Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
Journalism in the New Kasrilevke

Just as there were two of everything in Kasrilevke, there were also two Yiddish newspapers, the Yarmulke and the Little Cap. Naturally the Yarmulke is the traditional, old-fashioned daily paper for the Orthodox, and Little Cap is the modern, radical gazette of the progressive elements.

The competing papers’ mottoes alone served immediate notice of their policies. In large letters the Yarmulke devoted itself “To God and the Public.” The editor of the Little Cap placed his own name in equally large print and boldly asserted, “I am here—everything is here.”

When were these two organs founded? Which is older? That’s hard to say! For each one proclaims itself the oldest and only Yiddish paper in Kasrilevke, and ignores, disregards and never even mentions, God forbid, the other’s name. . . .

For example—Little Cap wanted to talk about its neighbor without printing his name. So instead of saying, “Yarmulke,” he preferred to think up an alphabetic acrostic that ran like this:

“That asinine, beggarly, crooked, drunken, envious, feeble, galling, hair-splitting, idiotic, jagged, knee-bending, leprous, mangy, nefarious, ossified, provocating, querulous, rabble-rousing, skimpy, tottering, ugly, venomous, wayward, xenophobic, yellowing, and zigzagging rag whose name we don’t even want to mention. . . .”

This had a terrific impact on Kasrilevke, and the copies were grabbed up in a wild rush. Everyone repeated this “a-b-c” until he had it memorized. Naturally, this annoyed the Yarmulke and it came forth with its answer in the morning:

“We have read the ‘a-b-c’ of that ass, bastard, coward, dunce, eel, fool, gyp, hound-dog, inquisitor, jellyfish, knave, liar, miser, numbskull, ox, pagan, quack, reptile, scandalmonger, terrorist, unmentionable, villain, wastrel, Xerxes, yokel, and zoo of a paper, but we’re not answering them, for we don’t wish to defile our pens. . . .”

The Kasrilevke reader prefers just this sort of literature to all others. He calls it “criticism,” and is in seventh heaven when the editors “criticize” one another. On the day when the pages lack “critiques,” circulation lags in Kasrilevke.

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As in the rest of the world, the Kasrilevke . press depended upon extraordinary and sensational daily news. However, in the rest of the world the press knows when to limit its sensationalism, but Kasrilevke doesn’t know when to stop. It’s all for competition! For instance, when the Little Cap reported that in France a woman gave birth to a baby with two heads, the next morning you found the same news in the Yarmulke, only spiced up a bit. They said that in France a mother gave birth to a child with three heads, that the baby was alive and healthy and eating with all three mouths.

At another time the Little Cap succeeded in revealing that in Odessa there was a terrible wintery snowstorm in mid-July. The next morning the Yarmulke grabbed this same item but made it a Shade stronger: Odessa suffered a three-yard-high midsummer blizzard and over a score of its citizens were found frozen stiff!

But best of all is the fish story. One Friday the Yarmulke printed this article: “A Jewish woman, a reader of the Yarmulke, bought a pike weighing several pounds for the Sabbath. She brought the fish home, cleaned it, and in cutting it up she found a ring and a pair of earrings. Pure gold. Valued at a high price. Whoever wants to see the ring and earrings can do so at the Yarmulke’s editorial office.”

This pierced the Little Cap to the quick. All Sabbath long they were in a dither. Barely enduring till Sunday, they let their readers know that a Jewish woman, a reader of the Little Cap, bought a fish for the Sabbath, a gypsy-fish weighing ten pounds, and just managed to drag it home. There she cleaned it and cut it up and took out a veritable treasure: a half-dozen tablespoons, a dozen teaspoons, and a pair of silver candlesticks. . . . Whoever wanted to see these items could come to the Little Cap’s editorial office.

More sensational than anything else was the novel. During the time I was in Kasrilevke both the Yarmulke and the Little Cap printed a highly interesting, lengthy novel. One called it The Stolen Bride’s Forbidden Kiss. The other en tided the same work The Forbidden Bride’s Stolen Kiss.

A Kasrilevke litterateur secretly informed me that the novel was lifted from an old Russian book by two writers who try their best to drag the action out indefinitely. In order to hold the public’s interest, they think up new sensations daily. In broad daylight they put away a hale and healthy hero forever and just as suddenly bring him back to life. They are not beyond recalling two wives from the other world as long as it fits their plan.

