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Ladino and Yiddish –– Those Tools of Modernity

Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires

By Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Indiana University Press, 310 pages, $75


I’m thrilled to review this book by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, but not because it is well written. It is unnervingly didactic and obfuscatingly repetitive. Plus, its style is slooooow. And it also brags about its own erudition. Take its back matter as an example: Made of assiduous notes, a long-winded bibliography and an index, it takes a total of 95 pages, almost a third of the overall length. Is such display of marginalized information truly needed? Do readers benefit from inserting their fingers in different sections of the volume to keep track of location, and from going back and forth only to be rewarded with very little useful interpretation and too many recondite references that lead nowhere in particular?

All this isn’t solely Stein’s fault. “Making Jews Modern” falls into the much-abused tradition of bigheaded doctoral dissertations turned into first books. Tenure is the best review they target for, not passing comments like the ones I’m assembling here. She had an adviser to please and a committee to satisfy. She had to make her way into the system, like many of us. The result, predictably, is a bore.

That is true only if you look at Stein’s volume superficially, though. Once one pays closer attention to it, it is clear that its publication is something of a benchmark. She has produced a visionary study of two popular newspapers — one in Yiddish, one in Ladino: Der Fraynd and El Tiempo. The former was published in St. Petersburg and Warsaw between 1903 and 1913, the latter in Constantinople between 1872 and 1930. The premise supported by Stein is that both of these periodicals serve as lightning rods to understand the profound changes affecting the Jewry in the two major empires at the turn of the 20th century, the Russian and the Ottoman. The keyword, of course, is “comparative”: It is used and abused today, to the point that one wants to run as far away from it as possible. But for Stein, “comparative” is defined as an attempt to make the disparate analogous. She not only compares two newspapers, but also two civilizations: the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic. People often shy away from those comparisons for fear of falling into a well of stereotypes. Stein is shrewder.

Needles to say, archival material generated by those empires, if it survives at all, is extremely difficult to access. To complicate matters, Stein isn’t content with only looking at these newspapers; she wants to appreciate the entire era that gave them a raison d’être. Who financed them? What type of editorial staff did they have? How did the editors bridge the abyss between the sophisticated and the popular? And what was their readership like? What did that audience expect from them? Plus, she asks: To what extent was the Yiddish-speaking community similar to the Ladino-speaking one?

Lest it is forgotten, newspapers — and for that, media in general — are never mere conduits of information. They are pedagogical tools, affecting the way people go about their daily affairs. Political news, the advice column, the crime log, photographs, the opinion and business pages, the dining section, sports, are, put together, a mirror: Through them one is able to map the mind of an entire society. We are what we consume.

Census data is unavailable for the Jewish population in Russia and Turkey at the end of the 19th century and the early third of the next. Nevertheless, I have seen it estimated that four out of every five Jews in the world at the time were in Eastern Europe. She argues that 97% of Russian Jews declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue as late as World War II. Conversely, some 85% of Turkish Jews and the vast majority of Jews in other Ottoman states, such as Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Serbia and Greece, identified Ladino as their native tongue. Add to this the fact that fluency in the vernacular was widespread in both regions.

The transition of these Jewish communities, from agrarian or ghettoized status to a modern, more fully engaged one, is a fascinating topic of discussion. I can’t think of a more juicy way to examine that transition than the media. The impact that New York’s Jewish Daily Forward, under the editorship of Abraham Cahan, had on immigrants from the Pale of Settlement has been examined with breadth and consistency. At one point, the Yiddish newspaper had a circulation of 200,000 copies, an astonishing number even by our current standards. The metamorphosis of Jews from inner-city peddlers to suburban entrepreneurs is contained vividly in its pages. Likewise with the newspapers Stein has chosen. She suggests that as such the popular Jewish press appeared in the two empires within 20 years from each other: La Buena Esperanza appeared in Smyrna in 1842, and Kol Mevaser in Odessa in 1862. There were, no doubt, some interrupted periodicals before, but these became the established ones. There also were newspapers in Hebrew, as well as in non-Jewish languages like Russian, Polish, French and Turkish. These competed with their Yiddish and Ladino counterparts, but because of the omnipresence of the vernacular they lacked gravitas.

What gives “Making Jews Modern” an extra pat on the back are the cartoons, publicity ads, classified, poems, drawings and lithographs. There is, for instance, a reproduction of an advertisement — complete with images of svelte women — published November 8, 1903, in Der Fraynd for the Patented English Platinum Anti-Corset. And there’s an ad of August 29, 1910, in El Tiempo for Pink Pills, “for sick stomachs, a good treatment.” Stein devotes substantial space in the Russian Yiddish press to the depiction of the revolution of 1905-7, the rise of Zionism, the pogroms like the one in Bialystok in 1906 (a partial list of the Jews murdered in it was published July 7), and the response of intellectuals such as Ansky and Chaim Nachman Bialik. She highlights the affordability of technological items in Turkey that persuaded Jews to become more urbane: a typing machine, a desk lamp, the lottery, the insurance company, and the new clothing and department store. Stein shows how fashion and taste changed among Jews before the Holocaust. She scrutinizes the progress achieved in the printing and manufacturing of newspapers, which made possible the dramatic revolution — social, psychological, political, cultural — chronicled in her study.

I’m attracted to Stein’s adventurous spirit. So much of what passes for “enlightening” Jewish scholarship in the United States today is segregated into areas of expertise. Here, to a large extent because of the influx of Ashkenazic immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, little is done beyond the standard Yiddish-culture area. (This nearsightedness is almost nonexistent in France, for instance, where Jewish scholarship is far more diverse, showing an emphasis on the Sephardic, Mizrahic and “comparative” areas.) Specifically, Jewish scholars have a frighteningly limited knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and a slightly less fractional acquaintance with Ladino. This results in analysis that seldom ventures into new geographic territory. Is the inadequate academic interest in their impact on the Jews of Greece the result of the academics’ ignorance of Ladino and contemporary Greek civilization? Is it the same case with important places like the Dominican Republic?

In the end, Stein’s multicultural and polyglot identity are the explanation for her achievement. In “Making Jews Modern,” she proves that Jewish scholarship nowadays needs to take a global perspective. Demographics are no longer an excuse for myopia. As the context in which the Jewish scholar finds herself becomes more diverse, and as the Jewish community in the United States recognizes its own diversity, so, too, ought our knowledge be more far reaching.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He is also teaching in the MFA Program at Columbia University this semester. He edited “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature,” due out in January.

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