As Forward turns 100, Stanford scholar hails its place in history

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At the turn of the century, as electric trams click-clacked through New York's Lower East Side, people bustled in line to see Edward G. Robinson perform in a Yiddish theater, hungry children watched pickles float in barrels filled with brine and old men with long white beards played chess and argued about politics in kosher cafes and kitchens.

The immigrant Jews who settled in New York had a spectacularly rich social, political and cultural life, and what helped knit this New World Jewish community together was the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish paper offering news from the old country, lessons on the new country and the world's first "Dear Abby"-type advice column.

Commemorating the Forward's centennial, Stanford lecturer Joyce Moser addressed a Palo Alto audience recently as part of Keddem Congregation's "Bagels, Lox and Learning" series. A lecturer in American literature and Jewish studies, Moser discussed the Forward and its colorful and influential editor, Abraham Cahan.

A Talmud student, Cahan left Lithuania at age 19, and arrived at Ellis Island in 1881. At first, he felt safe in this new country, for he was no longer hunted by those who opposed his socialist beliefs. He spoke little English, but six months later he spoke and taught the language to new immigrants.

Cahan wrote for socialist newspapers in New York. In 1897, he became a reporter for a big English-language newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser. The Advertiser's editor was Lincoln Steffens, the famous muckraker. Steffens took Cahan under his wing and taught him the craft of American-style journalism.

"The Yiddish newspapers of his time were highly ideological and biased," Moser said. Under Steffens' mentorship, "Cahan now had to learn how to write a relatively objective news story," she said.

"By covering fires, police, courts and by interviewing politicians, Cahan became a first-rate journalist."

After leaving the Advertiser, he became editor of the 6-year-old Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward in 1903.

Working with Steffens had given Cahan the tools he needed to make the Forward different and better than the other Yiddish newspapers of the time, Moser said.

"No other Yiddish paper had such an experienced and talented staff person.

"He had a very clear idea of what Jewish immigrants were going to need from his paper in order to succeed as Americans and in order to make the transition from being immigrants to becoming functioning citizens," Moser said.

Cahan turned his newspaper into a guide, interpreter and mediator for Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and one of his most original contributions was "The Bintel Brief."

"This was the first great American advice column, the granddaddy of Ann Landers and Dear Abby," Moser said.

Both Ann Landers and sister Abby Van Buren are Jewish, she added.

People wrote Cahan for advice on just about everything. One person asked if it was OK to let her child to play baseball, others asked questions on American customs, politics and art. One reader even asked if it was safe to marry someone born with freckles, and Cahan replied that it was only dangerous to marry someone with rocks in their head.

Now produced weekly in New York, the Forward appears in three versions: one in Yiddish, one in Russian and one in English.

Cahan also wrote fiction. His novel "The Rise of David Levinsky" concerns an immigrant who makes a lot of money but loses the Jewish values he was raised with.

"He didn't have time to be a full-time fiction writer and a full-time editor of the Forward," Moser said of Cahan. "He felt he had to choose, and felt that working in and for the Jewish community came first."