Yiddish in Chicago: A History of Publishing

The Joseph Regenstein Library, Third Floor
January 8 through March 20, 2016

Title page of Yiddish book, Antologye
Figure 1: Title page of Antologye: mitvest-mayrev [Anthology: Midwest-West], eds. Mates Daytsh, Ben Sholem and Shloyme Shvarts (Chicago: Farlag Tseshinski, 1933).

“When I publish a pretty book,” wrote L.M. Shteyn in 1929, “I believe it is with the greatest respect and love for the Yiddish book,” (Sara Abrevaya Stein, Jewish Social Studies 3:3 [1997], 89). Indeed, ever since the Ukrainian-born Shteyn had opened his Chicago publishing house, he had championed a diverse catalog of illustrated volumes. Radical philosophical essays, an anthology of regional poetry (Fig. 1) and dramatic verse plays all emerged under Shteyn’s editorial eye—each accompanied by graphics, drawings or woodcuts that remain visually striking nearly a century after their commission.

Visitors to the third floor of Regenstein Library will have a chance to see a selection of these and other thoughtfully-designed Yiddish books exhibited in three display cases. In addition to Shteyn’s operations, there existed no fewer than thirteen publishing houses in Chicago by 1940. They ranged in size as well as ideological affiliation. In 1923, for example, the Naye Gezelshaft (New Society) sponsored a Yiddish translation of Baruch Spinoza’s 1677 philosophical treatise, Ethics. Over a decade later, the Arbeter Velt (Workers’ World) brought out a collection of children’s poetry by Moyshe Bogdansky, a teacher in the local Yiddish school system run by the Workmen’s Circle.

Title page of Yiddish book, Yizker-bukh
Figure 2: Title page of Yizker-bukh fun der Zshelekhover Yidisher kehile (Chicago: Tsentraler Zshelekhover Landsmanshaft in Chicago, 1953). Today, Żelechów, Poland.

The proliferation of Yiddish texts in Chicago also flourished outside the framework of established publishing houses. After World War II, there was a boom in Yiddish self-publishing. Some of these efforts produced yizker-bikher—memorial books commemorating those Jewish communities that had been destroyed. Survivors and émigrés pooled their resources in order to produce large-format illustrated volumes, such as the one printed in memory of the Jews of Żelechów, Poland (Fig. 2) that is currently on display.

From yizker-bikher to Spinoza’s Ethics to modernist poetry, “Yiddish in Chicago: A History of Publishing” offers visitors a glimpse into the multilingual history of the Windy City and the breadth of Yiddish cultural activity that once helped energize Chicago’s intellectual life.