A group of boys on the steps of The For­ward build­ing who have just received copies of the news­pa­per, 1913. Pho­to by Lewis Wick­es Hines

In 1918, a young writer named Jacob Glat­stein, who was then a law stu­dent at NYU, sub­mit­ted poet­ry to an anar­chist Yid­dish news­pa­per called the Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free Voice of Labor). The paper’s edi­tor reject­ed his poems. A few weeks lat­er, he sub­mit­ted the poems under the name Clara Blum, and the peri­od­i­cal eager­ly accept­ed his work for pub­li­ca­tion. ⁠ Sim­i­lar­ly, in 1920, B. Z. Gold­berg, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Colum­bia, began pub­lish­ing arti­cles about love and rela­tion­ships under the name Ida Bren­er in the intel­lec­tu­al, non-par­ti­san Yid­dish dai­ly the Tog (The Day). Although the edi­tors of the news­pa­per had described Goldberg’s pre­vi­ous arti­cles on psy­chol­o­gy and reli­gion — pub­lished under his own name — as too high­brow,” they did not express sim­i­lar reser­va­tions about the pieces he pub­lished as Ida Brener.

In ret­ro­spect, these authors described their deci­sions to write under female pseu­do­nyms as their method of gain­ing entry into the world of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press. They argued that Yid­dish news­pa­pers were eager to pub­lish work by women — which edi­tors and pub­lish­ers pur­port­ed­ly viewed as more pop­u­lar,” more dri­ven by human inter­est, and more like­ly to sell papers. But these ori­gin sto­ries belied the dif­fi­cul­ties that female writ­ers faced in forg­ing careers in the Yid­dish press. Indeed, in the Amer­i­can Yid­dish pub­lish­ing sphere, writ­ing con­tent that was seen as appeal­ing to women read­ers, or writ­ing mate­r­i­al car­ry­ing a female byline, was cru­cial to the career devel­op­ment of writ­ers. But it was espe­cial­ly advan­ta­geous to authors who were men. 


I came to his­to­ry through my pas­sion for archives. So part of my process of decid­ing on a research paper top­ic dur­ing my first year of grad­u­ate school was explor­ing the find­ing aids (guides out­lin­ing the con­tents of archival col­lec­tions) of var­i­ous col­lec­tions housed at local libraries in Philadel­phia. I hoped my find­ings would give me a sense of how the resources avail­able to me might shape my devel­op­ment as a schol­ar, and ulti­mate­ly the ques­tions I would be ask­ing about Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture going for­ward in my studies. 

When I start­ed look­ing through the col­lec­tions house at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania’s libraries, I came across the papers of B. Z. Gold­berg, who was a promi­nent Amer­i­can Yid­dish jour­nal­ist and the son-in-law of famed author Sholem Ale­ichem. There was a brief bio­graph­i­cal note about Gold­berg that espe­cial­ly piqued my inter­est. About halfway through this note, there was a sec­tion that described how Gold­berg got his start in Yid­dish jour­nal­ism writ­ing under a female pseudonym:

Wish­ing to write for the Yid­dish [news­pa­per] the Day,’ but being told by the edi­tor that he didn’t have the pop­u­lar stuff the news­pa­per need­ed, BZG wrote under his secretary’s name a pop­u­lar fea­ture under the title A Diary of a Young Woman.’ Edlin, the edi­tor, didn’t believe it was the sec­re­tary, but pub­lished the arti­cles any­way. They were an instan­ta­neous suc­cess, and ran for a num­ber of months. When the iden­ti­ty of the real author was revealed, Gold­berg became a cor­re­spon­dent of the Day’ and a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the staff.[1]

This bio­graph­i­cal note was adapt­ed from an essay by Gold­berg him­self, and, like many fig­ures asso­ci­at­ed with the Yid­dish press, he was not always a reli­able nar­ra­tor about his life. I came to find out lat­er in my research process that there are pieces of mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion in this para­graph, which I would come to explore in detail in my book, A Rev­o­lu­tion in Type

Nev­er­the­less, I was imme­di­ate­ly struck by the nar­ra­tive put forth in this note — how it sug­gest­ed that only by mas­querad­ing as a woman could Gold­berg gain a foothold into the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press. I found the rep­e­ti­tion of the word pop­u­lar” par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing, sug­gest­ing to me that it was not only the con­tent that Gold­berg sub­mit­ted under a female pseu­do­nym that the edi­tor viewed as pop­u­lar” but also that there was some sense that writ­ing by women (or in this case, a man pre­tend­ing to be a woman) was seen as more pop­u­lar or com­mer­cial­ly viable in and of itself in the Amer­i­can Yid­dish jour­nal­is­tic sphere in the ear­ly 1920s. 

