‘The Rise of Abraham Cahan’

‘The Rise of Abraham Cahan’

A combative former Forward editor looks back at its greatest figure

It was 1898, and Abraham Cahan had been in America for 16 years after fleeing Russia for anti-czarist, pro-socialist activities.

Ever since arriving, he had worked ceaselessly to shed the trappings of a greenhorn, learning idiomatic English to the point of overmastering it, gaining citizenship, becoming a fiery socialist orator, a published writer, and an aggressive newspaper reporter and editor.

No less exalted a figure than William Dean Howells took an interest in Cahan. The arbiter of American literature reacted positively to his dramatizations of immigrant life, infused with both the harsh realities and soaring dreams of the Eastern European Jews who had arrived in droves following the latest Russian pograms and the czar’s repressive ukases.

So great was the immigration of these Ashkenzim that from 1880 onward they displaced by sheer numbers the earlier-arriving German Jews, who in 1840 had overwhelmed their Sephardic predecessors. With Irish and Italian immigrants factored in, in just 50 years New York City became the heartbeat of both the melting pot and of Abraham Cahan’s world.

Another notable literary figure who valued Cahan was Lincoln Steffens. The soon-to-be-celebrated muckraker had been named chief of the venerable New York Commercial Advertiser. Steffens hired Cahan as a reporter, just after he had quit as a founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward – the Yiddish-language Forverts – as a result of ideological and power-sharing clashes at the socialist start-up.

On this day in 1898, the Commercial Advertiser’s new man at police headquarters was in somewhat of a bind. A story about the police board had just broken, and there was no way Cahan could make it to his newsroom before deadline.

“Phone it in,” advised his seasoned colleague, Jacob Riis, who would go on to considerable fame as a chronicler of New York slum life. Cahan froze. It wasn’t the deadline or the writing that fazed him, it was the telephone. In 16 years, he had never placed a call. Slightly mortified, he raced to a nearby drugstore and had the heavily accented Italian owner phone it in for him.

The incident yielded a valuable lesson. Cahan realized that ideological purity would not make the new world understandable to Jewish immigrants. Beyond the dialectics and agitprop, they needed to grasp the subtleties, obligations, and freedoms of their environment, from minutiae to monumental – like just using the telephone. And they needed it explained in colloquial, even folksy language.

After his Commercial Advertiser stint, Cahan was lured back to the ailing Forward and given new editorial powers. He did a brilliant rescue, left again briefly, and returned with the resolve to make the paper his transformative laboratory. For the next 48 years, until his death in 1951, he galvanized and flogged it into becoming the pre-eminent organ of the Yiddish press, only to live long enough to see its circulation and influence eroded by the loss of a Holocaust generation, restrictive immigration, and postwar linguistic and cultural shifts.

Colorful editors and storied newspapers are spun gold for writers, especially former journalists. The effect of Cahan’s trailblazing career and the powerful hold the Forward exerted on its readership combine to infuse Seth Lipsky’s modest but spunky biography with enough momentum and historical sweep to appeal to both the general interest reader and those with roots in the petri dish of radicalism known as the Lower East Side.

Lipsky’s reputation as a political conservative and idiosyncratic news figure adds to the delicious irony of a neo-con explicating the life of a pillar of the left – and for the most part doing it well. He is obviously buoyed by Cahan as a journalist and novelist and respectful of the institutional aura of the Forward. But his practiced newsroom eye also casts a critical gaze over the editor’s vulnerabilities and the paper’s shortcomings.

And his interest in both is more than casual. After leaving the Wall Street Journal in 1990, Lipsky established the English-language version of the Forward and stayed there until 2000, when he reportedly was forced out for going too far starboard. He then went on to establish the combative but short-lived New York Sun.

Although positing a few outsized and inflated claims about the Cold War and the fall of communism, Lipsky manages to control his revisionist impulses and leavens them with sensible and insightful material. In essence, he credits Cahan with a series of political, artistic, and religious recalibrations during his lifetime as abundant proof of the public man as a work in progress. (Rightward progress, of course.)

