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About the Collection
In 1900, just three years after its founding, the Hebrew lexicographer and poet Solomon Mandelkern, visiting from Europe, found the Jewish Division of The New York Public Library to be the most newsworthy discovery of his extended stay in the United States. "New York," he reported back to his German readers, "the industrial, commercial and financial center of America, with its immense traffic, its surging, wealth-seeking throngs, has also its quiet, cozy nook, where idealists and dreamers find their wonted atmosphere. Even the Jewish scholar, the dreamer of the Ghetto and the Polish Maskil [intellectual] find there a highly interesting Beth-Vaad La-Chachamim [scholarly forum]." He noted in particular that "The collection is especially rich in complete sets of periodicals and newspapers in Hebrew as well as in modern languages. Among them I found, of course, all volumes of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums from its first issue, dated May 2, 1837, to the last current number."
This emphasis on newspapers and periodicals is hardly surprising. For the maskilim in New York, the original "New York Jewish intellectuals," just as for the maskilim in Europe, publishing and getting published in journals was where the action was, not the means to an end but the end itself. For the remarkable editors-in-chief of the leading New York Yiddish dailies, the Jewish Division served as a club: Mandelkern's forum, what Nachman Syrkin called his "office." Abraham Cahan, celebrated editor of the mass circulation Forverts (the Jewish Daily Forward), aligned with organized labor and the Socialist Party, devoted a chapter of his masterpiece, the 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, to a description of the Jewish Division and Abraham Solomon Freidus, its curious presiding genius. Among the closest friends of Freidus and the strongest champions of the Division were the leading liberal newspapermen: Peter (Peretz) Wiernik, editor of Der Morgen Zshurnal (the Jewish Morning Journal), a Zionist paper that valorized traditional Judaism, and Herman Bernstein, editor of Der Tog (the Day), a newspaper of record modeled on The New York Times and the Herald; and the architects of Labor Zionism: Ber Borochov, editor of Di Varhayt (the Truth), and Nachman Syrkin, publisher of Di Tsayt (the Times). Habitués of the Jewish Division connected with the multitude of New York Jewish weeklies and monthlies included Shmarya Levin and Reuven Brainin, successive editors of New York's distinguished Hebrew weekly, Ha-Toren (the Mast), and Chonon Yankov Minikes, publisher of such popular magazines as Minikes Ilustrierte Monat-Bleter (Minikes' Illustrated Monthly) and Minekes Yontev Bleter (Minikes' Holiday Album). Most honored of all, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, resuscitator of spoken Hebrew and doyen of Jerusalem newspaper editors and publishers, was based at the Library from 1916 to 1919, after the wartime Ottoman authorities shut down his pro-British Hebrew daily, Ha-Or (the Light).
Freidus was succeeded in 1923 by Joshua Bloch. Thoroughly Americanized and a passionate modernizer, he was selected precisely for the extent to which he differed from his almost excessively charismatic and old-world predecessor. It is to Dr. Bloch's great credit, however, that he made a quite novel concept, the preservation of world Jewish newspapers, central to the mission of the Division. At first, his options and the chances for success seemed limited. Either he could persuade publishers to produce a library preservation copy of each issue on rag paper instead of short-lived newsprint-by no means a popular proposal-or he could raise funds to overlay each of the Library's countless brittle broadsheets with semi-opaque Japanese paper. He managed to find a few supporters, notably the Brooklyn businessman, Israel Matz, founder and president of the Ex-Lax Corporation and publisher of Ha-Toren, and work began. Progress, however, was painfully laborious and expensive, and it is natural, therefore, that Bloch should have been among the earliest and most enthusiastic librarians to embrace the new technology of microfilm. This reformatting work continued apace under Bloch's successors, Abraham Berger, Dora Steinglass, and Leonard Gold, and grew to become a major collaborative effort as other institutions, notably Harvard and the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, committed their resources to the cause. The sharing continues: HUC, for example, films the establishmentarian Jewish Week and supplies a copy to NYPL, while NYPL films the staunchly right-wing Jewish Press and provides a copy to HUC.
The amount of information that would, without a doubt, have been lost to researchers but for these endeavors is incalculable. Still, the list of newspapers and periodicals on microfilm in the Dorot Jewish Division of The New York Public Library provides more than a hint of the scale of this operation.