Now that Jews have become American fixtures, comfortable residents of suburbia and academia and all points in between, it is easy to forget to what extent the Jewish story in the United States, at least in its first decades, was an immigrant story. In the late nineteenth century, thousands of Jews swarmed to the United States from Eastern Europe, and they sought some explanation–some clarification–of their betwixt-and-between status in their new country. What would be the immigrant’s fate? For a deeper understanding of their lives, the Jews of Manhattan’s Lower East Side turned to one man of diverse talents–Abraham Cahan.
Cahan, born in Lithuania in 1860, immigrated to New York at the age of 22. From the outset, Cahan combined political advocacy and writing, working for the Socialist Labor Party and penning articles for its house newspaper, the Arbeiter Zeitung. Cahan rapidly made a name for himself as a journalist and reformer, and saw the two tasks as intimately intertwined. One wrote to change the world, and changed the world by writing.
In 1903, Cahan took over the editorship of a fledgling Yiddish-language newspaper intended for a local Jewish readership, the Forverts (Forward). The Forverts quickly distinguished itself for its superb journalism, its unabashed leftism, its lush photography, and reader-pleasing features like the Bintel Brief, a groundbreaking advice column that sought to explain American ways to its mostly immigrant readership. Cahan also hired the brilliant Eastern European novelist Israel Joshua Singer (The Family Carnovsky). Eventually Singer’s brother, the future Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, became a regular name in the Forverts’ pages.
Meanwhile, Cahan was also building a reputation as a novelist. Inspired by the examples of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the other masters of Russian literature, Cahan came to believe that only fiction could properly represent the scope of contemporary life. With his first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), Cahan retold his own story of fleeing rapacious Russian anti-Semitism in favor of an unknown future across the ocean.
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