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.”