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Lithuanian Jews in the World

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Lithuanian Jews – Pioneers of the Jewish Press in America

by Moshe Shtarkman

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Sanctify the memory of my father, Reb Yisroel bar [son of] Reb Eliezer-Yitzhak, of blessed memory – a child of Galicia, who strongly honored Jewish learning.

Lithuanian Jews were the layers of the foundation of organized eastern-Jewish communal life in the United States. It is therefore no wonder that the Litvaks also were the pioneer builders of the Yiddish press and literature in America. The Litvaks, the storm-petrels [a symbol for revolutionary groups] of the Enlightenment – the first to try to create a synthesis of Yidishkeit [Jewishness, connoting an emotional connection to Judaism and/or to the Jewish people and their history, beliefs and customs] and worldliness – were more spiritually prepared than other classes among the Jewish immigrants to be the pioneers of the Jewish journalists and word-artists in the new world.

Lithuanian Jews, mainly those who lived near the Prussian border area, knew that instead of seeking their fortune in Volyn [Volhynia], it was more worthwhile to go across the Prussian border and, just as the German Jews had done, to cross the ocean to distant America. The Lithuanian Jews were at the forefront among the eastern-European Jews to emigrate to the United States long before the great mass migration.


“Kalvarija Germans”
Jakob Cohen and His Political Ambitions

Although German “Jewry” looked down at the Litvaks from above, they explained that with their [the Litvaks'] bearing, they were also “modern” and “civilized.” They did not give deference to their German-speaking co-religionists and, immediately, the “Kalvarija Germans,” the prestigious Litvaks, began to show what they were capable of doing. They were the first eastern Jews to organize a landsmanschaft [organization of people from the same city or town]. In 1873, a year before the founding of the Beth HaMedrash HaGodol [Great Study House], the Vilna and Senier landsleit [people from the same town] in New York created a united congregation.

At the end of the 1860s and the beginning of the 1870s of the last [19th] century, a Lithuanian Jew began to play a role in general New York political life. This Litvak was named Jakob Cohen.

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He was the son-in-law of Shmuel D. Mas, one of the important figures among the Prussian Jews in the city. Cohen was not a member of the Prussian synagogue, Adereth El, but he would often go there to pray. Cohen was considered a sage, but instead of befriending the old generation, he only befriended the young element. In addition, Cohen had two plans: firstly, he had several daughters and knowing the young men was an advantage for arranging an appropriate marriage [for his daughters]; secondly, Cohen thought about running for a political office and he understood that only among the young men would he be helped with his political ambitions.

Jacob Cohen lived on 33rd Street. He became rich through real estate (railroads) and had his own summer home and an estate. He also was the owner of Karl's 23rd Ward Park, an amusement garden in the Bronx. Cohen would willingly provide his amusement garden if one needed to hold an event for a charity and this strengthened his popularity and importance among the Jewish population. Jacob Cohen also had journalistic-publishing ambitions in addition to his political ones and he waited for an opportunity to accomplish this. There already was enough journalistic strength among his landsleit [people from the same town]. However, New York did not yet have a printer who could publish a weekly in Yiddish or Hebrew and Cohen had to abandon [his journalistic ambition] until another Lithuanian Jew created such a printing shop.


Bernshteyn, Gersoni and Buchner

This pioneer of the Yiddish printing system was a son-in-law of the Kalvariya Reb Tsvi Hirsh Bernshteyn (an uncle of the later well-known English-Yiddish journalist, Herman Bernshteyn). He arrived in America a short time before the outbreak of

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the Franco-Prussian War. Bernshteyn, like his landsleit, the “Kalvariya Germans,” devoured the war news that was published in the German and English pages with great interest. It occurred to him to found a Yiddish weekly. He immediately imported Yiddish type from Vienna, but he lacked a typesetter.

Just then, the former convert and later rabbi, Tzvi Hersh Gersoni, who had already acquired a reputation on the other side of the ocean as a Hebrew writer, arrived in New York. Gersoni, from Vilna, learned the typesetting trade while he was oyf kest[1] with the London missionaries. Bernstein invited him to become the typesetter and co-worker at the proposed newspaper.

