By: Mark Fitzgerald
On a brief vacation in Manhattan this last long weekend, I hustled uptown with an old friend to the Museum of the City of New York for two ballyhooed exhibits: an overly romanticized look at the idealistic New Yorkers who joined or supported the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s fight in the Spanish Civil War, and a more clear-eyed examination of the towering achievements and ugly wreckage wrought by the city’s master builder of the 20th century, Robert Moses.
But there was a third exhibit I hadn’t heard anything about, and it got me thinking about newspapers as if I were on still on the clock.
“The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community” recounts the history of the Yiddish-language paper that Abraham Cahan founded April 22, 1897 to promote labor unions and socialism.
As I looked at the photos and translated stories, the Yiddish alphabet Linotype sticks and typewriters, I was struck by the parallels with the Spanish-language press. The early history of “Forverts” is the history of Spanish-language papers now.
For both, a surge in immigration created the need for a newspaper. Just as the Latino population has exploded in recent decades, Jewish immigration soared in the turn of the 19th century. As the exhibit recounts, between 1881 and 1918 some two million Yiddish-speaking Jews streamed out of Eastern Europe, and settled in the United States — New York City, more specifically. By 1914, fully one quarter of New Yorkers were Jews of Eastern European descent.
The Forward served that audience in ways remarkably similar to the Spanish-language press today.
The Forward sought to help its readers make their way in a new land with a new language — and far different customs than those of the Austro-Hungarian empire they had left behind.
Just like the Spanish-language papers now, the Forward put a heavy emphasis on immigration issues. When La Opinion periodically includes voter registration forms in its copies, it is echoing a constant theme of the Forward a century ago that encouraged immigrant Jews to become citizens and vote.
Flip through any Spanish-language paper, and you’ll see many ads for English-language instruction. Almost every day, my Chicago edition of Hoy lists a free course in English being offered by this or that immigrant aid organization. In its ads, news, and editorials, the Forward likewise encouraged its readers to learn English.
These days, every Spanish-language paper includes features on health, especially about avoiding the obesity and Type 2 diabetes that plagues so many Hispanics. Many sponsor health fairs. The Forward, too, cautioned readers about health, although in its early years that usually meant instructing new arrivals on brushing their teeth, and meeting other urban American standards of hygiene.
In Yiddish or Spanish, ethnic newspapers showcase role models in business, sports, and the arts. What’s most remarkable is how the role models picked a century or so apart were nearly the same.
Take sports, for instance. Much of the Forward’s coverage highlighted the achievements of Jewish athletes in two sports: baseball and boxing. Look at the sports section of any Spanish-language paper, and once you get past soccer, everything else is about the success of Hispanics in baseball and boxing.
Cahan’s Forward was far more left-wing than modern Spanish-language papers. Until 1983, after all, its slogan was “Workers of the world unite, the liberation of the proletariat must be the work of the proletariat itself.” Spanish-language papers do slant more liberal than their mainstream counterparts on immigration, certainly, but on other issues as well. Hoy, for instance, vigorously opposed the war in Iraq at a time that other Tribune Co. papers thought it was a worthwhile venture.
But the Forward’s chief cause was, and remains, championing Jews — a sentiment that finds an echo everyday on the front page of a modern-day ethnic daily in New York City. “El Campeon de los Hispanos,” El Diario La Prensa calls itself. The champion of Hispanics.
There’s another possible — and, for Spanish-language papers, disturbing — parallel between the Forward, and the many Hispanic dailies and weeklies that have sprouted in recent years.
The Forward, as the exhibit notes, was a phenomenal circulation success. By 1912, so Wikipedia tells us, it was selling 120,000 copies a day. It was one of the first newspapers to go national, and reached a peak circulation of about 275,000 by the Depression. But the Forward depended on a continuing of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and as that number dwindled, and the sons and daughters of its readers became more assimilated, its circulation plunged. It became a weekly in 1983, and in 1990, its English-language supplement, The Forward, became an independent operation that far outsells the Yiddish-language weekly.
There’s no sign that the immigration of Spanish-speaking people into the United States will slow any time soon, but the circulations of Spanish-language papers nevertheless have essentially stalled in the last couple of years. They will need to be nimble if they don’t want to end up a museum piece themselves.
(The Forward exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, located at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, runs through Sept. 17.)