Abraham “Ab” Cahan (July 7, 1860 – August 31, 1951) was a Lithuanian-born American Jewish socialist newspaper editor, novelist, and politician.
Abraham Cahan was born July 7, 1860, in Podberezhie in Lithuania (at the time occupied by the Russian Empire, into an Orthodox Litvak family. His grandfather was a rabbi in Vidz, Vitebsk, his father a teacher of Hebrew language and the Talmud. The family, which was devoutly religious, moved in 1866 to Vilna (Vilnius), where the young Cahan received the usual Jewish preparatory education for the rabbinate. He, however, was attracted by secular knowledge and clandestinely studied the Russian language, ultimately prevailing on his parents to allow him to enter the Teachers Institute of Wilna, from which he was graduated in 1881. He was appointed teacher in a Jewish government school in Velizh, Vitebsk, in the same year.
On March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorist members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Reprisals by the Russian state were quick and massive. A visit from the police prompted the young socialist schoolteacher to escape to the United States through emigration.
Cahan in America
Cahan arrived in New York City in June 1882. Cahan transferred his commitment to socialism to his new country, and he devoted all the time he could spare from work to the study and teaching of radical ideas to the Jewish working men of New York. Cahan joined the Socialist Labor Party of America writing articles on socialism and science, and translating literary works for the pages of its Yiddish language paper, the Arbeiter Zeitung (“Workers’ News”). Cahan saw himself as an educator and enlightener of the impoverished Jewish working class of the city, “meeting them on their own ground and in their own language.” Cahan’s contribution to Yiddish-language socialist propaganda was massive, as before his arrival, educated Jewish émigrés from the old Russian empire tended to speak Russian and had little success communicating with ordinary Jewish workers in the downtown ghetto.
Historian Gerald Sorin notes:
“As early as the summer of 1882, however, Abraham Cahan, in the United States only a very short time, challenged the Russian-speakers by pointing out that the Jewish workers did not understand the propaganda that the intellectuals were disseminating. It was proposed, almost as a lark, that Cahan lecture in Yiddish; and relatively quickly this so-called folk vernacular became the primary medium of communication. For some time, however, the consensus continued to be that Yiddish was strictly an expedient in the conduct of socialist activitiy and not a value in itself.”
During his years of activity, Cahan was either originator, collaborator, or editor of almost all the earlier socialist periodicals published in that language in the United States.
Cahan was a member of the group of Yiddish-speaking socialists who broke away in 1897 from the cult-like Socialist Labor Party, led by Daniel De Leon, to join Eugene V. Debs’ new Social Democratic Party, the forerunner of the Socialist Party of America. The group launched a daily Yiddish newspaper, Forverts (Forward), named for the German social-democratic journal Vorwaerts. Cahan was the founding editor, but he left a year later, unhappy with the publishers’ heavy-handed ideological control. He returned four years later, in 1903, after being promised full editorial independence.
From 1903 until 1946, Cahan ran the paper, popularly known as The Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), turning it into a folksy, widely admired journal, though his critics called it yellow journalism and worse. In 1906 he introduced an advice column named A Bintel Brief (“A Bundle of Letters”). As a rule, Cahan was one of the more temperate voices in the Socialist Party, respecting his readers’ religious beliefs and preaching an increasingly moderate version of the socialist gospel as time progressed. By 1924 Forverts had over a quarter of a million readers, making it the most successful non-English-language newspaper in the U.S. and the leading Yiddish paper in the world.
The paper’s success made it and the Forward Association which owned it a wealthy and powerful institution in the Jewish community and the general abor movement. It provided major support and financing for the early, tumultuous organizing drives of the garment unions. It convened and oversaw meetings of the various squabbling parties and factions on the Jewish left before and after World War I, including the Jewish Labor Bund, the Jewish Socialist Verband and others. During the 1920s it bought a small radio station, renamed it WEVD (for Eugene V. Debs) and operated it for decades as a 24-hour Yiddish-language station. In 1934 it spearheaded the formation of the Jewish Labor Committee, which included the garment unions, the Workmen’s Circle, the Labor Zionists and others, primarily to rescue labor and progressive activists from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Under the Forward’s leadership, the Jewish Labor Committee also spearheaded the formation in 1934 of the General Jewish Council, which brought together the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress to coordinate their various efforts at Jewish defense and community relations. The General Jewish Council was expanded in 1944 to include local Jewish community relations councils around the country and was renamed the National Community Relations Advisory Council (today it is called the Jewish Council for Public Affairs).
Much of this community outreach and leadership was the work of the Forward’s renowned publishers and managers, B. Charney Vladeck and Adolph Held, with Cahan playing the role of spokesman and patriarch.
Cahan’s literary career
Cahan mastered the English language quickly after his arrival in America, and within four years after his arrival in New York he was teaching immigrants in one of the evening schools. Later he began to contribute articles to the Sun and other newspapers printed in English, and was for several years employed in a literary capacity by the Commercial Advertiser, where we was a regular contributor.
While his Yiddish writings are mostly in the political and journalistic realm, his literary work in English is mainly descriptive; and he has few, if any, equals in the United States in depicting the life of the so-called “ghetto,” where he lived and worked for more than 20 years. Cahan is regarded as having been one of America’s preeminent Yiddish novelists, a language which was previously regarded as a somewhat uncultured jargon of the common folk.
His first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, was published in 1896, and in 1975 it was adapted as the film Hester Street. The novel, a graphic story of an Americanized Russo-Jewish immigrant, attracted much attention and was favorably commented on by the press both in America and in England. W. D. Howells compared Cahan’s work to that of Stephen Crane, and prophesied for him a successful literary future (The World, New York, July 26, 1896). Cahan’s next work of fiction, The Imported Bridegroom, and Other Stories, published in 1898, was also well received and favorably noticed by the general press. Of his shorter publications, the article on the Russian Jews in the United States, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1898, deserves special mention. His other important work, The Rise of David Levinsky, was published in 1917, and is still considered a masterpiece of the Jewish immigrant experience.
Death and legacy
Cahan died of congestive heart failure on August 31, 1951.
- ^ Mark Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993; pg. 105.
- ^ The words are those of historian Mark Pittenger. Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920, pg. 105.
- ^ Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; pg. 74.
- ^ Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920, pg. 105.
- ^ Abraham Cahan Jewish Virtual Library.
- “A Dream No Longer,” New York Call, vol. 11, no. 129 (May 31, 1918), pg. 6.
- The Rise of David Levinsky. Harper Torch Books (1917; 1945; 1960)