Peter, my father's uncle, was an influential Chicago journalist in the early part of the last century. "Printers' ink in his blood," they used to say of newspaper people in the old days. I guess my dose of ink came from Uncle Peter, and here I am today, just like him, pounding out words for a Jewish newspaper.
I learned just how influential Peter Boyarsky was years ago, when my editor at the Los Angeles Times, Ed Guthman, suggested I stop in Chicago on my way to Washington and talk to Jake Arvey, a once-famous boss of the Chicago machine who was then in semiretirement. Guthman was always trying to broaden my political knowledge, and he figured I could learn something from the old boss.
Arvey, seated behind his desk, looked at me closely.
"Boyarsky," he said. "Boyarsky," he said again, pondering the name. "Are you related to a Yiddish newspaper editor named Boyarsky?"
I replied that he was my father's uncle.
Arvey smiled. When he first ran for office, Arvey said, Boyarsky agreed to have his paper endorse him, assuring him of victory in the solidly Jewish district.
After that, Arvey and I got along just fine.
I thought of Peter Boyarsky when I returned from a vacation that included a visit to the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
The center was founded by Aaron Lansky, then a 23-year-old Hampshire College student studying Yiddish literature.
"There were no books to read," he said in "On a Bridge of Books," a moving DVD telling how he started a collection that now includes 1.5 million Yiddish books.
He put up handwritten notices in delicatessens, stores, synagogues and other places: "Student seeking Yiddish books. Any condition. Please call."
Books piled up in his apartment and in his parents' home. He said they told him a rabbi gave them so many books that they were afraid the second story of the house would collapse.
"It was just about at that moment that I think the Yiddish Book Center was born," he said.
Today, the center occupies a handsome building on the Hampshire College campus that, to me, evoked something of the feeling of a Polish shtetl.
Lansky said of the people who have donated the books, "What they are leaving to you is a world that is very fast vanishing. It was a world that was shattered by the Holocaust. It was a world that vanished under the pressures of assimilation. These were the people who themselves created a new world...."
Yiddish newspapers, as well as literature, captured that world and defined it. The most famous of the Yiddish papers was New York's Forward, still published today as an influential weekly on the Web and in print, with a Yiddish-language edition that, as the paper says, is experiencing "a modest revival, benefiting from the renewed interest in Yiddish on college campuses.... ."
Such a revival is happening in Los Angeles, too.
In Chicago, Peter Boyarsky edited the Idisher Kuryer, the Daily Jewish Courier, with editions in Yiddish and English. Like the better-known Forward and other Yiddish papers, it covered the common problems of Chicago's immigrant Jews and familiarized them with the customs, rules, traditions and politics of their new city and country
When Arvey was rising to power in the 24th Ward in the heart of Jewish Chicago, it was logical that he would call upon the Idisher Kuryer and its editor for help. The paper was probably as important to Arvey as a good precinct captain in getting out the vote.
All that seems a bit old fashioned today. Sophisticated Los Angeles Jews don't have to turn to a Jewish newspaper for political advice or for guidance through the pitfalls of American society. Assimilated Jews can find that information on their own.
But one of the basic tasks of Jewish community newspapers remains. It is the same task that faces Lansky at the National Yiddish Book Center —building and maintaining a sense of community and Jewish identity among a people now scattered and often secularized. Rachel Levin, program officer of Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, put it this way in discussing the foundation's grant to the Yiddish Book Center for digitizing Yiddish literature:
"Over 50 years after the war, a new generation is beginning to realize how cut off we are from our recent history, as we try to piece together fragments of what life was like in towns, shtetls and cities throughout Europe. Often these fragments seem to be only hints and shadows of what was, and therefore, we look to literature, albeit fiction, to find the color and life of the marketplace, the intense struggles between different ideological factions, the misery of factory life and the joy of communal celebrations."Newspapers aren't literature, but that's what my great uncle, Peter Boyarsky, did at the Idisher Kuryer, and that remains one of our tasks at The Jewish Journal today.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears here monthly.