The Rise of Abraham Cahan
By Seth Lipsky
Schocken, 240 pages, $26
On the morning of August 24, 1929, an Arab mob attacked the Jewish population of Hebron. Homes were pillaged, synagogues were desecrated, and scores of people were murdered or maimed. In the final tally, some 67 Jews were killed.
A few days later, Abraham Cahan, then at the height of his power as editor of the Yiddish-language Forverts, editorialized on the massacre. Although his words stood in contrast to those of the Communist newspaper Frayhayt, which considered the attack a revolt against British and Zionist imperialism, they expressed a nuanced point of view. The underlying cause of the massacre, he wrote, was a universal failing — a “dark chauvinism” that was at “the root of all wars, of all misfortunes.” But he also compared the tragedy to a “Third Destruction,” invoking the sacking of the temples in Jerusalem and placing the event in a history of specifically Jewish suffering. National identity could be the cause of conflict, he realized, but also its target.
Cahan had not always been so sensitive to Jewish trauma; 48 years earlier, when pogroms broke out in Ukraine after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, he was downright indifferent. “Even though the pogrom brought dread into the heart of every Jew, I must admit that the members of my group were not disturbed by it,” he later wrote in his autobiography, “The Education of Abraham Cahan.” “We regarded ourselves as human beings, not as Jews. There was only one remedy for the world’s ills, and that was socialism.”
By 1929, Cahan had evidently rethought this position. But as Seth Lipsky details in his short and engaging new biography, “The Rise of Abraham Cahan,” the contest between universal values and Jewish interests was a struggle throughout his life. While Cahan’s early encounter with revolutionary politics impressed him with the ideal of class solidarity transcending national or ethnic divisions, later experiences put this high-mindedness to the test. Judging with the benefit of hindsight, and bringing his own neo-Conservative politics to bear, Lipsky has his own thoughts on such subjects. But he does justice to Cahan’s forcefully articulated, and frequently shifting, views.
Cahan’s ideological transformations were similar to those of many Jewish socialists of his day. In his Vilna youth he had been fervently religious before discovering secular literature and radical politics. During his first years in New York City he considered himself an anarchist, but he became disillusioned with the inconsistencies of anarchism (as he saw them) and switched to democratic socialism.
He initially welcomed the 1917 Russian Revolution as the fulfillment of socialist dreams, but soon recognized the tyranny of Bolshevism and became a staunch anti-Communist, penning editorials that, as Lipsky puts it, “sounded as though they had been written by members of the John Birch Society.” And though he never really became a Zionist, he came to accept Jewish settlement in Palestine and was impressed by its achievements.
Throughout these evolutions, Cahan performed a balancing act between his belief in universal principals and his concern for Jewish well-being. In the summer of 1891, Cahan, by then a leading intellectual on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, traveled to Brussels for the Second Congress of the Second International as a representative of United Hebrew Trades, a confederation of Jewish unions.