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Part of the Jewish Encounters series
The first general-interest biography of the legendary editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, the newspaper of Yiddish-speaking immigrants that inspired, educated, and entertained millions of readers; helped redefine journalism during its golden age; and transformed American culture.
Already a noted journalist writing for both English-language and Yiddish newspapers, Abraham Cahan founded the Yiddish daily in New York City in 1897. Over the next fifty years he turned it into a national newspaper that changed American politics and earned him the adulation of millions of Jewish immigrants and the friendship of the greatest newspapermen of his day, from Lincoln Steffens to H. L. Mencken. Cahan did more than cover the news. He led revolutionary reformsspreading social democracy, organizing labor unions, battling communism, and assimilating immigrant Jews into American society, most notably via his groundbreaking advice column, A Bintel Brief. Cahan was also a celebrated novelist whose works are read and studied to this day as brilliant examples of fiction that turned the immigrant narrative into an art form.
Acclaimed journalist Seth Lipsky gives us the fascinating story of a man of profound contradictions: an avowed socialist who wrote fiction with transcendent sympathy for a wealthy manufacturer, an internationalist who turned against the anti-Zionism of the left, an assimilationist whose final battle was against religious apostasy. Lipskys Cahan is a prism through which to understand the paradoxes and transformations of the American Jewish experience. A towering newspaperman in the manner of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer, Abraham Cahan revolutionized our idea of what newspapers could accomplish.
(With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)
Guest Review by Lucette Lagnado
Lucette Lagnado is the author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years.
Seth Lipsky has written a vivid and engaging biography of Abraham Cahan, the journalist and social activist, and the hero and icon to legions of Jewish immigrants who treated the Forward, the Yiddish-language daily newspaper he led for several decades, almost as their bible. Under Cahan, the Forward became the largest and most powerful Jewish newspaper in the world, so this is at one level a fascinating journalistic story about the influence one paper can wield, at a time when newspapers are increasingly looked upon as ineffective and bound for extinction. In Lipskys hands, the story of Cahanan immigrant from Russia who arrives here, true to immigrant lore, with nothing, and works his way up to a position of extraordinary power and prestigebecomes a way to recount the sweep of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Jewish history in all its drama, heartbreak, promise, and disillusionment. Cahans journey takes us from the small Russian villages where faith is central and life is precarious, to the revolt against the Czars and the longing for revolution, to the pogroms and anti-Semitic outbursts that make it clear that neither the old Russia nor the new Soviet Union has room for Jews. Cahans true greatness emerges as he and his paper serve as beacons to the waves of Eastern European immigrants to the U.S., many of whom land on the Lower East Side, steps away from the Forwards headquarters. There begins the seduction of America. Cahan urged the readers of the Forward to master English and embrace American ways; he pushed them to integrate and assimilate and merge and blend, if need be by ruthlessly casting aside their past. His entreaties worked, perhaps too well. His immigrant readers worked hard and reveled in their new land, becoming active in labor unions and fighting for the freedoms and opportunities denied to them in the Old World. It is perhaps too late when Cahan recognizes that he has accomplished his mission beyond his wildest imaginingsgenerations of Jewish immigrants have come into their own, reinventing themselves as Americans.
But the price of Americanization turns out to be steepsteeper than even Cahan had anticipated. In casting aside their roots, their language, their religious convictions, their familial bonds, and their most sacred and precious traditions, some of these immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren, lost their identity and perhaps even their soul.
At a time when America confronts a new immigration crisis and debates what to do with newcomers, including whether to force them to learn English or even whether to let them in; during a period when appalling sweatshop conditions that produce the clothes we wear (no longer on the Lower East Side but now in Asia) dominate the headlines, Lipskys work has much to teach us about these old dilemmas, which suddenly seem new and critical again.
A lively, absorbing, and important work.
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