The Newspaper That Speaks Your Language

By Itzik Gottesman

Published April 06, 2007, issue of April 06, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In 1970, soon after my bar mitzvah, at the instigation of my uncle — late Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter — I joined in a demonstration with family and friends in front of the old Forward offices on East Broadway, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, demanding that the paper clean up its language. No, it was not a question of vulgarity in the language that offended us, but such issues as the use of an English word or two in every Yiddish sentence, what some called “potato Yiddish,” and the old-fashioned spelling in the paper that was heavily influenced by German and English. The Forward had lost touch with Yiddish orthographic changes over the previous 50 years and was a living dinosaur in that respect.

Today, we read the old issues and smile with nostalgia at how clearly “foreign” tongues infiltrated the language. But in the 1960s and early ’70s, in radical times, this lack of progress was unacceptable. I think I carried a sign that had the English word “space” written in Yiddish letters — as it was used in the Forverts — crossed out, and under it the more recommended Yiddish word for outer space: “kosmos.”

At one point we formed a circle, chanting various slogans. I think someone yelled out, “Tsayt far a bayt” (time for a change), and I humorously changed it to the incorrect but rhyming “tsaytung mit a baytung” (a newspaper with a change — there is no such word as “baytung,” though it sounds like a Germanized form).

Suddenly, an egg dropped in the middle of our circle, thrown from someone in the Forward offices above. This caused quite a stir, of course. Now we could be proud of our militancy, fighting flying eggs and a violent opponent. (One of the printers from those days, Louis Katz, still works at the newspaper as a compositor, having made the transition from movable type to computer. I asked him about the egg, and he has denied any knowledge of it.) When the demonstration ended, the staff of the other Yiddish daily, Tog-Morgn Zhurnal, agreed to meet with a committee of demonstrators; the Forward would not.

The language problem of Yiddish newspapers in America was not just a Forward problem. The writers had to “dumb down” the language, they thought, to satisfy the “masses.” There’s a wonderful scene in Marlene Booth’s documentary film on the Forward in which Isaac Bashevis Singer tells of his discussions with the paper’s founder and longtime editor, Abe Cahan, about language. Singer, a writer who possessed a wonderful Yiddish style and Polish Yiddish vocabulary, complained that he often found many of his words changed, thus losing much of the color of his prose. Cahan replied that the ordinary man would not understand the word under discussion. “Go ask the elevator man if he knows that word!” Cahan said. The elevator man, by this time, knew that if he wanted to keep his job he had to reply that no, he never heard of that word.

Poet Jeremiah Hescheles, once a writer for the Tog-Morgn Zhurnal, told me that this often happened to him at his paper, too. When he tried to use the Yiddish word for stallion, “oger,” it was changed to horse, “ferd.” He argued that a horse and a stallion are not the same thing, but was told that for his readers they indeed were.

Today, this older approach to Yiddish journalistic prose and orthography continues in the growing Hasidic press, though with a much higher component of Hebrew and Aramaic that reflects the yeshiva education of many readers. Meanwhile, the current “younger” editorial staff of the Yiddish Forward, with Boris Sandler as editor, is quite conscious of formulating a specific Yiddish approach to language and not copying the dominant English forms if possible. To that end, we will sit and yell across cubicles on a daily basis to ask how we should say “presidential primaries” or “security checkpoint” in Yiddish.

Today, after decades of decline, Yiddish seems to be enjoying a revival in America. Just look at the growth of university programs and Yiddish clubs, and particularly the Yiddish-speaking community. Unfortunately, this does not simply translate into a growing readership for the Yiddish Forward, or the Forverts.

First, there are more people who speak or understand Yiddish than actually read it. Many older Russian Jewish immigrants, long deprived of a Yiddish education in their homeland, have maintained an oral culture of Yiddish in America, but they cannot read the written language.

Second, many Hasidic Jews speak and read Yiddish but will not support the secular Yiddish press, which today in America means the Forverts. I have heard through the grapevine that there are younger Hasidic readers who admire the paper’s current Yiddish language for its aversion to copying English, yet these ultra-religious readers would never buy the Forverts because of its once-socialist (read: anti-religious) taint.

Both Russian immigrants and Hasidim will, however, listen to the “The Forward Hour” on the radio — because it requires neither comprehension of the written word nor financial support for a secular enterprise. It happens occasionally that I tell a Hasidic or a Russian Jew my name and his or her eyes light up, for both Hasidim and Russian Jews listen to our radio show every Saturday night. This past Purim in Boro Park I gave a ride to a yeshiva bokher, and when he heard my name he started to imitate my radio voice and style.

Demographics tell us that future Yiddish speakers and readers will come overwhelmingly from the Hasidic world. Everyone in the Yiddish cultural world knows this and is thinking about how to accommodate them in years to come without compromising our “secular” inner core. While the general mood of older Yiddish cultural organizations decades ago was gloomy with pessimism about the future, today the challenge of bringing Yiddish and its riches to the next generation is an exciting one for us at the Forverts, as we endeavor to adapt to a newly evolving Yiddish landscape.

Itzik Gottesman is the associate editor of the Forverts and a regular contributor to “The Forward Hour.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.