Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Abraham Cahan (kahn), creator of the earliest imaginative literature dealing with the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, also established the most successful Yiddish-language newspaper in the world. At the age of five, Cahan moved with his parents from the small town where he was born to Vilna, Lithuania, a center of Jewish learning in the Russian empire. His father taught Hebrew to boys; his mother taught Yiddish to girls. At fourteen, Cahan abandoned the study of Hebrew and sought a secular education in Russian language schools. From 1876 to 1881 he attended the Vilna Teacher Training Institute, organized by the Russian government for Jewish students. He found the curriculum boring and joined a reading group discussing forbidden anticzarist literature. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 set off a wave of repression, and in 1882 the police twice searched Cahan’s room looking for illegal publications. Fearing arrest and imprisonment, Cahan escaped across the Austrian border and embarked for the United States, arriving at New York on June 7, 1882.
Cahan immediately became active in radical immigrant circles; in August, 1882, he delivered the first Yiddish-language socialist speech in the United States. In 1884 he helped organize the first Jewish garment workers’ union. After a short period of doing factory work, Cahan supported himself by teaching, while writing for and editing socialist and labor periodicals. By 1883 Cahan became sufficiently proficient in English to teach at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association evening school. After passing the city’s teaching exam in 1885, he taught English to immigrants in the New York public schools, his main source of income for the next twelve years, until he was dismissed for his support of socialism. In 1886 he married Anna Bronstein; they had no children.
In 1891 Cahan published, in Yiddish, his first work of fiction, “Mottke Arbel,” dealing with a successful peddler who brings the daughter of his former employer in Poland to the United States as his bride. Translated into English and published in the magazine Short Stories in 1895 as “A Providential Match,” it favorably impressed editor William Dean Howells, who encouraged Cahan to write a more ambitious study of immigrant life. Howells helped arrange the 1896 publication of Yekl, a groundbreaking novel about an immigrant Jewish...
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As a young man in Russia, Abraham Cahan experienced many different identities: pious Jew, Russian intellectual, Nihilist. By his early twenties, in response to prevalent anti-Semitism and recent pogroms, Cahan had become a full-fledged revolutionary socialist, dedicated to the overthrow of the czar and hunted by the Russian government. Hoping to create in America a prototype communist colony in which Jew and gentile were equal, Cahan immigrated to New York in 1882.
Upon his arrival, Cahan modulated his outspoken socialism and embarked on a distinguished career as a Yiddish-language journalist, English teacher, and novelist. As editor for the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, Cahan transformed the paper from a dry mouthpiece for socialist propaganda into a vital community voice, still socialist in its leanings but dedicated to improving the lives of its audience.
One of the early realists, Cahan is appreciated for his frank portrayals of immigrant life. Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, Cahan’s first novel in English, follows the rocky road toward Americanization of Yekl Podkovnik, a Russian Jewish immigrant desperately trying to assimilate. Faced with two choices for a wife, Yekl chooses the more assimilated Mamie over his Old World spouse, Gitl, but for all his efforts to become “a Yankee,” Yekl’s tale ends on a melancholy note, demonstrating that he is unable to break out of his immigrant identity simply by changing his clothes, his language, and his wife.
Cahan’s sense of the loss and confusion faced by immigrants to America is also evident in The Rise of David Levinsky. This masterful novel tells the rags-to-riches story of a clothier who, despite his wealth and success, is lonely and forlorn, distant from his Russian Jewish beginnings, and alienated from American culture. Following the publication of Yekl, Cahan was ushered into the national spotlight by William Dean Howells, who had encouraged many other regional and ethnic writers. Cahan’s career in mainstream English-language publishing, however, was short-lived. After The Rise of David Levinsky Cahan wrote no more fiction in English, choosing instead to act as a mentor for other writers and to pour his energies into the Jewish Daily Forward.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. A critical study of Cahan’s English and Yiddish fiction, stressing his depiction of Jewish acculturation in the United States.
Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne, 1996. A biography of Cahan, concentrating on his English-language fiction.
Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Organizes a biography of Cahan around detailed descriptions of the social, cultural, and political life of lower East Side Jews.