The World of the Yiddish Writer
Second Floor

DATELINE: June 7, 1903. The New -York Daily Tribune.



That the most neglected and unhappy portions of the slums of the city number among their inhabitants men and women who under different conditions and happier fortunes might have been counted among the great names of the world in art, poetry and music is a fact not unknown to the outside world. Almost proverbial are the stories of musicians, scholars and artists who are buried under the slum life of each great city. Yet there is in the East Side of New-York a realm of unexplored extent peopled by those who may well be numbered among the buried geniuses of the slums. The lost journalists of the Ghetto, those authors and scholars whose immigration to a strange land has dried their springs of genius, numbed their finer senses and reduced them to the unhappy necessity of earning a living through "jargon" papers, one of the most interesting phases of Ghetto life.

In the far off country from which they come there is a proverb which characterizes much of the spirit of journalism in those lands.

"It is as true as if it were printed in the newspaper," says one citizen to another, when desiring to emphasize the veracity of a statement. Different in fact and in fancy is this from the current American conception. But it is not only this difference that marks the Ghetto journalism. These masters of Yiddish public opinion are scholars learned in Talmudic lore, their philosophy is that of Maimonides, their science that of the medieval world. The discoveries of Galileo and Bacon are referred to by a certain member of this fraternity in a fashion that suggests that they are, like those of Edison and Marconi, the work of yesterday. Ages and ages behind the modern American spirit are these moulders of public opinion through the Yiddish papers of the East Side.

To understand this journalism one must know something of the world for which the papers exist. It is a world of the past, made up of the vanishing memories of long ago. It represents the expression in a dying language of race ideals and race spirits which are destined ere long to vanish. The first generation of the immigrants are wandering confused and appalled through the hubbub of American life. Out of the semidarkness of the Ghettos of Czernowitz, Warsaw and Lemberg they have come suddenly over the gulf of centuries into the hurly-burly of twentieth century American life, in which their learning and their ideals are valueless; they see their children in the second generation growing up to a world and imbued with a civilization they cannot understand. This is the world to which the buried journalists of the Ghetto speak, and it is of this world that they themselves are a bewildered and disappointed part.

Of the American world and the American press this first generation know nothing; for them it does not exist. There is a story told by a well-known East Side resident which represents the distance that separates the thousands who dwell on one side of the Bowery from the rest of the city. A well-known Jewish citizen went to an East Side rabbi and besought him to abstain from granting rabbinical divorces. This form of divorce is granted legally by the rabbis in Russia, Rumania and Galicia, and they continue it when they come to this country, with the result that the people who remarry under it find themselves in prison for bigamy.

"This practice ought to be abandoned," said the remonstrant, "for it brings the race into disrepute. The newspapers get hold of it, especially the American press, and it will hurt the Jewish race."

"Why should we now be allowed to do it here?" was the passionate answer. "Are we not permitted that liberty even in autocratic Russia? If it is denied us in free America, then it is worse tyranny for us here than in persecuting Russia. Besides, if it is printed in the English press, who will ever see it? Who ever reads the English press or cares what they print?" Almost in sight of Park Row, then, exists a world in which the American press does not penetrate. Here live thousands of people for whom all the things one commonly associates with everyday life do not exist.

"You wonder at this statement," said a well-known Jewish worker on the East Side, "I remember once a Hebrew who was courting a certain woman, and wanted to meet her in secret to say the last decisive words. Where do you think he chose as the best place in which to propose? Out in a public park, crowded with thousands of people! But these thousands were Gentiles, and they simply did not exist in his world. Unfortunately for the romance, I , too, wandered through that park, and when he saw me he buried his beard in his hand and hastened stealthily away. For him he and I, with his sweetheart, were the only persons in that crowded park." Such incidents, and they might be multiplied, typify the world for which this class of buried journalists write, forever reproducing Europe in America, Russia in the United States, Cracow in New-York City--always vaguely conscious that the real world is escaping them.

