Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Jewish Daily Forward and the Daily Lives of the Rogarshevsky Family: Guest Post by Tony Michels -- Part I

Thanks to an NEH grant, scholar Tony Michels is advising the Tenement Museum on how we can use objects to tell stories in the Rogarshevsky family apartment. He'll be at Tenement Talks on February 17 at 6:30 pm. Here is the first in a two-part essay on how artifacts pertaining to the media have been used in the exhibit.

“Piecing It Together” vividly reconstructs the domestic life of the Rogarshevsky family, but how might we connect the Rogarshevsky domicile to the larger public arena? I raise this question because immigrant Jews spent much of their free time outside of their apartments: in parks and squares, on street corners, in cafes, and in other public and semi-public places. Unfortunately, few of those places still exist or, if they do they reveal few traces of past events. Rutgers Square, now named Strauss Square, used to be a gathering spot for young Jewish radicals, who congregated there nearly every day to discuss and argue issues of the day, but the square today gives no indication of this past. Linking the public and private realms thus presents a challenge, though not an insurmountable one.

A simple artifact—the Yiddish daily Forverts—can be used to connect the Rogarshevsky apartment to the world outside. We do not know for sure whether the Rogarshevskys read the Forverts. They could choose from no less than five Yiddish dailies during their years living at 97 Orchard. Nonetheless, we can reasonably surmise that at least one person in the Rogarshevsky family read the Forverts. This is because the Forverts was the most popular Yiddish newspaper in the United States, indeed the world. With a circulation topping 200,000 in 1917, the Forverts sold more than twice the number of copies than did its closest Yiddish competitor. Furthermore, the Forverts was not just a newspaper in an ordinary sense, but a force within immigrant public life. Its writers and editors played leading roles in Jewish communal affairs, the Jewish labor movement, New York City politics, and the American socialist movement as a whole. If an immigrant wanted to keep abreast of current events, he or she most likely turned to the Forverts (though not necessarily to the exclusion of other newspapers). Even immigrants who considered themselves traditional, religious Jews read the Forverts because they saw no contradiction between its socialist viewpoint and their Judaism. Religious articles of the kind seen in the Rogarshevsky apartment and the Forverts often shared space in a single household.

The Bintel Brief, a Yiddish advice column, began in 1906. Bintel means "bundle" and brief  means letter.
Courtesy of The Bintel Brief

Many of the events covered by the Forverts had to do with labor movement. An avowedly socialist newspaper, the Forverts’ masthead declared: “Workers of the world unite! The liberation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves!” The Forverts published countless articles on strikes, consumer boycotts, demonstrations, parades, and debates: all frequent occurrences on the streets of the Lower East Side. The newspaper did not merely report on events; it served as a tribune of the Jewish working class. Take the Forverts’ response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as an example. On the day following that terrible incident, the Forverts’ front-page headline wailed: “The morgue is filled with our dead/victims! 175 workers lose their lives in a burning shirtwaist factory. The entire Jewish Quarter mourns.” The Forverts refused to adopt a dispassionate tone or removed stance. The victims were “ours.” And masses of Jewish workers, who knew firsthand the hardships and abuses of the garment industry, looked to the Forverts to articulate their grievances and lead the way…forward.

The March 26, 1911 copy of the Forverts thus opens up the Rogarshevsky apartment, bringing to bear one of the major events of the immigrant era. The presence of the newspaper invites us to imagine how the Rogarshevsky family might have reacted and discuss the public outcry that followed, culminating in the reform legislation passed by the New York State Assembly as a result.

[Part II will be posted later this afternoon]

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