The first Yiddish daily published in the Russian Empire. Der fraynd (The Friend), issued between 1903 and 1912, was a harbinger of the new, secular Jewish culture that would sweep Jewish communities in the final days of the tsarist empire. Founded by Sha’ul Ginsburg (1866–1940) and run out of the capital city of Saint Petersburg until its move to Warsaw in the fall of 1909, Der fraynd helped reshape and redefine both popular and elite culture for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Yiddish-speaking (and reading) Jews in the Russian Empire and beyond.
During the paper’s early years, Ginsburg was joined by coeditor Shabse Rapoport and staff members such as Yoysef Lurie and Ḥayim Dov Horowitz. The permanent staff was supplemented by a long and distinguished list of contributors from the Jewish literary and cultural centers in Warsaw and Odessa including, among others, Y. L. Peretz, David Frishman, Mordkhe Spektor, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Sholem Asch, and Avrom Reyzen.
Estimates—unreliable as they are in such circumstances—put the paper’s daily circulation at more than 90,000 copies at its height. As a result, some researchers claim that nearly 500,000 Jews (roughly 10% of the Jewish population in the Russian Empire at that time) read the Yiddish daily or had the news read to them as copies were regularly passed from hand to hand or, alternatively, read out loud in informal, semipublic gatherings. The large number of its female readers helped support the paper financially and also marked the growing participation of Jewish women in the public realm.
Despite its openness with regard to new readers, the paper remained part and parcel of the elite Jewish community of Saint Petersburg and its pro-regime, imperial visions of Russian Jewry. Thus, only 6,000 copies were sold in Warsaw, the former capital of Congress Poland. The paper—which arrived three days late in Warsaw—had only one distributor in the city that was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, and belatedly instituted a regular column on Jewish life in Congress Poland in 1906, remaining loyal to reigning concepts of center and periphery, empire and subject.
While initially sympathetic to Zionism, Der fraynd maintained a rather muted political stance on this issue in its early years, out of fear of government censors. The paper’s vaguely pro-Zionist and somewhat passive proliberal position changed radically with the onset of the Revolution of 1905 and the great political expectations that swept the empire. For a brief period in the spring of 1906, in the wake of its temporary closure by the authorities and its replacement for some four months by its former literary supplement Dos lebn, Der fraynd took a decidedly antigovernment stance that was openly expressed in both articles and cartoons. The cartoons, produced for the most part by the young Arnold Borisovich Lakhovsky, attacked government authorities, liberal leaders, and Jewish politicians for their corruption, indifference, and ineptitude.
The Białystok pogrom in June 1906 marked an additional turning point in the paper’s editorial position as Der fraynd used graphic photographs of Jewish victims to refocus public attention on anti-Jewish violence, the Jewishness of its victims, and, ultimately, the Jewishness of the paper’s readers. Thus, the Jewish press contributed significantly to the imagination and construction of the modern Jewish nation.
Threatened by the popularity of other, new Yiddish newspapers based in Warsaw, Der fraynd relocated to that city in November 1909. There it expected to be closer to both a larger pool of readers and to a critical mass of Yiddish writers. However, Haynt and Der moment were by then already well on their way to dominating the Jewish cultural and literary scenes in Warsaw and throughout the empire. As a result, Der fraynd, which was never able to return to its earlier successes, closed its offices in 1912 only a few years before the ancien regime that the paper so supported and so despised came to a sudden yet long awaited collapse.
Saul M. Ginsburg, Amolike Peterburg (New York, 1944), pp. 184–239; Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires (Bloomington, Ind., 2004).