Abraham Cahan

The Jewish author and journalist Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) was a prominent Socialist leader and union organizer among Jewish immigrants in the United States.

Abraham Cahan was born in Podberezhie, near Vilna, Lithuania. His father was a storekeeper and later rabbi at Vidz, Vitebsk. In 1866 the family moved to Vilna, where Cahan was educated for the rabbinate and also studied Russian literature. After graduating from the Teachers Institute at Vilna in 1881, he taught for a short time. But, because he belonged to a Jewish idealist group connected with an assassination plot against Czar Alexander II, in 1882 he fled from Russia to the United States.

In New York, Cahan became a journalist and soon founded two Jewish journals, Die neue Zeit (1886) and Arbeiter-Zeitung (1890). From 1894 to 1897 he was editor of the Yiddish journal Zukunft; in 1897 he became the first editor of the Socialist Daily Forward. The following year he joined the staff of the Commercial Advertiser, where he remained until 1902. Cahan then returned to the Forward as editor in chief, a post he held until his death. Under his guidance the Forward's circulation rose from 6,000 to 200,000.

Cahan's career as an author was not limited to journalism. His short story " The Providential Catch" appeared in 1895; it was followed by the novel Yekl in 1896 and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories in 1898. He subsequently published The White Terror and the Red (1905); two volumes on the history of Jewish immigrants in America (1910-1912); the novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917); and his autobiography, Bleter fun mayn Leben (5 vols., 1926-1931). He also contributed many articles to periodicals.

Cahan was a Socialist and an outstanding advocate of what was known as the moderate right wing. He acted as a representative at international socialist congresses in Brussels (1891) and Zurich (1893). He engaged actively in organizing Jewish workers into trade unions. He used Yiddish as a medium to inform the ordinary immigrant of the possibilities for him in America while preserving the richness of his cultural heritage as a Jew. Under his direction the Forward became highly influential in the formation of the Jewish Labor movement.

Cahan also played a significant role in the development of the larger Jewish world community. After a visit to Palestine in 1925, he returned enthusiastic for the restoration of Israel as a national home for Jews. It was largely due to his influence that the State of Israel received the support of the American Jewish Labor movement at a later date.

Cahan died on Aug. 31, 1951, and his funeral was attended by over 10,000 people.

Further Reading on Abraham Cahan

There is no full-length biography of Cahan. His autobiography was translated as The Education of Abraham Cahan (5 vols., 1926-1931; trans., 1 vol., 1969). Much of Ronald Sanders's study, The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969), deals with Cahan.