Humorous illustrations or cartoons, as a critical visual element of the popular press, appeared in East European Jewish journals relatively late as compared to non-Jewish coterritorial language publications. The small number of Yiddish periodicals that were permitted in the Russian Empire from the mid-nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century generally contained few, if any, illustrations.
One of the first humorous visual depictions was Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski’s Praktisher folks kalendar (1875), which was accompanied by comic dialogue. Its publication, however, did not induce other Yiddish publishers to use the same method. One of the earliest East European Yiddish cartoons appeared in Heshl Eplberg’s Varshever yidisher kalendar (1895), reprinted from a short-lived American publication, Di nyu-yorker yidishe ilustrirte tsaytung (1887–1888). Severe restrictions placed on the Jewish press by the tsarist regime resulted in limited opportunities for writers and, in particular, for illustrators to publish in Jewish newspapers and journals. Furthermore, there is a strong probability that editors apparently deemed cartoons frivolous and did not consider including them in their publications.
“A General Electoral Bloc.” Der sheygets (The Delinquent), Warsaw, 8 October 1930. Cartoon satirizing the not unusual situation of Jewish political parties entering into uneasy alliances in order to form parliamentary blocs. Here, the parties are shown beating each other mercilessly. (Left to right) Agudas Yisroel, Zionist, Mizraḥi, Folkist, Artisan, Merchant. (YIVO)
It was in the wake of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution, when cartoons briefly became an important form of anti-tsarist agitation throughout the empire and in most of its languages, that cartoons began to appear regularly in the Yiddish press. Many of them were lifted from Russian and Polish papers, reprinted with Yiddish captions. In early 1906, efforts were made by editors of the growing Yiddish press to instead provide original cartoon art by Jewish artists. The empire’s first Yiddish daily, Der fraynd, during a six-month incarnation as Dos lebn, published cartoons on a nearly daily basis from December through April 1906, the first time a Yiddish paper did so.
In addition, a number of satirical journals featured cartoons. Those that engaged Jewish artists to create original cartoon art included Saint Petersburg’s Der bezem (a supplement to Der fraynd) and Der sheygets; and Warsaw’s Di bin. These journals’ cartoons provided the first visual satire created for Jewish audiences in Eastern Europe. Most of the cartoons in the two Saint Petersburg journals were drawn by local Jewish artist Alexander Lakhovsky and an unknown artist who used the name Homunkulus. Di bin hired acclaimed Warsaw-based artist Yankev Vaynles to draw its cartoons, although his tenure lasted only four issues, after which period the magazine resorted to translating cartoons from Polish and Russian journals. These and subsequent Yiddish satirical journals appeared intermittently, none lasting more than one year.
Though cartoons and caricatures were an innovation in Jewish papers, they quickly became important editorial and humorous elements within the Yiddish press, which in the post-1905 period expanded considerably. Cartoons appeared mainly in “one-time journals,” magazines dedicated to humor and satire. These were often issued for Jewish holidays, a custom that continued from the pre-1905 censorship period in which printing periodicals in Yiddish was illegal. In an attempt to circumvent this ban, publishers often printed “one-time” journals once per month, allegedly in relation to a holiday. The subsequent publication of humor journals in connection with Jewish holidays resulted in numerous parodies of liturgical texts and, in turn, visual parodies of holiday material in the form of cartoons. In this way, the phenomenon of a uniquely Jewish cartoon that exploited traditional symbolism was created.
In the years just prior to World War I, the Warsaw dailies Haynt and Moment initiated humor sections, which beginning in the early 1920s regularly contained cartoons in the expanded Friday editions of their papers. Prior to then, cartoons appeared only sporadically. A number of attempts were made to publish monthly and weekly satirical journals. Due to difficult economic conditions, these journals generally did not last more than a few years, but contained some of the most interesting and original cartoon art from the Yiddish press. Humorous periodicals include Der ashmeday (1912–1913), Der takhshit (1921–1922), Der blofer (1926–1930), and Der sheygets (1929–1931), among other, shorter-lived publications.
“The Ten Commandments for Vacationers (written by a contemporary wife).” Der griner (The Green One), Warsaw, June 1927. The “green” in the title of this humor journal in honor of Shavu‘ot refers to spring, the season in which the holiday falls. In this front-page parody, a woman writes rules on how to successfully cheat on one’s spouse while on vacation. “Cut your hair a little, your age a lot, and make your skirt even shorter.” (YIVO)
In one-time journals, humor periodicals, and the humor pages of the daily press, thousands of original cartoons dealt specifically with the Jewish condition from a Jewish perspective in Imperial Russia and later in independent Poland. Cartoonists of significance included Leyb Brodaty, Khayim Goldberg, and Shaye Faygenboym. Many cartoons also went either unsigned or were signed only with pseudonyms.
During the interwar period, cartoons appeared in most major Yiddish dailies and weeklies throughout Eastern Europe, emanating from Vilna, Łódź, Riga, and Czernowitz. However, the main center for such publication, as it was for the general press, was Warsaw. Cartoons also appeared in some Yiddish-language publications in the Soviet Union, many of them drawn by N. Melamed, though most went unsigned. A significant number appeared during the Soviet antireligious campaign, and although they were in Yiddish language publications, many were tinged with antisemitism, employing features of traditional European anti-Jewish caricature such as hooked noses and dollar signs to represent Jewry as a whole. Although some Jewish cartoonists (including Brodaty) contributed to the well-known Soviet satire journal Krokodil, they did not specifically address Jewish themes.
A number of Jewish artists drew cartoons for publications in languages other than Yiddish, although the vast majority of these cartoons did not cover Jewish topics. The Polish humor magazine Szpilki (1936–1939), for example, published cartoons by such Jewish artists as Mendel Reif and Bronisław Schneider. Fritz Kleinman contributed cartoons to the Lwów-based satirical journal Sczutek. Cartoons appeared infrequently or not at all either in the Hebrew press of Eastern Europe or in the non-Yiddish Jewish publications that appeared in a variety of languages.
With the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during World War II, and with the demise of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, Jewish humor publications and their cartoons disappeared as a form of Jewish cultural production.
Edward Portnoy, “Exploiting Tradition: Religious Iconography in Cartoons of the Polish Yiddish Press,” Polin 16 (2003): 243–267; Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires (Bloomington, Ind., 2004).