However, among the followers of the Enlightenment in New York was found one who was not afraid of the mangle [two rollers] at a printing shop. The follower of the Enlightenment was named J.K. Buchner. It is not known where and when he was born. Buchner lived in Germany, England and France before he came to America. He already had journalistic experience on the other side of the ocean. And, therefore, he understood that relying only on the reading customers was not enough, but they [newspapers] must also receive help from a politically involved group. The Democratic politicians of Tammany Hall promised their support to Buchner. Buchner was a protégé of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and presidential candidate of the Liberal Republicans, and [Greeley] helped him create a newspaper for the eastern Jews. Greeley counted on receiving the votes of the Jewish immigrants, who already had become American citizens, through Buchner, who then was a well-known Jewish community worker. Buchner was at the head of the Hebrew Institute. It can be seen from the little bit of information about this Talmud Torah [school for poor boys] that it was an important attempt to modernize Jewish education. It organized a Jewish Immigrant Aid Institution in 1871, which arranged popular scientific lectures at Cooper Union, and it strove to raise the condition of Jewish immigrants, economically and culturally. In 1873 Buchner was active at the Jewish Artisans Union to help the poor workers materially and to find suitable residences for them with minimal rents.

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The Yidishe Zeitung, the Post and Hebrew News

As there was no suitable Yiddish printer in New York, Buchner decided to publish his weekly, Yidishe Zeitung [Yiddish Newspaper], in lithograph form and the first issue appeared on the 1st of March 1870. The Yidishe Zeitung was supposed to be published every Friday morning, but it only was published a few times a year, usually in connection with an important event. The 12th issue was published on the 14th of February 1873. Buchner's publication actually was in German, but using Yiddish letters and it is possible that he had established this language version as the first Yiddish newspaper in the new world.

As quickly as the Kalvarija Rabbi's son-in-law Tzvi Hirsh Bernshteyn established his printing shop, he began to publish Di Post, the first printed Yiddish periodical in the United States with the type-setting and writing help from Tzvi Gersoni. Bernshteyn and Gersoni could not agree among themselves, and another type-setter took Gersoni's place. Bernshteyn remained the main boss on the journalistic side of the Post. Not even one issue of this weekly was saved, so it is impossible even to characterize it. We only know that it was published for six consecutive months. Later, Gersoni became an English-Yiddish journalist and editor; he was a rabbi and teacher in Atlanta [and] Chicago and published reports from America in the European Hebrew newspapers. He translated works of Russian literature into English as well as writing original English stories that were published in a separate book. Gersoni translated Longfellow's poem, “Excelsior,” into Hebrew and took part in Ha-Shiloah [Hebrew language monthly] under the editorship of Ahad Ha-Am [Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsburg]. He died in 1897.

Perhaps Bernshteyn's Post would have continued to exist, but the editor-publisher let himself be convinced by the above-mentioned Jacob Cohen that they should publish a new weekly in partnership. Cohen had run on the Democratic slate for [the office of] supervisor, an office that was higher than the present councilmen in the city council. Cohen promised Bernshteyn that he would receive a large sum of money in order to finance the undertaking. While

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Cohen because of his political ambitions, wanted to reach all strata of the Jewish population – the Russian-Polish Jews, the Enlightened Hebrews, the German-speaking “westernized and the Americanized Jews – so it was decided that the weekly would be published in four languages at once: Yiddish, Hebrew, German and English. On the 5th of April 1871, before Passover, the first issue of Hebrew News was published. The newspaper was published on good paper, but its content was a mish-mash of republished items, without any order.

Although Cohen lost the election, he had intended to continue to publish the four-language weekly in order to be able to make use of it in future election activity. Later, he decided to relinquish the entire business when arguments arose between him and Bernshteyn. Cohen ended the newspaper with the 13th edition and gave his portion of the printing shop to the Jewish orphans institution. However, Bernshteyn believed that he was entitled to much more from the partnership than he had received from Cohen and he brought a lawsuit against him [Cohen]. Bernshteyn did not win anything from the lawsuit and he received only what he had put into the business when he agreed to the partnership.

With the little bit of Hebrew type that Beryshteyn had in a small room on Ludlow Street, he became the pioneer of the Hebrew press in America. The first issue of Hatsofe B'Erez Hachadosho [An Observer in the New Country] – the first weekly Hebrew periodical in the United States – appeared on the 11th of June 1871. His type-setter and co-editor was the Sulwak follower of the Enlightenment, Mordekhai Halmstein, who was in England for a time and before leaving for America in 1870 was the main proofreader in the Warsaw publishing shop of his uncle, Aba Markson. The Hatsofe existed until 1876 with several interruptions. After the demise of the weekly, Bernshteyn became involved with banking and he also was the owner of a Yiddish theater for a time. Bernshteyn was born in Neustadt-Shirvint [Shirvintos] in 1846. He died in 1907.


Kasriel Tzvi Sarasohn and Mordekhai Halmstein

The most energetic person among the pioneers of the Yiddish press in America was Kasriel Tzvi Sarasohn. He was born on the 12th of December 1885 in Paiser, in the Sulwalki area, where his father

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Reb Elihu occupied the rabbinical seat. In 1859, Reb Elihu became the rabbi in Sulwalki and there Kasriel Tzvi married Basia Halmsztajn, a daughter of Reb Dovid Halmsztajn, one of the most respected scholars and middle class men in the city. Reb Dovid's son, Mordekhai Halmsztajn [anglicized to Halmstein in America], later, just like Reb Dovid's son-in-law, became a pioneer of Yiddish journalism here in the country [America].

