Forverts front pageBack in October, not long after I’d begun subscribing to the great old Yiddish-language newspaper, Forverts—no, this is not the English-language newspaper Forward, which I like to read and occasionally even write for—there was a photo above the fold on the front page that stunned and stayed with me.

The photo shows a pretty middle-aged woman reading from a Torah scroll,  while an older woman looks over her shoulder. The caption says that five American women, all in their seventies, traveled to Israel to mark the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. Each woman celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel, the Western Wall. They celebrated, that is, until some taking part were arrested. It is against the law for women to perform certain observances at the Wall, even in the women’s section. The women becoming Bat Mitzvah did this in collaboration with “Women of the Wall”—”Froyen bei der Vand” in Yiddish, “Nashot Hakotel” in Hebrew—who have been repeatedly arrested there, often for saying the Shema, Judaism’s holiest prayer, loud enough for nearby men to hear them. Other offenses that can lead or have led to arrests include wearing a talit or tefillin and carrying a Torah. The authorities policing the Kotel have wide authority to determine what is offensive to others under the law.

Anat Hoffman and two others were arrested that day, while 250 onlookers tried to celebrate the anniversary of a great organization and the chance for five women to have a Bat Mitzvah, something that in their long lives they made happen for their daughters and granddaughters but not, because of when they grew up, for themselves. Hoffman, by the way, has at times been strip-searched, dragged along a jailhouse floor, and thrown into a cell with a prostitute, all for praying.

I wonder what Grandpa would have thought. Growing up in Brooklyn, we lived with him and my grandmother until their deaths, a year apart, when I was eight and nine. They had been born in Grodno and Kovno in around 1870, and by the time I knew them had lived in America for over half a century. Our home was chosen based on easy walking distance to the Orthodox shul, and I remember watching Grandpa stand in the sunlight of the apartment’s parlor in tallis and tefillin, swaying and chanting in prayer every morning. I wanted to be like him, and eventually for years I was. Because of him I was to be in that shul for school or services every day from around age 8 to 17.

But perhaps my most vivid memory is of sitting in his lap in the big winged armchair while he taught me the alef-bes from the Forverts headlines. It was a daily then, and had since the early twentieth century brought the news to millions of Jews. It was progressive—still is—and intensely pro-Israel. As it says below the bold print of the word Forvertz in Hebrew letters,  

Der “Forverts” iz far: Frayhayt far alle mentshen; Frayhayt far Yidn tzu firen a Yiddish laybn; A gezikherter Medinat-Yisroel; A frayer arbeter-bavaygung—“The Forverts is for: Freedom for all people; Freedom for Jews to live a Jewish life; A secure State of Israel; A free workers’ movement.”

My grandfather was Orthodox, but also a lifelong Democrat. Although he might initially have been disturbed by that photo of the Bat Mitzvah at the Wall, I like to think he would have come around. Frayhayt far alle mentshen does mean freedom for all people.

I struggle to read the Forverts, dictionary close at hand, but it’s a tribute to my grandparents and to a huge part of the Jewish past. I used to buy it a few times a year at a newsstand on Lexington Avenue during visits to New York, but one day it was gone; whoever had been buying it had moved or passed on. So after a year or two of procrastinating—I get way too many periodicals—I subscribed. Now I get to feel guilty about the Forverts, vying for my attention with an edition of Yediot Aharonot in “easy” Hebrew—the two languages are competing on my nightstand as they once did for the attention of the entire Jewish people. But Hebrew won, and so in my nostalgic way, not least as a tribute to Grandpa, I often pick up the Forverts.

Among other recent headlines:

Yidn Laydn Groysn Hizk fun Shturm (“Jews Suffer Great Loss from Storm”), about superstorm Sandy;

Barack Obama—Vider Dervaylt Vi Prezident (“Barack Obama—Again Elected President”);

Islamistn in Alzhir Farkhapn Tzendliker Oyslender (“Islamists in Algeria Seize Tens of Foreigners”); and

Netanyahu Bazorgt fun Nayem Rekht-Linik Firer (“Netanyahu Worried About New Right-Leaning Leader”), a reference to Naftali Bennett, who later did very well in the recent election.

