One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But in contrast, we tend to know less about average Jews, whose lives didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of their stories, reconstructed from century-old newspaper accounts.
Newspaper readers don’t often consider what kind of behind-the-scenes insanity goes into the articles they peruse. I’m not referring here to either the intrepid news-gathering or the hysterical keyboard pounding of writers on deadline. The insanity I’m curious about has to do with the tension-filled relationship between writers and editors.
Is it true, as some writers contend for example, that editors wantonly destroy perfect copy? Or do they artfully reshape a writer’s prose into a more cogent text? The editor-journalist relationship is as fraught as that between a mohel and baby. The mohel has no choice but to snip; the baby has no choice but to cry, but he drinks a little wine and he gets over it.
Renowned for its minor and major disputes, the Yiddish press was a place where editors ruled inky fiefdoms, cracking the whip over writers who served as bitter and often disloyal subjects. Editors controlled the fates and livelihoods of writers and journalists, many of whom felt the press functioned as a kind of commercial department of Yiddish literature—something over which they felt they should have more control.
Most of the battles within the Yiddish journalistic world never left the perimeter of the editor’s desks. But on occasion, these spats leapt out of the editorial offices and onto the pages of the papers, making for some of the juiciest Yiddish snark this side of Pinsk.
When, for instance, famed columnist Hillel Zeitlin jumped ship in late 1910 from Warsaw’s daily Haynt to a new competitor, Moment, his editor, Shmuel Yatskan, was furious but temporarily held his tongue.
Zeitlin had been one of Haynt’s most popular columnists. Born into a family of Lubavitcher Hasidim, he strayed from his yeshiva studies after discovering Spinoza, Nietszche, and a slew of other Western thinkers. Like any shtetl kid in the process of ridding himself of tradition, he moved to the city—Warsaw, in this case—and involved himself in Jewish political matters and journalism. But Zeitlin never completely gave up his traditional ways, and an interest in Kabbalah eventually brought him back, not only to full religious observance, but to a promotion of Jewish tradition in his newspaper columns.
Zeitlin’s former editor, Yatskan, was also a Litvak plying journalism in Warsaw. An ordained rabbi from the highly regarded Ponevezh Yeshiva, Yatskan was a major figure in the Yiddish press, having founded some of Warsaw’s early Jewish dailies, including Haynt, which became the best-selling Yiddish paper in Poland.
With an understanding that a popular newspaper should have a broad mandate, Yatskan printed a lot of sensationalistic trash along with high-quality literature, as well as excellent cultural and political criticism. His papers always appealed to the widest possible audience.
That’s where Zeitlin fit in. Able to synthesize abstract philosophical ideas about Jewish culture, religion, and modern society into a readable article, Zeitlin was one of the paper’s major assets. In particular, his columns appealed to religious readers. So, when he decided to abandon Yatskan’s Haynt it was a devastating blow.
Yatskan and Zeitlin sniped at each other for a while, printing what in Yiddish is called “secrets from kheyder.” Words like hypocrite, trash, liar, and provocateur were bandied about briefly, but then things seemed to settle down. The appearance of tranquility was deceptive, however, and by September in 1913, Yatskan could no longer control his anger at Zeitlin’s departure and rekindled the fight by printing a blurb in Haynt by an unnamed “correspondent” from Pinsk:
Seeing how Hillel Zeitlin is still around and unashamedly screams before the public in regard to his holiness and complains about the “lies” that are being spread about him, that he, tragically, is a “holy man” who is being hounded for his religiosity, and also has the audacity to compare the accusation against the victim of the Kiev blood-libel with himself, it is my duty to remind him of the fact that when he was here, in Pinsk giving a lecture, I, along with numerous others who can verify it, saw with my own eyes, as the others saw with theirs, how in the train station buffet he ate a pork chop, with a roll, followed by a cutlet.
Although this rambling sentence (21 lines of one newspaper column) was a grammatical mess, it was also a finely crafted accusation, attacking Zeitlin for his hypocrisy, arrogance, and trangression: the eating of trayf.
The accusation was the last straw. Zeitlin and the Moment staff responded in the paper by saying that Yatskan and Haynt were rank liars attacking a former colleague who had left for good reason. In printed testimonials supporting their besmirched colleague, dozens of journalists sided with Zeitlin.
Haynt, as well the daily Der fraynd, pounded away at Zeitlin, attacking him for all manner of sin, ranging from writing on Shabbos to violating Yom Kippur. Moment shot back, asserting that Yatskan wrote a fake Torah, printed pornography, and promoted conversion among Jews, claims Yatskan said were “a product of unscrupulous swindlers and a gang of Sodomites who created a horror story comparable to some of the worst crimes ever committed.” No one ever accused Yatskan of subtlety.
To Zeitlin’s readers the attacks were devastating. How could their beloved writer, a frumer yid, stand accused of such heinous transgressions? Thousands signed petitions of support and wrote letters, dozens of which Moment published. Haynt claimed that it was all a ploy: The letters and the names were fakes.
Yiddish cartoonists had a field day: Zeitlin’s bushy beard and shock of long hair made for great caricatures. With the battle coming to a head just before Yom Kippur, Yosef Tunkel, the brightest satirical light of 20th century Yiddish, found the perfect analogy for this tempest—the kapores slaughter ritual, a custom in which Jews on the eve of Yom Kippur wave a chicken over their heads three times and then kill it in order to expiate their sins (the Jew’s, not the chicken’s).
Tunkel drew Zeitlin’s bushy head onto the chicken with which Yatskan performs kapores, while chicken Zeitlin defecates. The image perfectly captured their unhappy relationship. By the time this cartoon appeared on the cover of Tunkel’s special Yom Kippur humor magazine, the organized Jewish community had begun to freak out over the fact that the mudslinging had gotten so out of hand, that the Polish press had begun to report on it in a series of “look at these crazy Jews” articles.
At that point a number of communal leaders decided to create an arbitration panel to put an end to the ugly public dispute. There was probably no need; by early October, 1913, the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial was underway, a huge story that dominated the Yiddish press through the fall as the Zeitlin-Yatskan episode fizzled into another forgotten incident in Jewish journalism, though it remains an exemplar of the way editors and journalists, Yiddish or otherwise, feel about each other.
Eddy Portnoy, the Academic Adviser and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.