In 1998, Rukhl Schaechter was working as a Yiddish teacher at a Jewish day school in Riverdale, in the Bronx, when she got a call from Boris Sandler, the new editor of The Yiddish Daily Forward, or Forverts. Mordechai Strigler, the editor of Forverts since 1987, had died suddenly from a brain injury after a fall and the paper wanted to hire Schaechter as a new reporter. “Boris said he was looking for frishe koykhes—fresh, young blood” said Schaecter, who comes from a family of Yiddishists.
Schaechter took the job, though her passion at the time was writing Yiddish fiction; she wasn’t sure how she would adapt to the daily grind of the newspaper business. In the newsroom, she found herself alone in more ways than one—an Orthodox woman in her 40s, surrounded by a staff that was mostly male, secular, and decades older, a majority of them Holocaust survivors. (Schaechter said there were three Hasidic men on staff at the time.)
Now, 18 years later, Schaechter is embarking on the next step of her journey at Forverts: earlier this spring, the newspaper announced Sandler’s retirement and Schaechter’s appointment to his old position. Schaechter is the first woman to helm the paper in its 119-year history, its first editor to have been born in the United States, and likely its first editor who is shomer Shabbos. I recently sat down with Schaechter to talk about her new role and its significance for the paper, along with the changing face of the Yiddish world, her upbringing, and, above all, her love for the Yiddish language, its people, and its culture.
“Yiddish,” said Schaechter, “is the language of my heart.”
Schaechter, 59, grew up in the Bronx in a Yiddish-speaking household that she described as “traditional” but not particularly devout. Her parents kept “nominally” kosher: Friday nights they would make kiddush and say ha’motzi, then watch television together.
Her father was Mordkhe Schaechter, the Yiddish linguist, writer, and educator, who died in 2007. Rukhl went to public school and to Camp Hemshekh, a socialist Jewish summer camp in Sullivan County where “everybody knew Yiddish.” They put on Yiddish theater productions, and when they played camp-wide games, teams were named after Yiddish writers like Avrom Goldfaden, Itzik Manger, and Sholem Aleichem.
As a teenager, Schaechter wrote Yiddish stories, some of which were published in the magazine of Yugntruf (“Call to Youth”), an organization for Yiddish-speaking youth and young adults, founded under the guidance of her father. Schaechter said it was around this time that she started becoming interested in religion. Growing up, she had watched her father, part of a community of secular Bundists, attend Orthodox shuls on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; he always brought something to read, in case he got bored, she said.
“I started asking my father questions about God, and he lost his temper,” Schaechter recounted. “He said, ‘What do you want from me? You know I’m an atheist.’”
“I said, ‘You are?! Then why were you making kiddush and [saying] ha’motzi all these years?’”
Her father replied, “For you.”
“It really struck me,” Schaechter said. “Somebody else might’ve thought, ‘That’s so hypocritical, he’s an atheist and yet he’s doing these prayers?’ But I felt he was very ahead of his time. He understood that if he didn’t give us those traditions, even if he didn’t believe in them himself, the fact that he was handing them over as a cultural treasure was so important.”
In 1975, Schaechter went to Barnard, where she earned a bachelor’s in psychology—a decision she fondly calls “a detour.” She later earned a second bachelor’s as a member of the last class at Jewish Teachers Seminary-Herzliya, followed by a master’s from Bank Street College of Education on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Schaechter’s husband grew up in Communist Poland and never learned how to read Hebrew or daven. She took him to services in an Orthodox shul, but they weren’t able to sit together, and she said he felt uncomfortable. “He said, ‘I’d rather sit next to you,’” she recounted. “So even though I really would’ve preferred an Orthodox shul like my parents used to attend, I joined the Conservative shul in Riverdale.”
To her surprise, Schaechter found the Conservative services liberating. “I learned how to leyn [read from the Torah]…I was leading services, and I learned a lot!” she said.
Eventually, though, she and her husband bought a house in Yonkers, and the neighborhood shul was Orthodox—finally, Schaechter felt she had found her place. “I liked the fact that people invite each other to lunch every Shabbos,” she said. “I said, ‘Now this is a community.’ ”
Schaechter also wanted her sister in Israel to be able to eat in her house when she visits. Of her three siblings—two sisters and a brother—all three women eventually became Orthodox. (Her brother leads the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, a New York City-based Yiddish choral group.)
“I threw out all my pots, all my dishes, and I bought whole new sets of pots, I toveled them,” she said. “You take them to the mikvah because it’s considered holy, what you’re eating.” When she told her sister, she started to cry and told Schaechter, “Every Friday night when I lit candles, I was saying, ‘God, please make Rukhl frum.’’
“That,” said Schaechter, “was very touching.”
Much has changed in the Yiddish world since Schaechter joined Forverts. The resurgence of interest in Yiddish, a phenomenon that began before Schaechter joined the paper, continues. Meanwhile, American Hasidic communities, many of whom continue to speak Yiddish as a first language, have also grown tremendously. Many of the old staff have died, while the ubiquity of the Internet, which has transformed the newspaper and journalism industry, has taken Forverts along with it.
“I think the biggest change that happened to Forverts was when we went online,” Schaechter said. “That really allowed us to give access to people who want to support Yiddish but don’t know the language.”
Today, Forverts has an active YouTube channel (their videos all have English subtitles) and a Facebook page. Forverts‘ website even has an embedded Yiddish-English dictionary, an innovation from Sandler’s tenure.
