Did the Forward Get It Backwards 120 Years Ago?

Top of the
Jewish Daily Forward Building in Manhattan’s
Lower East Side. (Alex Israel)

News that the Forward print edition will soon be part of the dustbin of history should come as no surprise. Their weekly English-language edition is going the way of the once-powerful Yiddish-language Forverts — Jewish Daily Forward. The whole premise of the paper as the central voice of Jewish socialism was based on a false premise that it was to be the future of American Jewry, as opposed to the heirs of Eastern European Orthodox Judaism, which dominated prewar Europe.

No one represented that misguided vision more than its long-time editor Abraham “Abe” Cahan (July 7, 1860 – August 31, 1951). He believed that Orthodoxy was merely a relic of the Eastern European shtetl, to be replaced by the modern socialist Jew, who would live happily thereafter in the “goldene medinah.” The Jewish workers, the arbeiter, could thrive in modern-day America. In his book, A Bintel Brief — a compilation of letters to the editor (of his Forvets) — Cahan counsels men who had come to America to pave the way for a better life for their families to leave “the old world” behind. He, in fact, suggested leaving their wives and children for the “naye velt.” Unfortunately, many left their spouses penniless, ultimately to perish in the Churban.

One might say that the Forward never abandoned its left-leaning ideology, even in the face of the stark reality that the Cahan vision was dead. American Jews were either abandoning their identity altogether, due to intermarriage and assimilation, or were moving sharply to the right. Despite its turbulent beginnings, Orthodoxy was alive, pure and simple, while left-leaning secularism was DOA (dead on arrival). Few of the descendants of the original Forward leaders are still Jewish. If Yiddish was to be the unifier of the socialists, it is kept alive today thanks to the chareidi Jewish community.

Many were aghast at the Forward’s periodic bouts of Orthodox-bashing. The Forward was front and center of any scandal, real or perceived, that involved Orthodox Jews. It was particularly malicious during the Rubashkin fiasco, where he was really convicted by some secular Jewish media before he even entered a courtroom. Even when the original PETA video that ostensibly showed animal abuse became headlines in papers like the Forward, the USDA, which oversaw the shechitah in Postville, never closed the plant. Actually, Rubashkin was convicted of bank fraud, which in itself was questioned by many legal experts. But the Forward remained relentless in its “we gotcha” headlines.

Amazingly, the Forward, like many other secular Jewish publications, suddenly discovered that kosher food was a multi-billion-dollar industry that could fill many empty pages. In the past decade or two, the Forward covered new kosher restaurants, ran stories about kosher destinations and more. Why the sudden interest? Surely the editors and staff of the Forward are not the most frequent kosher consumers. It seems that, while never abandoning their left-leaning ideology, they nevertheless sought to capture some of the vitality of the community that kashrus represented. The Forward even carried many ads for kosher establishments. To be sure, much of the communal activity revolved around the observant community. Hence the focus on kosher.

One can only speculate what Abe Cahan would have said to a Forward headline that read: “Orthodox to Dominate American Jewry in Coming Decades as Population Booms.” This was one of many stories the paper covered on the Pew studies that showed a sharp decline in the number of Conservative and Reform Jews and a solid increase in Orthodox Judaism.

So what’s next for the Forward? A monthly magazine! According to Crain’s New York: “As a magazine, the Forward will provide a home for longer articles and essays while allowing the staff to work on forward.com without the distraction of a weekly print deadline, executives said. The site, which has more than doubled its monthly traffic since October, will adopt a metered pay wall in early April.” So now the Forward will transit into a magazine, online. “Our readers love print,” said Publisher Rachel Feddersen, a veteran of theweek.com. “But the paper isn’t doing that much more than what online is doing 24/7.”

So what went wrong for Cahan and his cohorts? They completely misread the power of Torah as the irrefutable guarantor of a Jewish future. They were so enamored of the New World that even Shabbos was thrown under the bus. Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century who would never violate even an iota of the Shabbos back in “der alte heim” were suddenly forced to work on Shabbos, many under intolerable sweatshop conditions. This was all with the full blessing of the Jewish socialists, who saw it as the right and ultimately the power of the worker. The heavily socialiast milieu of the Lower East Side, which was supposed to be the stepping-stone to a better life, turned out to be the graveyard of Jewish identity for so many.

While the Forward was holding on to the promise of the New World, a new world was indeed unfolding — for Orthodoxy. Large communities were being established, and Torah education became the rallying cry of tens of thousands. Perhaps the Forward did not count on the successful transplantation of Orthodox immigrants from the earthquakes of the Churban and from places like Hungary, Romania, Iran and the Middle East. They certainly did not count on an Orthodox press that would by far eclipse their waning reach. They simply misread the tea leaves, hence the folding of another Forward dream.

Interestingly, the 120-year-old organization relied on an endowment to meet its operating costs. The funds are from the sale of the Forward Building, at 175 East Broadway, in 1974. Media observers say that funds from that endowment are slowly being depleted.

While the Forward (mostly online nowadays) certainly does not have an Orthodox constituency, it still has some families of old-timers, and those who enjoy their poetically left-leaning views. Only time will tell how much longer even that will continue.

Menachem Lubinsky is the President & CEO of Lubicom Marketing. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America and the co-Chairman of the International Committee for Har Hazeisim.

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