IN HIS 1917 NOVEL, The Rise of David Levinsky, Abraham Cahan describes a scene at the Rigi Kulm, an upscale Catskills resort frequented by nouveau riche New York Jews. It is a Saturday night, and the hotel guests are gathered in their best eveningwear. The novel’s protagonist is a recently wealthy garment manufacturer, yet he has nothing but scorn for his fellow arrivistes. They are unbearably loud, putting Levinsky in mind of the New York Stock Exchange, and their compulsive gossiping drowns out the band. The conductor, “a fiery little fellow with a high crown of black hair,” tries American pop songs, Yiddish theater tunes, even selections from Aida — all to no avail. Finally, as a last resort, he strikes up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The effect is electric.
“The few hundred diners rose like one man, applauding,” Levinsky reports.
The children and many of the adults caught up the tune joyously, passionately. […] Men and women were offering thanksgiving to the flag under which they were eating this good dinner, wearing these expensive clothes.
This impromptu display of patriotism is a little vulgar, the diners’ affection for the United States like that felt for a distant relative who has left an unexpected bequest. But there is also something in their emotional outpouring that goes beyond money. “Many of those who were now paying tribute to the Stars and Stripes were listening to the tune with grave, solemn mien,” Levinsky goes on. “Love for America blazed up in my soul. I shouted to the musicians, ‘My Country,’ and the cry spread like wildfire. The musicians obeyed and we all sang the anthem from the bottom of our souls.”
As Seth Lipsky relates in his new biography, The Rise of Abraham Cahan, the author of these lines was more ambivalent about American capitalism than the habitués of the Rigi Kulm. But like his best-known character, he was also a prodigious, if conflicted, American success story. Unlike Levinsky, Cahan’s fields of endeavor were journalism, literature, and politics, rather than business. As a novelist and short story writer he earned the praise of his fellow New York literati, and as a political organizer he helped bring the American labor movement to life. But his greatest achievement was The Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper that introduced generations of Jewish immigrants to America, and whose English edition Lipsky himself founded in 1990. (As full disclosure, I am an employee of The Forward, though I arrived too late to work under Lipsky, let alone Cahan.) The paper earned him, as Lipsky puts it, “a place in the pantheon of America’s greatest newspaper editors.” For a brief period, it was one of the largest and most important publications in the country.
By the time Cahan sailed into the Philadelphia harbor in 1882, traveling steerage aboard the British Queen, he had already mastered a rudimentary English with the help of an English-Russian dictionary purchased in Liverpool, and was serving as an intermediary between the ship’s crew and his fellow passengers. At 22 years old he had not yet grown the fierce moustache he would adopt in later years, nor did he have the unruly salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses that went with it. But in a picture taken a year after his arrival, staring straight ahead at a three-quarter profile, he bore the same look of bristling determination that would mark him for life.
When he arrived, Cahan was part of a vast wave of Jewish immigrants pouring into the United States from Eastern Europe, propelled westward by the pogroms that swept through the Russian Empire following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. By the time Congress cut off immigration in 1924, nearly three million Jews had arrived in the country, many of them settling on New York’s Lower East Side. While many of them dreamed of becoming wealthy in the New World, most found themselves as poor as they had been in Europe, with the best-educated among them often the worst off. Cahan was no exception.
In his native Vilna, Cahan had studied Talmud at the prestigious Ramayle Yeshiva before moving on to Tolstoy and Turgenev, and had translated the (more obscure) Russian writer Ivan Krylov into Yiddish, an effort he later recalled as his “introduction to the demon ambition of writing.” But even the finest European education was of little use in New York, and Cahan was forced to get a job stripping tobacco at Stachelberg’s, a cigar factory on Fifth Avenue, before seeking some kind of intellectual work with which he could support himself. The first step was to improve his English, which he did with the help of Appleton’s English Grammar and classes at a public school, which he took together with 12-year-old boys. By the fall of 1883, he had mastered enough of the language to teach evening classes to other immigrants, a job that would be his livelihood for over a decade.
At the same time, Cahan embarked on an ambitious program of cultural self-education. He bought a full set of Dickens and a 15-volume encyclopedia, which he devoured in his tiny attic room on Clinton Street. He went to see Edwin Booth play Hamlet and to hear the opera diva Adelina Patti sing in “Les Huguenots” and “La Traviata.” And while Cahan was also curious about American politics, he was initially scornful of American democracy. In Vilna, he had been a member of a clandestine socialist group, whose members had impressed him with their revolutionary fervor. It was his socialist connections that had caused him to emigrate, after members of the group were arrested and the police came to search his own room. But the risks of subversive politics were also what made them appealing. “In Russia, politics meant a challenge to tyranny; it meant students risking their lives for freedom; it meant martyrdom,” Cahan later reflected in his autobiography. “But to the young American, politics was a game, a sport, a means for making money.”