Kasriel Tzvi Sarasohn could not achieve a secure income in Lithuania. In 1869 he left for America like a number of other bold Jewish young people. He returned home a year later. But in 1871 he again came to New York and opened a printing shop on Park Street in partnership with the existing publisher, E. Shrentsel. The printing shop, Shrentsel and Sarasohn, first published atlases with various information about peoples and nations. As there were estimates that there were approximately 80,000 Jews in New York, the two partners decided to become newspaper publishers and the firm began to publish the weekly, New York Yiddish Newspaper. Publication of the weekly newspaper ended after five months because the typesetter at the firm, M. Topolowsky, opened his own printing shop. The firm, Shrentsel and Sarasohn, remained without a typesetter and thus the owners had another 1,000 dollar loss because, at first, they had to provide additional money to the newspaper. A Christian, a German immigrant, bought the Yiddish type. In 1873, Sarasohn left for Syracuse, where Lithuanian landsleit were living, who had their own organization. Sarasohn became the rabbi for the Syracuse Litvaks for a short time, but then he left for Chicago, which also was a center for Lithuanian Jews and he tried his luck in commerce there.

The same year he returned home to Suwalki to bring his family here [to the United States] and, in 1874, he again was in New York. With his brother-in-law, Mordekhai Halmstein, Sarasohn began to publish the Yidishe Gazetn [Yiddish Gazette], a weekly, from which grew the first American Yiddish daily newspaper. The Yidishe Gazetn was published for 54 years until 1928 when the weekly was merged with the Amerikaner [American].

The partnership between Sarasohn and Halmstein did not last long. In 1875 Halmstein began to publish a weekly, New Yorker Israelite, which only existed for a few months. Halmstein again began to work for his

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brother-in-law – and he again became the editor of the Gazetn, holding the position until his death in 1897.


Etelzon and his Israelitishe Prese

In the 1850s immigrants from Lithuania began their pioneering settlement in the Midwest main city of Chicago. Among them was Nakhman Dov Etelzon, who was born in Szaki [Šakiai] in 1898.[2] He came to America in 1851 and he later opened a printing shop in Chicago. Etelzon the printer, a Jew, a scholar and a follower of the Enlightenment knew well the needs of the Chicago Jewish community. He also noticed that the Jewish reader had to wait a long time until the New York Gazetn arrived. In 1877, when the Turkish-Russian War broke out and the Chicago Jewish immigrants thirsted for news from the front, Etelzon began to publish the weekly, Israelitishe Prese [Israelite Press]. The first American Jewish periodical outside New York. His assistant editor was Sh. L. Markus, who previously was a teacher somewhere in Alabama. The Israelitishe Prese had a Hebrew supplement – Heikhal HaIvriyah [The Hebrew Palace] and thus Etelzon helped to lay the foundation for the Hebrew press in the United States.

The Israelitishe Prese moved to New York after three years of publication in Chicago to compete with Sarasohn's Gazetn, but Sarasphnn came out the winner and on the 9th of April 1884, the Israelitishe Prese failed.


Yakov Tzvi Sobel
The First Jewish Poet in America

In 1876 the Shavl [Suauliai] Hebrew writer, pedogogue and former head of a yeshiva [religious secondary school], Yakov Tzvi Sobel, arrived in America. Immediately after his arrival in the new country, Sobel published in Yiddish the poem, Di Hoypt-Printsipn fun Torah oder Oylem Hatoye [The Main Principles of Torah or World of Chaos]. A year later, in 1877, his Shir Zahav leKoved Yisroel haZokn [A Sonnet in Honor of Ancient Israel] – Israel the Old One was published, a Hebrew-Yiddish poetry book that was the first attempt to publish Hebrew and Yiddish poetry on the American continent. Sobel placed the following motto on the title page:

This golden poem,
Oh, my dear brother!
Written with energy,
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To properly persuade,
How splendid and important
Is Jewish poetry.
This sacred language
Is the only thing
Which creates wonder for us;
Then when this language blooms,
Then the Israelite knows,
He has courage, pride and strength.
This poetry book, which was without value from an artistic standpoint, also contained a poem, “Der Polnisher Talmud-khokhem in Amerika [“The Polish Scholar in America”]. In this poem was described the torture-rack of Jewish immigrant-scholars in a new environment. This poem gave an overview of the life of the Eastern European Jews right after their arrival in the United States – on the eve of the great Jewish mass immigration.

