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Rescuing Yiddish History

Rokhl’s Golden City: How the archives of a legendary newspaper were saved from the garbage

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 08, 2019
Inset photo: Forward Archives/Chana Pollack
Chana Pollack Inset photo: Forward Archives/Chana Pollack
Inset photo: Forward Archives/Chana Pollack
Chana Pollack Inset photo: Forward Archives/Chana Pollack

There are two parts to the story about the Forverts/Forward archive: a legend and a dream.

The legend is that in 1974, the Forward Association sold its iconic building on East Broadway, the one that had been built for them in 1912. Adorned with bas relief sculptures of Marx and Engels, the 10-story building had briefly towered over a neighborhood then known as Yiddish newspaper row. But by the mid-1970s, the Forverts building towered over no one and Yiddish newspaper row was long gone. The building was bought by a Chinese family, part of subsequent waves of Chinese immigration that transformed the Lower East Side.

As the newspaper prepared to move to its new home at 45 East 33rd St., it kept some of its archival material, but a good part of 62 years of accumulated papers, photos, and other ephemera were placed carefully in a dumpster, to be hauled away as garbage.

Somehow, word about what was happening made its way to the Bund headquarters on the Upper East Side, and Bund archivist Hillel Kempinski. Kempinski sprang into action, salvaging whatever he could of the discarded Forverts items. He brought them to YIVO, the most important archive of Yiddish-speaking Jews, then also located on the Upper East Side. You can still identify if a photo in YIVO’s archive was rescued from the Forverts dumpster by the characteristic newspaper pencil and crop marks on it.

If this story sounds sort of familiar, it’s not because you’ve heard it, but because you’ve heard one very nearly like it. Rescuing Yiddish books from dumpsters was at the core of the Yiddish Book Center’s mission for decades and earned founder Aaron Lansky a MacArthur fellowship. He wrote a whole book about it called Outwitting History.

Though Yiddish books do have an unfortunate habit of ending up in dumpsters, it’s a mistake to read that as a tragic inevitability inherent to Yiddish texts. Rather, it tells us that archival treasure is in the eye of the beholder. The difference between literal garbage and priceless documents is often a matter of skilled interpretation plus available storage. New York is rich in the former and, as you may know, impoverished in the latter.

I learned about the legend of the Forverts move the way great stories are supposed to be passed on, face to face, in an anonymous skyscraper with amazing views and forgettable interiors. That is, I went downtown to the current Forward headquarters on Maiden Lane (where it’s been located since 2008), where I met with the paper’s delightful archivist, Chana Pollack.

Pollack started at the Forverts in 1999. She received the legend of the move from YIVO archivist Leo Greenbaum, decades after the fact. Not just a historical tidbit, this was an origin story, one that explained the present contours of the Forverts holdings, as well as its mutuality with YIVO.

On the one hand, the Forverts was a newspaper just like any other. Methodical preservation of its own history was a luxury in a business where deadlines loomed every day and staffing (and physical space) was always inadequate. There’s a reason most newspapers have morgues, not archives.

On the other hand, the Forverts was never just another newspaper. As Pollack said to me, the Forverts was built on love and intimate connection. Which seems like a weird thing to say about a newspaper, but, having myself spent a great deal of time around the Forverts, also feels instinctively true.

Then there’s the dream. Pollack had it shortly after she started work in the archive, then located in the basement of 45 East 33rd St. In the dream she was in the basement. Legendary Forverts editor Abraham Cahan and Forverts managing editor Hillel Rogoff floated out of the building’s infamous elevator of horrors, into the basement. “They were looking at this immense light pouring out of the archives office,” Pollack told me, “and then just as weirdly the Kohen Godol [High Priest] in white vestments wearing … urim v’tumim [jeweled breastplate of the Temple High Priest] steps out of the archive.”

It’s no exaggeration to say the hundreds of thousands of dedicated Forverts readers built the paper into a Temple, with Cahan as its high priest. The religion of this Temple was idealistic, a mix of pro-labor socialism, pro-capitalism, and pro-Americanization Yiddishkayt.

