For this week’s anniversary issue, I’ve been asked by the editors of the Forward to write about how the paper got its name. This is in some ways easy to do and in some ways not. What gave the Forward’s founder, Abraham Cahan, the idea of calling his new Yiddish paper Forverts when it first appeared in 1897 is no mystery. Why he made that choice, however, definitely is a mystery, there being, to the best of my knowledge, no record of any debate having taken place over it, whether between Cahan and his editorial board or between Cahan and himself. And yet a debate there must have been, because the name was problematic.
To begin with, it was distinctly unoriginal. Not only wasn’t the Yiddish Forverts the world’s first periodical to be called that, it wasn’t even the second — and the second, the German Vorwärts was in 1897 appearing on a daily basis in Berlin and had a large circulation and a worldwide reputation. It was copycat to call a Yiddish paper by the same name, and not all of Cahan’s associates, one imagines, would have been happy with that.
But let’s start with the first Vorwärts — or Vorwärts! to be exact, because it came with an exclamation mark Although, unlike its successor, it was short-lived and never had more than 1,000 subscribers, it was an influential publication in its own right. First appearing in Paris in January 1844 as a German-language semiweekly, it was founded by Jewish opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer as a musical and theatrical review. Quickly, however, it was taken over by German political and intellectual radicals living in exile in Paris, among them such already or soon-to-be famous figures as Heinrich Heine, Moses Hess, Georg Weber, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, all of whom wrote for it regularly. For its short duration, it was Europe’s most exciting revolutionary publication, as though marching to Heine’s poem “Doctrin,” which was published in it with the stanza:
Trommle die Leute aus dem Schlaf,
Trommle Reveille mit Jugendkraft,
Marschire trommelnd immer voran,
Das ist die Ganze Wissenschaft!
Or in a free English translation: “Drum the people out of its sleep,/ Drum reveille with youthful might,/ Keep marching, keep drumming, keep pressing on,/ That’s all there is to our lexicon!”
In September 1844, the autocratic Prussian government issued arrest warrants for all the contributors to Vorwärts! —and in January 1845 the French prime minister Francois Guizot issued a decree shutting it down. It had come out for exactly a year.
The second Vorwärts, named for the first, was started as a daily in Leipzig in 1876 as the official organ of the German Social-Democratic Party, which had been founded a little more than a decade earlier. Its first editor was William Liebknecht, a leading socialist politician who, years later, at the time of the Spartakus uprising in 1919, was murdered together with Rosa Luxemburg by the German police, and it, too, had its brushes with the law. Closed by the Prussian government in 1878 as part of an anti-socialist campaign, it started up again in 1891 in Berlin, again under Liebknecht’s editorship; it supported a socialist revolution but opposed Lenin and Bolshevism, and continued to publish until 1933, when the Nazis banned it soon after taking power. In 1948 it was re-founded as the Neuer Vorwärts, and since 1955 it has been the German left-wing monthly Vorwärts .
Thus, when Cahan founded the Yiddish Forverts in 1897, the German Vorwärts was a going concern. Presumably he wanted the name, despite its shopworn character, precisely because it was well known in radical Jewish circles and was a way of declaring where the Forverts intended to stand politically — namely, in the 19th-century social-democratic tradition and in favor of revolution but against the Leninist “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In this respect, it accomplished with one word what many editorials might have been needed to do.
Indeed, Cahan must have wanted to place himself in the tradition of the first two Vorwärts very badly, because in doing so he would have run afoul not only of those on the paper’s staff who didn’t agree with German social-democratic politics, but also of those who cared for the purity of Yiddish, the truly ironic thing about the paper’s name being that forverts wasn’t even a real Yiddish word! “Forward” in Yiddish is faroys, not forverts, and the latter is a case of what is known as daytshmerish, the frowned-upon tendency of some Yiddish writers to borrow vocabulary and other usages freely from German as though Yiddish were a German dialect rather than a separate language.
But Abraham Cahan never cared much about the purity of Yiddish, and he was often berated in later years for the amount of English that he let seep into the Forverts’s prose. If he decided to call his newspaper Forverts rather than Faroys, this was because the idea of the Forward mattered more to him than did its Yiddish. I would have loved to have been around to watch the fur fly at the editorial meeting at which the name was chosen.
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