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Abraham Cahan

(1860-1951)


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Abraham Cahan (1860–1951), was a Lithuanian-born Jewish American author, socialist leader and editor of the Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward.

The 1890s were a dark era for many Jews. Between 1887 and the outbreak of World War I, more than 2 million Jews came to America. Most were poor and came from what are now Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other centers of Eastern European Jewish life. The new arrivals clustered in unsanitary tenements, worked long hours in sweatshops and open air markets, spoke mainly Yiddish and possessed few skills with which to enter the English-language labor force. They faced religious prejudice and the challenges of adapting to an unfamiliar environment.

The Forward became a leading advocate for these Jewish immigrants. Named after the great Social Democratic newspaper in Berlin, the Forverts appeared on the streets of New York in April 1897, written entirely in Yiddish. Its first editor was 37-year-old Abraham Cahan.

Cahan was born in the town of Pabrade (Podberezye) near Vilna, Lithuania, on July 7, 1860, and emigrated to the United States in 1882. A dedicated socialist, he fled the mass roundup of revolutionaries after the assassination of Czar Alexander 11 of Russia. Cahan settled on the Lower East Side of New York and became equally fluent in English and Yiddish. He quickly emerged as a leading writer, lecturer and editor for the socialist and labor movements. Cahan's articles and short stories appeared in America's leading magazines and newspapers. His novels, especially “The Rise of David Levinsky,” won the praise of William Dean Howells and other leading literary critics.

Cahan had clear ideas about the kind of paper he wanted to edit. He wanted the Forward to rise above the ideological baffles that divided the socialist and labor movements. Although he retained his socialist beliefs and was always an advocate for labor, he wanted the paper to do more than preach Marxist doctrine in dry prose. Cahan believed that his paper must “interest itself in the things that the masses are interested in when they aren't preoccupied with the daily struggle for bread.” Twice he resigned as editor, once staying away for several years, because he could not agree with the paper's backers about its editorial content. In the end, Cahan won out.

Cahan made the Forward a family paper, written in simple, colloquial Yiddish, appealing alike to wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers and sons, addressing everyday problems faced by his immigrant readers. Cahan reflected, “It is as important to teach the reader to carry a handkerchief in his pocket as it is to teach him to carry a union card. And it's as important to respect the opinions of others as it is to have opinions of one's own.” Encouraging its readers to learn English even as it spoke to them in Yiddish, the paper served as a bridge between two cultures.

Cahan's best known feature was the “Bintel Brief” (in English, “a Bundle of Letters”), one of America's earliest advice columns. Thousands of readers wrote to the editor, asking for help with a host of issues created by their effort to blend the customs and rituals of the Old World with the practices and pressures of the New. Cahan answered questions such as whether it was permissible for a Jew to marry a Christian (it might be, he ventured, since Moses had taken a non-Jewish wife); advised wives whose husbands stayed out late at night to have them join fraternal lodges, unions or educational circles rather than frequenting bars and entertainments; and gave hints on how to deal with immigration officials and employers. The “Bintel Brief” became the most popular feature in the Forward, and its title became part of the American Jewish lexicon (“That's a real Bintel Brief story you're telling me”). These stories can still be read at the American Jewish Historical Society, which holds many issues of the Yiddish Forward.

A beacon for immigrant acculturation into American life, under Cahan the Forward never lost its pro-working class orientation or its thirst for social justice. What it did lose, inexorably was much of its Yiddish-speaking readership, which today is only a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1920s. The contemporary children and grandchildren of that earlier generation of Forward readers have emerged as American, and Americanized, Jewish leaders. Cahan would have been proud. The Forward can claim credit for helping pave the path to American Jewry's current stature.

Cahan died of congestive heart failure on August 31, 1951.


Sources: American Jewish Historical Society; Encyclopaedia Judaica, © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

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