And if it pleases them, out of the blue they’ll start the novel all over again—and go fight them! But to be frank I must say that Kasrilevke reads this novel with gusto. They lick their fingers in anticipation of the next installment. . . .

Truth is that the end is long overdue. The authors themselves are sick and tired of stretching the old story’s bones. Its heroes have long been disposed of—some hanged, some poisoned, some shot. But the vicious competition makes the editors call for further stretching, and neither paper wants to call it quits until the other does so. Things were in such a state when I was in Kasrilevke that some of the heroes had been shot for a third time, and the forbidden bride had been stolen twice, misled and harassed, and then sought, found, stolen, and oppressed once again.

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You shouldn’t think that Kasrilevke’s press is completely engrossed only in what the Americans call business, and that the papers don’t deal with politics. What sort of press would it be without politics? What sort of journals would they be if they didn’t concern themselves with the public? When the time came, not only the editors and reporters, but the readers, too, were drawn into the political battle. Parties have wars! Parties fight! The heavens are split asunder. Brother rises up against brother. The word “justice” ceases to exist. The feeling of pity dies away. The end of the world has come! And this situation repeats itself exactly every three years. They’re choosing a new rabbi!

There are as many parties in Kasrilevke as candidates. Two candidates—two parties. One candidate is supported by the Yarmulke and this party is called the Yarmulkists. The other candidate is boosted by the Little Cap and this party is named the Little Cappers. Both candidates have already held office. But only for three years. No one lasted any longer. And each candidate, naturally, had his own platform.

For example, the candidate of the Yarmulkists, if elected, would come to Sabbath services before anyone else. At home he wears a skullcap (a fanatic Yarmulkist). He has a habit of bargaining. No matter how much you want to give him—it’s not enough.

In opposition, the candidate of the Little Cappers doesn’t even come to the synagogue except occasionally on a holiday. At home he’s bareheaded and he eats, so it’s been told, forbidden sausages.

His motto is, “I spit on you.” As for bargaining, he doesn’t bargain like the other candidate. God forbid! . . . You can even stretch out and croak, it’s still—“I spit on you.”

The time I voted in Kasrilevke it was just election eve. It was a real hot time. And, oh my, you can’t imagine what happened on those two papers! It’s impossible to describe all that they wrote.

As a sample, I can only quote their own words to show how the two editors dealt with one another.

“How much sweat, filth and dirt has been collected under the Yiddish Yarmulke. How much distress and mockery we’ve had from that Yarmulke. The day when we are free of them will be our second independence day. The day when we get permanently rid of them will be our second Redemption from Egyptian bondage. Down with the Yarmulke! Long live the Little Cap! Down with the Yarmulkists! Long live the Little Cappers! Hurrah!!”

This time the Yarmulke’s reply to the Little Cap was short. It said:

“The feeble Little Cap has suddenly found its tongue again. Where are the Little Cappers crawling with their candidate? Don’t they know that Kasrilevke is a Jewish town, a city and mother in Israel? What won’t a rabbi think of, one who gobbles porkers fried in butter, and who in these modern times goes bareheaded and unwashed before his prayers?”

How the fight ended I don’t know. I left town.

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The Kasrilevke editors hate to boast or raise a storm about themselves publicly. Just the opposite. In Kasrilevke there is a certain thread which binds the editors and readers. In Kasrilevke the editor likes to ask the advice of his readers concerning his paper. He is satisfied if a reader writes him a letter. Thus the editor is able to start a poll. . . . It’s about these polls that a Kasrilevke litterateur told me this story. . . .

You know the worst season for newspapers? Summer! Unless, of course, with God’s help, there’s a cholera epidemic, then it’s another matter.

But one summer there was no cholera. It was maddening. What can you do? So the Little Cap suddenly goes crazy (I was with them at the time) and comes up with a new thing: ‘It seems that our readers are dissatisfied with our masthead. Some say that the “L” in Little Cap is too long, that it looks like a stork’s neck. Others say, no, that a long “L” is much nicer than a short one. So we turn this problem over to our readers. If a majority of our readers say they want a new masthead, we’ll go to any expense to give them a new one. Whoever wants to join this poll should write a letter to the editor of the Little Cap.

Having finished that bit of business, our editor was overjoyed. ‘Those animals,’ he said, ‘will have something to chew on.’

