Yiddish Literary Culture and Community in Chicago
By 1940, 112,680 Yiddish speakers lived in Chicago. They created a vibrant Yiddish culture that, although significantly smaller than that of New York, rivaled it for sheer variety and intensity of cultural output. In the early 20th century Chicago was home to a number of Jewish theaters, schools, cultural centers, journals, publishing houses, literary groups, and political organizations. The language that they wrote, spoke, and performed in was Yiddish.
Yiddish publishing existed in Chicago as early as 1877, the year in which Talmudic Scholar Nachman Dov Ettleson published the first edition of his weekly periodical Ismaelitsche Presse. The Ismaelitsche Presse and other early Yiddish periodicals such as the Ismaelitsche Presse and the Chicago Yiddish Tageblatt survived for only a few years, but later publications such as the Daily Jewish Courier and the Chicago edition of the Jewish Daily Forward were wildly popular, and helped to educate the waves of Jewish immigrants who entered the city in the early 20th century. It was during this time, the 1920s – 1940s, that Chicago would see the greatest expansion of new secular Yiddish culture.
Yung Shikago [Young Chicago] was a literary circle of young Yiddish poets active in Chicago in the 1920s and 30s. The anthology of their work, “Yung Shikago”, contained poems with such titles as “The City at Night” and “Chicago” by Ben Sholem, “Merison Street” by L. Gerelik, and “Chicago” and “Twelfth Street at Night” by Yitshak Elkhonen Rontsch. The anthology begins with Ben Sholem’s nine-page, Yiddish language poem “Chicago”:
you, heart of the steel and stone-made city,
you never close your eyes.
On your back,
thousands of automobiles
standing like homeless dogs,
with fiery eyes,
as if they would senselessly chase without aim.
And you are guarding the sea’s electric eye
that burns through with a fiery glance. and time-
roaring noisily the racing source of Michigan Lake,
as if it would throw its fear at you,
perhaps your giant back will seek reconciliation
from the tough and proud mass-
eternally moving dog-
you, heart of the steel and stone-made city, Chicago.
In the poems of the Yung Shikago poets, the city of Chicago is depicted as modern, industrial, new, alive. The Yung Shikago anthology was illustrated by the Chicago artist Todros Geller, whose depictions of the city appeared in art books published in at books by L. M. Shteyn and as illustrations accompanying the works of Chicago authors and poets. Geller’s prints pictured not only the industrial landscape of Chicago and its workers, but also scenes of the American South, Native Americans, and traditional Jewish themes. His art was a common sight on the walls of Chicago Jewish homes, and his studio was a meeting place for Jewish artists such as David Bekker, Joshua Kaganove, A. Raymond Katz, and Emil Armin.
The woodblock print which fills the title page of Geller’s first book, Fun Land tsu Land [From Land to Land], published in 1937, shows a goat at the base of Chicago’s busy skyline. Geller used the insignia of a goat to sign many of his works. In her paper on Todros Geller and the L. M. Shteyn Farlag, Sarah Abrevaya Stein writes:
“The goat is ensconced between the base of Chicago’s skyline, a pyramidal cluster of modern skyscrapers, and Michigan lake. Physically, it is integrated into the city. Nonetheless, it is evocative of something else: not the city’s steel and cement, but the resilience of the countryside.”
Cutler, Irving. The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1996. Print.
Stein, Sara. “Illustrating Chicago’s Jewish Left: The Cultural Aesthetic of the L. M. Shteyn Farlag.” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, 3.3 (1997): 74-110.
Yung Shikago, A Zamlung. Chicago: Yung Shikago, 1922. Print.
Yiddish Publishing in Chicago
There were 13 Yiddish publishing presses active in Chicago between the years 1900 and 1940, more than any other American city with the exception of New York. Some Chicago Yiddish publishers were the L. M. Shteyn Farlag, the M. Tseshenski Farlag, Arbeter Velt, Farlag Yung Shikago, Naye Gezelshaft, the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institut, Rosh, Yungen Schrayber Farayn, and Yidin. Most of these were local publishing companies which only published a single text or a small number of volumes before ceasing operations. The history and some of the publications of some of the most important Yiddish publishing houses in Chicago are outlined below.
The L.M. Shteyn Farlag [1926 – 1953]
L. M. Shteyn was the pseudonym of Yitshak Leyb Fradkin, born in the shtetl of Berislav in 1883. In Russia Shteyn was involved in political activism and was the head of the Socialist Democratic party in Berislav. It was not until he arrived in the United States in 1908 that his interests turned to Yiddish. Inspired in part by Chaim Zhitlowsky’s literary journal Dos naye lebn, Shteyn began to study Yiddish and involve himself in American Yiddish culture. During the 1920s he organized and funded a vast number of Yiddish cultural projects, helping to found the Sholem Aleichem Institute as well as the Chicago Yiddish school movement.
In 1926 he established the L. M. Shteyn Farlag, a Yiddish publishing house which specialized in high-quality art and literary works. Between 1926 and 1953 the L. M. Shteyn Farlag published 46 books. These were all printed in Yiddish, although many were published in bilingual Yiddish-English editions. The Chicago artist Todros Geller frequently collaborated with L. M. Shteyn, and Shteyn published four art albums of Geller’s work. Geller illustrated many of his other publications.