Cahan may have been difficult and imperious—he held sway for decades—but at the end of the day he was a servant of the paper, not its owner. Instead, the Forward Association, a voluntary collective association, was both governance board and corporate owner, a structure that remains in place today. I’m not sure exactly what was hidden in the basement Holy of Holies, but I’d absolutely believe it was the American pintele yid (spark of Jewishness) that has kept the Forverts going long past the point anyone expected.

The Forward Association has transformed from its midcentury heyday as a tightly disciplined, progressive political machine into a much more conventional publisher. The newspaper has transformed, over time, too, adding a Russian and English edition, then moving to a monthly magazine, and as of this month—the current issue of the Forward is its last in print—an online-only English and Yiddish publication. Despite earlier transitional missteps (see the part with the dumpster), the archive has entered the digital age strongly. You can read and search the Forverts online, through 1979, through the National Library of Israel.

Back issues were microfilmed way back when and the Forverts never really kept hard copies on premises. What they had, though, was photographs, first and foremost. The Forverts was unusual among Yiddish papers in that it had its own dedicated photographers, as well as photos purchased from wire services. From the late 1920s through the ’50s the Forverts produced lavishly illustrated “roto” sections with family portraits, ladies’ glamour shots, human interest stories, and much more. A year’s worth of these illustrated editions would be bound in oversize volumes and the Forverts has in its archive half the run, with YIVO possessing the other half.

Almost as interesting as the photos are the minute books of the Forward Association. Pasted into oversize ledgers are all manner of the association’s business: editorial board elections, the allocation of charitable funds, disciplinary actions against members for supporting the wrong candidate (!), and more than one peevish note from author Sholem Asch written on hotel stationery.

There are a number of ways you can access the Forverts archive. For example, hard copies of old issues of the Forverts are available for a limited date range, between 1984 and 2007. If you’re researching a specific Forverts writer or are looking to do research in the photo archive, you can get in touch with Pollack directly.

As Pollack said to me, there’s something mystical about the fact that the paper, and its archives have made it this far, together, even if in a truncated form. I don’t disagree that there’s a whiff of the miraculous to be found in the Forverts archive today. In this age of declining heritage media, it’s far from certain that a publication will retain its own archive.

But as historian Lisa Moses Leff has written, “archives are themselves historical artifacts. Investigating their history sheds light on the worldviews of their builders and the contexts in which they were built.” That some information, for example, is considered important enough to keep means that that information will inform the questions we ask about history (and the answers we are able to formulate). The choices behind any archive, and the way it is assembled, organized, and labeled, all constitute a form of historical data, one easily damaged or lost. When it comes to archival knowledge, Leff argues, context is everything.

Leff’s book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust is about academic and government archives and how they were affected by a decades-long pattern of theft by one man, Zosa Szajkowski. But even if an archive was created for commercial purposes it may still constitute priceless historical information.

At the turn of the 20th century, historian Simon Dubnow revolutionized the field of Jewish history. He realized that before serious analysis could be pursued, the material record of Jewish life had to be preserved. He put out a call to Jewish communities and they responded with enthusiasm, sending him all manner of communal records. Dubnow’s work directly influenced the founders of YIVO, many of whom had been his students.

YIVO’s core activity (which it continues to this day) was collecting material that spoke to the everyday life of Eastern European Jews. In this effort they were aided by an army of collectors, or zamlers, ordinary Jews invested in this new project of Jewish history. The collection activities of Dubnow and then YIVO were essential to Diaspora Nationalism, a Jewish identity that was modern, Yiddish-speaking, and rooted in Eastern European life.

Ironically, though, the process that made the YIVO archives possible, and Dubnow’s collection activities before that, in some ways echoes what Leff explores in The Archive Thief. That is, countless documents attesting to European Jewish life were removed from their original quotidian contexts and brought into academic collections. These collections used very old texts in novel configurations to produce new ways of being Jewish in the world. As valuable as they were, those new ways of being did have a price.

The Forverts may not have been attentive to its own historical legacy as an internationally distributed daily, but the modern era of the newspaper, along with the innovations of digital flexibility, has turned out to be a golden age of historically informed journalism (and a much more methodical approach to institutional memory). The Forward is also fortunate to have people like Pollack (and others) who can provide professional, on-the-spot Yiddish translation. With her infectious enthusiasm and easy laugh, Pollack is the anti-gatekeeper, an archivist who only wants you to look closer, to ask more questions, to get hooked on the mysteries of the archive. She’s the perfect person to facilitate the many levels of translation necessary for this kind of project.

