Jewry's Candid Camera

This review of A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward, (edited by Alana Newhouse, W.W. Norton, 352 pages, $39.95) ran in the New York Post on April 29, 2007.

By Daniel Czitrom

Founded 110 years ago, the Daily Forward reigned for decades as the most influential Jewish newspaper in America. By the 1920s, its lively mix of news, socialist politics, culture, advice to recent immigrants and coverage of Jewish life around the world gave it a national circulation of over 250,000.

A Living Lens brings together a treasure trove of photos from the Forward's archive, many of them reproduced for the first time. The range of imagery is staggering, a reflection of the enormous vitality and complexity of New York Jewish life.

By the early 1900s more than 500,000 Jews lived on the Lower East Side, making it by far the most concentrated and populous urban Jewish community in the world. (By comparison, Warsaw's Jewish population--the largest in Europe--was about 300,000.)

The years 1897 to 1945 are the book's richest, documenting the city's Jewish community before immigration restriction and assimilation into American life turned the Lower East Side itself into "the old country."

Famous faces spill out alongside anonymous citizens.

A young Edward G. Robinson stares confidently at the camera, on the cusp of jumping from Yiddish stage to Hollywood stardom. A traditional Orthodox couple from Albany, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, stares intently with eyes that seem to say, "You can never hope to imagine what we have lived through."

Group shots document the textures of collective Jewish life, from Yeshiva students to union-run summer camps to family reunions to picket lines to a weekday minyan (prayer quorum) at the Wall Street Synagogue.

The images from Palestine, European cities and pre-Holocaust shtetls illustrate how New York's Jews were only one part of an international web spun from strands of language, theater, literature, film and politics.

In her short essay, distinguished Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt notes that while the mainstream English language press ignored or buried news about the persecution and annihilation of European Jewry, the Forward did not. For the Forward, "the tragedy of the death of their fellow Jews, who were their readers' parents, siblings, children, relatives and friends, was overwhelming. It was the story, not one among many," she writes.

Critic Leon Wieseltier meditates on the uneasy relationship between traditional Jewish culture and the American entertainment world. "In no community in the history of the Diaspora," he argues, "has Jewish culture--I mean Jews knowing Jewish texts and Jewish traditions in Jewish languages--melted away as much as in America, and here we are pointing with pride to . . . Larry David."

A Living Lens offers a feast for the eyes and nourishment for the brain, bringing alive a long vanished world that's still eerily present. For the past, as William Faulkner reminded us, is not dead. It isn't even past.

Daniel Czitrom teaches American History at Mount Holyoke College. His book, Rediscovering Jacob Riis, is to be published by The New Press in fall 2007.


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