Jewish Journal


April 19, 2007

‘Living Lens’ celebrates 110 years of The Forward in pictures


A cool game of checkers during a hot afternoon on the Lower East Side. Photo courtesy Forward Association

A cool game of checkers during a hot afternoon on the Lower East Side. Photo courtesy Forward Association

The New York Post may be the oldest continuously operating daily publication in the United States, but The Forward, which began publication in 1897 during the waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, was the first paper in this country to have a national readership. In its heyday, the Yiddish- language daily, once known as The Forverts, had a larger circulation than even The New York Times.

To mark the 110th anniversary of The Forward, which since 1990 has also put out an English-language weekly, W.W. Norton has published "A Living Lens," a collection of photographs from The Forward's archive and the first in a series of books under the Forward Books imprint.

Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor of The Forward, who edited the book, will discuss it in a conversation with arts journalist David Mermelstein on April 24 at the Fine Arts Theatre as part of the WritersBloc series.

Although The Forward has long been an icon in the Jewish community, Newhouse, speaking from her home in New York, said, "The Forward is not simply a Jewish story. It was a mainstream paper in Yiddish ... a pioneering ethnic newspaper."

Thus, it is perfectly fitting that Newhouse and her Forward colleagues should have chosen Pete Hamill, an Irish American mensch and quintessential New Yorker, to write the introduction to "Living Lens."

Hamill, who over the years has written for nearly every New York publication, including stints as editor-in-chief of both the Post and Daily News, has always been a friend of the Jews. This is the man who told the late Jack Newfield that Jews had taught him wisdom, which inspired him to write "Snow in August," a novel featuring a young Irish boy who befriends a rabbi and invokes the golem to save his neighborhood from local hoods.

In the introduction to "Living Lens," evocative of his famous 1980s New York Magazine essays on the "lost city," Hamill shows his own wisdom in discussing the role played by the Lower East Side Jews, who gave New York and America "a sense of irony." One of those ironies may be that the landmark Forward Building, once a 12-story "skyscraper," is shown in one of the book's photographs with bunting bearing Chinese words that read, "Jesus Lives -- Jesus Is the Way."

Besides Hamill's thoughtful introduction, there are other fine essays that accompany the treasure trove of photos. Newhouse calls her contributors "a dream team," and they include The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, "Boys of Summer" author Roger Kahn and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. Still, this is a book of photographs, and most readers will be drawn to the faces.

There are numerous shots of union activists, reflecting the paper's long association with the masses. There are shots of Jews living in the Old Country and Jews living in British-mandate Palestine, Jews in the U.S. Army and Jews in the world of entertainment, Jews in a club of centenarians and Jewish children.

Some of the most heartening photos are those of the youngsters. The first photograph shown in the book is of a group of young boys playing checkers on the Lower East Side. Some of the boys wear yarmulkes, others wear newsboy caps, but they radiate a kind of optimism, transfixed by the game, the camaraderie with the other boys or perhaps by their first taste of freedom in a new land. Another shows a little boy smoking a cigar while reading a book. It was said that the young grew up fast on the East Side
The caption: "It was said that the young grew up fast on the East Side."

Those immigrants and first-generation Americans did indeed grow up fast, spurred on by their vitality, or "scurry and hustle," in the words of Forward founder Abraham Cahan's protagonist in "The Rise of David Levinsky."

Cahan, too, is depicted in a number of photos with his intense gaze and characteristic white moustache.

There may never again be a time when a Jewish newspaper editor can command a nationwide audience in a radio address the way Cahan did, as a photo evidenced in "Living Lens." Yiddish has declined as a language, and the Jewish community has changed in this country, from the years of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, through the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, to our present moment, when, as Newhouse says, "many struggle with what to make of Jewish identity."

What remains after more than a century of vibrant Jewish life in this country is The Forward, which Newhouse refers to as "a playground for 110 years" and "a resource out there for them."

Alana Newhouse will appear in conversation with arts journalist David Mermelstein on April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For reservations or information, go to www.writersblocpresents.com or call (310) 335-0917.

Pete Hamill

http:// www.petehamill.com/

The Forward Building

http:// www.forwardbuilding.net/

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