Among the most notable include his coming late editorially to the Allies’ side in World War I (anything bad for the czar was good generally) but very early on sensing the cruelties of Stalin and the obscenities of Hitler; resisting Zionism in its formative years but embracing its thrust as time went on; staunchly supporting labor but fighting communist infiltration of unions; initially supporting socialist Eugene V. Debs for president and winding up in Franklin Roosevelt’s corner, and coming to terms with secularism, socialism, and the particularity of Jewish identity and religious practice.

The impact of the Forward in its heyday was such that while the mantra might be “Workers of the World Unite,” its true mission was more closely aligned with the advertising slogan Cahan coined: “Jewish in Word – American in Thought.” Its wildly popular Bintel Brief column (literally the bundle of letters) advised readers on subjects ranging from affairs of the heart to the permissibility of a young man playing baseball. (He could, if his Hebrew studies stayed up.)

Introduced by Cahan in 1906, the feature coincided with the second great surge in Jewish arrivals, spurred by the Russo-Japanese War and the resulting pogroms. Cahan reached out and caught the new wave of immigration. He was well positioned to ride it and uniquely prepared to exploit it. Now entire families were landing intact at Ellis Island, and the paper would meet their needs holistically.

The Forward trumpeted unionism and leftist ideology (Cahan actually trimmed the length of the screeds), covered the arts and Yiddish theater in depth, and provided Jewish literary lights such as Isaac Bashevis Singer with space and grace. However, Cahan was not above firing the celebrated Sholem Asch or heavily editing others if they strayed too far from his beliefs du jour. But Lipsky is quick to note that the chief also tolerated a healthy amount of in-house dissent and often opened the Forward’s columns to allow rebuttals.

And foreign news was hardly scanted. The paper’s stringers and correspondents roamed the Continent, covering the major upheavals and leftist congresses of the day. After his initial trips to socialist summits in the 1890s, Cahan made several additional visits abroad, interviewing, among others, Dreyfus, Lenin, and Engels (who advised Jews to drink more and so become greater as a people), and eventually visited Palestine in 1926 to witness the Zionist experiment unfolding.

Lipsky stresses that Cahan also toned down the religious hostility of the paper, added rotogravure and other technological bells and whistles, introduced regional national editions, sponsored contests and early versions of reader interactivity, and was not above wading into an issue or crime yarn with the full trappings of yellow journalism. In sum, he created a highly sought-after product.

At its peak, the Forward boasted a circulation of more than 250,000 (use a multiplier of three readers per paper) and occupied a dominating Beaux Arts building on Lower Broadway with busts of Karl Marx, Engels, Friedrich Adler, and Ferdinand Lassalle decorating the façade. Its impact in the Jewish community gave Cahan a cachet approaching Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and Adolph Ochs in their ambits.

For Cahan, the paper became all-consuming. Aside from his beloved bird watching (developed during self-imposed periods of exile at the Jersey shore) the Forward was his onward and upward. Lipsky observes that he used it as a substitute for the novels and literary pursuits that now took a back seat to the exigencies of daily journalism. In this, Cahan disappointed both his wife, Anna Bronstein, a translator of formidable talent, and Howells, who had hoped to influence him into a career of fiction.

In 1917, Cahan did publish a novel – his masterwork, “The Rise of David Levinsky,” a bruising rags-to-riches immigrant tale with metaphorical thrusts of emotional emptiness. Perhaps it mirrored Cahan’s personal and often melancholy odyssey, one of a childless and mostly flat-lined marriage that Lipsky can only hint at, just as he does at Cahan’s curiously estranged relationship toward his parents and family.

The “Rise of Abraham Cahan” recaptures the vibrancy and ferment of an era that’s not so long vanished. What would Cahan think of the Forward today, reduced to a weekly edition in English, a biweekly Yiddish version, and an Internet presence? He would probably still want to cast its mission in expansive terms, fighting for a world in which the worker prevailed over current wage inequality and social injustices, a world in which the secular and spiritual meshed with the ideological.

My grandfather, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1904 from Ukraine and went on to considerable success in New Jersey, was a faithful reader of the liberal Day, rather than the more hard-edged Forward. He would admonish me repeatedly to get the Forverts only if they had sold out of the Day. Then he would faithfully peruse every story in Cahan’s paper and tell me what a great country this is.

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