YUDE-LEYB COHEN (JUDAH LEIB CAHAN) (February 15, 1881-April 3, 1937)
He was born in Vilna, to a father who was a flour merchant. In 1889 he moved with his parents to Warsaw, studied in a religious elementary school, and later took up an apprenticeship with a watchmaker, while at the same time reading Yiddish books and mastering Russian and Polish. He lived among Jewish workers and had set up for them a private apartment as a loaning library with Yiddish-language books. While quite young, Cahan had become (as he himself expressed it) “a conscious Zhargonist (Yiddishist)” and, under the influence of various collectors of Jewish booklore (Yoysef-Yude Lerner, Avrom-Yitskhok Bukhbinder, Leo Viner, Benyomen Zeger, and others), he contrived to assemble the songs that one heard being sung in every Jewish basement, from every Jewish workshop. He listened to the songs and carefully transcribed them. In 1899 he came into close contact with a young group of writers (Avrom Reyzen, Sholem Asch, and H. D. Nomberg) and through them with Y. L. Perets. The enthusiasm for folklore in the Perets circle gave Cahan fresh courage to continue his collecting work. Between 1896 and 1901, he accumulated a sizable collection of Yiddish folksongs together with their melodies. He wanted, though, to publish the songs according to his own preferences—he did not like the published collection of Yiddish folksongs of Ginzburg and Marek—but he was unable to find a publisher or a patron. Meanwhile, he was secretly alerted that he was about to be conscripted into the Tsarist army and in 1901 emigrated to London, England. He worked there as a watchmaker, gave speeches on behalf of proletarian Zionism, founded in 1903 the Zionist labor alliance Forverts (Forward), disseminated Dr. Sirkin’s Hebrew and Yiddish publications, and took advantage of every opportunity to collect Jewish folklore, primarily among the Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel. In 1904 he left London for New York, where he continued working in his trade and continued his lifelong task of collecting Jewish folklore. Together with Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky, Leon Kobrin, and A. Liessin, in 1905 he organized in New York the Jewish Literary Association, which set as its goal the publication of a folklore collection; the association did not, however, realize its goal.
Cahan’s first scholarly work on the Yiddish folksong appeared in the anthology Literatur (Literature) (New York, 1910)—this was the very article upon which S. Tsinberg relied for his work on Yiddish folksongs in Evreiskaia entsiklopedya (Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 13, p. 150. Cahan dwelled primarily in this article on love songs and demonstrated that: “whether one hundred years ago or fifty years ago, the Jewish masses have always sinned and loved” (from the introduction to vol. 1 of his collected Yudishe folkslider [Yiddish folksongs], p. 32). In 1912 he brought out his two-volume Yudishe folkslider mit melodyen (Yiddish folksongs with melodies) (New York-Warsaw: International Library), vol. 1, 60 + 243 pp., vol. 2, 293 pp., second edition (1920). This work was recognized as one of the most valuable in the field, and this had an impact on both Yiddish and non-Yiddish folklore journals in Europe and the United States. In 1919 he gave a course at the recently established Jewish teachers’ seminary in New York. He also established the Yiddish press “Nay-tsayt” (New times), which over the years 1919-1921 published works by Yoysef Opatoshu, Osip Dimov, Avrom Reyzen, L. Shapiro, and Fradl Shtok, as well as a string of Yiddish translations of works by well-known Gentile writers. When the historical ethnographic society named for Sh. Anski (according to a design of the society in Vilna) was established in New York, it was decided to publish an ethnographic journal, and Cahan was entrusted with writing up the prospectus for the planned journal, but from this entire challenge only Cahan’s prospectus remains extant. When the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) was founded in Vilna in 1925, Cahan threw himself into the work of organizing the American division of YIVO, known as the “Amopteyl” (“American division”). He was initially the treasurer and later the chairman of it. The philological section of YIVO in Vilna selected Cahan to be a member of it, and in Shriftn fun yidishn