Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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

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 second in a two-part essay on how artifacts pertaining to the media have been used in the exhibit.

Image of Jewish Daily Forward headline from May 18, 1903
Courtesy of Yeshiva Institute for Jewish Research
The Forverts can also be used to reveal other aspects of immigrant Jewish life. The newspaper’s name itself provides a telling starting point. Many Yiddish readers would have noticed that “forverts” is not a Yiddish word, but a Yiddish adaptation of the German word for “forward.” This choice reflects the significant influence of German socialists (mostly Gentiles) who lived on the Lower East Side in large numbers at the time eastern European Jews began arriving during the 1870s and 1880s. In labor lyceums, saloons (perhaps even the one located at the bottom of 97 Orchard between the years 1863 and 1886), and in other places, German and Russian Jewish radicals interacted with one another. Germans exercised a formative influence on Jewish socialists, such as Abraham Cahan, who went on to become the Forverts’ editor. They offered Cahan and his colleagues (who knew little of Karl Marx and his ideas before settling on the Lower East Side) ideological tutelage, financial aid, and practical assistance in getting the Jewish labor movement off the ground. Thus, when Jewish socialists chose Germany’s Vorwarts, the leading socialist newspaper in all of Europe, as their namesake, they paid tribute to their German mentors. The Rogarshevsky family surely knew little, if anything, of this German-Jewish alliance. They arrived on the scene in a later period, when Germans had all but left the Lower East Side for other parts of New York. Nonetheless, the Forverts represents its concrete legacy.

Rogarshevsky Family
Courtesy of Tenement Museum Photo Archives

The Forverts encapsulates another important cultural development that might seem unremarkable today, but was of profound importance a century ago: the creation of Yiddish newspaper readers. At the time of the Forverts’ birth in 1897, virtually no immigrant had read a Yiddish newspaper in the old country. Censorship in the Russian Empire, where the Rogarshevskys (along with most immigrant Jews) originated, prevented the publication of Yiddish newspapers until the early 1900s. Even with the easing of censorship following the 1905 revolution, a full-fledged Yiddish newspaper market took some time to develop. The Rogarshevskys probably had never seen a Yiddish newspaper or, at least, were not regular newspapers readers in Russia. When they arrived in New York, however, the Rogarshevskys discovered a thriving Yiddish newspaper market, in which a wide variety of Yiddish newspapers were sold in newsstands and read virtually everywhere: in cafes, in places of work, on park benches, at home, and so on. And if somebody did not have sufficient literacy—as was common among older women, for instance—that person nonetheless had opportunities to hear newspapers read aloud. In the Rogarshevsky household, the father or one of the children probably read the newspaper to other members of the family on a regular basis.

Newspapers had the effect of broadening the mental horizons of immigrants. The Forverts, for instance, not only provided news (often quite sensationalistic) from near and far, but also published fiction and poetry, educational articles on history and science, and gave practical advice that helped readers navigate difficult moral and ethical problems pertaining to daily life. Learning how to read the Forverts and other Yiddish newspapers often proved difficult. Immigrants encountered much unfamiliar vocabulary regarding unfamiliar subjects. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of immigrants learned how to read newspapers—often with the help of friends and relatives who had arrived earlier—and, in the process, became Americanized, albeit through the Yiddish language. An American innovation, the Forverts offers a glimpse into this complicated Americanization process.

In short, the Forverts provides a crucial piece of the Rogarshevskys’ life, connecting it to the larger immigrant Jewish experience as it unfolded beyond the four walls of 97 Orchard.

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