Excerpt from A Provincial Newspaper

Miriam Karpilove (1888-1956) was a prolific Yiddish writer and editor. Born in a small town near Minsk (in today’s Belarus; then the Russian Empire), she was one of ten children. She immigrated to the United States in 1905, moved to New York City, and lived in Harlem and then the Seagate neighborhood of Brooklyn. She later moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where several of her brothers were living. She is among the few women who were able to make their livings as Yiddish writers, though she supplemented her income working as a retoucher, by hand coloring photographs. Karpilove wrote hundreds of short stories, belles-lettres, plays, and novels, and served as a staff writer for the Forverts (The Forward) in the 1930s. Family stories depict her as a colorful character with a sharp tongue.[1]

Karpilove’s A Provincial Newspaper (1926), the author’s parody of the world of Yiddish publishing, offers a unique window into that sphere through the eyes of a popular writer. Like Karpilove herself, the main character is underappreciated because she is a woman. The whirlwind pacing of the narrative lends to it a flavor of slapstick comedy, but underneath it is the story of a woman longing to be recognized as a writer, who finds herself in less than ideal circumstances for conducting her work.  The comical miscommunications in the excerpt, via mail and telephone, and in person, only exacerbate the more fundamental lack of understanding between the narrator and her co-workers, who don't see her as a writer of merit, and relegate her to writing the kind of sensational pulp fiction they think women want to read.

 

Chapter One

“Yes, as I was saying, he is a Mr. Sohn, from Bee, Mass. He wants to see you about some kind of newspaper. Be at the Royal tonight. He’ll be waiting for you.”

“How will I know who he is?”

“You’ll know. He’s a thin, pale man with large eyes and—he knows you! Will you be there?

“Yes, I will. Thank you for calling.”

“You’re welcome. Goodbye!”

“Goodbye!”

I hang up the receiver and think that it’s very nice of this Danchenko, someone I barely know through professional connections as a writer, to take an interest and call me like this, and to make an appointment for me. Very nice of him.

***

In the café. Mr. Sohn. We sit together at a table and he says: “I want to start a daily Yiddish newspaper in Bee, Mass. Someone there, Mr. Rat, will be the publisher, Mr. Kahm will be the first editor, and I’ll be the second editor. I came here to commission a novel and to talk to writers about coming to work for us. So how much would you ask for a novel?”

“For a new one, a translation, or a reprint?”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a reprint. No one will know . . .”

“They’ll know,” I say. “My novels are widely read, even outside the city . . .”

“Maybe they’ve already forgotten one already? I mean one of the earlier ones.”

It was hard for me to believe that people outside the city could have forgotten even the first of my books, but if he wants to think so, that’s his business. So I said, “Maybe!”

“So, about a price. I must first tell you that we can’t pay very much. We just can’t.”

I didn’t know what price to name, so we agreed that he would first take a few of my books and read them. He’d write to me about them, and then we’d come to an agreement.

***

I didn’t hear from Mr. Sohn for some time. I kept on waiting, and then I received a letter from Mr. Kahm, the first editor.

He wrote that he had spoken with Mr. Sohn about me. They wanted to hire me to work with them. The new newspaper, which would be called Der yidisher veg vayzer (The Yiddish Pathfinder), would have a women’s section, and they wanted me to be the editor of this section. So what were my conditions?

I asked for more information about the newspaper and about my novels that Mr. Sohn had read. How many times a week would the women’s section be published, and how much compensation could they offer? Here in New York, there is a certain amount that is considered the minimum wage for this kind of work, and that is $55 a week. I wouldn’t ask too large an amount from them, but I wouldn’t accept an offer for too little either . . . they should write and tell me more candidly about everything, and then I could give an informed response.

A few days later I received an answer to my letter. Here it is, word for word, just as it was written:

The Yiddish Pathfinder
Mr. Rat, publisher.                              Mr. Kahm, editor.
Telephone: Mass 9999
123 Being Street, Bee, Mass.

To the esteemed _______ (my name),

It is not possible to explain in a letter all that we have in mind for our Pathfinder.

Therefore, I can only answer these few questions.

First: A women’s page will be published every day, except for Saturday.

Second: You would be expected to edit the page, and also to write something, from a column to a column-and-a-half in length, every day.

Third: It is necessary for the Pathfinder that you be located here: you would be our full-time employee.

Fourth: We are unable to offer you the New York minimum wages. All of those who work for the Pathfinder will receive only minimal compensation so that they can help the newspaper establish itself. If it is successful, they will receive raises.

With these explanations, it would be our pleasure if you would become one of us. We offer you, for the beginning period, only a sum of $25 a week. We cannot afford more!

The Pathfinder will begin publishing in a few days. If our offer appeals to you come to us no later than next Saturday morning.

With regards to your novels, that remains to be seen. It is a great shame that they have already been published. But we will see.

Please let us know soon whether you will come.

Respectfully,

S. Kahm
Editor of the Daily Yiddish Pathfinder

I read over the letter and thought about how to respond. I had to respond quickly, I knew. It was already Friday afternoon.

