Yiddish publishing has a storied history. Many associate it with its prominent centers; in Europe one might name Vilna and Warsaw, Berlin, Kiev, and in the Americas, New York City is often recognized as the main hub of both Yiddish literature and its publication. However, there are many lesser known cities where Yiddish was spoken, written, and, most importantly to the purposes of this website, published. This is a website dedicated primarily to ‘decentering’ the Yiddish publishing community, which is very rarely researched as globally as it could be. This process of ‘decenterization’ can be defined as drawing focus away from the major hubs of Yiddish publishing, which have been researched to a great extent, and giving careful scholarly attention to those minor hubs of Yiddish publication with the understanding that these literary cultures have something of value to tell us.
By focusing on four cities that usually fall by the wayside of discussions on this topic, Los Angeles, Montreal, Chicago, and Mexico City, the hope for this research is that it will ask essential questions about the true nature of Yiddish publishing. What are its common elements and processes? In what ways does Yiddish publishing more broadly interact with local literary culture? What can the publishers and those published by them tell us about Yiddish literary history and its future? These are the broad strokes questions that inspired this research, and have yet to be widely discussed by scholars in this field. Some of them can be answered here, however there remains much unsynthesized data that could be applied to this work but is at this point unavailable. The research presented here is a starting point through which one might begin to carefully consider the nature of Yiddish publishing outside of its hubs.
Important Elements of Yiddish Publishing
Many elements of Yiddish publishing are similar on a basic level across borders and oceans. Outlined here are the essentials that a beginning researcher on this subject might consider in order to understand the more specific discussion of publishing and literary culture by city. These include some of the driving forces behind Yiddish publication, the importance of the Yiddish press, literary journals, and book committees, and some of the limitations that Yiddish publishers have faced throughout their storied history. The elements discussed here refer mainly to Yiddish publishing in the Americas, as the four cities researched for this website are all North American. Similar concepts apply to European publishing, but with some variation.
In order to discuss the momentum of Yiddish publishing, it is necessary to understand the motivation of its existence. In her book Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil, Rebecca Margolis candidly examined such motivations, stating that “in the late 1930s, organizations arose in Europe and the United States specifically devoted to the promotion and preservation of Yiddish through the publication of Yiddish books” (Margolis). Although publishing began much earlier in Europe and for different reasons, this more widely speaks to Yiddish publishing in the Americas. Throughout the research presented here, some of which comes from Margolis’ dedicated work on the subject, examples of such efforts towards Yiddish preservation through publication of literature can be found. Grupe Mayrev (Group East) in Los Angeles, the Lern Krayzn (study circles) in Montreal, and others throughout the cities studied here all interacted with Yiddish publication efforts in this way.
One might also begin to think about the Yiddish press as an important disseminator of Yiddish literature in the Americas. In the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, Jules Chametzky emphasizes this fact, arguing that the “Yiddish press was committed to promoting Jewish culture and knowledge,” in keeping with Margolis’ argument about preservation through publication (Chametzky). The press “regularly published poetry, fiction, and criticism,” often serially, for the enjoyment of its readers both in the Americas and in Europe (Chametzky). Chametzky offers further insight to the importance of press to Yiddish literary culture by adding that the press “provided a livelihood for many of the Yiddish writers” of North America. A notable example is the Forverts (the Yiddish Daily Forward) published in New York City, although it this also be seen in many minor centers as well. The Kanader Adler served a similar purpose in Montreal, for example. Additionally, many Yiddish literary journals were published throughout the North American Yiddish centers, both major and minor, and although they reached a more selective, well educated audience, they were also instrumental in such efforts to promote Yiddish literary culture (Margolis).
Of inarguable importance, the Yiddish book committees that continuously were built and disassembled throughout the course of North American Yiddish literary cultural history served to promote Yiddish publication as well. In his book Yiddish: Turning to Life, Joshua A. Fishman noted that while “most journals” like the ones mentioned above are “organizational publications, most Yiddish books are private publications of their authors, assisted by a group of friends and associates formed into a committee” (Fishman). According to Fishman, “most books were published in one or two thousand copies, and were distributed by the authors… their committees, and by the publishing houses” (Fishman). Ever handy, Margolis offers insight into the structure and task of the Yiddish bukh komitets that Fishman emphasizes in his book. She calls it a “more formal, but temporary organization” compared to Yiddish preservationist groups, and relates that they were “constituted of interested supporters from the community at large… created for the purpose of publishing as specific text” (Margolis). They were usually dissolved once their goal of publication was reached, but they had the arduous task of “raising funds, promoting the work, organizing book launches and other literary events, and facilitating distribution” (Margolis). Book committees, which appear in the research presented here on minor publishing centers quite a bit, played an essential role in the sustained Yiddish literary culture of whichever cities they appeared in, and can be tied to several major authors discussed on this website.
Ultimately, of course, Yiddish publishing faced some hardships, which Chametzky notes primarily come from the fact that “the Yiddish book market has always existed on a limited numerical base… [which has] constantly become more restricted” over time (Chametzky). The valiant efforts of Yiddish publishers, be they traditional publishing houses or smaller organizations, have been towards an increasingly diminished audience. Much of what can be found of the Yiddish publishing industry in North America today consists of ‘revival’ projects as a result.
It is our recommendation to you that you let these general questions on, basic foundations of, and problems for Yiddish publishing guide your continued reading of this website.