The finale came when we arrived at the office the next morning. We give a look—and there’s the editor steaming like a samovar. What happened? We’re making him miserable. We’re giving away all the editorial secrets! And he shows us the Yarmulke with our announcement in it:

‘Not all our readers are satisfied with our masthead. Some find that the “l” in Yarmulke is too short, that it looks like a duck’s neck. And some oppose this, saying that a short “l” is much nicer than a long one. So we’re turning this question over to our readers. If most of the readers ask for another masthead we’ll spare no expense to give them a new one. The readers of the Yarmulke are asked to post their letters care of the editor’s office.’

This was a death blow for the Little Cap. From then on, day in, day out, Little Cap never stopped printing the announcement about the masthead. And the Yarmulke did just the same. The masthead business didn’t stop for a single day. And so we were mastheaded almost a whole summer in Kasrilevke, till one fine morning the Little Cap came out with a bulletin:

‘This is to inform our readers that the Little Cap’s masthead will remain the same. For out of our 20,000 readers only 187 were against the old masthead, and the remaining 19,813 were in favor of it.’

Do you think it was all over? Sure enough that same day the Yarmulke came out with the same news:

‘Since out of our 20,000 readers only 187 were against our old masthead and the remaining 19,813 favored it, we are sticking to our old masthead.’

“How did this leak out to the Yarmulke? There’s no one here but you and me and God, so I’ll tell you. It was a sorcerer! Black magic! The devil only knows! But you want to know how it ended? It was a bloody finish! The editor of our Little Cap locked himself in his office and had a crying fit. How do I know? Leave it to me. If I tell you, I know. Well, after he had a good cry he fired all his co-workers—me amongst them—and hired a new crew. But he’s since fired the new ones and rehired the old staff. But he hasn’t come to me yet. He’ll probably come. I still have hope. The Little Cap is completely mad. But I have to admit, you make a dollar there. At the Yarmulke you can’t even do that. The Yarmulke is much worse!”

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If the Kasrilevke papers had to depend on circulation alone, they’d be in a fine pickle. All the hullaballoo was aimed in one direction only—the fourth page, the home of ads and personal announcements, which sup ports the press the world over.

Concerning advertisements, the Kasrilevke papers not only followed the path of the American press, but went a step farther. In Kasrilevke, ads became highly fashionable. There was no merchant, dairyman, or laborer, not even a plain housewife or maid, who didn’t use the ad columns. Like it or not—you had to advertise. You marry off a child—an ad. A son is born to you—a public announcement. A daughter—an ad, too. If you tried to be smart and didn’t advertise—hold on to your hat! This didn’t mean, God forbid, that they did anything to you. They just printed things about you. . . .

Many fine stories are told in Kasrilevke about just this kind of advertisement persecution. Here are two of them.

1. Incident with a Wine Barrel

Judah Winepresser had a fight with the papers and decided, “Enough!” He refused to advertise any more. And go do him something! But he soon regretted his move. The next day the papers had a bulletin saying: “A tragedy occurred at a local winemaker’s. A barrel of wine, standing and fermenting, suddenly began to sour. The wine bubbled and the barrel swelled. Finally it exploded, nearly killing the winemaker.”

As soon as Judah Winepresser read this, he ran to both editorial offices with this ad: “Whoever wants a glass of fresh wine should remember that there’s a Jew by the name of Judah Winepresser in town.” When one can’t compete, one must cooperate!

2. Incident of the Phenomenon

A couple gave birth to a son. The parents, according to tradition, celebrated the circumcision. So what’s the story? They had simply neglected to order a “good luck” announcement in the papers.

The day after the circumcision a feature appeared in the papers headlined, “Phenomenon.” It told of a rare occurrence in Kasrilevke—a once-in-a-millenium event. “A young wife has given birth to a phenomenon. Only five months after her wedding, she was safely delivered of a son. The boy, the ‘phenomenon,’ is alive, thriving, and remarkably well formed. And only yesterday his circumcision was celebrated.”

What the couple went through, I leave to your imagination. The young father of the “phenomenon” scurried around Kasrilevke like a chicken with its head cut off. He reckoned on his fingers for everyone to see that it was exactly nine months and nine days after his wedding. But go fight the world! The town heard him out—but choked with laughter. The young father threatened to bring suit, but since no names were mentioned, what could he do? He couldn’t even begin! The town held its sides from the “phenomenal” incident. It’s just this sort of thing a Kasrilevke reader likes to see in his newspaper. A Kasrilevke reader hates boring stories. He adores lively journalism!

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