The same year as when Sobel's collection of poems was published, Zilbersztajn's Dos Lebn un der Toit fun Yishu haNoytsri [The Life and the Death of Jesus of Nasareth] was published in New York. This small book surely must have had a large number of buyers because such anti-Christian booklets were kept in secret in “the old home.”

M. Topolowsky, who years before was a typesetter in the printing shop of Shrentsel and Sarasohn, became the owner of his own printing shop in 1878 at 121 Canal Street. Sarasohn's weekly, Yidishe Gazetn, also was printing at Topolowsky's. Topolowsky decided also to become a publisher. He hired a suitable person for the office of editor, in the person of G. Landau, and in the summer of 1877, he began to publish Di Yudishe Volkszeitung [The Jewish People's Newspaper], which advertised itself as “the largest and cheapest Jewish newspaper in America.”

In truth, the Volkszeitung was a technically beautiful thing, but the publishing activity disrupted the business hours of Topolowsky's printing shop. His competition with Sarasohn's Gazetn also took away much energy. A conference of the Bris Avraham Order took place in May 1880. Sarasohn and Topolowsky were both delegates and at Topolowsky's initiative, they began negotiations for Sarasohn to buy the Volkszeitung, the advertising list and the debts and so on. The matter was completed the same day.

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East Broadway Number 5, –
A Business, an Editorship, a House of Prayer

In 1881, on the eve of the great, Eastern European mass immigration to America, the house at number 5 East Broadway already was a center for Lithuanian Jews. A furniture business was located on the bottom [ground floor]; Sarasohn's editorship and printing shop of Sarasohn's Yidishe Gazetn and the residence of the Sarasohn family was located on the first floor; the house of prayer of the Sulwalki landsleit [people from the same town] was on the second floor.

At the beginning of the 1880s, when the pogroms began in Russia and masses of Yiddish-speaking Jews started to flow to America, Sarasohn decided that the time had come to publish the Yidishe Gazetn every day. On the 18th of June 1881, the first edition of the Teglekhe Gazetn [Daily Gazette] was published, the first Yiddish daily newspaper in America. However, there were not yet enough customers then and, after two months, the Gazetn again was transformed into a weekly periodical. Sarasohn, the Litvak, who was not afraid of failure, was not discouraged by the first unsuccessful attempt in 1881, and two years later, on the 6th of April 1883 he again began to publish the Teglekhe Gazetn. The revived daily was published continually for a meager quarter of a year, and in July the Gazetn again had to be published weekly. However, many Jewish readers could no longer be satisfied with a newspaper [only] once a week. In order to satisfy these readers, every Tuesday Sarasohn published the Volkszeitung, which he had bought from M. Topolowsky in 1880.

Sarasohn also was not discouraged by his second unsuccessful attempt. In January 1885 he began to publish his Yidishes Tageblatt [Yiddish Daily Newspaper], which for years was the strongest and most influential

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Yiddish newspaper in America. The Tageblatt was published for 45 years, without interruption, until the newspaper was sold to the Morgen Zournal [Morning Journal] and it was swallowed by it on the 30th of April 1928. Sarasohn, himself, left the world [died] 23 years earlier – on the 12th of January 1905. After his death, the Tageblatt was led by his son, Yehezkiel, born in Sulwaki, and by his son-in-law, Leon Komajke, who was a landsman [person from the same town] from Wilkowiski [Vilkaviskis]. With the downfall of the Tageblatt, the Sarasohn family, which wrote a great pioneering chapter in the history of the Jewish press in America, left the Yiddish newspaper arena.


The Beginning of the Revolutionary Yiddish Press

In 1885 the foundation of the Jewish workers movement was laid in the United State when Sarasohn began to publish the Yidishes Tageblatt. One of the layers of the foundation was the Vilna revolutionary intellect, Abe Cahan. Together with Charles Rojevski, a Kremenchuger [Kremenchuk, Ukraine] Am-Oylemnik [member of a Jewish national and socialist movement to create agricultural colonies in America], Cahan began to publish a revolutionary Yiddish weekly, the first of its kind in Yiddish in America. This revolutionary periodical was called Di Neye Zeit [The New Times] and it began to be published Erev Shavuos [the eve of the Feast of Weeks, which takes place in late May or June], 1886. No more than four editions were published because the deficits were large and the number of readers was extremely small. But despite its short existence, Di Neye Zeit influenced other such attempts – attempts that led to the rise and development of the American Yiddish workers press. Jews from Lithuania also had a great pioneering portion in the rise of the Jewish workers movement in America – but this phase does not fit the frame of our present treatise.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The author is being ironic, using the phrase oyf kest – financial support given by a father to his daughter's husband so that he could study Torah – for the financial support Gersoni received from Christian missionaries. Return
  2. The correct year of Nakhman Dov Etelzon's birth is 1828. Return
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