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.)
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.
Excerpted from The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky. Copyright © 2013 by Seth Lipsky. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.