Cahan was not alone in bringing over radical ideas from the old country. Indeed, the presence of so many educated men and women laboring in the downtown sweatshops created, perhaps for the first time in history, a genuinely intellectual proletariat, a phenomenon that was to have a crucial impact on the nascent American labor movement. Soon after Cahan arrived, socialist and anarchist groups started sprouting up in the Lower East Side, and Cahan began giving speeches at meeting halls around the ghetto. One of the first imperatives of the new organizations was to start a Yiddish newspaper, and Cahan, with his mix of political and literary ambitions, was perfectly suited to the task. In the spring of 1886, together with his friend Chaim Rayevsky, Cahan launched his first journalistic venture — a weekly publication called Di Naye Tsayt. Rayevsky, who worked by day at a soap factory, contributed the paper’s starting capital — ten dollars — and they set up shop in their printer’s office, with Cahan serving as the editor, proofreader, manager, bookkeeper, and advertising agent. Given its meager resources, the paper folded after only four issues.
But Cahan persevered. In 1890, a group of Social Democrats sponsored by United Hebrew Trades, a powerful alliance of Jewish unions, founded a new Yiddish newspaper, Di Arbeter Tsaytung. Although Cahan held no official position at the paper, he became deeply involved in the enterprise — more involved than its editor, a veteran Yiddish newspaperman from London named Philip Krantz, would have liked. In Cahan’s later years, after he had secured control over The Forward, he would often be described as authoritarian, uncompromising, and even mean-spirited. Adolph Held, a longtime colleague, once called him a “Bolshevik of the spirit,” and Irving Howe, in his comprehensive history of American immigrant Jewry, World of Our Fathers, describes Cahan as “irritable and cranky, inordinately vain, [and] seldom at ease.”
Krantz was the first in a long line of victims of Cahan’s dictatorial ways. Cahan thought that the paper should run popular science articles, and for the first issue he submitted a piece about African cannibalism lifted wholesale from an English article in Scribner’s Magazine. After Krantz turned it down, Cahan threatened to withdraw completely from the paper, but recognizing his talent (original or otherwise), and the need for his contributions, the paper’s leadership pressed him to stay. In the end, three of his articles appeared in the Di Arbeter Tsaytung’s first issue, including the piece on cannibalism.
Cahan did not have to wait long before seizing the reins of power. In 1891 Di Arbeter Tsaytung launched a new monthly supplement edited by Krantz, and Cahan took over the weekly edition. But despite a growing readership, the paper’s editors found themselves embroiled in ever more contentious bureaucratic and political disputes with their publisher, United Hebrew Trades. On January 30, 1897, a meeting was called with the goal of establishing a new paper, free of influence from UHT. The name of the new paper was to be Vorwarts, or Forward, based on the Social Democratic newspaper in Berlin, and Cahan was appointed editor. On April 22, 1897, The Forward published its first issue.
From the beginning, Cahan had a vision for The Forward that went beyond what he had accomplished at the Di Arbeter Tsaytung, and indeed, beyond anything that had yet been done in Yiddish journalism. Previously, socialist Yiddish publications had been little more than outlets for ideological rhetoric and the waging of internecine feuds between the teeming factions of the political left. Cahan wanted to change that — to keep the paper solidly socialist, but to address it to the average reader, who was uninterested in intramural bickering. It was to encompass “the widest range of Yiddish sensibility,” as Howe describes it, “from cheap sensationalism to high culture […]. Cahan saw his paper as embodying the potentialities and contradictions of the entire immigrant experience.” Unfortunately, none of Cahan’s colleagues agreed with him, and in August, he resigned.
Disappointing though it was, Cahan’s departure from The Forward gave him the opportunity to expand his activities beyond the narrow world of Yiddish journalism. Almost immediately following his arrival in New York, Cahan had begun contributing English articles to the city’s newspapers and magazines. His first piece, in which he contested the glowing reports coming from Russia about the coronation of Alexander III, appeared on the front page of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and as early as 1883 he was writing for The New York Sun and the Workman’s Advocate, the English-language weekly of the Socialist Labor Party. He also began contributing colorful sketches of life in the Jewish ghetto to The Commercial Advertiser, which, despite its name, was a respected highbrow evening newspaper.
