A Rev­o­lu­tion in Type: Gen­der and the Mak­ing of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish Press

By – November 13, 2023

This fas­ci­nat­ing book argues that gen­der played a cru­cial role in the devel­op­ment and suc­cess of New York’s dai­ly Yid­dish news­pa­pers over one hun­dred years ago. It traces the trans­for­ma­tion of the Yid­dish dailies from the late 1800s through the 1920s, demon­strat­ing their grow­ing impor­tance to the Jew­ish Amer­i­can immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty. Ayelet Brinn, a skilled his­tor­i­cal schol­ar, exam­ines pub­li­ca­tions that span a broad ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum, includ­ing the con­ser­v­a­tive Ortho­dox Tage­blat, the non­par­ti­san Tog, and the Social­ist Forverts. She also­ex­plores the lives of the men and women who con­tributed to the dailies.

The book’s five chap­ters each focus on a dif­fer­ent peri­od in the dailies’ devel­op­ment. In the 1890s, dailies’ edi­to­r­i­al staff broad­ened their read­er­ship by incor­po­rat­ing inno­va­tions from the main­stream Amer­i­can press. In addi­tion to chang­ing lay­outs, they began to include wom­en’s con­tent”: wom­en’s columns, human-inter­est sto­ries, fic­tion, and gen­dered mar­ket­ing strate­gies. Attract­ing female read­ers was viewed as essen­tial for pro­mot­ing adver­tise­ments, giv­en that women pur­chased most of the house­hold goods. Edi­tors made sure that the new con­tent was aligned with their paper’s par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal focus.

The suc­cess of these changes led to the addi­tion of advice columns, the most famous of which was the Forverts’ Bin­tel Brief.” Found­ed in 1906, the Brief took inspi­ra­tion from the Advice to the Lovelorn” columns, which were pop­u­lar in the Amer­i­can Anglo­phone press. Along with roman­tic advice, the Bin­tel Brief addressed issues such as work­place stress­es, and ten­sions between par­ents and chil­dren, neigh­bors, and friends. These columns also helped new immi­grants with the accul­tur­a­tion process, pro­vid­ing them with infor­ma­tion that helped to clar­i­fy the cul­tur­al and reli­gious dif­fer­ences between the US and East­ern Europe. Through these columns, the news­pa­pers estab­lished inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ships with their read­ers, who would drop by news­pa­per offices seek­ing advice. Sev­er­al even set up dai­ly office hours.

In 1924, Con­gress passed the John­son-Reed Act, which lim­it­ed East­ern Euro­pean immi­gra­tion. With­out an influx of new Yid­dish read­ers, the impor­tance of the dailies began to dwin­dle. How­ev­er, as Brinn makes clear, the dailies once served as a force that ben­e­fit­ed the community.

Lin­da Kan­tor-Swerd­low is a retired Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry Edu­ca­tion from Drew Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of Glob­al Activism in an Amer­i­can School: From Empa­thy to Action. She is cur­rent­ly free­lanc­ing and reviews books and theater.

Discussion Questions

With won­der­ful archival detail and nar­ra­tive flair, Brinn traces the role of women and gen­der in the devel­op­ment of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press, from its out­set in the 1880s through the 1920s. In a live­ly explo­ration of the advent of women’s columns and then women’s pages, as well as spe­cif­ic female writ­ers and men who wrote pseu­do­ny­mous­ly under women’s names, the book details not only how women were dis­cussed, rep­re­sent­ed, and pub­lished in Amer­i­can Yid­dish papers, but also how gen­der was used to prove the moder­ni­ty and rel­e­vance of the Yid­dish press and its val­ue to adver­tis­ers. No mat­ter their ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion — and Brinn exam­ines papers across the polit­i­cal spec­trum — the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press pre­sent­ed female read­ers as essen­tial to their com­mer­cial suc­cess. Yid­dish papers debat­ed, through the lens of gen­der, their rela­tion­ship with Amer­i­can cul­ture and their role in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life. This rhetor­i­cal atten­tion to gen­der, how­ev­er, didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­sid­er the needs and expe­ri­ences of actu­al female read­ers and writ­ers, whose voic­es Brinn deft­ly returns to the conversation.