Cahan, Abraham

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CAHAN, ABRAHAM (1860–1951), editor, author, and socialist leader. Cahan, who was born in the town of Pabrade (Podberezye) near Vilna, seemed in many ways to incarnate the epic Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to America. Driven by a rare blend of common sense, uncommon talent, feverish energy, and a sure instinct for the issues and trends of Jewish life, he was intellectually and emotionally situated at the confluence of three worlds – the Jewish, the American, and the Russian-Socialist, whose crosscurrents and tensions were the stuff of every edition of his great Yiddish newspaper, the *Jewish Daily Forward, which he helped found in 1897 and headed for almost half a century.

Cahan attended the government Teachers' Seminary in Vilna, where he absorbed Western culture and, more clandestinely, Russian revolutionary ideals, and arrived in New York in June 1882 after eluding the Russian police. Here his unerring flair for journalism, formal Russian training and aplomb, Jewish folk background, and unquenchable zest for America outfitted him uniquely for the role of teacher and preacher to a people in transit between two worlds.

Toward the end of his first year in America, eager for freedom and determined to write, Cahan mailed an unsolicited article describing the coronation of Czar Alexander iii to Joseph *Pulitzer's New York World, where it promptly appeared. He briefly served as American correspondent for various Russian periodicals, but soon gave this up when he discovered a growing immigrant audience responsive to his Yiddish lectures with their call to labor unionism and socialism. The Naye Ẓeit, the Arbeyter Tsaytung, and the Tsukunft, which he edited, pioneered the popular Yiddish journalism that he was later to perfect. At the same time, his urge to transcend the Yiddish-speaking community was reflected in his feature articles, literary criticism, and stories in The Workmen's Advocate, The Sun, The World, The Evening Post, and various leading monthlies, as well as his books Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), acclaimed by William Dean Howells as the harbinger of a "new New York"; Imported Bridegroom (1898); The White Terror and the Red (1905); and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), his classic novel of the urban immigrant experience. After a brilliant four-year apprenticeship as a police reporter with Lincoln Steffens' avant-garde Commercial Advertiser, however, he returned to Yiddish journalism, whose style and milieu proved finely attuned to his talents and in which he could uninhibitedly seek to shape the heart and mind of the Jewish community. An anthology of his early journalism, much of it for The New York Commercial Advertiser, is found in Moses Rischin's Grandma Never Lived in America (1985).

Cahan's Forward became the pacemaker of the Yiddish press, an educator of the immigrant community, an executive board of the Jewish labor movement, and an introductory course in modern culture. At its peak in the 1920s, its circulation, encompassing 11 local and regional editions, surpassed a quarter of a million and its influence extended to many times that number of people. The Forward defended the cause of labor, socialism, humanity, and distinguished Yiddish and other modern literature. Among the authors whose careers were launched and sustained by Cahan were Sholem *Asch, Jonah *Rosenfeld, I.J. *Singer, and his brother Isaac Bashevis *Singer. At a time when many of his readers and staff were still dazzled by the Russian experiment, Cahan vigorously condemned Soviet totalitarianism. In 1925 his visit to Palestine inspired him to take a more sympathetic view of Zionism. In 1933 he became the first member of the Socialist Party to hail Franklin Roosevelt for moving in a socialist direction, for which he was threatened by the party with expulsion. Simultaneously the public chronicle of an age and a people and the private diary of a complex and often tormented man, the Forward displayed a fidelity to the felt needs of its readers without parallel in the mass journalism of its day.

When Cahan died, he had already been a legend for two generations. It has become apparent that he ranks among the great American newspaper editors, while in the annals of Yiddish journalism he continues to know no peer. Fairly recent studies have suggested the complexity and nuance of his life as well as fiction.


R. Sanders, The Downtown Jews (1969); M. Rischin, The Promised City (1962); idem, in: The Jewish Experience in America, 4 (1969), 200–26; Kirk, in ajhsq, 52 (1962/63), 27–57. add. bibliography: A. Cahan, The Education of Abraham Cahan (tr. L. Stein, A.P. Conan, and L. Davison; part of Bleter fun Mein Leben, 1969); J. Chametzky, From the Ghetto (1977); S. Marovitz, Abraham Cahan (1996).

[Moses Rischin]

Abraham Cahan

views updated Jun 27 2018

Abraham Cahan

The Jewish author and journalist Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) was a prominent Socialist leader and union organizer among Jewish immigrants in the United States.

Abraham Cahan was born in Podberezhie, near Vilna, Lithuania. His father was a storekeeper and later rabbi at Vidz, Vitebsk. In 1866 the family moved to Vilna, where Cahan was educated for the rabbinate and also studied Russian literature. After graduating from the Teachers Institute at Vilna in 1881, he taught for a short time. But, because he belonged to a Jewish idealist group connected with an assassination plot against Czar Alexander II, in 1882 he fled from Russia to the United States.

In New York, Cahan became a journalist and soon founded two Jewish journals, Die neue Zeit (1886) and Arbeiter-Zeitung (1890). From 1894 to 1897 he was editor of the Yiddish journal Zukunft; in 1897 he became the first editor of the Socialist Daily Forward. The following year he joined the staff of the Commercial Advertiser, where he remained until 1902. Cahan then returned to the Forward as editor in chief, a post he held until his death. Under his guidance the Forward's circulation rose from 6,000 to 200,000.

Cahan's career as an author was not limited to journalism. His short story " The Providential Catch" appeared in 1895; it was followed by the novel Yekl in 1896 and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories in 1898. He subsequently published The White Terror and the Red (1905); two volumes on the history of Jewish immigrants in America (1910-1912); the novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917); and his autobiography, Bleter fun mayn Leben (5 vols., 1926-1931). He also contributed many articles to periodicals.

Cahan was a Socialist and an outstanding advocate of what was known as the moderate right wing. He acted as a representative at international socialist congresses in Brussels (1891) and Zurich (1893). He engaged actively in organizing Jewish workers into trade unions. He used Yiddish as a medium to inform the ordinary immigrant of the possibilities for him in America while preserving the richness of his cultural heritage as a Jew. Under his direction the Forward became highly influential in the formation of the Jewish Labor movement.

Cahan also played a significant role in the development of the larger Jewish world community. After a visit to Palestine in 1925, he returned enthusiastic for the restoration of Israel as a national home for Jews. It was largely due to his influence that the State of Israel received the support of the American Jewish Labor movement at a later date.

Cahan died on Aug. 31, 1951, and his funeral was attended by over 10,000 people.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Cahan. His autobiography was translated as The Education of Abraham Cahan (5 vols., 1926-1931; trans., 1 vol., 1969). Much of Ronald Sanders's study, The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969), deals with Cahan. □

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