Help! I Know This Article Was Published In a Jewish Newspaper, But I Can’t Find It!
The Dorot Jewish Division of The New York Public Library is home to a remarkable collection of Jewish newspapers from all over the world, both historical and current. Researchers have used our newspapers to research historical events, resurface long-untranslated serialized novels, and explore Jewish daily life in New York City and beyond.
One common question we hear about Jewish newspapers goes something like this: “A photo of my relative appeared in a newspaper years ago. Can you find it?” Or: “I have this newspaper clipping but I lost the citation. Where did it appear?” Sometimes, the researcher is pleasantly surprised to find that the news item they want is just a quick online search away. But other times, this seemingly simple question sets them off on a wild goose chase that can last for weeks or even months. Those moments when we’re able to help a researcher find a photograph or newspaper clipping they thought they'd never see are incredibly satisfying—but it’s not uncommon for these searches to end in frustration and disappointment.
Whether or not what you’re looking for is easy (or even possible) to find depends on a number of factors, many of which are outside of your control. But there are a few techniques that can help guide your search and make it as pain-free as possible. Here are some steps we recommend taking:
Make a List: What Facts Do You Know for Sure about This News Item?
Maybe you heard about this newspaper story second- or even third-hand. For instance, maybe you found a quote in a book, but the author used an incomplete citation or made a mistake. Maybe an elderly relative told you about something that happened so long ago that they’re no longer sure about some details. Or maybe this is something you heard about as a child and you’re fuzzy on the details yourself.
Start by writing down everything you think you know about this article. For instance, let’s say I’m looking for an article about a Mets game my relative attended in the 60s. The game was so long that it broke records and was widely reported on in the local press, including an article in the Forverts (also known as the Jewish Daily Forward) that my relative remembers reading in their Yiddish-speaking home. I know my relative would enjoy seeing this article again all these years later—but how do I find it?
The facts: this is an article about a Mets home game sometime in the 1960s. The Mets were founded in 1962, so it couldn’t be any earlier than that. And the article appeared in the Forverts.
Try a Preliminary Search—but Keep Your Expectations in Check
The basic facts I know about this article are very broad. I might still have success doing a search with just this information, since the Forverts is available in a searchable format online. If the name of the event is fairly unique, if I can type and read well enough in Yiddish, and—most importantly—if this article really did appear in the newspaper I thought it did, a keyword search in the Historical Jewish Press database (also known as JPress) might turn up the article on its own.
But depending on my level of experience with this type of research, doing a keyword search may not be as simple as I hope. Have you ever read an older English-language source and found the vocabulary, spelling, or typography unfamiliar? The same thing can happen with Yiddish or any other language, especially one with a significant population of speakers in a multiethnic society like New York. If you learned standard Yiddish in an academic setting, even if you are a native or heritage speaker, the way things are spelled in older issues of an American Yiddish paper may not seem intuitive.
If I can search for a specific proper noun associated with this event, that will sometimes be helpful. For instance, “Shea Stadium” will often be a more specific search term than just “Mets” or “baseball.” But even then, my instincts for how “Shea Stadium” is transliterated in this particular context may not be correct.
And choosing the right keyword is not the only potential obstacle to finding the article I need. In the case of a baseball game, there are 162 games in a season! Frequency is also an issue if we’re looking for an article about an event that happened every year, like a holiday (though sites like HebCal.com can help you figure out the dates of holidays), or something that could have recurred sporadically, like a lecture by a writer or rabbi, a labor action, or the performance of a play. Or maybe I’m looking for a specific article about a very famous person, but there are thousands of articles about them in the newspaper. Then my scope becomes wide enough that finding the article I’m looking for with just a keyword search might feel like a needle in a haystack. But it’s not time to give up just yet.
Check Your Facts—What Do I Actually Know For Sure, and What Am I Just Assuming?
Before I spend any more time searching for this article, I should ask myself why I think this article appeared in the Forverts to begin with. Did someone tell me that, or am I just assuming that because I know it was a Yiddish daily paper published in New York? For that matter, do I know for sure that this newspaper was in Yiddish, or was published in New York? It’s time to scrutinize the list of facts I have about the paper, and ask myself how I know each one of them.
Because the number of local daily newspapers, especially those in non-English languages, is fairly small today, it is easy to assume that the newspapers we know about today are the same ones our relatives read 50 or 100 years ago. Because the Forverts is still so famous and had the largest circulation among the Yiddish dailies, researchers sometimes assume the article they’re thinking of must have been in the Forverts. In fact, there were a number of New York daily newspapers written in Yiddish throughout the 20th century. Other cities also had such papers, and their distribution was not necessarily limited to the city of their publication. Each of the New York Yiddish dailies had a different political and/or religious slant, and therefore different types of people tended to read each one. Furthermore, some of the major Yiddish dailies actually merged into one, so someone might believe an article was published in Der Tog when, at the time of the event they’re researching, that newspaper had actually merged with the Morgen Zshurnal. It is therefore not a safe assumption that the Yiddish newspaper you have in mind was necessarily the Forverts or any other newspaper.
