The Yiddish American poet H. Leyvik (1888–1962) stated in 1923, that the Yiddish press in America was “the greatest enemy of Yiddish literature,” and that it only posed as interested in developing Yiddish culture,1 Meylekh Ravich (1893–1976) responded from Warsaw that the situation there was not much better.2 The Jewish educator Yisroel Rubin (1890–1954) warned shortly afterwards that “the press swallows our literature”3 and that the “greed” of the newspapers was a real danger to Yiddish literature and its creators. The rationale behind this was that in order to make a living, the writers had to waste their time writing shallow journalism. A question that arises is how far do these expressions reflect the reality of the period in which they were written? Assuming that such a trend existed, it may be asked whether it was a new phenomenon or the continuation of an existing state.
To answer these questions it is necessary to look back to the beginnings of the modern Yiddish press in Eastern Europe that emerged with the appearance of Alexander Tsederboym’s (1816–1893) Kol-mevaser [A Voice of Tidings] in 1862, as a Yiddish supplement to his Hebrew weekly, Hamelits [The Advocate] (Odessa). Besides the possible profitable aspect of a popular paper in the spoken language, Tsederboym’s initiative also had clear didactic and socio-political aims. He hoped to bring the Jewish masses to forsake the use of Yiddish in favor of German or Russian. It was only at a later stage, and due to the campaign in favor of Yiddish that was led in Kol-mevaser by Yehoshua Mordekhay Lifshits (1829–1878), that Tsederboym came to realize that Yiddish could be an aim in itself.4
Tsederboym included literary works in his newspaper with the intention of culturally advancing the Jewish reading public. In its first year the newspaper published translations of poems by Gabriel Risser and Alexander Pushkin. However, the first significant contribution made by this newspaper to the development of Yiddish literature was at the end of 1864 with the publication, in installments, of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s (1836–1917) first literary work in Yiddish, Dos kleyne mentshele [The Little Man], where the famous character of Mendele the book-seller was first introduced. Abramovitsh, who was already known as a Hebrew maskil, signed only with his initials. In his memoirs he recalled the doubts he had regarding the use of Yiddish for literary purposes, and how surprised he was by the great success the novel had among its readers. In flowery Biblical language he described his deep emotions towards the despicable Jewish “zhargon” and his decision to include Yiddish in his writing.5
Another writer who published for the first time in Yiddish was Yitskok Yoel Linetski (1839–1915). His Dos poylishe yingl [The Polish Boy] in Kol-mevaser was published in several issues of the journal in 1871 and, like Dos kleyne mentshele, was immediately reprinted as a separate booklet for the benefit of those who had missed reading it in the newspaper. Besides this anti-hassidic novel, Linetski also wrote feuilletons, which were the most attractive part of the paper after the serialized novels. Thus, Kol-mevaser introduced the Yiddish reader not only to “proper” literature, but also to the feuilleton. As in the contemporary Russian press, authors, who would later become well known, wrote feuilletons. These were based on lively topics from everyday life that were draped in a literary style and read with great enjoyment.6
In his paper Alexander Tsederboym published a number of works by Avrom Ber Gotlober, such as a translation of a fable by Krilov (1863) and most importantly his anti Hassidic satire Der gilgul [The Reincarnation] (1871). Poems by Avrom Goldfaden were also published there from 1863 onwards, as were a poem, a feuilleton and a translated story by the famous Hebrew writer Yehuda Leyb Gordon (1866, 1868, 1872). Because of the exceptional and somewhat revolutionary character of Kol-mevaser, it served as a platform for female writers, where they were able to express their criticism regarding current Jewish social affairs and to show their abilities as writers or translators from German, French and Russian. Unfortunately...