July 7, 1860, is the birthdate of Abraham Cahan, the Russian-born writer and editor who helped to found the Jewish Daily Forward, and ran it for more then 40 years. Yet, as an advocate of the integration and assimilation of Jewish immigrants into the American mainstream, Cahan – helped by the change in U.S. immigration policy after 1914 – played a part in ushering in a day when Jews would no longer require a newspaper in Yiddish to allow them to feel part of American life.
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Abraham Cahan was born in Podberez’ye, a village outside Vilna -- today in Lithuania. His father, Scharkne Cahan, was a teacher of Hebrew and Talmud; his mother, the former Sarah Goldbreiter, was also well educated, and taught reading and writing to girls.
In 1866, the family moved to Vilna, where Sarah’s family owned distilleries, a liquor wholesaling company, and a tavern. Scharkne Cahan began managing the tavern, and the family lived in an apartment in its back.
Escape from Europe
Abraham was blessed with a voracious curiosity and a photographic memory, and as a teenager, he spent up to five hours a day in the public library. Having taught himself Russian, he convinced his parents in 1878 to allow him to attend Vilna’s Teachers Training Institute.
The year that Cahan graduated from the institute and began working as a teacher, 1881, was a tumultuous year in czarist Russia. The assassination of Alexander II led to a political crackdown on leftist groups, and in particular to the persecution of Jews, who were blamed for much of the political unrest.
Cahan had been drawn to revolutionary socialism since his teenage years, and in the aftermath of the czar’s murder, the police came looking for him. This precipitated a quick departure from Europe.
He arrived in New York, via Philadelphia, in June 1882. Within two months of his arrival, he was agitating for the socialist cause, while earning his living in a cigar factory. Soon, he was working as an English teacher, using his classroom to spread his progressive politics to other Jewish immigrants.
A paper is born
After a brief time contributing articles about America to Russian periodicals, Cahan began writing in English. He also worked as an editor at several Yiddish papers affiliated with the United Hebrew Trades labor movement.
When he and some colleagues split from that movement, organizing the new Social Democratic Party, in 1897, they also created a new Yiddish daily, the Forward.
Newsboys waiting for the Forward at 1:15 AM on the steps of the building where the daily was printed in NY. Photo: Lewis Hine
Although he left the paper during its first year, Cahan rejoined it in 1902. During the interim years, he worked with editor Lincoln Steffens as a reporter at the highly regarded New York Commercial Advertiser.
This proved to be a great training ground for his work as omnipotent chief editor at the Forward, which he wanted, as Irving Howe put it, to carry the gamut “from cheap sensationalism to high culture.”
Cahan edited the Forward -- which grew steadily until the 1930s -- until 1946, when he suffered a stroke. He also wrote regularly for it, most notably as the author the Bintel Brief (“packet of letters”) column, in which he offered advice to readers who wrote in about all the possible kinds of problems and issues that new immigrants and their children might encounter.
The Forward endorsed Roosevelt for reelection, November 1, 1936. Photo: Magnus Manske, Wikimedia
Under his leadership, the Yiddish paper saw its circulation rise from 6,000 to a high of 270,000.
He also was a prolific writer of fiction, in English, with his most well-known novels including “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” (1896) and “The Rise of David Levinsky” (1917).
Politically, Cahan remained a socialist, but as a democrat, he broke with the Bolsheviks soon after the Russian Revolution, and he became a powerful voice against communism. He was never a Zionist, but as he told the Hebrew paper Davar, during a 1925 visit to Mandatory Palestine, “I do not believe in it, but there is no hatred for it in my heart,” and he became increasingly supportive of the Jewish community in Israel.
Cahan married Anna Bronstein, in 1885; the couple did not have children. Anna died in 1947, and Abraham followed her on August 31, 1951. His funeral, on September 5, drew some 10,000 mourners.