May 28, 1998
Power, Politics And People
Along with news of its editor's death, the YiddishForward of May 15 carried front-page reports about India's nucleartests, the U.S.-Israeli diplomatic crisis, the naming of a specialprosecutor to probe the secretary of labor, and Israel's new militarychief of staff.
It was vintage Forward. As it has for 101 years,the legendary Yiddish journal still covers world affairs andWashington politics as readily as it reports on Israel oranti-Semitism. Unlike any other Jewish newspaper outside Israel, theForward tries to be a window for its readers, not just on the Jewishworld, but on the world.
That's because the Forward always had twoidentities: Jewish newspaper and newspaper for Jews. It assumed itsreaders' interests included Jewish affairs, but weren't restricted tothem. Expansive, eclectic, grounded in core beliefs but never limitedby them, the Forward's Jewishness was a perspective broad enough toinclude all of human endeavor.
It was the same way with Mordechai Strigler, theForward's editor from 1987 until he died May 10. Born in Poland in1921, he seemed to embody nearly every contradictory trend in20th-century Jewish life: raised in a chassidic family, ordained in amisnagedyeshiva, he fought with the Polish partisans, organized classes forchildren at Buchenwald, then became a leading figure in the postwarworlds of Yiddish belles lettres and Labor Zionist politics.
During a half-century in journalism he producedtens of thousands of articles, essays and dozens of books oneverything from economics to rabbinic theology. Besides the Forward,he was for 42 years editor of a rival publication, the Labor Zionistweekly Der Yiddisher Kemfer (The Jewish Militant).
His legacy is unmatched. As an editor, especiallyat the Kemfer, he published some of the most important postwarYiddish writing by the likes of Chaim Grade and Jacob Glatstein. As awriter he was peerless in drawing on the lost Jewish world of Europeto illuminate the new. He wrote about everything under the sun,sometimes using three pseudonyms in one issue. David Ben-Gurion, it'ssaid, would not begin world Labor Zionist meetings until he knewStrigler was seated.
"He will not have been the last editor of theYiddish Forward, as he had feared," vowed Samuel Norich, theForward's general manager, speaking at Strigler's funeral. "But nonethat follow him will know the world that he knew, none will invoke itas he could and did, helping us to understand our days as hedid."
Alas, if only he had helped us understand.Strigler's tragedy is that he did not. He never reached the mass ofAmerican Jews, because he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- write theirlanguage. He was, to the end, a Yiddish writer. He wrote about thenew Jewish world, but not to it.
"Language is the heart of writing," one colleagueexplained. "Yiddish was his language." But that's not the wholestory. Strigler never had his works translated. He had littleinterest in younger Yiddishists. Young journalists who worked nearhim at the English-language spinoffs of the Kemfer and Forward (thiswriter worked at both) all say they never really knew him. It was asif he could not let himself speak to the new world, because he couldnot bear to let go of the old one.
One journalist wrote that Strigler's dual Forward-Kemfer editorship was like editing both the New York Times and theNew York Review of Books. That understates the feat. The Forward, theAmerican socialist voice founded in 1897, and the Kemfer, the LaborZionist organ founded in 1916, represented bitterly opposing wings ofthe Jewish labor movement. For a Zionist theoretician to head theForward, tribune of Yiddish diasporism, would have been inconceivablea few years earlier. By 1987, when Strigler took over, there were fewchoices left.
Once there were a dozen Yiddish dailies in NewYork alone. The Forward, the biggest, had a daily circulation ofnearly a quarter-million in the 1920s. Circulation is now around7,000. It went weekly in 1983.
Over 200,000 Americans still claim Yiddish astheir first language, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. But no morethan a fraction knew of Strigler. The vast majority, demographerssay, belong to the separatist world of Yiddish-speaking chassidim.They support a lively crop of Yiddish weeklies in Brooklyn andelsewhere, combined circulation nearly 100,000. Most have no use forthe secularist Forward. As for the Forward's readers, they producedchildren and grandchildren who speak no Yiddish.
That the Forward lasted this long is due largelyto good fortune. The Forward Association, the paper's publisher, alsoowns a radio station, WEVD (named for socialist icon Eugene V. Debs).Once billed as the all- Yiddish "station that speaks your language,"it now broadcasts mainstream but lucrative talk shows. InEnglish.
Boosting WEVD's income are proceeds from the late-'80s sale of its FM band for an estimated $30 million. Besidesfinancing the Forward's admired but money- losing English and Russianeditions, the radio dollars guarantee the Yiddish Forward can keeppublishing even after the last reader has departed, so long asthere's someone to edit it.
And indeed, Strigler's successor has already beennamed: Ukrainian-born Boris Sandler, 48. Once a Jewish activist inKishinev, Sandler entered Yiddish journalism at the Moscow-based DiYiddishe Gass, successor to the party mouthpiece Sovetish Heimland.He moved to Israel in 1992, pursuing research and authoring severalYiddish novels. He came to New York in January as the Forward'scultural editor.
Sandler plans to encourage other Baby BoomerYiddishists to see the Forward as their literary home. He's been intouch with young writers in America, Europe and Israel who haveagreed to write for him.
But his Forward will have to move away from itsold newspapering ways. New readers will hear about India's bombs fromthe New York Times or CNN. The Forward will become, like other Jewishjournals -- like most Jewish communal life -- a refuge where Jewsturn to explore their Jewish side. The organic, all-embracing cultureof modern European Jewry is gone. Gone.
Strigler fought mightily to preserve a murderedculture. His tragedy is that he could not win. Our tragedy is that hehad no strength left to teach the rest of us.
"Strigler was the last of his world," saysSandler. "He was a child of European Jewry who knew how to sing andweep with European Jewry, and he was the last of them."
J.J. Goldberg is the author of "Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment." He writes regularly for TheJewish Journal.