I was imme­di­ate­ly struck by the nar­ra­tive put forth in this note — how it sug­gest­ed that only by mas­querad­ing as a woman could Gold­berg gain a foothold into the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press.

This nar­ra­tive sparked ques­tions for me: What led Gold­berg to con­flate the editor’s desire for pop­u­lar” writ­ing with writ­ing by, for, or about women? And was this part of a broad­er pat­tern with­in the Yid­dish press or just a strange, inter­est­ing case study?

In the fol­low­ing weeks and months, I delved into a vari­ety of first-hand accounts of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry from the per­spec­tives of writ­ers, edi­tors, and read­ers. I soon found out that rumors were ram­pant that many writ­ers, espe­cial­ly young men attempt­ing to make an ini­tial entry into the world of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press, were decid­ing, just like Gold­berg, to sub­mit their man­u­scripts to major Amer­i­can Yid­dish news­pa­pers under female pseu­do­nyms in order to increase their chances of pub­li­ca­tion. As Yid­dish news­pa­pers were the prime venue for lit­er­a­ture, as well as jour­nal­ism, these rumors dis­cussed sub­mis­sions in a vari­ety of gen­res, includ­ing arti­cles, fic­tion, and poetry. 

In his his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press, for exam­ple, jour­nal­ist Joseph Chaikin described this as a com­mon phe­nom­e­non in poet­ry pub­lished in the Yid­dish press as well. Here are his descrip­tions of how this played out in one promi­nent newspaper: 

Count­less anec­dotes have cir­cu­lat­ed among writ­ers about their expe­ri­ences with [the newspaper’s editor]…literally dozens of poets pub­lished poems under women’s names, which under their own names had been rejected.”

In Chaikin’s assess­ment, this reflect­ed the editor’s gen­er­al desire to fea­ture female voic­es, but also the dif­fer­ent stan­dards used to judge work by men and by women. He assert­ed that the edi­tor would reject cer­tain author’s poems out­right, but went so far as to say: 

A few weeks lat­er if he should receive the same poems, signed with a female name, he would not only receive them as eager­ly as a pre­cious gem, but also rep­ri­mand oth­er writ­ers: you should learn to write poet­ry from her.’[2]

It turns out that Chaikin’s descrip­tions of count­less” men writ­ing under female pseu­do­nyms were exag­ger­a­tions. But there are sev­er­al trace­able cas­es of men writ­ing under female pseu­do­nyms in the Amer­i­can Yid­dish press that would even­tu­al­ly become promi­nent fig­ures in Jew­ish cul­ture. More­over, this phe­nom­e­non was not actu­al­ly lim­it­ed only to the 1910s and 1920s, but instead was a phe­nom­e­non that occurred through­out the his­to­ry of the Yid­dish press in Amer­i­ca. More­over, what men decid­ed to write under female pseu­do­nyms, and how they described their deci­sions to do so, changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly over time, in ways that trace the devel­op­ment of the Amer­i­can Yid­dish pub­lish­ing sphere and its chang­ing rela­tion­ship to Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture and to transna­tion­al Jew­ish culture.

This brief descrip­tion by Gold­berg thus sparked my inter­est in explor­ing a broad­er research project inves­ti­gat­ing the ways that gen­der is woven into the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can Yid­dish jour­nal­ism.

[1] ARC MS1 — Ben-Zion Gold­berg Papers (Ben­jamin Waife)” accessed Novem­ber 10, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20220806022415/https://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/special-notable/single/arc-ms1-ben-zion-goldberg-papers-benjamin-waife; BZG Biog­ra­phy,” p. 2, [undat­ed]; Ben-Zion Gold­berg Papers (Ben­jamin Waife); ARC MS1; Box 72; Fold­er: Biog­ra­phy B.Z.G.”; Katz Cen­ter for Advanced Juda­ic Stud­ies, Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania. 

[2] Joseph Chaikin, Yidishe bleter in amerike (New York: M. Shk­lars­ki, 1946), 258 – 9.

Ayelet Brinn is the Philip D. Felt­man Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry in the Depart­ments of Juda­ic Stud­ies and His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hartford.