I thought about going: another city, different people, a new newspaper and a position as an editor. I’d never held such a position. But the wages! I couldn’t even bring myself to say out loud how little it was.

But what’s money? Nothing! The main thing is the work, the free rein that I’d have with the newspaper, the influence that I could have. And if I didn’t like it, I could always come back.

I’d have to come back eventually. The new newspaper that had been in the works here for the past few years would need me. I was supposedly an employee there, or at least a future employee.

I called this future publisher and asked if I should take a position outside of the city or stay here and wait until his newspaper would come out. He advised me to go. Maybe if I worked there for four or five months I could earn a thousand dollars. It would be a shame to let this go. And the position he was offering would not change. When I returned I could have it, or when he finally was ready to publish the paper he would see to it that he called me back.

I wrote right away to the Pathfinder. When I weighed the options of going or staying, I decided to go for my own peace of mind. I’d get used to the small stipend because my excitement about building a new newspaper was stronger than my desire to make more money.

So I told them I had resolved to come on Saturday. I’d call the newspaper from the train station.

I sent the letter. I looked around the room where I lived and I thought about the people in the building who’d grown so familiar to me. It would be hard to leave such people.

As I was thinking, Mrs. S., a cheerful woman with a bright smile, came to speak to me. She had heard of this business with the Pathfinder and wanted to know how I felt about it.

I gave her their letter. She has a quick grasp of things, a strong mind. I wanted to know what she thought about it.

She said she didn’t want to see me go, but she was sure it wouldn’t be for long. My room would be waiting for me. In the meantime it would be good for me to go. I would see a new city, new people, work for a new paper. She wished she could go with me; it’s boring to stay in one place for too long.

“But the wages!” I said. “It’s too awful even to say the amount out loud.”

“Who do you need to say it to?” she asked. “Who needs to know? The main thing is not the wages, or the job, but the journey itself.”

She spoke about it like it was a pleasure trip. It made me feel like packing my things right away and setting off for the small town to show it how excited I was to see it. I wouldn’t be dismissive, like others who say that small towns are backward, have no taste, and will gobble up anything indiscriminately. If you just give the small town something good, how well it takes to it! The small town has so much time, more time than the big cities, to take in the most gourmet intellectual fare. I pledged to the town, and to myself, that I would see to it that the gourmet fare of the Pathfinder would be of a quality that would not leave its belly wanting.

 

Chapter Two

I sat on a train that carried me to the Pathfinder and thought about what kinds of columns I’d create for the women’s page. One after the other, ideas crammed into my mind. Each idea came too fast for me to consider; each idea was too new, too fresh. They formed a line, waiting to see which of them would be chosen to help me to fill the women’s world with something exceptional.

I looked them over like a foreman, considered them, then put them aside for later, when I would return to them. I would see if I could use them once I got there. Maybe new ideas would come to me there, too. Why should I worry about that now?

I told myself to put aside this line of thought. In the meantime I’d better look out the window of the train at the green fields.

They stirred a sense of longing within me. I thought like a proletarian: the rich were traveling to their summer homes to rest in the lap of nature, while I was traveling to work, to sweat.

The poor newspaper! A rich newspaper would not come out in the summertime, in the heat. It would wait until winter.

But surely they know what they are doing. A provincial newspaper must know who its readers are and when to find them. Maybe the best time for a small-town newspaper to bloom is the summer, growing on the farms or by the sea’s edge.

I decided then and there that I would rent a room somewhere by the sea. I would rise early, go for a swim, and then go to work. I wouldn’t allow even one good idea to go by untried, not one interesting picture to go unseen; I’d use everything for the newspaper, which would bring meaning to my life.

I watched the woods and fields of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire rush by. I read in them pieces of history from the Revolution against England’s rule. An interesting story: settlers, pioneers, Quakers, Puritans, Indians . . . and suddenly there were clouds. Big, heavy clouds. It began to rain. It was a downpour!

I arrived in Bee in the midst of this rain. I looked around the empty station cloaked in clouds, hoping there was someone here from the Pathfinder to meet me.

There was no one.

I called the Pathfinder on the telephone. “Hello! I’m here! Should I wait for someone to meet me or come on my own? It’s pouring. How far away are you? Very far?”

A voice from the other side of the wire said, “It’s not far: take a taxi and come straight here, to the office of the Pathfinder.

I said all right, I would be there right away.

I called a taxi, rode, arrived, paid, tipped, and climbed with my satchels to the fourth floor of an old, worn-down, darkened building.

A bright office. Noisy. The publisher and the editor greeted me with a “Sholem aleichem.” They introduced me to Mr. Frost, a music professor. He was so fat that it seemed like his clothing would burst right off him. Next to him stood another man, Mr. Stein, who was very thin. The publisher himself was a small man, and the editor, who was certainly not small, was young and not at all unattractive.

“Such a young man!” I said with wonder, “and already an editor!”

