Topic: 4. Textual Diversity
1912 advertisement for the Yiddish humor journal, Der ashmeday.
The term 'Jewish texts' tends to bring to mind the body of canonical literature (Torah, Talmud, etc.) and other works central to Jewish scholarly and ritual life. This should not distract us from noting the considerable variety of written materials that Jews have produced for centuries. These include books of poetry, grammar and science, novels, memoirs, history books, cookbooks, letters, maps, calendars, almanacs, postcards, posters, music scores, journals, newspapers, amulets, mezuzot, tefillin, ketubot, comic books, and more recently, electronic databases, web-pages and e-mail.
Jewish involvement in periodical publishing can be traced back to the seventeenth century. The oldest 'Jewish' newspaper is generally considered to be the Gazeta de Amsterdam, which first appeared in 1675, at the height of the Dutch publishing boom. Jewish periodicals began to emerge across Europe over the course of the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, France, England and Russia. By the early twentieth century, a wide range of periodicals (including monthly, weekly and daily publications) was produced and consumed throughout the Jewish world, from the Ottoman Empire to the United States, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere.
The advent of mass-circulation newspapers in Yiddish beginning in the mid-nineteenth century not only provided a new media form and forum for the most populous segment of Jewry worldwide, but also created a third force, after rabbinical and economic elites, in Jewish life. Not only did Yiddish journalism bring a wide variety of worldwide news events to readers who previously had no way of experiencing them, it also provided new genres of writing, some of which were made more accessible through the referencing and parodying of traditional religious texts.
One new genre appearing in this press was the graphic image. Despite the prevalent misconception regarding Jews and their lack of images in texts (See K. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual, Princeton: 2000, and Kh. Shmeruk, The Illustrations in Yiddish Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries [Hebrew], Akedemon: 1986), initial Jewish journalistic endeavors in the Russian empire during the nineteenth century were remarkably devoid of images. This is not likely a result of the aforementioned misconception that this fact is related to the second commandment forbidding graven images, but more likely it is related to the fact that the Tsarist regime permitted a tiny number of publications for a population of nearly 5 million Jews, a problem that found a large number of Jewish writers with no place to publish. As such, graphic images in the Jewish presses of the Russian empire do not begin to appear until after press censorship was relaxed following the failed revolution of 1905. Interestingly, the initial wave of graphic art in the burgeoning Yiddish press following this relaxation appeared in the form of cartoons.
In spite of serving a smaller population, the Yiddish press in America had no issues with the publication of graphic images in its pages and did so early on, beginning in the 1870s. The inclusion of images occurred unnoticed and simply mirrored similar activity in the non-Yiddish press. This can be seen as a result of two main issues: 1) Jewish editors had to compete for readers and graphics helped draw them to publications; and 2) censorship did not exist for Yiddish publications as it had in the Russian empire. The fact that a religious oligarchy did not exist in America to stifle publication was also useful to publishers. In spite of this, because of economic and technical difficulties, images do not appear in large numbers in the American Yiddish press until the mid-1890s. Similarly to the Russian empire, cartoons comprised the first wave of graphics to appear.