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  • The Rise of Abraham Cahan
  • Written by Seth Lipsky
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  • Written by Seth Lipsky
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On Sale: October 15, 2013
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-8052-4310-9
Published by : Schocken Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Part of the Jewish Encounters series

The first general-interest biography of the legendary editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, the newspaper of Yiddish-speaking immigrants that inspired, educated, and entertained millions of readers; helped redefine journalism during its golden age; and transformed American culture.
 
Already a noted journalist writing for both English-language and Yiddish newspapers, Abraham Cahan founded the Yiddish daily in New York City in 1897. Over the next fifty years he turned it into a national newspaper that changed American politics and earned him the adulation of millions of Jewish immigrants and the friendship of the greatest newspapermen of his day, from Lincoln Steffens to H. L. Mencken. Cahan did more than cover the news. He led revolutionary reforms—spreading social democracy, organizing labor unions, battling communism, and assimilating immigrant Jews into American society, most notably via his groundbreaking advice column, A Bintel Brief. Cahan was also a celebrated novelist whose works are read and studied to this day as brilliant examples of fiction that turned the immigrant narrative into an art form.
 
Acclaimed journalist Seth Lipsky gives us the fascinating story of a man of profound contradictions: an avowed socialist who wrote fiction with transcendent sympathy for a wealthy manufacturer, an internationalist who turned against the anti-Zionism of the left, an assimilationist whose final battle was against religious apostasy. Lipsky’s Cahan is a prism through which to understand the paradoxes and transformations of the American Jewish experience. A towering newspaperman in the manner of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer, Abraham Cahan revolutionized our idea of what newspapers could accomplish.

(With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)

Excerpt

1

Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lower depths of poverty and I arrived in America—in 1885—with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance.
 
So Abraham Cahan began his literary masterpiece, The Rise of David Levinsky, a novel about a Jewish boy from Russia who comes to America, abandons his religious orthodoxy, and plunges into the world of business, only to find wealth but lose his soul. The novel, published in 1917 by Harper & Brothers when Cahan was fifty-seven, wasn’t precisely autobiographical. Cahan had arrived in America in 1882 and had made his mark not in the cloak-and-suit trade but in the world of newspapers, politics, and literature. It is unlikely that he was worth anything near two million dollars, but he resided in a handsome house in Greenwich Village and moved comfortably at the highest levels of political life in New York and Washington.
 
Over the course of his life, however, Cahan went through a metamorphosis not unlike that of his fictional hero. He was born on July 7, 1860, in the Lithuanian village of Podberez’ye and spent his boyhood in Vilna. His father, Scharkne Cahan, was a religious teacher and tavernkeeper; his mother, Sarah Goldbreiter, was an educated woman who taught reading and writing to girls and kept house.
 
Cahan was blessed—or burdened—with an extraordinary memory. It stood him in good stead when, in his sixties, he sat down to write a memoir he called Bleter Fun Mein Leben (Pages from My Life). It ultimately ran to five volumes in Yiddish. The first two were eventually published in English in 1969 by the Jewish Publication Society under the title The Education of Abraham Cahan. Much of what we know of Cahan’s early years comes from his astonishingly clear images that go back to when he was a young child. In the opening pages of the memoir, Cahan remarks that, after leaving Podberez’ye for Vilna at the age of five and a half, he did not see the hamlet again for fifty-eight years. Yet in the decades after he left, he retained a nigh photographic picture of the place.
 
“Had I been a painter,” he wrote, “I could have pictured, anytime during those years, every detail of the town.”
 
Cahan’s earliest memory was of “an old sofa, torn and with its stuffing coming out.” He remembered that it had “a large hole through which I had fallen” and remembered “standing inside the sofa.” Years later, he asked his mother about the memory and a feeling of sadness that he associated with it. His mother “recalled the torn sofa but not any specific circumstances involving me,” Cahan wrote. “She reckoned I was one-and-a-half years old at the time.”
 
There were darker memories too, inevitable enough for a Jewish child growing up in nineteenth-century Russia. One day his mother took him to visit her father in Vilna, and en route they passed the bodies of Polish landowners hanging from several gallows that had been set up in a field of cabbage. The bodies were wrapped in white gowns that fluttered in the wind. “I remember,” Cahan wrote, “a boot falling from one of the dead ones. I remember soldiers with their white trousers neatly tucked into their shiny black boots, marching past the gallows to the sound of blaring trumpets.” He remembered his mother calling out for her sister (“Fayge! Fayge!”), from whom they had become separated in the milling crowd.
 
He was, at the time, all of three years old. He remembered the package of grits and a small pan for cooking it that his aunt Fayge gave his mother on the visit. He remembered standing at a window and looking out at a snow-covered market. “Somewhere, in one of the other houses, my father and several other Jews are in hiding,” he wrote. “A town elder has been ordered to select Jews for service in the czar’s army.” That a three-year-old could know, let alone remember, about service in the czar’s army, is hard to imagine. But Cahan claimed to remember being carried on his mother’s hip: she held on to him with one hand and with the other offered food to a Jewish recruit who was in chains, on his way to serve in the army.
 
The danger of conscription was a constant presence in Cahan’s youth. In 1827 Czar Nicholas I included Jews in Russia’s conscription laws, requiring Jewish communities to produce candidates, from ages twelve to twenty-five, for Russia’s military cantons, or training schools. The purpose of compulsory military service was less to defend Russia than to break the conscripts’ ties to the Jewish community and to convert them to Christianity. Conditions were harsh, particularly for those who refused conversion, and suicide was not uncommon. The policy enforced strict quotas on Jewish communities, and leaders had to grapple with the task of implementing them. Some hired kidnappers (khappers, in Yiddish) to capture potential conscripts, many of whom ran away or disfigured themselves to avoid service. When quotas went unmet, boys as young as eight would be snatched in their stead.
 
