The Mames of the Forverts

"Mother's Portrait" by Dovid Brown, Forverts, December 6, 1914
Sometimes we think of databases of Yiddish text as rather limited things, in particular as we await more refined and more reliable OCR. Searching through a database of books or of newspapers can lead to surprising finds but it is often difficult to observe trends with any certainty. The results can appear so jumbled, especially without proper organizing metadata, that it becomes difficult to make clear judgments. One of the goals in constructing this database is to isolate texts and attach metadata to them so that it will be somewhat easier to approach pressing research questions.
For instance, a single word search can be fascinating but sometimes quite frustrating. A search for “mame” in the Historical Jewish Press results in 5,504 instances (excluding ads and pictures), undifferentiated between news articles, essays, and fiction, and without linking serialized works to one another. And with somewhat unreliable OCR, especially for the first ten years of Forverts publication, it is difficult to make conclusions: does the rise in instances of “mame” in the 1920s mean that interest in mothers increased over time or just that the OCR does a better job on the higher quality scans? How much can this trend be explained by the recurrence of a text string that looks like an article but is actually an advertisement for “California Fig Syrup” that calls on “mame!” to use the elixir as a remedy for sick children? Does this ad tell us the same thing an article or a short story might say about Yiddish cultural consciousness?
Using mitigates a few of these concerns, though not all. On the back end, researchers who have been trained to identify fiction in the pages of the newspaper enter each text into the database manually and then attach valuable metadata. (Human error is of course part of the game—if you find a mistake or a misspelling, please alert us!) Titles are entered as both transcriptions and normalized into YIVO orthography to aid in searchability. While we might not be able to say what the Forverts as a whole has to say about mames, we can note trends in the kind of fiction the editors promoted.
A search for “mame” in for the years 1903–1925 results in 95 works of fiction that feature that word in the title, two novels and 93 short stories. Something can already be gleaned from the titles of the two novels, both of which staff shund writer Leon Gottlieb wrote, just three years apart:
Vos a mame ken (What a Mother Knows), 7/24/1915 – 11/10/1915
On a mame (Motherless), 12/8/1917 – 5/13/1918
The novels share the same subtitle, a version of which always accompanied Gottlieb’s novels: roman fun yidishn lebn in amerike (a novel of Jewish life in America). Written at the height of Eastern European Jewish immigration the United States, the novels feature a mother at the center of this experience, as the site for a family’s dissolution and as the inspiration for possible reconciliation. One can note this duality in the two titles, one touting the unique things an immigrant mother knows that bind the family together and the other gesturing toward the immediate tragedy that enfolds should an immigrant be without a mother. As scholar Ellen Kellman has argued, Gottlieb’s novels aim to resolve this tension, describing immigrant struggles and ultimate successes while promoting the Jewish cultural politics that the newspaper advocated for in the rest of its pages.
But why mothers? A similar search for “tate” (father) results in only 38 works. The one longer work among these results is the serialization of a Sherlock Holmes novel, a translation into Yiddish of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, now with a title more enticing for the Yiddish reader, “The Doomed Father,” Der falfalner tate. Clearly the father, and specifically the Jewish immigrant father, does not hold the Yiddish reader’s attention the way a mother would. The genres in which mothers appear also follow a broad range of genres, with a pronounced interest in speech and the stereotypical mother’s loquaciousness. Of the 93 short works of fiction, 32 are one-acts and eight others are monologues. Many of the stories are overtly sentimental, as in the two different one-acts with the title “A mames harts,” a mother’s heart, and another about “Mames trern,” mother’s tears.
There is something about the mother that continually leads to overdetermined emotionality. Consider these lines from Yenta Serdatsky’s story “A vunderbare mame,” (A wonderful mother) about the family of a virtuoso violinist:
“The boy, in his appearance, is not very interesting. He is tall, thin, with flaxen hair, a pale countenance, gray eyes, and a tired and indifferent expression on his face. The father is also not very interesting. A 40-year-old man, tall and thin, with gray eyes like his son, only he is near-sighted and wears glasses; he is also blond but bald. The boy’s father is indeed not very important, since among the teachers and their music lessons, and in the big concert halls where the famous musicians play, and lately on the smaller stages where he too has begun to perform, one always finds next to him his mother. His mother is a remarkable woman, her name is Sonia, and from that one can already tell she is a Russian-Jewish intellectual. She is now 34 years old.”
The father and the son are simply uninteresting to the Yiddish writer and reader. It is the mother who is at the center in her cultural dynamism as a "Russian-Jewish intellectual." To be sure, the story is hardly complimentary of this mother, who forces her child to play music even though his weak constitution, which leads to his fainting at the end of every performance—right into his mother’s waiting arms. But she appears still as larger than life, a force that none of the men in the story can match much less oppose.
A sense of tragedy also runs throughout this group of texts, with notes of melodrama that would appeal to a readership torn by generational change. Here is how B. Jacob’s 1918 short story “A mame” (A mother) ends:
“The lonely mother stood for a long while looking down with pity on her one and only child… and hot tears fell on the thick and beautiful hair of her sleeping daughter…”
This scene repeats itself, in tragedy and in farce, throughout this corpus. The full image of the immigrant mother—and its contradictions—awaits more research. I’ve only touched a few of the works on this list, and this only represents the appearance of this figure in one newspaper over two decades. What remains of the mother in Eastern Europe? And what happens as this figure ages into 30s and the postwar? We’ll need more data to begin answering such questions.

by Saul Noam Zaritt
Published on Thursday, August 10, 2023