If you stand at the lower Manhattan corner of East Broadway and Essex on just about any spring weekend, you’ll see tour guides leading groups around the neighborhood. They follow different routes, but all come to East Broadway at some point. Once the intellectual center of immigrant Jewish life, the street still hosts a number of functioning Jewish orga-nizations: the Educational Alliance, the Bialystoker Home for the Aged, the Orthodox weekly Algemeiner Zhurnal and several Orthodox synagogues.
East Broadway’s main attraction, though, is still the Forward building, currently undergoing conversion into multimillion-dollar condos. Once the tallest building on the Lower East Side, from 1912 to 1974 the 10-story Beaux Arts construction housed the Yiddish daily Forverts and other major socialist organizations, like the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. Indeed, on a rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side, it continues to stand as a monument of immigrant Jewish life. But while the building attracts its fair share of tourists, the Forward maintains no living presence on the Lower East Side. If the questions posed to me while leading walking tours of the neighborhood are any indication, many visitors to the area wonder if the newspaper even exists today.
It is time for the Forward to go back home.
The Forward building used to be the hub of Jewish political life on the Lower East Side. Important conventions and rallies often took place there. On election nights, masses of people would gather outside, waiting for the results to be projected onto the building’s exterior. In 1914, the crowd went ecstatic when Socialist lawyer Meyer London won his Congressional bid. The Forward building itself, reaching high above its neighbors, made a point. It declared, “We socialists speak for the East Side.” Even today, the building looks much as it did nine decades ago. It’s still graced by its original signage in Yiddish and English. Above the entryway arch, a pantheon of German socialists, including a visage of Karl Marx himself, peers down on East Broadway.
The Forward’s absence from its ancestral home is not the only problem: The newspaper has, for the most part, paid insufficient attention to its past. True, the Forward Association has been very busy maintaining two newspapers — one in English and one in Yiddish, major accomplishments both. And the recently published collection of photographs, culled from the newspaper’s back issues, is a welcome contribution.
Still, one can fairly expect more from one of New York’s great institutions. The Forward has yet to publish a comprehensive history of itself. (Scholars will forever curse the newspaper for discarding most of its records when it sold the building to move uptown in 1974.) Abraham Cahan’s five-volume memoir, “Bleter fun Mayn Lebn,” awaits complete translation four decades after the project began. And perhaps worst of all, the Forward has removed itself from the Lower East Side.
The Forward cannot, of course, reclaim its old building, but surely it can find a place for itself in the old neighborhood. One can imagine various kinds of venues: a café, club, performance space, gallery or some hybrid. The point would be to create something interesting and creative in keeping with the Forward’s best impulses: its embrace of the new, willingness to go against the grain and commitment to improving society. When the Forward began 110 years ago, the area had already earned a reputation as one of the most intellectually vibrant sections of New York City, right up there with Greenwich Village. Village bohemians, in fact, used to frequent the cafés in and around East Broadway, drawn by their peculiar atmosphere of Yiddishkeit and cosmopolitanism.
By moving south of Delancey Street, the Forward would not only reconnect with its past but also gain greater visibility than it now has on East 33rd Street. The Lower East Side’s benefits are obvious: growing numbers of young people, tourists, kindred institutions like the Eldridge Street Project and the Tenement Museum and, of course, proximity to the newspaper’s original home. If situated in the old neighborhood, it could even provide an umbrella space for Yiddish culture. The existing Yiddish cultural institutions do valuable work, but they are located out of the way, known mostly to Yiddish speakers. Several important organizations exist on East 33rd Street — including the Workmen’s Circle, League for Yiddish, Yugntruf-Youth for Yiddish, Living Traditions and the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater — but a new location downtown would give these organizations greater visibility and, ideally, would stimulate even more activity.
And it could be even more than this. American Jews today have become actively interested in their roots, as evidenced by trends too numerous to even list here. By returning home, the Forward could act as a vehicle for this reconnection, while simultaneously becoming — once again — a central address in American Jewish life. The future of the Lower East Side is too precious to be left in the hands of land developers and real estate agents, and the future of the newspaper too important to remain unmoored from its own place in history.
Tony Michels teaches 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, 2005).