The Jewish Daily Forward on the Lower East Side: An Educator's Perspective
The Rogarshevsky apartment on our popular "Piecing It Together" tour takes our visitors into the Jewish Lower East Side of 1911. The family of eight, crowded into 325 square feet, likely spent most of their daytime hours at work or on the street. It's very likely that on occasion they might have found themselves on East Broadway by Essex Street. This is why a new object from that very location, a Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, has recently been added to the Rogarshevsky apartment; it illuminates the larger atmosphere of the Lower East Side at that time. Today this intersection looks very different than in 1911, but still possesses a hint of the energy that once pulsed there.
Just a few short blocks from 97 Orchard Street stands a majestic condominium building that faces Seward Park and the Seward Park Library. This triangular intersection is mostly quiet, except for the occasional taxicab or idling bus. Little does the average passerby realize that this intersection, so quiet and inconspicuous today, used to be bursting with fervent and empowering energy. With opinionated individuals, young and old, speaking their minds from a soapbox in Rutgers Square—where you might have even found a local intellectual celebrity like Emma Goldman or Eugene Debs debating the best course of action for Lower East Siders and the nation. And that majestic condo? The quiet and elegant bas-relief of Engels, Marx, Liebknecht and Lassalle engraved on the facade belies its former resident. This condo was originally home to the Jewish Daily Forward, the most influential voice in the early 20th century Yiddish-speaking East European Jewish community.
Founded by dissidents in April of 1897, the Forward became the source for information serving the working-class Yiddish-speaking population. The fifty socialists who served as the backbone for the paper were well aware, to lean on a later colloquialism, that the personal was political. Marginalized for their class status, their religion, their ethnicity, their immigrant status and most of all, for their language, the Yiddish-speaking population in the Lower East Side was most likely thought of as a backwards nuisance by uptown folks, if they were thought of at all. Out of this dismissal and disregard came a fierce drive for the community to pull itself up from within. Unlike most Victorian communities, the radical environment surrounding the Forward embraced all members of the community–women and men, young and old. In a world where conventional power eluded them, the community surrounding the Forward became a force to be reckoned with by organizing, through and around the newspaper as well as through unions and associations. These protests, walk-outs, and political actions would eventually profoundly influence New York City and the United States. Its contributors—both the professional writers and the readers who sent their letters and questions–debated the contours of American freedom and idealism and developed a strong social consciousness that advocated for many of the social protections and conventions that we take for granted today.
It's thrilling for a Tenement Museum Educator such as me to see a reproduced copy of the Forward lying on Bessie and Ida's cot in the Rogarshevsky dwelling. To me, it is a loud testament to the clatter of social action and a worthy struggle that is impossible to ignore. New York City has a proud history of civic engagement and empowerment for its citizens, but it is not there to be passively received. The Forward, folded politely on broadsheet paper, is a call to arms to the modern citizen; a reminder that no matter how oppressed you feel or how seemingly insurmountable the injustice that surrounds you, a strong and unified community can demand attention and change. It happened then. It can happen today.