A glimpse at the personality of some of these journalists is not without interest, and it is proposed to present the exact portraits of a few who well represent many, refraining from the mention of names, to keep faith with certain East Side residents who furnished the following information.

Confined in the dingy quarters of a Yiddish newspaper on the East Side is a novelist, whose books, published in Russia many years ago, are still read there. Educated under the rigorous Talmudic system, his own hunger for literature early led him into the forbidden paths of secular reading. There are stories of his school days, when he slept with a volume of Victor Hugo or Heine under his pillow, and in the hour of daylight, while his companions still slept, read he charmed pages, and as the first sleeper awoke hastily slid the forbidden volume under his head. But his education is Talmudic to-day. When her refers to the Turks, they exist for him as the descendants of Ishmael, and he deduces the traits of these Mahometans from this supposed ancestor. His philosophy, science and mathematics belong to the medieval age. To-day this citizen of a far off age, even in Europe, is turning out feuilletons for a Jewish paper at the rate of three columns a day. This is one of he most important features of the Yiddish press; a few columns of news, gleaned from the English press and referring entirely to Semitic interests, are all that make the paper really a daily newspaper; for the rest, there is the feuilleton, satirically treating the manners and the customs of this strange America, and contrasting with it the golden age that has departed.

This journalist sees in the new life just far enough to recognize that it means the disintegration of the old. Imbued with ancient conceptions, with Old World race pride, he sees the breakdown or the race. This is all he sees. Ask this journalist, who moulds the opinion of thousands, for his opinion of imperialism or of any public question of the day, and he will look at you in wonder. It simply does not reach him. He lives in America the life of Bessarabia, he has no solution to offer his people, no aspiration for himself, and so, from the career of a successful novelist, he has drifted back into the living tomb of a "Jargon" feuilleton writer.

But this represents only a single type of many. Somewhere in the heart of the Ghetto there lives a man who in the universities of Russia is still known as a famous though vanished scholar. Languages, literature and sciences were equally his field. So eminent were his attainments that he overcame the race prejudice and became known widely. An idealist, he seemed destined to make a European reputation for himself, and then suddenly he drifted out of the Old and into the New World. In his university days he had laid aside the Yiddish of the Ghetto, but on the threshold of a new world he suddenly found himself alone, friendless, and in his search for human assistance he drifted back into the "Jargon." To-day that man, whose reputation might have been Continental, sits at a crude desk, pouring out column after column of comment in Yiddish. The master of a dozen languages, he has converse only in the corrupt patois of one. Enthusiasm, hope, ambition have all vanished, and he still toils on painfully, his mind fixed on the past.

This buried savant has become a radical; his articles belong to the familiar class of "whines" for labor in which the workingman is always depicted as wronged. Occasionally, when agitations are over, he turns out an article on popular science. In a word, he has become a hack, a space grubber, seeking only a chance to write in Yiddish for a living, all his brilliant scholarly prospects forgotten. In his feuilletons he rails at America with a bitterness expressive of his own disappointed and unhappy career. The land of hope as it is pictured in the fancy of the immigrant, America has been for him the tomb of all that he once dreamed of.

To turn from these shipwrecked scholars to a man of more actual practical standing in the world of the press furnished yet another glimpse of the journalism in which the workers are buried. There is on the East Side to-day, writing busily and prolifically, one who is known far and wide as the father of Jewish journalism in America. To him belongs the credit of having made Yiddish a possible vehicle for newspaper use in this country. For many years it did not yield to the present needs; it was inflexible as a form of expression for a new civilization. Then this journalist started in to coin new expressions. His method was employing old Biblical phrases to describe new things. A sample of the method, though not an actual instance, was furnished by one of the Ghetto's best known scholars.

