If you come to the Museum at Eldridge Street to see the Forward’s old, photo-engraved press plates dating from the 1920s to the 1950s pressed into dreamy photo-mechanical prints, shot through with half-tone black and white inky dots, you’ll get to see how our paper, and most newspapers, once presented photographs.
Since metal type and plates like these were expensive to generate and were part of the daily needs of publishing, most newspapers melted them down, and few remain today. Fortunately, our plates were preserved, identified and re-housed, and remain in our archive.
The Forverts’s photo press plates, now on exhibit at the Museum at Eldridge Street, depict a range of historical events, bold-faced names, politicians, actors and athletes, and are unique expressions of the 20th century Jewish visual culture that impressed itself on readers of our paper.
There’s Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign Minister and head of that country’s UN delegation, in conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt. There’s the antic Molly Picon in Yiddish comic drag, and there are early animated characters like Bimbo by the Fleischer Brothers. There’s even Jackie Kennedy, replete in pillbox hat and elegant fall couture coat, holding up a copy of our paper, as if looking to see whether her own letter to the editor was published in it.
Thanks to the curatorial wisdom of Nancy Johnson, the Museum at Eldridge Street’s curator and archivist, master printer Rob Wilson, and the graphic smarts of Johanna Goldfield of the eponymous exhibition and graphic design company, the Forverts comes alive in blowups of the original newspaper pages featuring these images. The metal plates themselves are hung in shadow boxes so all can survey their magical negative-positive shadings, and the images they contain emerge in daylight from bogs of leftover swirls of ink.
Ayndruk, the Yiddish title we gave to the show, is a transcendent portmanteau made up of “in” and “print,” and speaks of how images, feelings, people, sights and sounds layer as impressions upon consciousness.
In the 1940s, Yiddish poet-elder Avrom Sutzkever, writing under extreme danger and duress in Nazi-occupied Vilna, penned a legendary mystical poem about melting the metal press plates of our oldest, best known Jewish press, which dated back to the 1700s. In the poem, he dreams of melting the Rom Press’s plates that had once printed an early diaspora set of the Talmud. Sutzkever and his comrade resistors to totalitarianism melt those plates into bullets to preserve our people.
We made for the press plates, to seize/ The lead plates at the Rom printing works./ We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,/ And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead./
With this exhibition, we recognize the miracle of our ongoing existence and the lingering impressions of Sutzkever’s dream poem driving our leap into the future - though we no longer drive our metal plates and type to press in horse and wagon as we once did in the very neighborhood where you can now see the plates displayed.
Even a secular, pluralistic Jewish newspaper can stop 122 years after its founding, have an exhibition in a meticulously-restored, turn-of-the-century synagogue, featuring historic metal press plates - after it’s gone digital only - and say: m’vorekh hashanim. Blessed are you, who blesses the years.
Chana Pollack is the Forward’s archivist.
“Pressed: Images from the Jewish Daily Forward runs through Spring 2020 at the Museum at Eldridge Street.