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.
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“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.


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