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Special JTA Interview the Forward: University of Life for the Jewish People

May 9, 1972
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Some 30 years ago the prophets of doom predicted that by the beginning of the current decade Yiddish newspapers would cease to exist. Attrition and assimilation would, they said, reduce the readership of the Yiddish press to the zero point. Simon Weber, editor of the oldest and largest existing Yiddish dally in this country, smiled as he recalled this dire prognostication. On May 21, a day after Shavuot, the Forward will celebrate Its 75th anniversary and as he sees the future, “We have enough young people interested in Yiddish to give me hope that this paper will live long after I’m gone.”

During a recent interview, Weber Sat in his office on the ninth floor of the Forward Building on East Broadway and scanned New York’s lower East Side that was once the heart throb of the Jewish metropolis of this country and now is a polyglot area of predominately Jewish, Black and Hispanic people. In the past few months alone, he noted, the Forward’s readership climbed from an estimated 56,000 to almost 75,000 daily. Part of this increased circulation, Weber said, was due to the tragic demise of the Day-Morning Journal last Dec. But more important to the growth and continued expansion of the Forward, he said, is “the revival of Yiddishkeit” among young people, intellectuals, instructors and assistant professors in the colleges and universities around the country.

“There is a renewed thirst for the knowledge of Yiddish and the contributions of the Jewish people to history, culture, science and the arts,” Weber said. “We in turn spur this interest by providing them with certain features, especially features dealing with Yiddish philology, folklore, literature and poetry.” In fact, he noted, the Forward devotes more space proportionately to these subjects than to current events.

The 75th anniversary will symbolize not only the longevity and decades of Intense and devoted service to the American Jewish community but will also be a testimony to the tenacity of Yiddishkeit in spite of all the forces of assimilation mobilized by the dominant culture and by segments of American Jewry to acculturate the Jewish people.

CAPACITY TO MOBILIZE OPINION

Since 1897 the Forward has been the university life for the Jewish people in this country. It has been a powerhouse in the Jewish community as an organizer of the Jewish workers, a consistent champion of trade union democracy, font of literary talent, an innovator in the field of creative Journalism and Investigative reporting, a standard bearer of Social Democracy, an uncompromising opponent of Stalinism and left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism and a campaigner for the rights of Jewish people everywhere. “The enduring quality of the Forward,” Weber said, “is its capacity to mobilize opinion.”

Just as the East Side has changed over the years, so too has the readership of the Forward Despite this, Weber noted that its older readers maintain an abiding loyalty. “I get letters from people who began to read the Forward 50 or 60 years ago and are still reading it.” But, he noted, “Whereas many years ago readers of the Forward were mostly shop workers and the paper and its readers were labor oriented, most of our readers now are mainly retired people, intellectuals, small business people and professionals.” His eyes sparkled as he noted that many of his readers are Talmudic to scholars. “Let anyone, God forbid, make a mistake in a quotation from the Talmud and there will be a flow of letters correcting it.”

The Forward editorial staff represented, and still does, the quintessence of the Renaissance man to whom nothing human was alien. Some of the most famous writers, critics, essayists and folklorists are featured in the Forward. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Baruch Shefner, Boris Smolar, Dr. Judah J. Shapiro, Mordechai Strigler, Chaim Grade, Wolf Younin and S.L. Shneiderman grace the pages of the Forward. The latter three came to the Forward from the Day-Morning Journal after its demise. Smolar is the Editor Emeritus of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Dr. Shapiro writes a weekly column in English in the paper’s Sunday magazine section.

But the Forward in the past also had ideologues, scholars, poets, playwrights and fiction writers such as Morris Rosenfeld, Abraham Reisen, Sholem Asch, I.J, Singer and Yona Rosenfeld. Scintillating and passionate editorials, sententious epigrams, ideological debates, poignant short stories about immigrant life and serials about Jewish history abounded in the pages of the Forward. During the early decades editorial apprentices were recruited from factories, union offices and the professions. The Forward’s feuilletonists were the forerunners of the columnists in to day’s daily press.

MANY ‘FIRSTS’ TO ITS CREDIT

The Forward, Weber recalled, had many “firsts” to its credit. In 1947 it launched a campaign to make the world conscious of the plight of Soviet Jewry with the first signs of anti-Semitism under Stalin in the post-war period. It was the first newspaper in any language that reported the arrest of the Jewish writers and the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee headed by the renowned actor, Solomon Mikhoels, and the Red Army Colonel and Communist poet laureate, Itzik Feffer. Weber recounted that it was he who got the story from a State Department source that the Soviet government had liquidated the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Oct. 1948 as an alleged center of Zionism. It was the Forward, in the summer of 1952, that alerted the world to the fact that Feffer, Peretz Markish and a group of Yiddish writers were executed by the Stalinist regime.

In 1937 the Forward scored with a scoop in its publication of an interview of Leon Trotsky by M. Rubinshtein, a Yiddish editor from Mexico, when the exiled leader of the Bolshevik revolution was living in Coyacan, In that Interview, Trotsky, who was a bitter opponent of Zionism, conceded that under Socialism Jews must have their own culture, develop their own way of life as a people and be granted freedom to emigrate, Trotsky, in that interview, also conceded that the classical Marxist view that the Jewish people would assimilate into the cultures and societies in which they lived was not borne out in view of fascism,

Weber, who before Joining the Forward 33 years ago was city editor of the Yiddishe Welt in Philadelphia and earlier the city editor of Freiheit, smiled as he said, “You see, it wasn’t the Jewish Defense League that began the campaign to save Soviet Jewry but the Forward.” The campaign to aid Soviet Jewry, he added, has been an ongoing and fundamental one for the past several decades.

With the demise of the Day-Morning Journal, Weber noted that the task of the Forward is to serve “the entire Jewish community, not just a segment of it. We are devoting more space to that group which was served by the Journal. Although we considered ourselves the organ of the whole Jewish community there was particular stress on the secular sector. Now that there is no religious daily to serve the Orthodox sector, we are trying to serve them as best as we can without sacrificing our own editorial policy.” Weber noted that the Forward’s 75th anniversary edition, which will include an English section with “outstanding contributors,” will reflect the expanded policy of the paper.

Almost as an afterthought. Weber said as the interview concluded: “I’m not known as an optimist, more a realist. Somehow I have a feeling that the Forward will survive its youngest contributors. Who says that a Yiddish paper can only exist when It has 65-70,000 readers? Who says it can’t exist with 25,000 No Yiddish newspaper in the world outside the Forward has more than 25,000 and they are large and influential newspapers in their communities. We will continue and we will go — forward.”

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