A new exhibit at the University of Pittsburgh shines a light on the importance of the Yiddish press in America — and the historical significance of one of its landmark publications.
The exhibit — which runs at least through April and is open to the public whenever the library is open — focuses on the history of the Forward, or “Forverts,” which started as a socialist Yiddish daily paper in 1897 and, at its peak in the 1920s, had a subscription base that rivaled The New York Times. Today, it is a digital publication available in Yiddish and English.
“While there were many Yiddish-American dailies in operation at the turn of the 20th century, the popularity of the Forverts — and the fact that it remains in operation over 125 years later — make it a uniquely important institution in American Jewish history,” said Rachel Kranson, director of Jewish studies at Pitt.
“A newspaper like the Yiddish Forverts is an essential primary source for historians,” she added, “particularly for those of us who want to understand the perspectives, aspirations and frustrations of the nearly 3 million Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.”
People visiting the exhibition “will see Jackie Kennedy holding up a copy of the Forward, animation characters created by the Fleischer studios, Lower East Side residents in a matza riot, everyday life in Algeria, Mandate Palestine, the Upper West Side of New York, and the ball fields and boxing rings of America,” added Chana Pollack, archivist for the Forward. “And the unforgettable woman newspaper seller on the Lower East Side.”
This exhibit, titled “Pressed” (it’s called “Ayndruk” in Yiddish, a portmanteau made up of “in” and “print”) was originally put together by Pollack and Nancy Johnson, the curator at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City. After being displayed at that synagogue, the exhibit is making Hillman Library on Pitt’s Oakland campus its first traveling location.
The exhibit is on display on the first floor of Hillman Library and is co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Jewish studies program and the University of Pittsburgh library system.
“For me at the museum, working with the Forward on an exhibition made sense since the synagogue’s early congregants would have read this newspaper, which was produced in their Lower East Side neighborhood and written in their language, Yiddish,” said Johnson, curator at the Museum at Eldridge Street, which is based at the New York shul.
“We chose a variety of images to show the wide range of topics covered by the paper and the wide range of interests held by its readers,” Johnson added. “These interests show a community interested in local and worldwide issues, everything from the Lower East Side to Jewish communities in Africa. And they show immigrants acclimating to a new environment and culture, enjoying Yiddish theater and also the American obsession, baseball.”
The archives of the Forward still contain several thousand press plates.
“[The plates] seem to be animated as if they contain deep-held secrets of life long ago and far away,” Pollack said.
“Looking at these images, it’s easy to imagine yourself in a noisy, clanging, hot, dusty, dangerous press room where your Yiddish news was being generated and where, at the end of a day or a week or a month, all those now old, unnecessary metal pieces of type and press plates were re-melted to be used again,” she added. “Somehow, miraculously, ours survived, and we’ve been preserving them and now they’re yours, too, to see and dive into the deep treasures of our archive.”
Kranson’s grandparents — Holocaust survivors from Poland who moved to New Jersey — were avid readers of the Yiddish Forverts.
“During my childhood, it was the only non-Hasidic Yiddish newspaper left in print,” Kranson said. “The Yiddish banner of the paper brings me right back to their house in Atlantic City — I even remember the smell of the pages. When I started studying Yiddish in earnest when I was in college, I would read Forverts to my grandmother; my grandfather had already passed. She would correct my accent because the Lithuanian accent I learned from my instructor did not sound like her Polish-Yiddish dialect. And she would translate the sections I could not yet understand.”
There also are some great learning moments nestled in the exhibit.
The “text and context” lab on the third floor of Hillman Library has a working 1890s-era printing press, the kind of equipment that early editors of the Forverts would have used. On March 2, students from Kranson’s “Jews and the City” course are going to read historical articles from the “bintl brief” section of the Forverts – bintl brief, or “bundle of letters,” was the advice column section — write six-word headlines, then print out their headlines on the 1890s printer.
“This is going to give them hands-on knowledge of what it was like to typeset and print out a newspaper at the turn of the 20th century,” Kranson said. “The staff of the lab say that it will take about 45 minutes for my students to print out their six-word headlines — compare that to the thousands of words that the original Forverts printed out each day!” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.