A HISTORY OF THE ISRAELITE PRESS (DOS YIDDISHE VORT )
Without that press, it would not be possible to have all the multifarious movements and activities in which make up Jewish public life. But our communal leaders believe that the Jewish press should only act as a tool for the popularization of their campaigns, to praise them and their achievements. They cannot see the press has other vital tasks…It should be the duty of the press itself to criticize and provide for genuine and constructive criticism by the public. Only thus is it possible to maintain the democratic character of our community life…I am perhaps arrogant in believing the recognition the small Jewish community has won in world Jewry was, in some small measure, due to this newspaper.
– S.M. (Mark) Selchen on the role of the Israelite Press, cited in Lewis Levendel, A Century of the Canadian Jewish Press: 1880s- 1980s, pp. 26-27
The history of the Israelite Press (Dos Yiddishe Vort) mirrors the myriad of social and cultural forces that fostered the emergence of Winnipeg Jewry. A starting point in assessing the full import of the Israelite Press would be to frame it within the theoretical constructs of continuity and change and the role which the Yiddish language played in communicating the moral, ethical and social codes of Winnipeg Jewry, with the former as postulated by Roz Usiskin in her paper Continuity and Change: The Jewish Experience in Winnipeg’s North End, 1900 – 1914 and the latter by Mildred Gutkin in Mame-Loshn: Yiddish and the Radical Ethos and The Worst of Times The Best of Times, co-written with her husband Harry Gutkin.
The concepts of continuity and change as clearly articulated by Usiskin provide useful parameters and frameworks for reaching a firm understanding of the evolution of Winnipeg Jewry. Usiskin employs the terms to contrast perspectives that emphasize the assimilation of ethnic groups to the dictates and exigencies of Canadian industrial capitalism. Continuity and change posit a dynamic interrelationship between stability and continuity on the other hand and conflict and transformation. The patterns of continuity are seen in an ethnic group’s adherence to traditions, values and customs that evoke previous historical experiences and cultural circumstances. But rather than dissolve or dissipate, they are modified to come to grips with the exigencies of everyday life in a Canadian industrial and social setting. The continuation and adaptation of past behavioral patterns and cultural traits become instruments for confronting the depersonalization and atomization associated with industrial capitalism. The relationship between continuity and change are also defined by identities based on social class, gender, and other factors such as linguistic traditions. Referring to the British sociologist Raymond Williams, Usiskin notes that “…continuity and change are constantly interacting and interrelating. Culture, in this way, is seen as a continuing on-going process.” (Usiskin, Continuity and Change, p.79). This on-going process encapsulates three important elements or categories, which Williams identifies in his book, The Long Revolution: 1)culture as an ideal, as a compendium of values that seem to inhabit a timeless order and speak to the universal human condition; 2) culture as the accumulation of intellectual and imaginative work, whereby human thought and experience is recorded; and 3) there is the social definition of culture, which refers to the delineation of a way of life, and epitomizes meanings and values in institutions and everyday behaviour.
Mildred Gutkin has noted that to understand the flowering of Winnipeg Jewish organizational life in the early 1900s, it is important to appreciate the role played by the Yiddish language. For Gutkin, the advent, acceptance, and validation of the Yiddish language, which initially met with scorn and condescension from the Jewish intelligentsia, and which became the lingua franca of the Jewish working class in the late 1800s, was central to the diffusion of a radical and secular ethos. Gutkin noted that the “the validation of Yiddish, at this moment in time, as a fit language for intellectual and artistic endeavour is also the validation of the common man, and both are related to the humanism that is central to radical thought.” (Gutkin, Mame-Loshn: Yiddish and the Radical Ethos, p.61). That its influence and usage extended beyond the community’s radical and secular components is a testimony to the extent to which Yiddish enjoyed a certain degree of cultural hegemony during the first half of the twentieth century.
According to the 1931 census, 95% of Winnipeg’s Jewish population indicated Yiddish as their mother tongue. In 1941, this had fallen slightly– to 90%. Nonetheless, this was a higher percentage than that reported in Montreal, Toronto, or any other Canadian Jewish community. What needs to be taken into consideration however is the changing definition of the term “mother tongue.” For the 1931 census, “mother tongue” was defined as “the language of the home whether the person has learned to speak it or not.” For the 1941 census, a language remained a mother tongue “even if one cannot speak it, as long as one understands it.”
In a seemingly chaotic and turbulent era where continuity and change rubbed shoulders, where the arduous and laborious task of creating a purposeful existence met with the uncertainties and contradictions of everyday life, where the struggle to exert control over one’s destiny was critical in honing and crafting an individual and collective identity, the Israelite Press made its appearance on the Winnipeg Jewish cultural and social landscape.
The origins of the Israelite Press are unclear. Both Lewis Lewendel and Arthur Chiel have written that it was founded in 1910 as Der Kanader Yid (The Canadian Israelite) by Aaron Osovsky and Baruch Goldstein. But Lewendel also wrote that Feivel Simkin, a community activist, involved in local leftist circles as an avowed anarchist, claims to have co-founded the paper with Louis Orlikow. Simkin served as its publisher and was associated with the paper for 60 years. By 1917, Der Kanader Yid had become The Israelite Press. It became the principal newspaper of the Winnipeg Jewish community. Its peak circulation, reached after World War II, was about 4,000. Although an English column had appeared in the paper in 1938, written by Ed Parker and then taken over by Louis Rosenberg, a full English section was introduced in 1949 to attract a younger generation of readers.
From 1915 to 1933, H. E. Wilder managed the paper. During his tenure, S.M. (Mark) Selchen was hired as editor. Selchen played a key role in establishing the Israelite Press as an important element in the cultural and social life of Winnipeg Jewry. According to Levendel, “if Simkin was the financial lifeline of the Press, Mark Selchen was the heart of the paper.” He was renowned for his intellectual prowess, firm understanding of the Torah and the ability to write in a clear and direct prose. His articles encompassed themes and topics that explored both local Jewish community life and national issues.
In 1954, community activist and Yiddishist, Noah Witman became the paper’s Vice-President and General Manager. The following year, he took over the publishing reins from Feivel Simkin, who wanted to free himself of the responsibility, as the paper was losing money. In 1961, Witman hired Mel Fenson, formerly of the Jewish Post, as English editor. Fenson also invested money in the paper, which he lost. Lewendel noted that by 1964, the paper went bust and Witman, who lost his money in the venture, stayed on as editor for a few years as part of a publication committee led by Harold Margolis, a local printer. For the next few years, the paper led a precarious existence. It folded in 1967, only to be revived in 1969 in the form of a 6 page tabloid format known as Dos Naye Yiddish Vort (The Yiddish Press). In 1981, after 70 years of activity beginning with Der Kanader Yid, the Yiddish press in Winnipeg came to a halt. It had run out of readers, due to the decline in Yiddish as a language of communication, revenues and subscriptions.
During its peak, the Israelite Press epitomized the vitality and élan of an indomitable Jewish culture, nurtured in the worldview of Yiddishkheit. Its pages bristled with local, national, and international news and covered topics and issues that satisfied a variety of intellectual needs, literary tastes, philosophical and political perspectives. It provided a forum for an array of ideological discourses and values encompassing Zionism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and Judaism as interpreted from religious as well as secular points of view. Arthur Chiel noted that the Israelite Press “was a powerful influence in moulding Jewish opinion in Manitoba and western Canada…It spoke boldly, at all times the advocate of Jewish rights, the champion of creative Jewish life on the Canadian scene.” It also provided the community with an understanding of the institutions, organizations, principles and values that animated and defined Canadian political and civil society.
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