“Yes,” he smiled a bit sheepishly, “and what do you think of the rain?”

“I don’t like it at all, but that doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’ll pass. And where is Mr. Sohn?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, looking around. “He should be here. He will probably be back soon. How was your trip? How is New York?”

“New York is what it is: incomparable. What’s it like here, in Bee?” I asked and turned, probably too soon, to the Pathfinder. “When do you start publishing?”

“In a few days. We’ve had to delay a few days because of technical difficulties. If you want, we can go into my office and talk more about it.”

All we had to do was go through the doorway we’d been standing right next to. He sat on the editor’s chair. I sat on the other side of the desk.

“What did you bring with you?” he asked, looking at my baggage. “I mean, for the Pathfinder.” He smiled.

“Kind regards,” I smiled, and then answered with seriousness. “Several things that could be of use to the newspaper. But first I want to know more about what your plans are.”

“Did you bring a novel?”

“You have my novels here.”

“But these have already been published. I mean, have you written anything new? Something that will . . . that will be so . . . you know, so interesting. The success of the newspaper hangs on novels. So what are you thinking of giving us for the women’s page?”

The publisher came in during that question and asked, “Well, how’s it going?” He turned to the editor. “Did you explain to her what we need?”

I looked at him. How loud he talked! Such a small man; where did he get such a loud voice? But his swift, beady eyes laughed with optimism so that I could not help but smile.

I asked him what kind of mission his Pathfinder would have. He answered: “The mission of the paper is that it will change all other papers! It will supply everything that the city, the state, and all of the surrounding states need! It will be a living paper! Full of the most current events and everything that will make it successful! The women’s page must be so, so . . . round and pointed! It should attract both men and women! A novel must attract the reader from the first issue, so that he cannot tear himself away. I am in favor of a pulp fiction. You may laugh at me, but I don’t believe in highfalutin literature! That’s what the library is for, that’s all! The paper must be a success that everyone will envy. I’ll show them that I can publish a daily newspaper without them. I can be the boss myself!”

I waited until he finished speaking and asked the editor what I needed to do. 

“You should write an editorial every day,” he said, “and . . .”

“And . . . ?”

“That’s it. An editorial and edit the page. After that, we would like  . . . a novel.”

“A good novel!” the publisher cried, “the kind of novel that will grab the reader by his right—”

Telephone: “Wrong number!”  

The editor hung up the receiver and continued to talk. “It must be the kind of novel that—”

“It must snap!” Mr. Rat clicked his tongue and quickly snapped his fingers. “Something like The Secrets of the Imperial Court, about Catherine the Great with her . . . you know! Or like the Iron Woman. That’s a good one too.”

“I am afraid that I can’t write something like that,” I said.

“What do you mean, you can’t? What do you need to know to do it?”

“You don’t have to know something, you have to be able to do it . . .”

“It’s nothing! You just take an old novel and change it around a little here and there, and the readers will lap it up!”

I’d initially been sympathetic to the editor, but this wasn’t helping. I looked out into the street. The rain was still pouring. My head began to ache. I remembered that I needed to eat something. And where could I do this? I needed to find myself a room to rent.

Aside from these things I also thought about a novel. If they refused to publish one of my novels, who knows what kind of trash they’d publish instead? What kind of image would this newspaper have, with a novel like that?

Soon Mr. Sohn would arrive. He’d read my novels. I’d wait to hear what he had to say. But he seemed to be in no hurry to arrive. Where could he have disappeared to? Without him, they said, they didn’t know where I could rent a room. He knows about such things. Did I want, in the meantime, to take a look around the editorial offices?

“Oh, yes, very much!”

The boss himself showed me around. “This is the general office, this is his office, this is Mr. Kahm’s office, this is the printing area, and this is the business office!”

“And where,” I asked, “is my office?”

“What do you need an office for? You have a desk. Does it make a difference to you?”

“Yes, I believe so . . .”

“That’s all right. It will be all right. Don’t worry!”

But I did worry. I’d pictured that I’d have a separate office with a desk and instead I had nothing. It seemed I’d have to write my pieces in my own room, once I’d managed to rent one.

In the meantime I still had no room and the second editor still had not shown up. I decided to try to find myself something to eat.

 

[1] Little has been written about Karpilove’s life or writing. Those wishing to learn more about her work may consult the following encyclopedia entries: Ellen Kellman, “” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 8, 2018 <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Karpilovee-miriam>; Zalmen Reyzin, “Miriam Karpilove,” Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye 3 (1929): 575-576. I am grateful to her nephew, David Karpilow, for sharing his recollections of Miriam, as well as pages from a book of Karpilow family history compiled by his cousin, Arno Karlen.

Original Yiddish published in Miriam Karpilove’s A Provints Tsaytung (New York: o.fg., 1926).


JESSICA KIRZANE  is the lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Her translation of Miriam Karpilove’s novel, Diary of a Lonely Girl, is forthcoming from Syracuse University Press this fall. Jessica was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2017.