Yiddish in Los Angeles: The Literary Culture Surrounding Publication
Yiddish culture in Los Angeles began to arise in the early parts of the twentieth century. In his book on Los Angeles’ multiethnic nature, Mark Wild describes the somewhat predictable account of how Jewish migration to Los Angeles took place: Jews who had settled to major immigration hubs on the East Coast, notably the Lower East Side of New York City, “responded to some of the same advertisements and word of mouth that drew Anglos to Los Angeles.” Among reasons for the shift in population he lists poverty and the crowded conditions of cities like New York, as well as the “flaring of anti-Semitism that accompanied World War I and the Russian Revolution.” Ultimately, the Jewish speaking population rose by over 17,000 people between 1900 and 1920, and continued on a sharp incline to 70,000 in 1930.
Yiddish political activists such as the Bundists and Labor Zionists played a large role in developing Yiddish culture in Los Angeles. Bundists such as Peter M. Kahn, the manager of the Los Angeles office of Forverts, moved to Los Angeles and brought with them their experience and passion for Yiddish cultural and political organizing. At a meeting in 1908, local Bundists decried the absence of Yiddish presses and organizations in Los Angeles and vowed to devote themselves to the development of local Yiddish culture. Despite their ideological differences, the Bundists and the Labor Zionists worked together to organize Yiddish literary and artistic clubs, theater groups, and political parties. They also funded the first Yiddish-language newspapers in Los Angeles, Kalifornyer Idishe Shtime (California Jewish Voice) and Pacific Folks-Zeitung (Pacific People’s Newspaper).
It was in the mid-1930s that the Yiddish author Rachel Holtman traveled to Los Angeles, recording her impressions in what would later become an autobiography. She noted that “the city contained branches of the Workmen’s Circle, locals of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union… groups of the Communist International Workers’ Order… plus the literary magazines Zunland and Pasifik.” At the time of her visit, a strong Yiddish culture was established in Los Angeles, and the literary culture was booming along with it. Holtman found that there were ten women’s study circles, “which held meetings at least weekly and where members studied Yiddish literature… both the Yiddish classics as well as works from contemporary Yiddish writers.” Holtman described the women who took part in these lern krayzn as “‘quite another sort of woman – a mentsh who consciously educated herself.” Among the women that Holtman was speaking of was Los Angeles poet Shifra Weiss, who not only participated in the women’s study circles but also wrote about them. Her poem “Lern Krayzn” is included here, in translation:
“We met as a minyan
Eighteen or more;
Building edifices of our culture
Erasing the traces of tears and of pain
Our dream shall come true
By creating and recreating.
Happiness, Justice and Peace
Shall come to this world.”
Shifra Weisse, 1943
It is clear that Yiddish literary culture flourished in Los Angeles due, at least in part, to the work done in such literary circles, as well as in their literary journals. In her 2015 article in In Geveb, a Yiddish studies journal, Caroline Luce notes many such journals including Kaliforner Shriftn, Dos Lebn, Undzer Vort, Mayrev, Kalifornier Shriftn, Heshbon and Di Yiddish Presse, as well as the aforementioned Pasifik and Zunland. More importantly, however, Luce’s article focuses on the differences between Western and Eastern American Jewish literature. She argues that “Yiddish writers consciously tried to reimagine their literary styles as they adjusted to life in the… far West.” According to Luce, the economic boom of the 1920s allowed the Yiddish literary community to truly expand, including the reading circles like the ones Shifra Weiss participated in, and clubs like Grupe Mayrev with sights set on developing “local publications” and pooling “their creative energies to forge a local style.” The Yiddish literary culture in Los Angeles was community oriented, much like the rest of Yiddish literary culture in America, and it set out, like other well recognized cities, to create a unique literary style. Writers such as L. Shapiro and I.L Malamut were also part of this local Yiddish literary community, and contributed to it in other ways.
Luce, Caroline. “Yiddish Literature in the American West.” In Geveb. In Geveb, 26 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 May 2016.