Likewise, there were newspapers published for a Jewish audience in languages other than Yiddish (or Hebrew or Ladino). Some Jewish immigrants may have spoken or read a language like German, Russian, or Hungarian, and chosen to consume their news in that language. Also, some mainstream, English-language newspapers also reported on events of Jewish interest. Unless you know for sure that the newspaper you are looking for was in Yiddish, leave open the possibility that it was in another language, or not in a Jewish newspaper at all. The reverse is also true: sometimes people assume that historically, Jewish newspapers in the U.S. were available in English, but that was generally not the case.
This exact scenario may not apply to you—perhaps you know for a fact that your family exclusively read the Forverts for decades—but the principle holds: make sure you are not proceeding on any assumptions, whether they concern the newspaper the article was published in or the event itself. If you know a date but are not sure of the newspaper, we recommend starting with the “big three” (the Forverts, the Tog, and the Morgen Zshurnal). You can also use the U.S. Newspaper Directory created by the Library of Congress to see what other newspapers were published at the time.
Narrow Down the Date Range By Talking To Someone And/Or Using Outside Sources
Knowing an exact date will help immensely with trying to locate a specific newspaper article. You may not know the exact date of an event, but you can often get more specific than just “a baseball game in the 1960s.” In the case of the Mets game, if my relative remembers whether the game was played at the Polo Grounds or Shea Stadium, that will immediately help me establish a time frame (Shea Stadium replaced the Polo Grounds as the home of the Mets in 1963). Here are some other questions that could be helpful:
- Who was mayor and/or president?
- What was the weather like? Were people wearing coats?
- Did any big life events happen that could narrow down the time frame? For example, if somebody associated with this event died or moved in a certain year, the event probably happened before then.
- What about big historical events? Was the war over? What news stories dominated the papers at the time?
- What day of the week was it? For example, maybe your family only got the newspaper on Sundays.
For more ideas about interviewing family members, see this post on Conducting Genealogical Interviews.
Even if it’s not possible to ask more questions of a relative, you can still try to think through some of these questions yourself and figure out if it’s possible to narrow the date range down any more.
Also, if you’re researching an event that would have been covered in multiple sources, you should try to use the internet to find other accounts of it. Assuming that news about this event appeared in the English-language press too, you will often have more luck narrowing down a date that way. For instance, if you were looking for a specific article about a certain writer’s visit to New York, you could search for their name in a general New York City newspaper database and see if you can find a date that way.
Returning to the example of the Mets game, a simple Google search is a good place to start, since there are so many blogs dedicated to baseball history—though NYPL also holds relevant baseball record books I could consult. This blog post helps me confirm that the game I’m looking for is the May 31, 1964 double header against the San Francisco Giants.
Whether you’re posing questions to a person who knows more about the event or searching on the internet, the goal is to narrow the range of possible dates as much as possible so that you are looking in as few places as possible. Now that I have a verified date, it will be a lot easier for me to find the article my relative is looking for.
Contact a Librarian
Once you’ve taken a step back and reviewed the information you have about the article you’re looking for, you can make a plan to systematically search for the article. This is a great time to contact a librarian, either by email or by scheduling a consultation. We may be able to provide information that will help you make a plan. For instance, if you are pretty sure you’ve correctly identified the paper in which the article you’re looking for appeared, we can tell you if that newspaper is available online or in another format. We can also provide useful historical context for your search. For example, people often ask for help finding their relatives’ obituaries in Yiddish newspapers from the early 20th century. But it was actually not common practice for Yiddish newspapers to print the obituaries of everyday people back then.
Our staff can also help point you towards other newspapers you might have been overlooking. We can show you how to use directories and bibliographies to identify newspapers you may not know already. We can also help you find other secondary sources, like scholarly books and articles, that may help contextualize your research.
Another way a librarian can help is by suggesting search terms and techniques to use in an online database. Each database works differently, and searching in Hebrew or Yiddish can often be challenging even for otherwise experienced online researchers. For example, we may be able to suggest alternate spellings you may not have thought of, or refer you to a dictionary that can help you find the same.
Let’s say you’re trying to search for this article in the Forverts database, using a keyword search limited by date. But you’re getting no results – why not? In Forverts editor Abe Cahan’s famous 1903 editorial on the subject of baseball, he spelled the name of the game like so: בײס-באָלל. But sixty-odd years later, the same paper was more likely to spell it this way: בעיסבאָל. And I know from experience that searching in JPress works better if I omit the diacritic under the aleph and spell it like this: בעיסבאל. So if you want to do a search with a Yiddish keyword, even in a database that’s well-equipped for such a thing, it’s important to be creative and flexible with trying different spellings and transliterations.
By narrowing down a date range and considering alternate spellings, at long last, I’ve found the article I was looking for – just as my relative remembered it: “‘Mets’ un ‘Dzshaients’ shpilen lengste geim.”