With the Throwback Thursday feature, Pollack used the photo archive to find striking images of women and write their stories. Throwback Thursday was also an opportunity to use archival materials to write women back into the story of the newspaper, which had for so long been dominated by larger-than-life men.

In 2002, Eddy Portnoy was hired to write English-language synopses of archival Yiddish articles. Those Forward Looking Back columns were his introduction to “a Jewish community that didn’t exist in history books.” Without the Forward Looking Back assignment there might not have been a Bad Rabbi, Portnoy’s unforgettable (and groundbreaking) tour through the seediest parts of Yiddish tabloid journalism. I find something incredibly hopeful in that. We think we’re the ones writing history, even changing it, when it’s actually the archive that is always and ever transforming us.

MORE: The Forward has brilliantly mined its archives for a number of books. Start with 2007 and Tablet editor Alana Newhouse’s sumptuous tribute to the photos of the Forverts, A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward. Have I Got a Story for You features fiction from the Forverts selected by Ezra Glinter. Abe Cahan invented the newspaper advice column with A Bintl Brif; artist Liana Finck reinvented the column with her illustrations. And finally, The Forward: From Immigrants to Americans is an absolute gem of a film that is equal parts time capsule and documentary. You’ll feel as though you have traveled much further back than 1988. The accents alone make it worth the trip.

ALSO: JxJ is “a multidisciplinary arts project that encompasses the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the Washington Jewish Music Festival. …” The JxJ festival features an amazing lineup of music, including lots of top notch Yiddish and klezmer. May 8 through May 26. … I saw Frank London and Deep Singh’s Bagels & Bhangra fusion project at the last Yiddish New York. I’m not exaggerating, we were on the second floor of the music venue, and I thought the whole thing was going to collapse under the weight of dancing folks pretty much losing their minds (including myself). Saturday, May 18, 8 p.m at City Winery. … The annual reading of Sholem Aleichem’s ethical will takes place once again at the historic Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy. Sunday, May 19. Registration is a must. … In Dreams Begin Responsibilities is an evening of multidisciplinary performances curated by Frank London. It pays tribute to great Jewish cultural figures whose work altered the course of American history, including experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin, and cartoonist Rube Goldberg. I have no idea what this is going to be like, but it will be memorable, no doubt. Tuesday, May 28, 7 p.m. at the New York Public Library, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Reserve your ticket now. … As noted in my last column, this is Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday year. In Walt’s honor the Congress for Jewish Culture will be holding the first ever public reading of the Yiddish translation of Leaves of Grass. Thursday, May 30, at 7 p.m. at the Opera Center, 330 Seventh Ave. Make sure you sign up and take a section to read. … Workmen’s Circle presents the annual Taste of Jewish Culture Street Festival, Sunday, June 16, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sixth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. … In London this August? Learn to sing Yiddish song at the Golden Peacock Yiddish Song School. It’s led by internationally acclaimed Yiddish singer and teacher Shura Lipovsky with esteemed colleagues from around the world. Opens Aug. 18. … There’s a new exhibit up at YIVO called Rise of the Yiddish Machines: The Typewriter and Yiddish Literature. YIVO exhibitions curator Eddy Portnoy has put together a fascinating story told through the satisfying clunk and thunk of material history. On display through Dec. 31. … The Folksbiene just announced its new season and I’m happy to see they’ll be staging Avrom Goldfaden’s operetta Di Kishefmakherin (The Sorceress). Goldfaden is the father of modern Yiddish theater and it’s a rare treat to see his works staged these days. Di Kishefmakherin opens Dec. 1, make sure you get tickets now, it’s going to be a short run. … I just discovered the Tenement Museum’s wonderful new podcast How to Be American. Episode 4, “Sing Like an American,” does something really unique; it shows us how to imagine ourselves into history through sounds, specifically, the sounds of the women of the Lower East Side, at home, on the shop floor and out at play.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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