A Newspaper That Was No Mere Newspaper

By Tony Michels

Published April 06, 2007, issue of April 06, 2007.
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The men and women who founded the Jewish Daily Forward were not business people out to make a buck. They were socialist intellectuals and labor activists who wanted to create a new tribune for Yiddish-speaking workers. On January 30, 1897, they met in a rented hall on Orchard Street to make plans.

Unlike the leading Yiddish daily of the time, the politically conservative Yidishes Tageblat, the Forverts would not be privately owned. It would be the property of the Forward Association, a nonprofit, cooperatively run governing body. Representatives from the Knee Pants Makers, Vest Makers, Brotherhood of Tailors and the United Hebrew Trades of Philadelphia joined the association. So, too, did socialist clubs like Voice of Labor, Women Workers’ Society and Lassalle Continuing Education Society. Their mission: “to hold high the banner of international class struggle” in Yiddish.

The Forverts entered a Yiddish newspaper market crowded with an ever-growing number of dailies, weeklies and monthlies. Many came and went within a matter of months. The Forverts itself suffered difficult times during its first few years. Nonetheless, it managed not only to survive but to triumph.

By 1903, the Forverts emerged as the most popular Yiddish daily in the country. Abraham Cahan, who returned to the editorship of the newspaper in that year, deserved much of the credit. He understood, better than most of his colleagues, the need to balance socialism with popular journalism.

Cahan possessed an unshakable commitment to the Jewish working class. “Workers of the World Unite” stood proudly on the masthead. Yet he also knew that the newspaper could not limit itself to political and union affairs if it wanted to reach the largest number of readers. It would have to keep the pulse of everyday life in its fullness. Crime stories, domestic disputes, personal tragedies, the wildly popular Bintel Brief advice column, literature both low and high and human-interest stories of all kinds, graced the pages of the Forverts.

It would be pointless to try to isolate which component — socialism or sensationalism — caused the newspaper’s success. Both deserve credit. Readers loved the Forverts because it entertained them and voiced their economic grievances. Cahan was on to something when he said that the Forverts “democratized reading.” It reached the least-educated elements and brought them into a new world of ideas about social justice. By its 20th anniversary, the newspaper’s circulation hovered around 200,000.

During its early years, the Forverts owed its existence to labor and socialist groups. When the Forverts had trouble paying its gas bill, the Workmen’s Circle opened its wallet. When printing costs grew formidable, Voice of Labor organized a masquerade ball to raise funds. More than 10,000 people attended the first one in 1898. Their inventive costumes affirmed the socialist cause. One woman sported a dress adorned with socialist newspapers. Another came as “the angel of social democracy.” Still others showed up as wounded strikers and evicted tenants.

After the Forverts became profitable, it repaid its debts to the labor movement. Between 1911 and 1915 alone, the Forverts donated more than $20,000 to unions, socialist groups and other left-wing newspapers. During strikes, it coordinated huge public fund-raising campaigns: $25,000 for the Furriers, $50,000 for the Ladies Waist Makers, $60,000 for the Cloak Makers.

Forverts staff members spoke at union rallies, raised money and covered labor events in close detail. Editorials, reportage, announcements and organizational reports filled the pages. “The workers, the great masses, feel a certain gratitude to this newspaper,” a union stalwart wrote in 1917. “This is the only source from which the workers get their information.” Sometimes the Forverts took the lead in planning strikes months in advance.

Bosses read the Forverts, too, and even reprinted its articles in their trade publications. After all, they needed to know what their enemies were up to.

The Forverts was a force to be reckoned with, not merely a newspaper. It was said that no union officer could win an election without its endorsement.

Any institution as strong as the Forverts was bound to engender opposition. The satirical weekly, Der Groyser Kundes, typically depicted the Forverts as an overstuffed fat cat wearing a top hat in the shape of the newspaper’s 10-story headquarters, the Lower East Side’s tallest building. For decades, communists branded the Forverts a traitor to the working class.

The criticism attested to the newspaper’s profound influence. Hundreds of thousands of workers read the newspaper, celebrated it and looked to it for leadership. Above all, the Forverts instilled a new social ethic among immigrant Jews, a belief in the duty of workers and their unions to create a just society freed from poverty and inequality.

Tony Michels is the George L. Mosse Associate Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of “A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York” (Harvard University Press, 2005).


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