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August 21, 2013 | Yiddish

Field Trip: Yiddish Forward

I head to Maiden Lane and am reminded that I can't actually speak Yiddish.

One of the things on my list of to-do’s for Yiddish was a visit to the offices of the Forward. The Forward has a long history, one important to the modern story of Yiddish and of Jewish life.

Founded in 1897, the Forward was in the first half of the twentieth century a major daily publication—in Yiddish—with influence far beyond what many people today realize. 

Abraham Cahan, Founder of the Forward

Abraham Cahan, Founder of the Forward

“Under the leadership of its founding editor, the crustily independent Abraham Cahan,” according to their website, “the Forward came to be known as the voice of the Jewish immigrant and the conscience of the ghetto. It fought for social justice, helped generations of immigrants to enter American life, broke some of the most significant news stories of the century, and was among the nation’s most eloquent defenders of democracy and Jewish rights.”

The first half of the twentieth century was the Forward’s heydey. By the 1930s, readership exceeded 275,000! Among the paper’s staff were numerous Yiddish stars, including Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel, both of whom would go on to receive Nobel Prizes.

Recently Itzik Gottesman, associate editor at the Yiddish Forward (there is now also an English Forward), was kind enough to allow me to swing by their offices for a visit. Some decades back, such a meeting would have taken place at the famous Forward building at 175 East Broadway, which became the paper’s home in 1912 and where it remained for about 80 years.

In the 1990s, as part of a wave of New York City condo conversions, the East Broadway building became condos, too—fancy ones. Today the Forward offices are located at 125 Maiden Lane in downtown Manhattan, a neighbor of some of the financial firms where I teach writing, grammar, and e-mail etiquette classes.

My Transliteration on the Yiddish-Speaking Robot

My Transliteration on the Yiddish-Speaking Robot

Riding the subway downtown, I warmed up for my meeting by working my way through a portion of a Forverts article (forverts is “forward” in Yiddish), written by Itzik, that I had found online. It was about a robot called Moby with whom/which you could practice your Yiddish.

This article-reading attempt was actually an exciting experience for me. I have been focusing mostly on grammar and not on blocks of solid Yiddish text, so I didn’t think I would do as well as I did. I’m not saying I was impressive in the larger scheme of things, but Yiddish looks scary in big chunks, so this small reading achievement represented for me a hurdle overcome.

One problem I have with reading paragraphs in Yiddish is that, because of my very slow reading pace, by the time I sound out the words at the end of a sentence, I have forgotten the words that I sounded out at the beginning of the sentence. Cumulatively, as one might imagine, this creates some reading comprehension problems.

Therefore, I adopted a new strategy: I transliterated onto the printed-out article as I poked my way through the Yiddish text. Once I had finished a few sentences, I was able to go back to my transliteration and read them together at a significantly faster rate to get a reasonable sense of the content.

Anyway, it was fun, and I was in a happy mood when I arrived at the stylish Forward offices.

Itzik Gottesman, Politely Indulging Me

Itzik Gottesman, Politely Indulging Me

Here at left is Itzik, who was a generous host and tour guide. We started out in his office, which was—unsurprisingly—filled with books and papers. On his shelves I saw a number of books whose titles have become familiar to me in the past few weeks. 

Given his relative youth, Itzik has an unsual history with Yiddish. The son of a Yiddishist mother, he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, where his family was one of a community of three families all speaking Yiddish at home. 

In other words, as a little kid, he played with other little kids in Yiddish! 

Itzik also has grownup Yiddish credentials. Besides being the owner of a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, he is the author of Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland, and he taught Yiddish language and culture at Penn and the University of Texas at Austin.

In other words, he is a man who knows a hell of a lot about Yiddish. This was rather intimidating for Yiddish neophyte me, but he was not in the slightest bit condescending.

We chatted a bit about the paper, its content, its editorial structure, and its readership, which was of course changed forever by the Holocaust.

I learned that after decades of declining subscriptions, in 1983 the Forward switched from a daily to a weekly schedule. Seven years later, it began publishing an English paper, but the Yiddish Forward continues. The English and Yiddish Forwards have distinct editorial content and audiences; they are not translations of each other, but rather, individual publications with shared office space and resources.

About half of today’s readers of the traditional Forverts print edition are Holocaust survivors, now in their upper eighties and nineties. Other readers include Yiddish students and Yiddishists. Forverts has four staff writers, plus freelancers.