Pratt, Norma Fain. Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890-1940. Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1980. Print.
Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-century Los Angeles. Berkeley: U of California, 2005. Print.
Wilson, Karen S., ed. Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic. Ber: U of California, 2013. Print.
Yiddish Publishing in Los Angeles
During the early 20th century Los Angeles was home to a small number of Yiddish publishers, although it never sustained any long-lasting commercial publishing houses. Yiddish publishing in Los Angeles was simply too expensive, and the audience too small. As in Montreal and Mexico City, Yiddish print culture in Los Angeles was based around journals, newspapers and periodicals.
Many Yiddish books in Los Angeles were published through the work of Bukh-Komitetn, committees which formed to fund the publishing of a book or a series of books, often the works of a particular author or literary movement. Self-publishing was very common in Los Angeles, especially for religious books and memoirs. Below are a selection of Los Angeles yiddish publishers and book committees, along with some of their publications.
Chaver-Paver Book Committee
Chaver Paver [Yiddish: “to be thick as thieves”] was the pen name of Gershon Einbinder, a Yiddish writer and popular author of children’s books. The Chaver-Paver Book Committee published several of his books in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s with help from the Los Angeles branch of the IKUF (International Yiddish Cultural Association).
Di Tsen Lanysleyt [The Ten Countrymen], 1942
A novel about Yiddish immigrant life in New York.
A children’s book about a dog named Vovik, who lives with his family in Bronxville, New York. With illustrations by Moses Soyer.
Giboyrim fun der Nakht [Heroes of the Night], 1950
A novel about Jewish partisan fighters in Poland.
The publisher Palme was active in Los Angeles throughout the 1920s. It published novels and poetry for children and adults. Available records of Palme only show that it published the works of the Young Chicago poet and playwright Lune Mattes; it is unclear whether Palme published anything else. Mattes spent several years as a patient in the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado. His fellow patients at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society included Yiddish writer Yehoash (pen name of Solomon Bloomgarten) and the poet H. Leivick.
Vayse Trit [White Steps], 1929
The last book of poetry by the Yiddish poet L. Mattes, published after his early death from Tuberculosis in 1929. Illustrated by the Chicago artist Todros Geller.
L. Shapiro Khsuvim Komitet
The L. Shapiro Khsuvim Komitet was a book committee organized to publish one book, Khsuvim [Writings], a collection of the posthumous writings of L. Shapiro. The collection contains stories and essays. Shapiro was a Yiddish novelist, poet, and essayist who emigrated to America in 1905. His pogrom novel Der Tseylem [The Crucifix] made his name as a writer in New York, and he spent the rest of his time moving between Warsaw, New York City and Los Angeles. During his final years he settled down in Los Angeles and joined the Yiddish literary community there. In Los Angeles before his death he self-published the book Der Shrayber Geyt in Kheyder [The Writer Goes to Kheyder] in 1945.
Chaver-Paver. Di Tsen Lanysleyt. Los Angeles: Khaver-Paver Bukh-Kometet, 1942. Print.
Chaver-Paver. Giboyrim fun der Nakht Los Angeles: Khaver-Paver Bukh-Kometet, 1950. Print.
Chaver-Paver. Vovik. Los Angeles: Khaver-Paver Bukh-Kometet, 1947. Print.
Gilman, Ernest B. Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium: 1900-1970. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 2015. Print.
Hirschbein, Peretz. Eynaktike Dramen. Los Angeles: Peretz Hirschbein Book Committee, 1951. Print.
Hirschbein, Peretz. Grine Felder Trilogye. Los Angeles: Peretz Hirschbein Book Committee, 1951. Print.
L, Mattes. A Yidishe Tragedye. Los Angeles: Palme, 1927. Print.
L, Mattes. Vayse Trit. Los Angeles: Palme, 1929. Print.
Shapiro, L. Khsuvim. Los Angeles: L. Shapiro Khsuvim-Komitet, 1949. Print.