Schaechter herself got involved early on, launching a cooking show with Yiddish educator and foodie Eve Jochnowitz. The first iteration of the show, called “Eat in Good Health!” ran for more than 30 episodes and covered Ashkenazi culinary classics like challah, gefilte fish, tzimmes, kugel, blintzes, and matzo balls. Recently, the show has retooled as “Timeless Delicacies,” offering shorter episodes featuring cultural reflections about food along with quick rundowns of recipes. In a recent episode, world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman shared his mother’s recipe for potato salad with schmaltz.
Schaechter said these videos are an essential way for the paper to reach one of its newest audiences: aging Jews, many of them children of Holocaust survivors, who are finding community on the Internet.
“As I got on Facebook I befriended many people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, who have such a strong attachment to Yiddish,” Schaechter said. “They didn’t even know there was a Yiddish newspaper, didn’t know there were Yiddish videos, didn’t know that anybody was doing anything about Yiddish. And suddenly they hear this Yiddish and say, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t heard those words in years!’ ”
Schaechter said that many of these Jews feel nostalgic for Yiddish culture, having grown up during a period of great assimilation for American Jews. “Their parents were terrified of speaking Yiddish to them,” she said. “They wanted the kids to learn English… A lot of people are rethinking what they have missed.”
Forverts’ videos are particularly powerful for this community, Schaechter said, since many don’t speak Yiddish but are excited to learn about the culture. For Yiddish speakers, though, the paper will launch a new column called “Ask Dr. Berger,” with Zackary Berger, a Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University (and Tablet contributor). The column will feature Berger’s answers to readers’ medical questions in Yiddish. Schaechter said she hopes it will help rebuild the paper’s interactive relationship with readers, perhaps hearkening back to the days of the “Bintel Brief” advice column, started by founding editor Abraham Cahan.
Schaechter also hopes to reach more Hasidim. For many of them, she said, Forverts represents a vital lifeline to the world outside their own.
“They have their own newspapers—Der Yid, Der Blat—but they’re predictable. They talk about their own community, but they don’t talk about sensitive issues. When it comes to Forverts, they get to read everything—what’s happening in the reform community, and in the gay community. And for many of them, Yiddish is still more heymish than English.”
Historically, Forverts, founded in 1897, was a leftist, secular newspaper. Many of its staffers were socialists and Bundists who wanted nothing to do with religion. (For a more thorough exploration of this dynamic, Forverts published an episode of its “Treasures from the Forverts’ Archive” web series last year about the newspaper’s historical relationship to religious observance.)
As an Orthodox Jew, Schaechter might have a better chance than any previous editor to build new ties with Hasidic readers. She’s already put plans in motion toward that end, finding Hasidic bloggers to write for the paper, and allowing them to write in their own Hasidic Yiddish, rather than the paper’s standard Yiddish.
Non-Yiddishists may not realize the potential impact of this move. It was the work of Schaechter’s father, along with others, that helped standardize Yiddish after the Holocaust, developing what has come to be known as “YIVO Yiddish,” named after the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which has served as an academic center for Yiddish language and culture since the 1920s.
“In YIVO Yiddish, you write ‘Yiddish’ starting with two yuds with a dot, but that’s not the way Yiddish used to be written, that’s not the way Hasidim write it,” Schaechter explained. Hasidim still write in this pre-YIVO Yiddish, where the word “Yiddish” is spelled Iydish, starting with the characters alef, yud. Appropriately, Forverts’ new Hasidic blog is called “Iydish Mit an Alef,” or Yiddish with an alef.
“If we want Hasidim to continue to read us—they don’t mind reading us in YIVO Yiddish, but you can’t ask them to write in YIVO Yiddish,” Schaechter said. “This [blog] is for Hasidim to write in their Yiddish. And you have to understand, when [the blog] was first posted in their Yiddish, without any of the YIVO diacritical marks, there were people who protested.”
Schaechter said she has two columnists from the Hasidic community lined up for the blog. One of them is a woman, and both will remain anonymous. “I wanted them to have the freedom to write about their community without feeling that somebody might find out,” she said.
She also hopes to bring more women to Forverts. “I’m hoping that when women see me, see how seriously I take writing in Yiddish and reading in Yiddish, that it will inspire them.”
I asked Schaechter how she hopes to balance the needs of such diverse groups, from Hasidim to nostalgic Baby Boomers, along with new generations of Yiddishists. Schaechter said Forverts conducted a survey last year, in which they found that readers were not interested in reading Yiddish articles that they could read in English elsewhere. They wanted to hear about the Yiddish world, Schaechter said.
“That was really a wakeup call for us,” she said. Since then, Forverts has focused on news that might go unreported in other newspapers—for example, the University of Wisconsin’s 100th anniversary celebration of its Yiddish program, or a Yiddish festival at a reform synagogue in Las Vegas.
According to some Yiddishists, Schaechter said, many American Jews found a new source of pride in Yiddish in the last few decades. “I think people started to see Yiddish as a basic form of their Jewish identity,” she said.
Schaechter was reminded of her father, a dialectologist, who would interview Jews from the shtetl and catalog their unique foods and expressions—sometimes discovering something as simple as a new synonym to a word that he’d never heard.
“He felt it was so important that each one of us maintain the kind of dialect that we heard at home, and not feel any shame,” she said. “And I think I feel that also. I want the Hasidic [community] to be proud of their Yiddish…and I want people who are just learning Yiddish to learn from others. We have a lot to learn from each other.
“No matter who we are, Jew or non-Jew, religious or not religious, progressives, Republicans, the fact that everybody loves Yiddish—that they can actually get into a room and have a great conversation and enjoy each other’s company, because we’re literally speaking the same language.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former ‘Forverts’ editor Mordechai Strigler died of a heart attack. In fact, Strigler died of a brain injury. Lastly, Rukhl Schaechter’s husband grew up in Communist Poland, not the Soviet Union.