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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 781

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This is the grave of Abraham Cahan.

Born in 1860 in what is today Lithuania, Cahan grew up in a very religious family. His grandfather was a well-known rabbi and initially he was going to go into that himself. But he became enamored of the secular culture of Russia, secretly learned Russian, and finally convinced his parents to let him enter a teachers’ school. He graduated from it in 1881 and started teaching in a Jewish school that was funded by the Russian government.

But the rise of anti-Semitism as a way for the Russian elite to cover up for their own failings drove Cahan out of the country, as it did for so many Russian Jews. Moreover, Cahan had become a socialist and after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, all socialists became suspect, even more so if they were Jewish. The police began to investigate Cahan. His response was to emigrate immediately. He left for the United States, arriving in Philadelphia in 1882.

Cahan entered the socialist community of the United States, which was heavily Jewish enough at the time that he could do so while only speaking Yiddish and Russian. But he was very good at languages and learned English quickly. He became a teacher focusing on the poorest Jewish immigrants. He also started writing about improving the life of his people and of Americans under capitalism more broadly. He was immediately successful and this became his life’s work.

Cahan soon wrote for or edited a number of publications and found work as a translator as well. Lincoln Steffens saw his talent and hired him for a stint at his New York Commercial Advertiser as a police reporter. Steffens mentored him closely during his four years there. Then, in 1897, Cahan was one of the founders of The Jewish Daily Forward. Probably the most influential immigrant-based newspaper in American history, the Daily Forward would become Cahan’s life project. It was a big risk. He didn’t quit his other newspaper jobs when it opened, knowing quite well the risks of journalism and needing to keep multiple irons in the fire.

What made the Forward so critical in the Jewish community was its close coverage of Russian pogroms, which of course affected the readers deeply since it was their home and families being destroyed. He started working full-time on the paper in 1903, taking total editorial control from his partners. He continued as the editor in chief for the next 43 years, only retiring in 1946. Some readers didn’t like the paper, not so much because of Cahan’s socialism but because it didn’t make it a strictly Jewish paper. Instead, he covered both national and global news from his perspective, whether directly connected to the Jewish community or not. Cahan was not a radical socialist in the context of the rise of Lenin. Rather, he was a moderate socialist of the Debs strain. And as the 1920s wore on and the reality of the Soviet Union became more apparent, Cahan turned more against radical socialism, criticizing the Soviets.

What really made the Forward work is that Cahan was far more interested in motivating the masses to action than he was in the dry boredom of Marxist doctrinal points, which brought down many a newspaper that no one actually wanted to read. This was a popular paper published from a socialist perspective. He published it in Yiddish, but gently pushed his readers to learn English and American ways so that their lives would be easier. His most popular column was an advice column where readers would write to him for help and advice. This allowed him to make large but practical pronouncements about the lives of his readers. By 1912, the paper had 120,000 readers and by 1922, 275,000 subscribers.

Cahan also became a leading fiction writer, writing in both Yiddish and English. His 1897 novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto was one of the first important Jewish-American novels. His best known work today is The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917. This was an semi-autobiographical novel that is a rags to riches story. The main difference between Levinsky and Cahan is that Levinsky becomes a capitalist and therefore ends up unhappy. In the last chapter of the novel, Levinsky realizes how much happier he would be as a socialist. This came out of a serialized set of stories published in McClure’s that Cahan then expanded into the full book. The novel received major critical praise, particularly from the dean of American letters, William Dean Howells.

Initially anti-Zionist, a trip to Palestine in 1925 made Cahan more sympathetic to the movement. He became a passionate supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Singing FDR’s praises in public in 1933, when the Socialist Party was not on board with the New Deal, nearly got him expelled from the party. But that changed pretty quickly as Roosevelt’s reforms were so close to those demanded by many of the moderate Socialists. In 1936, Cahan was part of the group of New York leftists, including Vito Marcantonio, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky, to found the American Labor Party, whose purpose was to gather left wing support to reelect Roosevelt instead of siphoning it off into minor leftist candidates.

Cahan worked as long as he could, again, retiring in 1946. He died of congestive heart failure in 1951. He was 91 years old.

The Daily Forward remains an important publication today.

Also, I was not trying to cut out Cahan’s wife from the photo. It’s just that there was a car parked right in front of the grave and so this was the best angle I could get. It’s hard to find much on Sarah, but there is her 1947 obituary in the Times. Although identified as “Mrs. Abraham Cahan,” it provides enough information to demonstrate that she, like so many wives of famous men at this time, did a ton of the background work for him. She published in the Forward herself, did a lot of the translation work, and seems to have helped drive his interest in Palestine.

Abraham Cahan is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other American newspaper editors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Macune is in Fort Worth, Texas and Philip Freneau is in Matawan, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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