By the way, every issue contains, among much cultural and political commentary, a long column called Funem Eyviker Kval—“From the Eternal Spring”—an explication of the week’s Torah portion. I wonder if Grandpa read that first.

Note: You can subscribe to the Yiddish-language weekly Forverts here:

7 thoughts on “Forverts

  1. What a lovely memory! In a few months, I will be pestering you to adapt your ‘Zaeydeh meise’ for the CSI Yizkor book.

  2. Dear Mel: A number of years ago we met at the home of Ed and Elaine Colker in Mt. Kisco/Bedford, New York. I have been the rabbi here for 37 years, and since the meeting, have read quite a bit of your writings. This commentary about the Forvits takes me back many years: My grandparents read the Forvitz and then passed it
    on to my other set of grandparents–we all lived in San Francisco.
    Ironically, just the other day, Ed and Elaine gave me a gift: a Yiddish-English dictionary, and I wrote to them of how surprised I was that there are Yiddish words for so many “English” words. I have spoken with Ed about having you here as a “scholar in residence,” and I hope to pursue that further. But reading your words tonight, following Shabbat services had special emotional meaning to me. Not only did your thoughts take me back to my grandparents, but tonight, while leading services, I signaled to my wife to have my 2 1/2 year-old grandson come up to the Bimah and sit with me. I recall that as a young child of four or five, when my own father was a cantor of a synagogue in San Francisco, that I would run up to the Bimah following the service to stand with my father with great pride. Tonight I wanted my grandson to have such a “taste” and memory—and in a way that I cannot articulate, the emotional experience for me is not unrelated to the place that those Forvitz newspapers had in my early life. They were a part of the culture of my grandparents’ homes, even as I had no clue of what was written in those newspapers. But just the word Forvitz brings back countless precious memories of a time that will never be again.
    I know that I have said nothing profound here–only to share some emotions with you; and to express to you that you are truly one of the great scholars–Jewish scholars–of our time. I thank you for what you continue to give me. Shabbat Shalom.
    Rabbi David Greenberg

    • Hi Rabbi Greenberg,

      Sorry I missed this for so long. Your memory is very touching and remarkably consonant with my own. I too have a toddler grandson who will I hope be on my knee in the not-too-distant future learning the aleph-bet (aleph-beis) from the headlines of the Forverts.

      Best, Mel

  3. First, a “Bat Mitzvah”
    is considered to be Apostacy by most Israeli Jews. It was invented by the founder of Reconstructionism Mordechai Kaplan in 1922, in America. Like buying tickets for High Holy Day services it is an alien concept that has no Halachik basis. Though the late Rav Ovadia Yoseh ruled it Kosher the vast bulk of Sephardi Mizrachim- his constituency and 70+% of Israeli Jewry- view it with great disdain.

    Second, “Women of the Wall” are a political outfit that manipulates the trappings of Judaism to propagandise & earn media points. A decade ago they were given an egalitarian prayer space further down the Wall in exchange for their agreeing to stop their disruptive dog & pony shows at the Plaza. Soon after they reneged and began their attention-seeking stunts again.

    They were unhappy that the prayer space wasnt visible from the Plaza. IF their actual goal was spiritual this would not be an issue. After all, it is still HaKotel. They have demanded ANOTHER egalitarian prayer space, by Robinson’s Arch, so that they will be visible from the Plaza and ergo be able to disrupt and create more media-friendly spectacles.

    Lastly, no woman has EVER been arrested for reciting HaShema, something that happens all day long every day at the Plaza. Women of the Wall read from the Torah loudly while wearing Kippot and Tali’ot, often with T’fillin (and the last at all times of day). It is shock value to attract attention and disrupt the 99.9% of other visitors who simply wish to worship according to Traditional

    • Dear Rachamim, you don’t sound very merciful despite your name, but you are entitled to your opinion of course…

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