The first Yiddish language socialist newspaper in New York, Di Arbetter Tzeitung (the Workers Newspaper,) enjoyed a life span of a mere seven years. In the Spring of 1897, it was succeeded by a daily known as The Forverts (the name was borrowed from Vorwarts a publication of the German Social Democratic Party). The aim of the Forverts was to provide a daily newspaper to appeal to the newly arrived Jewish masses that had settled predominantly in New York, their politics, as well as their lifestyle.
One Hundred and Twenty years later, the Yiddish publication is still being published, albeit twice a month instead of daily. It has anglicized its name to Forward and the circulation is less than 6,000 and falling. It would be interesting to see how many Yiddish Forvertz are mailed to Dallas… (I know of only one.)
There’s a certain irony to the Yiddish Forvertz. To be sure there are still Jews in this country, in Israel, and elsewhere whose lingua franca is Yiddish. With all but a precious few exceptions, contemporary Yiddish speakers are found in the Orthodox communities of Borough Park (Brooklyn), Crown Heights (Brooklyn), and Monsey (Rockland County N.Y.), who, if they do read a Yiddish newspaper, it is highly doubtful if it would be the Yiddish Forvertz. The Yiddish Forvertz places great emphasis on Yiddish culture, Yiddish grammar, and Yiddish orthography; the Orthodox community places great emphasis on their vernacular – grammar, spelling, and syntax be damned. The Yiddish Forvertz is concerned lest a Yiddish word is too “Deitshmerish” (Germanic) and at times, goes to great lengths to replace it. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox are concerned that they preserve Hebrew from becoming the lingua franca.
From its very onset, the Yiddish Forverts labeled itself as “progressive” when it came to politics. To be fair, the Yiddish Forvertz was pro-Israel even before statehood was proclaimed, but it is no secret that over the decades, those who published the Yiddish Forvertz longed for an Israel that understandably reflected their view of society. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox communities of today are far from monolithic when it comes to politics in this country, as well as their attitude toward Israel. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox communities tend to vote in blocs and will quite often cast their vote following the recommendation of the Rebbe (if the group is Hassidic) or Rabbi (if the group is non-Hassidic). There are Orthodox groups that strongly support Israel and have branches in Israel where they live in their own communities. Then there are other Orthodox groups that are vehemently opposed to the mere existence of a Jewish government in power in Israel, in that only with the advent of Moshiach (the Messiah), should Jews be part of a government overseeing the Holy Land. Some fifteen years ago, I encountered a member from an Orthodox community who refrained from offering up a prayer for the State of Israel at Shabbat services, because that community felt that a Jewish State ought to be governed by observant “Torah true” Jews.
Last but not least, the Yiddish Forvertz will publish articles that no “self-respecting” Orthodox publication would ever go near. Some time ago, the Yiddish Forvertz did an article about a Jewish woman who was raised and educated in a highly observant Orthodox community. This woman had abandoned her past and was now entertaining men at a Gentleman’s Club (see Merriam Webster for the definition lest anyone misconstrue), where some of her clients were from similarly observant communities. Such Jewish women do not exist as far as the Orthodox communities, as well as the Yiddish publications their constituents read, are concerned, nor do such clubs. (If such women are acknowledged at all, it is in hushed tones, whispered into the ear of the listener.) As for the Orthodox men frequenting such clubs, that’s a smear tactic on the part of a malicious press.
Alas, the very Jews the 120-year-old Yiddish publication sought to appeal to –those who were native Yiddish speakers, with politically progressive views, who sought to Americanize themselves in so many ways are pretty much extinct. Many of the less than 6,000 who do read the Yiddish Forvertz, learned their Yiddish in college and as our people in this country were once known to have intoned: “On such Yiddish, you shouldn’t depend for a conversation.”