Abraham Cahan

Journalist, novelist, short story writer, memoirist (1860-1951)

Abraham "Abe" Cahan (7 July 186031 August 1951) was a Belarusian-born Jewish-American socialist newspaper editor, novelist, and politician.



Bleter Fun Mein Leben (1969)


Autobiography translated from the Yiddish as "The Education of Abraham Cahan"

  • Unity is a mighty weapon in the struggle for existence, I said, and socialism will use unity as a weapon in mankind's struggle with nature to survive.
  • I often argued that the revolution would not be made in America by our immigrants. There were personal reasons for this. Newcomers are anxious to become Americanized and to participate in American life. Our main purpose as socialists should be to win the native workers to our principles. There was great satisfaction in speaking and writing for an American audience and for this reason I confined almost all my activity to the English-speaking section of our movement.
  • In Russia, the sword rules; here in America the dollar rules. It may seem that the dollar has no edge but in fact it is sharper than the sword.
    • From one of his speeches, quoted in a newspaper
  • Gradually I arrived at the conclusion that the power of realistic art arises from the pleasure we derive from recognizing the truth as it is mirrored by art. The painting, the sculpture, or the words that represent the original with fidelity, create the impression of reality and the feeling of pleasure. This goes beyond dead photography. It involves artistic re-creation, and if the result coincides with the subject, this artistic integrity becomes a source of aesthetic enjoyment. It is truth that we admire and that is the source of our artistic delight. The heart experiences a thrill in recognizing a friend in a faithful portrait. But capitalist critics don't want the truth. It disturbs the class they serve.
  • Now, it is easy for me to separate the passages that were written from the heart, with conviction, from those which were written as propaganda, from a sense of duty. We used propaganda for an honest purpose, and there are still socialists who feel that this should be done.
  • Today when an immigrant comes to America he finds a Jewish world already established here. It is full of strange sights but it is nevertheless Jewish. The earlier arrival, the "ungreen" Russian, Pole, Galician or Rumanian, is still a Jew, the same as the greenhorn. Quickly, the newcomer grows accustomed to his "ungreen" friends and thus to America. Today's Jewish immigrant has become familiar with American Jewish words and habits from the letters and newspapers from America that he received at home. But we found few Jews and only a small Jewish world on our arrival. The strangeness we felt was much deeper, the loneliness much sharper. America was, in a literal sense, a new world, a strange world, a disagreeable world, but also a challenging world that strengthened me with a strong, healthy odor like that of a freshly plowed field. America intrigued me, puzzled me. It seemed to me that America lives more in one day than Russia does in ten. The cat I had spied on the Philadelphia pier was living proof that America was part of the same world that included Vilna, Petersburg, Lemberg and Berlin. But in the first months, as I came to know America, I had the opposite impression. It was a new, different kind of a world. It was a pleasant world that tantalized me. All around me was astounding wealth, activity and enterprise. I had not yet heard the expression "the land of unlimited possibilities." But I felt all around me the sense of opportunity. Slowly, I began to perceive a change in myself. Every minute, it seemed, I savored some new experience. I examined all, I listened to everything, I observed everywhere. I was repelled and attracted, possessed and homesick and excited by expectations. My success as a speaker, the stimulating taste of applause, the stunning feeling that thousands knew me, intoxicated me. But they did not overcome my homesickness. I was torn between the pleasure of new achievement and the longing for home. Sometimes, in my restlessness, I didn't recognize my old self. (p 244)

The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)

  • Am I happy? There are moments when I am overwhelmed by a sense of my success and ease. I become aware that thousands of things which had formerly been forbidden fruit to me are at my command now. I distinctly recall that crushing sense of being debarred from everything, and then I feel as though the whole world were mine. One day I paused in front of an old East Side restaurant that I had often passed in my days of need and despair. The feeling of desolation and envy with which I used to peek in its windows came back to me. It gave me pangs of self-pity for my past and a thrilling sense of my present power. The prices that had once been prohibitive seemed so wretchedly low now. ...
    And yet in all such instances I feel a peculiar yearning for the very days when the doors of that restaurant were closed to me and when the Canal Street merchant was a magnate of commerce in my estimation. Somehow, encounters of this kind leave me dejected. The gloomiest past is dearer than the brightest present. In my case there seems to be a special reason for feeling this way. My sense of triumph is coupled with a brooding sense of emptiness and insignificance, of my lack of anything like a great, deep interest.
  • Sometimes when I am alone in my beautiful apartments, brooding over these things and nursing my loneliness, I say to myself: "There are cases when success is a tragedy." There are moments when I regret my whole career, when my very success seems to be a mistake. I think that I was born for a life of intellectual interest. I was certainly brought up for one. The day when that accident turned my mind from college to business seems to be the most unfortunate day in my life. I think that I should be much happier as a scientist or writer, perhaps. I should then be in my natural element, and if I were doomed to loneliness I should have comforts to which I am now a stranger. That's the way I feel every time I pass the abandoned old building of the City College. The business world contains plenty of successful men who have no brains. Why, then, should I ascribe my triumph to special ability?
  • Life is much shorter than I imagined it to be.
  • Your worst pessimist is, after all, an optimist with regard to himself.
  • Remember that it is not enough to abstain from lying by word of mouth; for the worst lies are often conveyed by a false look, smile, or act.
  • The dearest days in one's life are those that seem very far and very near at once.
  • If you feel that you are good, don't be too proud of it.
  • What is wealth? A dream of fools.
  • The orthodox Jewish faith practically excludes woman from religious life.
  • If it be true that our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor, the distinction is probably due, in some measure, to the extremely important part which Talmud studies have played in the spiritual life of the race.

