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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