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Today, Cahan’s views on Zionism can still provoke debate. But other issues that occupied him — like the clashes between leftist universalism and Jewish particularism — seem less pressing. With the rise of multiculturalism and identity politics, ethnic and cultural identities no longer need to be checked at the meeting hall door. And whereas in Cahan’s day, socialist causes and Jewish needs were overlapping (the struggle of most immigrant workers was simply to defend themselves in the battle for economic survival) the concept of a shared Jewish politics has now largely evaporated. The question is no longer whether socialists can also be Jews, but whether Jews have any reason to be socialists.
For his part, Cahan never argued that socialism was inherently Jewish, even though he was inclined to write about it in Jewish terms. (One of his early newspaper personae was the “Proletarian Preacher,” in which he adopted the voice of a traditional magid, or preacher, for rhetorical effect.) If anything, he adhered to socialism despite its antipathy to Jewishness because he believed it to be right, and because it served Jewish interests. Still, it was at one time a binding element of Jewish experience, supplanting, as historian Tony Michels has pointed out, traditional Judaism itself. Given socialism’s onetime strength, perhaps it didn’t seem necessary to think about a Jewish identity that could take its place.
Here a critique of Cahan’s ambivalence toward Zionism, along with other articulations of Jewish nationhood, is justified. As the editor of the largest and most successful Yiddish newspaper in history, the kind of questions that bother us today — Can there be a substantive Jewish connection without invoking Israel or the Holocaust? Is Jewish identity based solely on religion or history? Can we make something Jewish by calling it tikkun olam? — may have seemed irrelevant to him. He was of a generation that could take Jewish belonging for granted. Yet other thinkers did address such issues. These included Zionists, who ultimately succeeded in creating a national Jewish framework that could encompass a range of political and social values, as well as thinkers like Chaim Zhitlowsky, who formulated a template for Jewish life based on a secular, diasporic, Yiddish-speaking identity.
But if Cahan didn’t tackle the problem in theory, with the Forverts he solved it in practice, at least for a time. Granted, he had the advantage of writing for an audience with a shared cultural background and, of course, he wrote in Yiddish. But his newspaper was remarkably broad, taking in high literature alongside pulp romance, and steel-toothed polemic together with rank sensationalism. (Consider a headline like, “Pittsburgh Millionaire, Bachelor, Gets 2 Wives After Death.”) And then there was the famed Bintel Brief advice column, which forged an intimacy between writer and reader that few journalists are ever privileged to know.
All this made the Forverts wildly successful and earned Cahan, as Lipsky argues, “a place in the pantheon of America’s greatest newspaper editors.” Most of all, Cahan’s inclusive spirit demonstrated a radical confidence in his own cultural position. After all, identity is largely about self-perception, and Cahan (youthful enthusiasms aside), never failed to perceive his activities as Jewish, whether he was giving socialist speeches, traveling to Palestine or writing about the problems of immigrants. As a writer, editor and journalist, the Jewish angle started with his byline.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @EzraG