A portrait of Abraham Cahan is the first thing that greets a visitor to the Forward in New York City. It attracted me from the moment that I, then a young newspaperman in my midthirties, first stopped by the paper’s editorial rooms. It was early in 1983. Published in Yiddish and known as the Forverts, or Jewish Daily Forward, it had recently retreated to weekly publication with an English-language supplement. I was there on a quest to bring out a new, full-scale national Jewish newspaper in English, one that would start as a weekly, eventually become a daily publication, and most important, bear the legendary Forward name.
This was seen by many at the time as an improbable venture, but I had become an admirer of Cahan years before, though even today I’m not exactly sure how this came about. I admired him as a newspaperman: in particular, as editor of the Yiddish-language daily that he had helped found one hundred years earlier and had built into one of the first national newspapers, with a circulation of more than a quarter of a million and editions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia as well as New York.
Cahan had edited the Forward for fifty years, right up to his death in 1951, and earned a place in the pantheon of America’s greatest newspaper editors.
Beyond that, I was also attracted by Cahan’s political story. He had stood with labor throughout its great awakening and the years during which it was being organized, but he had broken early with the hard-left factions and played a leading role in the long struggle against Communism. Although I myself was never a socialist or a member of a labor union, I had great sympathy for labor and its long march.
The author to whom I thrilled as a young student was John Dos Passos. Like him, I had moved to the right over the years, and as the Jewish story began to assert itself in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I perceived Cahan and what he built at the Forward as taking on, after a long decline, a new relevance. This was partly because of the way the denouement of the Cold War had vindicated the anti-Communist crusaders with whom Cahan had made common cause and partly because of the way Cahan had confounded a left that was emerging in league with enemies of Israel. I quickly discovered other matters on which the Forward had much to offer, from the debate over immigration to the use of quotas in the struggle for racial integration to the way New York City was governed to the problem of public education to the question of culture and its importance in the pages of a major newspaper.
This was put into sharp relief for me one day in the summer of 1984, when I was still at The Wall Street Journal and nursing the idea of an English-language Forward. My future wife and I went for Sunday brunch to the home of the editor of the Forward, Simon Weber, and his wife, Sylvia. Among the other guests were the Nobel laureate and Forward writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and his wife, Alma. As we were seated at a table piled with smoked fish and bagels, I mentioned that the Journal had just come out, at least in principle, for open immigration into the United States.