Alexander II took the throne in 1855, upon his father’s death, five years before Cahan’s birth, and began to scale back some of Nicholas I’s worst policies. He abolished the cantonist policy and decreased the period of military service to five years. He eased some restrictions on Jews, allowing Jewish businessmen to travel to parts of the empire from which they had been previously prohibited, and he opened the doors of some universities to a small percentage of Jews. Alexander II’s reign was by no means a golden period of freedom for Jews, but the czar whom Benjamin Disraeli called the “kindliest prince who has ever ruled Russia” allowed Jews to hope, however modestly, that they might be witnessing the beginning of a new era in which they would be granted equal rights as Russian citizens.

Seth Lipsky

About Seth Lipsky

Seth Lipsky - The Rise of Abraham Cahan

Photo © David Zimbalist/The New York Sun

SETH LIPSKY is the founding editor of the Forward and of The New York Sun. He is a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal and served as a member of its editorial board. He served as a combat reporter in Vietnam for Pacific Stars and Stripes and is the author, most recently, of The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide. He lives at New York City.

Praise

Praise

“There is cause for celebration that Seth Lipsky has produced the rich biography Abraham Cahan deserves. It’s hard to imagine a better match of author and subject matter.”
—Jewish Review of Books

“In The Rise of Abraham Cahan Lipsky has produced a vivid biography of a great journalist and socialist reformer.”
—Sam Roberts, “Bookshelf,” The New York Times
 
“At a time when too many biographers chronicle their subjects’ lives in excessive detail . . . it’s a pleasure to read Seth Lipsky’s brisk, cogent book. It provides a welcome opportunity for a new generation to discover this titanic figure in twentieth-century journalism. . . . Lipsky, himself a longtime newspaperman, is at his best recreating the vibrant panache with which Cahan and the Forward spoke to and for the immigrants flooding into America during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.”
—The Daily Beast

“Lipsky carefully charts Cahan’s influence [in] establishing the Forward as a vital source of breaking international news and providing Jewish immigrants with ‘a sympathetic, seasoned voice, an enlightened cousin who had been in America just that much longer and could serve as a guide to the country’s strange ways.’”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Not only a biography but also a vivid snapshot of a particularly robust period in the history of American journalism.”
—The New York Observer
 
“All readers interested in the fate of Eastern European Jewish life in 20th-century America owe a significant debt to Lipsky for his intelligent and nuanced portrait of Abraham Cahan. . . . Powerful.”
—Moment
 
“Lipsky does justice to Cahan’s forcefully articulated, and frequently shifting, views. . . . Engaging.”
—Forward
 
“A fluent intellectual and political biography.”
—Commentary

“An indispensible book: a wonderfully intelligent reckoning with a wonderfully intelligent man.  Lipsky, a great newspaperman himself, brings Cahan vividly alive, not only as a witness to the spectacularly rich, dramatic, and consequential history of the first half of the twentieth century but also as a defining actor in that history.  Lipsky’s portrait of the mighty Yiddish editor—at once admiring and critical—is lit by the fiery political and cultural debates that blazed in the pages he published, as the Jewish experience was reshaped by and did so much to reshape the modern world.”
—Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
 
“An extraordinary book about an extraordinary man.  Cahan is a pivotal figure in both Jewish history and the history of American journalism, and Lipsky has done a superlative job of capturing his magnetism, his complexity, and his contradictions. Reading this book made me wish I could transport myself back in time, to the pressrooms and tenements and thunderous political rallies of the Lower East Side a hundred years ago.  Lipsky has a Doctorow-like ability to bring to life the tumult, joy, and tragedy of life in the big city.  He is also the best person alive to write the definite biography of Cahan because he is widely understood to be Cahan’s worthiest successor.”
—Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror
 
“Lipsky on Cahan—this is the book we have been waiting for!  It took the boldest newspaperman of our time to nail the story of the boldest newspaperman of his time—the legendary Yiddish editor and English writer who successfully brokered the shidduch between Jews and America.  Cahan’s readiness to dig out the truth behind ideological and political facades may be Lipsky’s bracing model for today’s media and for what we, their audience, deserve.”
—Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature, Harvard University
 
“Don’t believe that there was a time not long ago when a socialist daily newspaper in New York City—published in Yiddish!—commanded the attention not only of millions of Jewish immigrants but also of presidents and foreign leaders? Read this magical book. It will transport you back to some of the most tumultuous decades the world has ever known, as seen through the life of a fearless newspaperman whose paper didn’t simply cover events; it changed the course of them.”
—Jonathan Mahler, author Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning
 
“A riveting account of Cahan’s life and times. Cahan was as complex as he was courageous—Jewish immigrant, social democrat, labor organizer, anti-communist, our earliest neoconservative. Seth Lipsky is another fearless and brilliant newsman, and no one could have told Cahan’s story better. This is a book to savor and remember.”
—Peter Kann, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and former publisher of The Wall Street Journal
 
“Cahan was at the forefront of the postwar battle against communist subversion of the labor movement and powerfully helped to save Europe from the tyrannies of Stalinism, though he had arrived in America as a revolutionary socialist on the run from the Tsarist secret police. Lipsky has given his story pulsating life.”
—Sir Harold Evans, editor at large, Reuters, and author of The American Century

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