Reporting wasn’t the only kind of writing that Cahan was interested in. For several years he had been writing short stories that had been published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and The Atlantic Monthly. His work attracted the attention of one of his literary heroes, the American realist writer William Dean Howells, who helped Cahan publish his first major work, the novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, which was brought out in July 1896 by D. Appleton and Company, the same publisher that had printed Cahan’s first English textbook. The novella was an immediate success, with Howells proclaiming its author “a new star of realism.”
Like his newspaper sketches, most of Cahan’s stories focused on life in the Jewish ghetto, and how the values of the Old World gave way to those of the New. In Yekl, the title character, known in America as Jake, brings over his wife and young son from Europe after spending three years in the United States. To his dismay, he finds his partner unbearably old-fashioned, frumpy-looking, and in no way comparable to the modern young ladies he has encountered in the East Side dance halls. After a few months of domestic misery he divorces his wife, and goes off to marry his dance hall sweetheart. Still, he is unhappy. “He did feel a great burden to have rolled off his heart. […] But in his inmost heart he was […] painfully reluctant to part with long-coveted freedom so soon after it had at last been attained, and before he had had time to relish it.”
The note of tragedy sounded in Yekl is representative of most of Cahan’s fictional work, in which he gave voice to his deepest misgivings about America. If, in his journalism, he promoted an optimistic spirit of pragmatism and compromise, in his short stories he expressed doubts about the entire immigrant experience. While he appreciated the freedoms and opportunities that the New World offered, he could not help but mourn the purer and more powerful energies of the Old. In America, he felt, everything got diluted.
It wasn’t until 20 years later, with The Rise of David Levinsky, that Cahan would finally work out his own complex feelings toward his adoptive country. Levinsky was actually Cahan’s second novel, the first being a didactic socialist tract called The White Terror and the Red, which he published in 1905, and which is generally considered an inferior work. Levinsky, on the other hand, was hailed by Howells as “an artistic triumph,” and later declared “a minor masterpiece of genre realism” by Howe.
In many ways, Levinsky is something of a counter-autobiography, a depiction of what Cahan’s life might have been like had he taken a different path. Like Cahan, Levinsky is a fervent Talmudic scholar in his youth, but unlike his creator, he does not encounter the lure of secular pursuits until after he makes the journey to America. Nor does he experience the political seductions of socialism even after he arrives, though he acknowledges that had he “chanced to hear a Socialist speech […] life might have been directed along lines other than those which brought me to financial power.” Instead, after a period of deep poverty and struggle, Levinsky manages to open a small sweatshop, and eventually blossoms into one of the most important garment manufacturers in the country.
In spite of his success, Levinsky finds himself filled with misgivings. “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,” he declares in the book’s opening lines. “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.”
Mostly Levinsky regrets having pursued his business career above all else, forgoing an education and a family. While Cahan had both (he married in 1885, although he never had children), he regretted leaving the ideological purity of Russian radicalism for the compromises of American democracy and trade unionism. But just as Levinsky eventually resigns himself to his lot in life, so Cahan came to realize that the fervency of his youth was little more than nostalgia. America was the present and the future, both for himself and for millions of other Jewish immigrants, and they could little afford to harbor romantic notions about the past.
While Cahan was busy climbing the ladder of journalistic and literary success in the larger world of New York, The Forward had fallen on hard times. Immigration had dropped off, and with it, the circulation of Yiddish newspapers. In addition, the assimilation of the older immigrants and their American-born children was already playing a role in the decline of the Yiddish press. In desperation, The Forward convinced Cahan to return, even agreeing to his demand for absolute editorial control, and in March 1902, Cahan once again took the helm. Apart from one more short-lived resignation, he would be the guiding force behind The Forward for more than 40 years.
It didn’t take long for Cahan to put his vision for the paper into practice. In the first issue following his return he published an article about intermarriage, and dedicated his editorial to the subject of estrangement between immigrant parents and their educated American children. Another editorial written a few weeks later, titled “Freethinkers, Don’t be Fanatics,” argued that socialists were wrong to reject religion entirely, and should at least tolerate the religious leanings of their fellow workers. Predictably, such pieces outraged socialist purists, but Cahan didn’t care. In any event, the circulation supported him. Within two months it increased from 6,000 to 8,000 and by the middle of the summer it doubled to 19,000. Over the ensuing years it would continue to climb. By 1907 it had reached 50,000 and, by 1910, 100,000. In 1912, the paper completed construction on a new 10-story edifice on the corner of Essex, Canal, and East Broadway, becoming the first “skyscraper” of the Lower East Side. By the mid-1920s The Forward had reached a peak of more than 270,000 daily readers, a number that rivaled the largest English newspapers then being published in America.
