Yiddish

Posted by Ellen

A tour guide from the Tenement Museum points out features of the neighborhood surrounding the Forward Building at 175 Broadway in New York's Lower East Side.

The Daily Forward was founded at the turn of the twentieth century as a Yiddish-language newspaper for new immigrants from Eastern Europe who were then crowding into the Lower East Side and similar neighborhoods in other American cities. Forward readers were mostly poor people struggling to get a foothold in a new, strange land; the newspaper was active politically as well as editorially in the labor union movement and on behalf of an American Socialist party, and it also promoted cultural Americanization, particularly with respect to Old World Jewish religiosity, which the editors rejected in favor of a more secular and open-minded cultural identity. Among the writers: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Trotsky.

I remember seeing my grandparents reading The Forward on the front porch of their rowhouse in Baltimore in the 1950s. Yiddish was all Greek to me, but I distinctly recall how amusing it seemed that a newspaper called Forward was printed backward.

The irony doesn't stop there, however. The Forward Building in this photo, built by the Socialist publishers in 1917 when circulation exceeded a quarter of a million, was converted to condominiums in the 1990s; I've been told that units in the building start at more than $2 million. The Lower East Side of Manhattan is still a landing place for new immigrants–note the signs in Chinese on the two buildings at the right edge of the picture–but gentrification now attracts rich people to the neighborhood as well. There may still be sweatshops here, but the pushcarts are definitely gone.

The Forward survives today, though just barely, in weekly English and Yiddish editions, each with a circulation of a few thousand.