These days the print version is issued on a biweekly schedule, but earlier this year, Forverts launched an online Yiddish daily news site focusing on what is a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Yiddish is spoken in the homes of many Hasidic Jews in New York, and also in Haredi households in Israel, and the language is thus finding new life in these religious communities. (By the way, when I first began researching Yiddish in New York, I even came across a Yiddish Linux Users Group—YIDLUG!—on the Meetup website.)

The Forverts online content includes a blog with contributers writing under pseudonyms, to protect them from possible negative reactions in their religious communities to what they write. The Yiddish grammar one finds in the blog, Itzik noted, is different in some ways from what one sees in the standard Forverts editorial content. (Given the condition of my own Yiddish, I can’t tell you how, but it is!) The online readers include many who would historically have shunned the content and perspective of the print edition, so the Yiddish website is an interesting development in the Forward’s history.

After our chat, Itzik took me around and introduced me to people. I met another staff member who I think said he speaks seven languages. Itzik addressed me in Yiddish in front of him. I tried to respond in Yiddish, but my Yiddish learning has been paper-based, so it didn’t go well for me—though I am happy to say I could understand most of what he said in that (brief) exchange.

I immediately liked the effusive archivist there, Chana Pollack, who gave me a separate tour of a room filled with file cabinets that were in turn filled with old photos. She had conspicuous enthusiasm for the contents of the drawers, and also for the contents of a bound book containing Forverts papers from 1929, with editorial content and ads from a very different time and what I think must have been the first cartoons I’d ever seen in Yiddish.

Here History Resides

Here History Resides

A Drawer of Photos Relating to Art

A Drawer of Photos Relating to Art

A Book of Old Forverts Issues, from 1929

A Book of Old Forverts Issues, from 1929

I Think This Is a Real-Estate Ad

I Think This Is a Real-Estate Ad

A Cartoon from August 11, 1929

A Cartoon from August 11, 1929

There Was a Little English-Language Content, Too!

There Was a Little English-Language Content, Too!

Along the way, I met other Yiddish Forward staff. I’m afraid I don’t remember their names right now—I was a little overwhelmed by new information while there—but they were all friendly, welcoming, interested in my project, and all apparently in possession of a trait I appreciate, namely, an appreciation of language and culture in their own lives. A young man, who I think writes or edits or both for the paper, kept popping up during my tour with more Yiddish-related suggestions for me. 

Despite the friendliness of those I encountered, one source of stress for me in this situation was my relative ignorance about the whole backdrop of Yiddish. Here I was, standing in the year 2013, with no Jewish upbringing, just six weeks into my Yiddish studies. 

This is a language whose fate changed dramatically and tragically in the last century with the Holocaust and Soviet persecutions. There is a certain amount of anxiety involved in casually diving into a language with such a fraught history. Today Yiddish is alive primarily with very old people who were scattered to all corners of the earth after World War II, or in religious communities—such as in Brooklyn—that constitute a world very different from mine.

Thus, in my quick dip into Yiddish, I want to be careful not to disrespect it. Though I think there is merit in all levels of understanding, a state of ignorance is painful to me. Of course, this entire project has involved a state of ignorance; it is a choice I made between specialist (in, say, just a couple of languages) and generalist (dabbling in many). But I felt more linguistic stress than usual as I trailed around after Itzik and he introduced me to person after person who knew way more than I did about a language with a thousand-year-old history.

A Current Print Copy of the Yiddish Forward

A Current Print Copy of the Yiddish Forward

Nonetheless, the reality is, newcomers are needed to keep a language alive. I certainly qualify as one of those!

So, enough of my neurotic handwringing. All you Yiddish students and interested others, I recommend checking out the Forverts site! One fantastic thing from a language-learning point of view is that if you doubleclick or highlight a Yiddish word on the site, a translation into English pops up instantly.

I mean instantly!

This is a big deal. I haven’t seen a feature like this anywhere else for any language, so please tell me if you have. Such features are a massive boon to student efforts in all languages, in my opinion, because they allow you to get a word’s meaning quickly enough that you barely have to interrupt the rhythm of your reading. I recently examined a new language-learning product with purported web-translating capabilities, and the translations were so slow to appear that I gave up. I’d rather look something up in a paper dictionary than sit around watching the Internet idle.

Online you will find, besides this fabulous translation feature, diverse multimedia offerings and blogs, including the afforementioned one, plus other stuff I don’t know about yet.

Many thanks, once again, to Itzik Gottesman and his colleagues for their hospitality to this Yiddish newcomer.

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