Ab. Cahan Hates Cartoons

By Eddy Portnoy

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Forverts, aka the Jewish Daily Forward, was not only the best-selling Yiddish daily in New York, but was also a center for political action and social reform. At the helm of this project was the paper’s founder and editor, Abraham (Ab.) Cahan, a mustachioed crusader almost universally regarded as impossibly abrasive and exceedingly tyrannical by writers and sub-editors of all stripes. As the most significant Yiddish journalistic and literary institution in New York City and, possibly, the world, it was natural and inevitable that the Forverts and its editor in chief would become targets for the Lower East Side’s literary and political satirists.

For these local pranksters, Cahan would become a symbol representing the paper and its mission, and as a result he was caricatured in hundreds of cartoons in such humor magazines as Der Groyser Kundes, a weekly publication whose biting satirical attacks on virtually every aspect of Jewish life cracked up Yiddish readers from New York to Vilna. Taking on the Brahmins of Yiddish theater, literature, journalism and politics, Cahan not only found the Forverts’s prose parodied in Der Groyser Kundes, but also discovered that he and the newspaper’s top writers were all distorted by the angry pen of caricature. Needless to say, this did not endear him to the cartoon medium. From the late 19th century, cartoons, which had become one of the most popular journalistic features in American newspapers, appeared for only a few years during his tenure, quite a departure for someone who learned so much and borrowed so freely from the American press.

These caricatures ranged from comic interpretations of current events in the journalistic world, such as the pitched battles waged between Cahan and Forverts co-founder and former staffer Louis Miller of the competing daily, Varhayt, to often vitriolic attacks on Cahan and the Forverts as purveyors of trashy literature and betrayers of socialism. Along with other Lower East Side celebrities and public intellectuals, Cahan was an obvious target for the visual satire of Der Groyser Kundes, and though he was known as an interfering and oppressive editor, he alone did not bear the brunt of representing the entire Forverts organization in caricature. Helping to stoke the attacks on Cahan and the Forverts, the cartoonists of the Yiddish humor press developed a caricature of a bloated alrightnik, or capitalist (ironically, Cahan’s own neologism), wearing the Forverts building as his top hat. This caricature varied in style, but remained a permanent fixture, appearing along with Cahan as representatives of the Forverts for nearly a quarter century in a variety of Yiddish periodicals.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6

Numerous cartoons featuring Cahan also appeared in the Morgen Freiheit, a communist daily that positioned itself as the Forverts’s ideological foe. The paper’s cartoonist, William Gropper, produced many furious cartoon attacks on the Forverts and its editor over the course of many years. Gropper’s cartoons took the Forverts to task over its anti-Soviet stance, its growing support of Zionism and its antagonism toward the communist-run Furriers Union, among other politically inspired matters.

Over the years, cartoonists dressed up Cahan as a garbage picker, a janitor, a prostitute and a variety of old women, among a number of other unflattering characters. It’s really no wonder that he didn’t like cartoons. But he didn’t take it sitting down. There was a brief attempt, in 1913, to rectify the situation. During that year, the Forverts began to fund Der Kibitzer, a financially unstable humor magazine. Almost immediately, Cahan began to appear in the magazine’s cartoons as a hero to the Lower East Side’s Jewish masses and to Yiddish literature and culture. But these novel, pro-Cahan cartoons didn’t last long: Der Kibitzer went out of business the following year, and anti-Cahan cartooning continued apace in Der Groyser Kundes and later in the Morgen Freiheit. It was, perhaps, inevitable that a figure of such great import as Cahan, and the paper he ran, would be subject to many vitriolic attacks on the part of dissenters. The hundreds of anti-Cahan, anti-Forverts cartoons that appeared in Der Groyser Kundes and in the Morgen Freiheit offer just a taste of the journalistic battles and cultural disputes that took place 100 years ago on the Lower East Side.

Eddy Portnoy teaches Yiddish language, literature and culture at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.