A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward
Keith Kahn-Harris on a Jewish photographic history
Who and what are Jews? A religion? Race? Ethnicity? Nation? Anyone tempted by a simplistic answer should peruse this sumptuous collection.
The Forward, more properly Forverts, was founded in New York City in 1897 as a Yiddish daily paper, serving the newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. Always far from parochial, at its peak in the 1920s it had a circulation of a quarter of a million and was every bit the equal in ambition of the great metropolitan papers, covering Jewish and non-Jewish life with equal vigour.
Lithuanian-born Abraham Cahan, one of the paper’s founders and its editor from 1903 until his death in 1951, was a formidable figure, a novelist who championed the Yiddish arts and introduced Isaac Bashevis Singer to an American audience. His paper reflected his socialism and campaigned for trade union rights and, in the 1930s, against fascism.
Inevitably, Forverts’s readership declined after World War II. Immigration from Eastern Europe had ground to a halt and the children of the first generation of migrants could maybe speak Yiddish, but most could not read it. The paper’s socialism became increasingly incongruous to upwardly mobile American Jews. By 1983 it had been reduced to a weekly with an English-language supplement. From 1990 the English and Yiddish newspapers were separated, with the English newspaper becoming a respected organ of American Jewry. The Yiddish newspaper survives to this day, its circulation of a few thousand sustained by the growing interest in Yiddish of a new generation of Jews.
A Living Lens is compiled from the paper’s remarkable photo archive, rediscovered in a store room as the paper prepared for its centenary. Interspersed with short essays (of variable quality) from various well-known Jewish American intellectuals, it chronicles the sheer expansiveness and breakneck development of Jewish life since the early 20th century. We find revealing portraits of Jews in the old shtetls, in the Lower East Side, in pre-state Palestine and in modern Israel. We view the full spectrum of Jewish life: its trivial mundanities, its joys, its horrors and persecutions. We also find playful irrelevance, as in my favourite image – “a man ties packages to an elephant as people watch.”
This is a subtle reproach to anyone who seeks to define Jewishness too narrowly. It is the diversity of Jewry, as this multitudinous collection shows, that makes it so alluring a subject.
A Living Lens is published by WW Norton