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Yet the further Cahan ranged, the more obsessed he seemed to become with remaining loyal to a core sensibility from his youth: to the memory of his parents, to certain elements of the shtetl, and even, it turned out, to the idea of Jewishness itself and to at least some of the laws handed down at Sinai. He had begun his journey by marching away from religion in the name of socialism, only to mount his last big fight against those who would abandon the Jewish religion in the name of harmony and integration — even while insisting, to the end, that he was not a religious man at all.
Cahan had begun to doubt religion as a youth, though his parents were fervently pious and gave him a religious education. Caught up in the political awakening that took hold in Russia and eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, he abandoned religious orthodoxy and plunged into the revolutionary, anticzarist movement, while also being tempted by the freedom and materialism of secular liberalism. As pogroms ignited a historic exodus of Jews from eastern Europe, Cahan escaped to America one step ahead of the czarist police.
In America, Cahan taught school and fell in with socialist activists — one of whom, Anna Bronstein, he married. They had no children but remained married for more than sixty years, until her death in 1947. Cahan began writing not only for socialist journals but also for the general press and in 1897 became the founding editor of the Forward. Working primarily, although not exclusively, in Yiddish — a language that, it has been said, he “had come to despise” — he went on to become one of the greatest newspapermen of all time.
Cahan covered the stirrings of revolution in Russia, the ideological maneuvering over World War I, the accession of political Zionism, the emergence of the ideas of social democracy in Europe and America, the rise of the free trade union movement, World War II, and the Holocaust. In some of these events and movements, he played a leading role. Animated by his socialist, pro-labor politics, the newspaper he built laid the foundations for the institutions that brought down the Soviet Union and defeated its international Communist movement by driving through its heart the stake of free labor. Along the way, Cahan built a separate reputation as a towering writer of fiction; a behind-the-scenes player in local, national, and world politics; and a leader of the anti-Communist labor movement. He wrote a two-volume history of the United States — in Yiddish.
But the most remarkable fact of Abraham Cahan’s life was that, for all his worldly and political success, for all his freethinking and socialist idealism, he was never able to escape thinking of himself as a young yeshiva student from Vilna who prized, above all else, the wonder of Jewish life. In 1940, at age eighty, he excommunicated his star writer, Sholem Asch, for a flirtation with Jesus, going so far as to write a book denouncing him. He was capable of his own political surprises. On the eve of the Holocaust, Cahan mocked the only Jewish journalist of his own rank, Vladimir Jabotinsky, for his Zionist fervor — only to turn around weeks later, on Jabotinsky’s death, and write a prophetic elegy to his greatest political opponent.
Finally, Cahan’s life has much to teach us at a time when newspapers themselves are in a historic crisis, preoccupied with process and tactics and financial viability. For all his innovations as a newspaper builder, Cahan was one of those who understood the idea of the newspaper editor as a historical actor. He ranked with figures like William Lloyd Garrison and the greatest of the abolitionists, and Charles Dana, who worried less about his circulation than about the Union, and Theodor Herzl, who saw himself as not just covering a story but creating a state. Here, in Cahan, was a newspaperman who helped to reform his adopted country and open it to vast numbers of new citizens, while defeating its enemies at home and abroad.
From “The Rise of Abraham Cahan” by Seth Lipsky.
Copyright 2013 by Seth Lipsky. Published by arrangement with Schocken Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.