- The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky
For students of early twentieth-century Jewish American literature and culture, Seth Lipsky’s compact chronicle of the life and times of Abraham Cahan will be of only limited interest. Distilled from a modest range of primary and secondary sources—above all from Cahan’s autobiography, The Education of Abraham Cahan (1969); Ronald Sanders’s still richly evocative The Downtown Jews (1969); and an unpublished 1959 dissertation on Cahan’s life by Theodore Marvin Pollock—Lipsky offers a fiercely chronological and surprisingly partisan account of Cahan’s life.
For Lipsky, as all previous students of Cahan have observed, Cahan’s journey to America in 1881 mirrors the collective uprooting of millions of Jews—exiles from across the Pale of Settlement seeking new lives in a bewildering, and often unwelcoming, new world. In his journalism and above all in his fiction, Cahan registered the anxieties and hopes of his fellow immigrants. Lipsky argues that Cahan himself, like his famous alter ego David Levinsky, remained forever caught between the claims of Jewish memory (and with it, “the wonder of Jewish life”) and the appeal of secularism, above all the embrace of socialist beliefs, forged in his youth. Yet Cahan’s early radical ethos was ultimately deflected, adjusted by various political turns, especially on the matter of Zionism and support for the state of Israel later in the twentieth century (Cahan died in 1951). Eventually, Lipsky remarks about Cahan’s politics, “all the beliefs that Cahan and his comrades on the left held so dear would be profoundly shaken. … Cahan and the Forward soon grasped that Communism was a flawed, even evil enterprise.” [End Page 127]
In this respect The Rise of Abraham Cahan is unfortunately marred by Lipsky’s political agenda to vindicate his own legacy as the founder and editor of a revived English-language edition of the Forward, which he launched in 1990. (The Yiddish Forward had continued daily publication after Cahan’s death, but had become a weekly by 1983.) A few years into his editorship Lipsky was deemed, in his own words, “an unfit heir”1 to Cahan; the Yiddish newspaper’s executive council found his politics distasteful. As an avowed neoconservative, Lipsky had supported American policy in Vietnam and embraced Ronald Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies. In the effort to “re-right” history, Lipsky now claims that Cahan’s political positions at midcentury anticipated subsequent world-shattering events like the fall of communism in 1989. “Strikingly,” Lipsky argues, “in the closing decades of the twentieth century, the issues that Cahan championed in his later years at the Forward were picked up not by partisans of the left but by factions that had moved to the right.”
Whatever the ultimate truth or relevance either of Cahan’s or the Forward’s shifts in politics over time might reveal, Lipsky’s claims about Cahan’s imagined political turns clearly touched a raw nerve for those who associated the Forward with a left-leaning, social democratic ethos. Historian John Higham observed about Cahan’s legacy, “Eventually [Cahan’s] socialism faded into a cherished memory.”2 To have the founder’s memory impugned, and thus his legacy betrayed, by the Forward’s conservative new editor appears to have been judged an intolerable situation.
Despite such weirdly self-serving assertions about its subject, The Rise of Abraham Cahan is strongest and most interesting when chronicling the intramural political squabbles among the various Yiddish dailies in early twentieth-century New York. Lipsky narrates Cahan’s own education as a journalist, above all his stint from 1897 to 1903 as a features reporter for Lincoln Steffens’s Commercial Advertiser and other English-language publications (collected by Moses Rischin in Grandma Never Lived in America ). Perhaps most helpful for students who know little of Cahan’s fascinating biography is Lipsky’s account of Cahan’s trips in the 1920s, the heyday of his Forward editorship, from New York to Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. Reporting from Palestine on the emergence of Israel, Cahan softened...