Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 38. Yiddish Journalism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 38. Yiddish Journalism

Yiddish literature in the United States is less than half a century old. The first Yiddish periodical in America, the Yiddische Neues, was founded in New York in 1871. But it was a decade or so later before Yiddish received a real impetus in this country from the arrival of large numbers of Russian Jews fleeing the wave of persecutions and massacres at home. The intellectual immigrants who came with the masses brought with them the radical doctrines and ideals of socialism, anarchism, and other political and social tendencies current among the enlightened Russian and Jewish classes of the time. The vernacular of the immigrants was the only medium of appeal which would reach them, and although many of the educated American Jewish pioneers were averse to the use of Yiddish as a literary instrument they resorted to it as a matter of expediency. The growth of Yiddish literature in this country has been commensurable and co-extensive with the growth of Jewish immigration to the New World. The widening out of the spiritual interests of the older immigrants as well as the ever-increasing number of the new immigrants naturally created a larger and more diversified demand for printed Yiddish. The undifferentiated weeklies and miscellanies of the early eighties developed into a literature with all modern ramifications.

Periodicals for a long time remained the only carriers of printed Yiddish. The intellectuals were quick to seize the opportunities of free speech and to make liberal use of them for the spread of radical doctrines. The Yiddische Gazetten, started as early as 1874, was typical of the inferior kind of Yiddish periodicals. A semi-rabbinical, vulgar makeshift, printed in a jargon abounding in Talmudical Hebrew and spurious German, it had no programme, no spiritual physiognomy, and ministered to the coarser tastes of the masses. The Arbeiter Zeitung was representative of the better class. It was a strictly socialist organ and stood unflinchingly by its ideals. Launched as a weekly in 1890 by a number of Jewish workmen-socialists under the editorship of J. Rombro (Philip Krantz) and a year later taken under the direction of the gifted and versatile Abraham Cahan, it at once became the rallying point for the best intellectual forces the Jewish immigrants had in America. Names now illustrious in Yiddish literature—Abraham Cahan, Philip Krantz, David Pinski, Z. Libin, L. Kobrin, B. Gorin, Morris Rosenfeld, and others—are intimately connected with the history of the Arbeiter Zeitung and later with the daily Abend Blatt and the monthly Zukunft.

Financially these periodicals, and their editors, led a hand-to-mouth existence, but they carried their banner high. Although the avowed purpose of such periodicals was to carry socialism to the masses, the necessity of a wider scope was soon recognized, and men like Abraham Cahan and Philip Krantz forced a widening of the field of interest and discussion. In the first issue of the Zukunft (January, 1892), the leading article avowed that “we can really express our programme in three words: we are Social Democrats.” But … “we shall also give stories, poems, and art criticism; for we hold that art educates and refines the man, and we shall combine, so to speak, the pleasant with the useful.” The issue contained A Biography of Karl Marx by Morris Hillquit; God, Religion, and Morality by Philip Krantz; The Growth of the Proletariat in America by Prof. Daniel De Leon; Elections in Germany by Herman Schlüter; the first of a series of articles on Darwinism by Abraham ham Cahan; Malthusianism and Capitalism by Philip Krantz. Of belles-lettres we find only The Swimming Coffin, a fantasy by Jacob Gordin. The evolution of this magazine, still the only serious American Yiddish monthly, may be judged from the table of contents of any issue of recent date. We now find fiction and poetry predominating, and topics of the times treated without academic pretension. This evolution is characteristic of all Yiddish-American journalism. There has been a levelling up and a levelling down in Yiddish periodicals which have put them on a sound financial basis and have removed both hyper-intellectual and vulgar elements. The editors and contributors of Jewish newspapers now realize that their readers are live men and women. Having adopted the features of American journalism “which make a paper go,” they have also retained the traditional elements of definite social and political policies in both general and specifically Jewish matters.