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Yiddish Primer

June 2024
1min read

The Forward From Immigrants to Americans

directed by Marlene Booth, Direct Cinema, 58 mins.

Abraham Cahan arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1 882, at the start of the wave of immigration that brought two and a half million Jews to America by 1925. The tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews crowding the East Side by the end of the century needed instruction in their new lives as Americans, and in 1897 Cahan founded a Yiddish daily paper, the Forward , to give it to them. He filled his newspaper with tabloid stories like “Half-Man, Half-Dog,” but he also explained canning, the fundamentals of baseball, and American hat styles. One interviewee in this fond, intelligent documentary recalls how his immigrant mother and grandmother learned from the Forward to accept a stranger’s “excuse me” when jostled in the street. Cahan also ran announcements of Socialist meetings, but they were less important to him than advice on basic citizenship. Besides, as he learned in four years spent away from the paper with the Sun and Commercial-Advertiser , manifestoes were not what sold newspapers. By the twenties, Cahan’s newspaper was the largest Yiddish daily in the world, with a circulation of 250,000. But the assimilation it had so strongly urged helped weaken its readership after World War II. This film was made to honor the Forward’s ninetieth birthday, in 1987. The paper is now a weekly with a loyal but elderly pool of readers; it is struggling toward its centenary admired but largely unread by the descendants of those for whom it was a guide.

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