My relationship with the Forverts started in adolescence, when I first heard of it from one of my teachers at the Yidishe Schule in Mexico. He was a refugee from the war and an old-fashioned intellectual with a Sisyphus complex: His fanciful, lifelong mission was to introduce Mexican Jewish youngsters to Yiddish. In class, we had been reading Israel Joshua Singer’s novel “The Family Carnovsky” in Yiddish, and I was impressed by the author’s epic view of Polish life. When I told this to my teacher, he promised to lend me other books in Yiddish, which he did, officiously, the next day: a volume of Peretz’s writings, as well as “Yoshe Kalb.” He pointedly did not give me any of the work of Singer’s younger sibling, Isaac Bashevis, whom he looked down upon (an opinion my grandmother, also a reader of literature, shared: Bashevis, she said, was a “pornographer”), but he did give me a copy of the newspaper that published him — the Forverts, a place “where both the writers and readers are of high quality.”
I took an immediate interest. Soon I began to write in Yiddish. My first literary pieces were inspired by what my teacher gave me, and by other wonderful stuff I stumbled upon in general libraries: Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a play, again in Yiddish, inspired by the work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
When I moved to New York in 1985, the fact that I could buy my weekly copy at newsstands felt like a huge cultural leap, since access to the paper in Mexico was restricted. (My grandmother subscribed to a local Yiddish publication of suspicious quality.) I still have a vivid memory of a Sunday-morning pilgrimage to the historic building on the Lower East Side, from which the editorial offices moved in 1974. My experience happened a few weeks after my arrival. I moved in with an Italian roommate who had communist sympathies. We shared an apartment on Broadway and 121st Street. The two of us were still novices in the art of navigating the Manhattan map, and it took us almost six hours to find the place. Since we were fans of “Call It Sleep,” the trip also had the purpose of visualizing the scenario where Henry Roth’s protagonist child undergoes his epiphanies. Exhausted yet exhilarated, I remember writing my mother a letter in Yiddish that night about the outing. I told her that, more than ever, I wanted to become a Jewish writer and that I wanted to write for the Forverts.
On May 22, 1990, less than 100 years after the Yiddish paper’s foundation, the first issue of the English-language edition, called the Forward, came out. Although it cost 75 cents, free copies were in abundance on the Upper West Side in banks, pastry shops, even pizzerias. I grabbed one right away, thrilled about the paper’s new life. To me, its existence announced that American Jews were ready to look at themselves through a different prism. English wasn’t a gentile language anymore; it was a language of the Jews, showcasing their verbal cadence, their psychological traits.
What I felt while reading it still isn’t easy to explain, and in many ways it put me at odds with members of my literary generation. I already knew by then, without a reasonable doubt, that I wanted to make a life for myself in the United States. But I was still a correspondent for newspapers and magazines in Spain, Mexico and Venezuela. Virtually all my work was done in the Spanish language. But reading the Forward made me want to become an American writer — to add a different perspective to Jewish life north of the Rio Grande. My Hispanic heritage was seldom taken into account in Jewish circles, which were defined by a Eurocentric (non-Sephardic) appreciation. There were other Diasporas worthy of attention. If in Yiddish, the Forverts had helped Jewish immigrants become Americans, the English version could make them be less parochial, more cosmopolitan, a feat achievable only by adding another perspective, by helping them look at themselves through other lenses.
Of course, in doing so, I myself became an American Jew. I found a copy of Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers.” I reread Isaac Bashevis Singer, now away from the tutelage of teachers and grandmothers. And I become convinced of the social side of literature: To write isn’t exclusively an aesthetic effort, but a historical one, too. I realized that the writer’s only responsibility is to make full use of his talent as witness and participant of the time into which he was accidentally placed, to discern the major issues that define it, to use the imagination as a mirror to better understand our place in history.
My debut in the Forward occurred in 1994. It was one paragraph, accompanying an excerpt from “Camacho’s Wedding Feast,” from Alberto Gerchunoff’s “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas.” I had selected the story for my anthology “Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers,” the first book I ever sold to a New York publisher. Since then, I’ve been blessed with a string of superb editors, with whom I’ve developed a strong friendship: Jonathan Rosen, Robin Cembalest, Blake Eskin and Alana Newhouse. They’ve taught me how to be more succinct, less flamboyant with my style. Over the years I’ve had sustained discussions with them (over lunch, on the phone, at panels, in trips oversees) about the function of criticism in the age of the Internet.
It’s no euphemism to say that with their help, I learned how to write in English, how to appraise and reflect on culture in the broadest sense of the term: local and global, private and public. Other writers of my age seem allergic to the ethnic press, perceiving it as at once parochial and passé. Mine is the opposite view. The readers of El Diario/La Prensa, where I’ve had a weekly column, are neither sophisticated nor affluent, but they have the pulse of America, a nation mapped across racial lines, where Latinos are already a country within a country.
The syncopated pages of the Forward — whose influence in political, social and cultural terms has only grown in almost two decades — represent, in my view, a return to ethnicity by American Jews. They serve as a digest of a community reawakening to the excesses of assimilation — a register of the dreams, emotions and ideas we have, about ourselves and the world at large. What I enjoy in them is precisely what I can’t find elsewhere: the feeling that I belong to a small group, and that the group has a purpose, a raison d’être. In many ways, this feeling is a reversal of the mission of the Enlightenment, when European Jews were invited to be equals in the banquet of Western Civilization. Their acceptance was about erasing difference, about giving up a “primitive” religion, while becoming citizens, with all the rights and privileges thereof. Today, Jews are indeed equals — perhaps a little too much. Our role in shaping worldwide secular culture since the French Revolution is unquestionable, and in the United States it is perhaps even more central. But there’s nostalgia for what was lost along the way, and perhaps even the awareness of a betrayal that took place. With equality, Jews might have lost a cherished quality: uniqueness. Is there a way to recover it?
Ironically, almost every time I file a piece to the editorial offices of the Forward, the image comes to mind of Edmund Wilson, dean of American literary critics in the 20th century. His oeuvre represents the most distilled example of calibrated wisdom and accessible, aesthetically pleasing style. As Wilson attempted to reflect, in one lucid essay after another, the value of novels by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and William Faulkner, he also became infatuated with his country’s past, and on the Iroquois Indians in particular. The tension between the particular and the universal defines his thought, and it is this tension that intrigues me, too. As Jews, the more we erase our differences, the more we emphasize them.
My Yiddish teacher in Mexico died years ago. Sometimes I wish we could sit together again and shmooze about his gift to me.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His next book, “Love and Language” (Yake University Press), will be released in October.