Throughout his long journalistic career, Cahan wore just about every hat the business had to offer — reporter, opinion writer, even drama critic. But it was for a relatively humble feature that Cahan and The Forward were most beloved, and are still lovingly remembered today. The “Bintel Brief,” or “Bundle of Letters,” was an advice column, started by Cahan in January 1906, in which he responded personally to the problems of his readership. Cahan advised a mother who wanted to know how she could get her child to stop stuttering, reassured a father that it was okay to let his son play baseball (“Let your boys play baseball and even become outstanding players as long as it doesn’t interfere with their studies and doesn’t put them in bad company”), and counseled a revolutionary who regretted leaving behind the struggles in Russia (“We can give no better advice than to fight right here in America for a social order in which a man wouldn’t have to work like a mule for five dollars a week”). In the “Bintel Brief” Cahan helped his readers acculturate to American ways, and fulfilled his conviction that it was just as important to “teach the reader to carry a handkerchief in his pocket as it is to carry a union card.”
Still, despite The Forward’s success, criticism of Cahan continued unabated. Indeed, the paper’s size and influence, as well as Cahan’s stance as a socialist moderate, made him the target of political attacks from both the right and the left. Lipsky, whose politics are neoconservative, criticizes Cahan for his skeptical approach to Zionism, while praising his growing Jewish nationalism and his fierce opposition to Soviet Communism following the Russian Revolution. These personal leanings, while they color Lipsky’s engaging account, don’t quite interfere with it — Cahan is given credit for his own positions (even when Lipsky considers them wrongheaded), and Lipsky deliberately stops short of calling him the “first neoconservative,” which he acknowledges is excessive. Yet Lipsky’s emphasis on issues such as Zionism does overshadow other matters of Jewish significance that were equally pressing at the height of Cahan’s career.
Since the middle of the 19th century, Jewish intellectuals had been attempting to build a new sense of Jewish national identity through Yiddish language and culture, departing from both the religious outlook of centuries past, as well as from the Zionist goal of political autonomy in Palestine. As the editor of the largest and most important Yiddish newspaper in the world, Cahan was well situated to advance the goal of a lasting Jewish identity based on Yiddish, but he was unwilling to do so. Though The Forward regularly featured some of the finest Yiddish literature ever written, publishing works by writers such as Sholem Asch and I. J. Singer (and later his better-known brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer), Yiddishists attacked Cahan for his indifference to the fate of Yiddish language and culture. For Cahan, however, the publication of a Yiddish newspaper was not an end in itself, but a means to help Jewish immigrants adapt to their new country.
It is difficult to say who was eventually vindicated in this particular dispute. Certainly, Cahan’s priority was the successful integration of Jewish immigrants in America, not the preservation of Yiddish. Given the success with which the Jews did eventually adapt to American life, it is hard to appreciate the one-time urgency of the task. But in the early 20th century, an ascent from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder was by no means assured. If, in fact, the experience did not, in Irving Howe’s phrase, “collapse in shame,” but instead became a David Levinsky–like success, it is in no small part due to The Forward and Cahan’s leadership.
At the same time, the Yiddishists had a point. By encouraging immigrants not only to use a handkerchief, but also to learn English (one of The Forward’s main subscription bonuses was Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English Dictionary, a key tool in the English education of many Yiddish-speaking immigrants), The Forward helped condemn the Yiddish language to a rapid decline. Still, for decades The Forward itself hung on, even as its circulation began to drop. It was not until 1983 that it was reduced from a daily to a weekly edition.
By that time, however, Cahan was long gone. In 1946 he suffered a stroke, which forced him to withdraw from active involvement with The Forward, and on August 31, 1951, he died from congestive heart failure. Most of the controversies that had dogged his life and work had begun to wane, if they had not disappeared completely. Socialism was no longer a potent force in American politics, and The Forward had begun drifting ever more toward the political center. Yiddish, which Cahan upheld in his final years more fiercely than before, had already ceased to be of primary significance for American Jews. Indeed, the age of Jewish immigration was over, and American Jewry no longer needed The Forward. Like so much in Cahan’s life, this bittersweet fate was a sacrifice and a compromise, but it was one to which he had long been resigned. America, he knew, was indeed a land of opportunity, and for that opportunity he was willing to pay the price.