Suppose he was searching for a phrase to describe an automobile, he might do something like this. First he would call it in Hebrew, "The chariot on which the Prophet Elijah ascended to Heaven." Presently the expression would become fixed in the public mind, and he would shorten it to "chariot of Elijah," and in the end it would become simply "chariot." But the allusion would still be preserved complete.

This man, whose service to his people and whose work for his language have made him the best known figure in Jewish journalism, is today at work for a salary not exceeding $15 a week. He founded he first Yiddish paper in the country; he worked on every one of he ten daily and thirty weekly papers that followed, and such is his present status. He, too, is a buried journalist, but, unlike the others, he is buried under the very structure he has raised himself.

From a failure to a success furnishes a pleasant step. In contrast with the forgoing unsuccessful worker, there is to-day as editor-in-chief of one of the most prominent Jewish papers in the country a converted Jew. "Meshumed" is the contemptuous name his brothers apply to such, whom they regard as renegades. For most Jews such a step would mean absolute ruin, and yet he has prospered under it. Certain East Side residents have seen the certificate of baptism issued to him, and yet the world for which he writes regards him as a faithful Jew. Moreover, he is not merely a converted Hebrew writing for thousands of the orthodox, he is also a radical, writing for the most conservative Jewish paper in the country. Perhaps it is unfair to class this man among the buried journalists, and yet he belongs in that world existing far beyond the glance of he busy metropolitan world.

The poet seems, most naturally of all, to belong with the neglected journalists of the East Side, and there are several who claim membership in this craft. There is one in particular who stands forth as the representative of a type. He is a poet and an author. In Europe he wrote songs that are still sung in the Ghettos of far off Russian cities. He wrote sketches also which survive among the literature of his people. But to-day this "Sweet Singer of Zion," deserted by his muse, is no longer the poet of his people. From the Olympian height of the poet he has descended to the grinding toll of translating news stories from the English press to the paper for which he works. Besides this, he turns out a daily romance for the Yiddish paper. This romance is the most essential part of the paper, and so, week after week and month after month, this buried poet, whose songs are still the admiration of thousands, turns out a couple of columns of romance. Laying his stories in China or India, he pitches them in romantic vein beyond the possibility of reality. Bu never does he write a story placing the scene in the city in which he and his readers live. The world in which he exists does not exist for him or for his readers; it is a fog inexplicable and impenetrable.

It would be possible to present many other journalists of the Ghetto. But for a closing word nothing can better show the pathos of their situation than a glance at the rising tide of a second generation destined to sweep away their poor work. Their work is read by the thousands of immigrants who, born in a foreign world, cling passionately to its customs and language. But there is rising another generation, more American than the American., neither interested nor even patient with the Yiddish press. The public school has simply wiped out the old notions with these younger children of Israel, and the fate of the journalism which lies in their hand is easy to read. Perceiving their children permeated with a new civilization which is a blank to them, with ideas they cannot grasp, these buried journalists see the grave already prepared for all with which they have labored; the very learning that one generation of Hebrews has handed down to another since the very dawn of history seems suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of destruction.

"I marvel myself at this new generation," said a well-known Jewish educator. "To me all  the great change is typified by a little child that came to me to read Hebrew. his mother brought him, and I wanted to test him before admitting him to a class. I gave him a book and he began to read. I looked at him in surprise; what he read made absolutely no sense. I asked his mother, and she declared that the boy read in Hebrew twice each day. Finally I looked over his shoulder and watched his finger marking the lines that he was reading, and then I found that he was reading from left to right. For him even the Hebrew language seemed subject to the law of Americanism, and there he was reading away backward. So it is with the new generation; their fathers are overwhelmed with the new, but they in their turn grasp the new with a certain grip and throw out the old or mould it on the lines of the new.

Thus amid such a rising tide of new Americanism, a tide which is sure to sweep away all they loved or understood, these scholars, poets and authors of European fame are furnishing the "copy" of the Ghetto in a "jargon" itself soon to be a perishing anachronism.


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