Quotes about Abraham Cahan

  • Brilliant, mercurial and cranky, Cahan was a major figure in the newspaper and literary worlds, and a force in the labor movement. His autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), is a secret American classic.
    • Liana Finck Author's Note, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (2014)
  • Abe Cahan had left Russia as a boy to escape tsarist persecution. But instead of hailing the success of his Russian brothers, he had turned against them and not only would not listen to my reports of their achievements, but himself became one of the most vicious of anti-Soviet slanderers, vying with Hearst in publishing articles by renegades and reactionaries in his paper The Forward.
  • The Socialists were increasingly hostile to the Soviet Republic. When I first came back from my trip to Russia one of the Social. ist Party leaders I met asked me for an interview. "Why yes," I told him. "I give interviews to the capitalist papers, why not to you?" I went up to the office, and there were Abe Cahan, George Goebel, Charlie Erwin and others, and all began attacking me at once. How could I support Lenin? How could I defend the "Soviets' lack of democracy"? Abe Cahan hinted that I was really too old to know what it was all about anyway. "Let's see," he said, "How many years is it now that you have been around agitat- ing and organizing strikes?" "Just about as long as you have, Abe Cahan," I flashed back.
  • Mr. Cahan, who became well known as a talented author with his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, and other works, was a strong advocate of realism. He not only printed realistic stories by well-known writers but made an effort to bring the reality of Jewish life in America into his newspaper. Through light articles he inspired and encouraged the readers to write to the Forward about any unusual events in their own lives, and about their own problems. Mr. Cahan firmly believed that "truth is stranger than fiction," and as far back as 1903 planned a special feature for the newspaper in which the readers could express themselves, a section of the paper which would mirror real life...He maintained that the Forward should not devote itself exclusively to trade unionism, to political and social problems. From the outset, he broadened the interests of the paper and enlivened it with varied reading material, including light articles dealing with daily life. The daily newspaper thus drew readers from all strata and classes.
    • Isaac Metzker, Introduction to A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (1971)
  • Abraham Cahan wrote in his memoirs (1929) the following about the "Bintel Brief": "People often need the opportunity to be able to pour out their heavy-laden hearts. Among our immigrant masses this need was very marked. Hundreds of thousands of people, tom from their homes and their dear ones, were lonely souls who thirsted for expression, who wanted to hear an opinion, who wanted advice in solving their weighty problems. The 'Bintel Brief' created just this opportunity for them. Many of the letters we receive are poorly written and we must correct or rewrite them. Some of the letters are not written directly by the people who seek the advice, but by others who do it for them. It has even become a special occupation for certain people to write letters for those who cannot write. There also appeared small signs with the inscription 'Here letters are written to the "Bintel Brief."' [The price for writing such a letter ranged from twenty-five to fifty cents. I.M.] Often the professional 'Bintel Brief' writer let himself go with his own eloquence, but this, naturally, was deleted. And from time to time men and women came to the editorial office to ask that someone write a letter for them about their problems. Through the 'Bintel Brief' mothers have found the children they had lost many years ago...The name of the feature, 'Bintel Brief,' became so popular that it is often used as a part of American Yiddish. When we speak of an interesting event in family life, you can hear a comment like 'A remarkable story-just for the "Bintel Brief."" Other times you can hear, 'It's like a "Bintel Brief" story!' Many of the themes from the letters have been used by writers of dramas and sketches for their works, because a world of literary import can be found in them. The first few years I used to answer all the letters myself. I did it with the greatest pleasure, because in the letters one sees a rare panorama of human souls and because I also had a literary interest in the work."
    • Isaac Metzker, Introduction to A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (1971)
  • Cahan's Forverts remained an outspoken socialist newspaper allied with Eugene Debs's recently established Socialist Party. But the daily permitted diversity of opinion and struck a popular, even sensationalistic tone. In this sense, the contest between Krants's social democratic rectitude and Cahan's social democratic yellow journalism-evident in the earliest days of Di arbeter tsaytung-concluded in Cahan's favor. To be sure, Cahan faced constant criticism from staff writers and members of the Forverts Association, yet challengers never succeeded in dislodging him. Under Cahan's editorship the Forverts became the most popular Yiddish daily, and among the most popular foreign-language newspapers, in the United States.
    • Tony Michels A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (2005)
  • Immigrant life in general is miserable, as one sees in the literature produced by those who experienced the journey. In the Jewish novels of Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, and Anzia Yezierska, the picture is frequently a grim one.
    • Ilan Stavans Introduction to Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing edited by Alan Astro (2003)
  • In Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, Dora, an illiterate immigrant woman, lived her life through her daughter, whom she viewed with a combination of pride and envy. "My own life is lost," she thought, "but she shall be educated"...Abraham Cahan, in his short story "Yekl," describes the plight of a young immigrant who prided himself on being "a real American."
    • Sydney Weinberg, The World of Our Mothers: The Lives of Jewish Immigrant Women (1988)
  • The master broker of the marriage between the Yiddish-speaking Jews and English America, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Yiddish daily Forward, implied in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky that the Jew may best prove himself American by remaining suspicious of his own success.
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