.
The clumsy fingerprints of Zederbaum the editor can easily be discerned in the lengthy footnotes he added to contributors’ articles. Overall he comes across in Kol Mevaser as a pragmatic maskil, well aware that his Yiddish readership consisted of ordinary folk. He saw fit to present them small doses of news from “the great wide world,” while adding moralistic remarks and explanations that he considered vital to the widening of their horizons. He also provided columns on various scientific topics written in extremely simple language. Zederbaum was far from consistent on one of the basic issues of maskilic ideology – the attitude towards Hassidism. In most instances his statements on this matter were explicitly and sharply negative, but he occasionally expressed reserved approval of the movement.
In the framework of modern Yiddish culture, Kol Mevaser is to be credited with the publication of groundbreaking works of literature. In 1864 it published "Dos kleyne mentshele" ["The Little Man"], Sh .Y. Abramowitz’s earliest work in Yiddish, in which the character of Mendele moykher-sforim is introduced for the first time. This publication marks the beginning of modern Yiddish literature. In 1867 Kol mevaser printed the sharply satirical anti-Hassidic work of Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski, "Dos poylishe yingl" ["The Polish Lad"’], which also earned an enthusiastic reception. The weekly also featured many stories that were adapted translations from Jewish-German literature. Far less space in the weekly was devoted to poetry, although Kol mevaser did publish the fables of Solomon Ettinger, Abraham Goldfaden’s poems, and two original works in Yiddish by Yehudah Leib Gordon.
The news covering the Jewish and the broader world were generally presented in Kol mevaser in a moralistic-educational style. Other articles worthy of mention are the series following Zederbaum’s travels through Jewish communities in Russia, and the pioneering attempts to write literary criticism in Yiddish.
The main source of income for the weekly was subscriptions, but its readership was undoubtedly much larger than the number of subscribers. Regarding the size of its readership, it's important to keep in mind that many did not look at the paper themselves but listened to others reading it in public settings. The intimate relationship between Kol mevaser and its readers was reinforced by the contributions of local reporters, including a substantial number of women. These writers provided news on various communal events, reports that were naturally far from objective or comprehensive. They came mostly from the southern area of the Pale of Settlement – Ukraine and Volhynia – and it can be assumed that this is a fair reflection of the extent of the paper’s circulation.
The materials published in Kol mevaser are included in the bibliographical database "Index to Yiddish Periodicals," at:
http://yiddish-periodicals.huji.ac.il. This database records 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, enables easy access to the significant information enfolded within the pages of this important publication.
Prof. Avraham Novershtern