Newspaper Takes a Forward Approach to Reminding Jews of Their Roots

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Byline: Allison Kaplan Daily Herald Staff Writer

In a sense, Chicago's longest surviving Yiddish newspaper worked itself out of business back in the 1950s - by doing too good a job of getting readers to take its words to heart.

The Jewish Daily Forward, a national paper created exactly one century ago as a Yiddish voice for laboring Jewish immigrants, recommended that its readers learn English and become part of American life.

They actually listened.

As American Jews assimilated, the market for a Yiddish paper in Chicago virtually disappeared. Having reached a peak national circulation of over a quarter million in the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish Daily Forward was almost obsolete by 1953. And so the Chicago bureau at Kedzie Avenue and 13th Street, once the center of the Jewish community, closed for good.

But that was not to be the last Chicago would hear of the country's first Jewish national newspaper.

Now written in English, with its name shortened to Forward and publication reduced to once a week, the Jewish newspaper has come back to Chicago. Last month, the New York-based paper added a zoned page of Chicago news and launched a major campaign to attract the Chicago area's estimated 261,000 Jewish residents.

Despite the many changes, the Forward's goal, said Managing Editor Jonathan Mahler, is much the same as it was at the turn-of-the-century: To link American Jews with their Jewish roots.

"Covering religion is not necessarily an integral part of the paper," Mahler said. "We're trying to give people a sense of Jewish cultural life and political life. We're providing a way for Jews in America, many of whom are secular, to reconnect with their Jewishness."

The Forward has traditionally leaned toward labor groups, unions and a non-religious sort of Judaism. In the 1920s, when Chicago's Orthodox-oriented Yiddish paper, the Daily Jewish Courier, was endorsing Democratic political candidates, the Forward rallied behind Socialists.

"It was very popular with the working class people," said Irving Cutler, author of last year's best-selling historical perspective, "The Jews of Chicago - from Shtetl to Suburb."

For those "old-timers" in the Jewish community, Cutler said, the return of the Forward is a nostalgic event.

"I used to go out every day to get it for my father, and he would read it to my mother," Cutler said. "Because they had an edition here, I think there are many people in Chicago who still feel ties to the Forward. Many people remember the paper and like it."

Those memories are exactly what the Forward is counting on to help make its return to Chicago a success. But as Forward editors know, the real test will be reaching a new generation of Chicago Jews who don't speak Yiddish and know nothing of the paper's history in town.

"I like the Forward for its Jewish perspective on the arts," said Linda Haase, publicity director for Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. "The history is nice, but I had to be told about it. I didn't know."

History or not, Haase said she welcomes another voice in the community. …