Below are a selection of the publications of the L. M. Shteyn Farlag:
Yidishe Dikhterins Antologye [Anthology of Yiddish Women Poets], 1928
Compiled and with a foreword by Ezra Klein, this anthology of 70 Yiddish women poets includes work by Rosa Goldshteyn, Anna Rappaport, Zelda Knizhnik, Paula R., Sarah Reyzen, Rosa Yakubovitch, Fradl Shtok, Rebecca Rosenthal, Mirl Erdberg, and others. Art by Todros Geller.
Bloymontik [Blue Monday], 1938
A book of poetry by the Yung Shikago poet Shloime Schwartz. Illustrations by Todros Geller.
A book by R. Ben-Ari about the Moscow Theater Habimah, described as the “first Yiddish theater collective”.
M. Tseshinski Farlag (1932 – 1942)
Moshe Tseshinski (17th October 1989 – 20 December 1967) was born in Chenstachobov, Poland. He attended kheder and as well as a Russian-Polish elementary school. In Chenstokhover he was highly involved in local Jewish culture, including the Lira musical and literary society. He spent some time in the Chenstokhover prison, which he wrote about in his book Turme Erinerung [Prison Memoirs]. In 1914 he emigrated to America, where he worked as a traveling agent for Yiddish newspapers and book publishers. In 1922 he moved to Chicago, where he was a cofounder of Chicago Yiddish schools, the Gezelshaft far Yidishe Kultur [Society of Yiddish Culture], and other Yiddish cultural institutions. His articles about politics, society, and literature were published in the Chicago journals and newspapers Culture Journal, Yidisher Kultur, Unzer Lebn, Ineynem, and other publications in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Montreal. He owned the bookstore and publishing house M. Tseshinski Farlag, located on Located 2720 Division Street. For the 10 years of its existence the M. Tseshinski Farlag was a meeting place for Yiddish authors, poets, and intellectuals.
The Moshe Tseshinski Farlag (also spelled Ceshinski, Tseshinksi, etc) published Yiddish poetry, literary works, and translations from English, Russian, and other languages. Below are a selection of these publications:
Geklibene Verk [Collected Works], 1936
The collected works of the playwright Fishl Bimko (1890 – 1965) were published in 10 volumes by the M. Ceshinski Farlag in 1936.
Anthologye Mitvest-Mayrev [From Midwest to North-Pacific, an Anthology], 1933
An anthology of regional Yiddish verse. Compiled by Mattes Deutsch, Ben Sholem, and Schloime Schwartz, this anthology includes work by poets M. Bagdanski, Shloime L. Belski, Ben Sholem, Pinche Berman, Yankev Brodski, H. Goldovski, Etl Goldberg, Borekh Goldhalt, L. Gorelik, Y. L. Dashevski, Mattes Deutsch, Pesi Hirschfeld-Pomerants, Shifre Weiss, Malke Kheyfets-Tussman, M. Tkotsch, L. Mattes, L. Mitler, Alter Esselin, E. Korman, Brokhe Kudli, Yitshak Elkhonen Rontsch, H. Rosenblat, Shloime Schwartz, and Scholime Shneider. Illustrated with prints by the artists Todros Geller and M. Tsiparin.
Dos Gezang fun Neger-Folk
A 1936 translation of the poetry of Langston Hughes by Zishe Bagish.
Etyopia: Yidn in Afrike un Azia
A 1936 book by Noach Mishkowsky about the Jews of Ethiopia, including an account of the author’s travels to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Jews he met.
Farlag Yung Shikago
Yung Shikago was a literary group of young Yiddish poets active in the 1920s and 1930s. Farlag Yung Shikago [Young Chicago Publishing House] published a number of books by Chicago poets, most importantly the 1922 anthology Yung Shikago, A zamlung [Young Chicago, an Anthology], which included work by the poets Ben Sholem, L. Gorelik, Borekh Goldhart, Mattes Deutsch, B. Hershfild, Mates L, A Eselin, and Yitshak Elkhonen Rontsch, and illustrations by A. Portnov and H. Zigerman.
Antologye Mitvest-Mayrev. Deutsch, M., Sholem, B., and Schwartz, Sh. eds. Chicago: M. Tseshenski Farlag, 1933. Print.
Ben-Ari, R. Habimah. Chicago: L. M. Shteyn Farlag, 1937. Print.
Fishl, Bimko. Geblibene Verk. 10 vols. Chicago: M. Tseshenski Farlag, 1936. Print.
Klein, Ezra. Yidishe Dikhterins Antologye. Chicago: L. M. Shteyn Farlag, 1928. Print.
Langston, Hughes. Dos Gezang Fun Neger-Folk. Trans. Zishe Bagish. Chicago: M. Tseshenski Farlag, 1936. Print.
L.M. Shteyn Yubl-Bukh. Chicago: Sholem Aleichem Folk Institut, 1938. Print.
L. M. Shteyn – 70 Yor Ondenkbukh. Chicago: Shikager Komitet fun Yivo, 1953. Print.
Mishkowsky, Noach. Etyopye Idn in Afrike Un Ayze. Chicago: M. Tseshenski Farlag, 1936. Print.
Schwartz, Shloime. Ed. Bloymontik. Chicago: L. M. Shteyn Farlag, 1938. Print.
Yung Shikago, A Zamlung. Chicago: Yung Shikago, 1922. Print.