Ab Cahan, the Jewish Newspaperman Who Kept the World Moving Forward

An Excerpt From Seth Lipsky's 'Rise of Abraham Cahan'

Founding Father: Abraham Cahan edited the Forward for fifty years, right up to his death in 1951.
Forward Association
Founding Father: Abraham Cahan edited the Forward for fifty years, right up to his death in 1951.

By Seth Lipsky

Published October 14, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“Oy,” Singer said. “All those Mexicans.”

I protested vehemently, slapping the table and declaring that I was shocked to find myself hearing such sentiments at the home of the editor of the Forward and from its greatest writer — indeed, from America’s greatest immigrant writer.

Si Weber motioned me onto his balcony, which overlooked Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where immigrant languages were spoken for miles in all directions. Then he shook his finger in my face and said, “I know you guys from The Wall Street Journal. All you want is cheap labor.” As I tried to explain to him that, in fact, the Journal was one of the few newspapers to agree with the labor unions that rising wages were not the source of inflation, I realized that editing the Forward could be more fun than anything I’d yet imagined.

When I arrived at the paper, Cahan had been dead for nearly forty years, but his presence was still very much felt. His name was bandied about in editorial meetings. His books were on our shelves, and editors reminded young writers of his penchant for plain language. The story was still told of how, when a subeditor would come to Cahan with a question about clarity, he would send the fellow out to consult the elevator operator.

On political matters, Cahan was cited both by readers who sent in letters to the editor and by older colleagues, men who worked in adjacent rooms on the Yiddish edition and wondered, as my colleagues and I did at the English-language paper, what the man whose portrait hung in the entryway would think about what was going on in the world today. Even members of the board of directors of the Forward Association cited Cahan as they wrestled with whether to continue to support the paper.

One morning, early in my tenure at the paper, I witnessed a curious thing. It occurred with the arrival at our offices of the newspaper’s storied general counsel, Judith Vladeck, one of the country’s leading labor lawyers. A grand figure of the old school, she swept out of the elevator. As she entered the premises, I startled to see her lift her hand to avoid looking at the portrait of Cahan. Later she explained that, like others connected with the paper’s traditions, she was not altogether an admirer of Cahan. Her own hero was B. Charney Vladeck, who happened to be her father-in-law and who, in the years between the First and Second World Wars, had served as the Forward’s business manager and whose politics were quite a bit to the left of Cahan’s.

As the years passed, I discovered that the Cahan whose views my critics so often accused me of traducing was a Cahan they didn’t agree with in the first place. After being accused of moving the paper too far to the right, I would seek guidance in the files from Cahan’s era, only to discover editorials on the evils of Communism that sounded as though they had been written by members of the John Birch Society. Questioned on our devotion to coverage of books and the arts, I discovered in the files a Cahan who was obsessed with literature and theater and what we call today the culture wars. When some wondered whether I had taken the Forward too far from the Jewish beat, I discovered in Cahan an editor who moved broadly in society, dining with the likes of H. L. Mencken and gallivanting about town with his friends from the Commercial Advertiser.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • 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.