visnshaftlekhn institut, filologishe serye 1, landoy-bukh (Writings from YIVO, philological series 1, Landau volume), Cahan published (pp. 139-54) an essay on Shmuel Lehman’s Arbet un frayhayt (Labor and freedom). In 1927 Cahan—in Pinkes fun amopteyl fun yivo (Records of the American division of YIVO) (New York) 1 (1927-1928), pp. 65-128, 321-64—published his piece “Yidishe folkslider” (Yiddish folksongs) with the subtitle: “Etlekhe forbamerkungen tsu di eltere libes-lider” (Several remarks on the older love songs). In volume two of Pinkes (New York, 1929), he published a collection (nos. 11-21) “Yidishe folks-mayses” (Yiddish folktales). “collected from the mouth of the people.” With the change in the folklore section of YIVO, in 1930 Cahan traveled to his hometown of Vilna, and there he organized a conference of folklore collectors from a variety of cities and instructed them in the proper way to collect Jewish folklore. From Vilna he traveled on to Slovakia and Burgenland, Austria, to collect locally distinctive Yiddish and Jewish folklore. From his labors were published: (using the pen name L. Vilenski) a review of Platon Brounoff’s and Noyekh Prylucki’s anthology in Der pinkes (The record), edited by Shmuel Niger in Vilna (1911/1912 [?]), cols. 355-66; “Tsum oyfkum fun yidishn tantslid” (On the rise of the Jewish dancing song), Yivo-bleter (Pages from YIVO) (Vilna) 2 (1932), pp. 200-21; “A maysele fun a nar un a klugn” (A story of a fool and a wise man), Yidish (Yiddish) (New York) 6 (June 17, 1932), pp. 11-13; “Y. l. perets vi a zamler fun yidishe folkslider” (Y. L. Perets as a collector of Yiddish folksongs), Yivo-bleter 12 (1937), pp. 280-85. In book form he later published: Yidishe folkslider, naye zamlung mit farglaykhendike bamerkungen (Yiddish folksongs, a new collection with comparative observations) (New York: Amopteyl, YIVO, 1930), vol. 1, 112 pp.; Yidishe folks-mayses (Yiddish folktales), vol. 1, “collected from the mouth of the people” (New York-Vilna: Yidish folklor biblyotek, 1931), 189 pp.; Der yid, vegn zikh un vegn andere in zayne shprikhverter un rednsartn (The Jew on himself and others in his sayings and proverbs), “compiled from a variety of sources” (New York: Amopteyl, YIVO, 1933), 32 pp. In his youthful years, Cahan himself wrote popular poetry and published them in Arbayter (Worker), under literary editor Dovid Pinski (New York, 1904). Representative of that poetry was “Dos yudishe meydele” (The Jewish girl) in M. Basin’s anthology Finf hundert yor yidishe poezye (500 years of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1917). He also published several children’s stories in Kinder-zhurnal (Children’s magazine) in New York (1925-1926), and a translation (using the pen name Keyle) from the work of Heinrich Heine in Literarishe velt (Literary world), edited by Avrom Reyzen. Cahan presented scholarly lectures at the annual conferences of the American division of YIVO, and he also participated in the work surrounding Jewish schools and literary periodicals in New York. In 1937 when it had been forty years since he had begun collecting Yiddish folklore, YIVO in Vilna acclaimed the jubilee in an editorial in Yivo-bleter 11 (pp. 129-30) and invited him to serve as editor of the fifth volume of Yidishe folklor (Jewish folklore). Cahan gladly undertook the job, but he was not destined to bring it to conclusion. He had a heart attack at the end of March and three days later died in his home in New York. His last work was on Perets as a folklorist, based on manuscripts preserved by the Perets family and by Leo Viner in Boston. This was published after his death in volume 9 of Shriftn fun yidishn visnshaftlekhn institut, filologishe shriftn 5 (Writings from YIVO, philological writings 5), edited by Y. L. Cahan, “dedicated to the memory of Y. L. Cahan” (Vilna, 1938), 357 pp. At a separate, mourning session at the American division of YIVO, they decided to establish a research internship for folklore in Cahan’s name and to publish his unpublished collections and writings. His widow Miriam Cahan donated his rich folklorist library, consisting of some 2000 volumes, to YIVO in Vilna, and she placed them in a folklore room of YIVO named for Cahan. During WWII, however, the books were sent to Germany by the Nazis, and regrettably they were not discovered after the war. YIVO had planned to publish a complete edition of Cahan’s collected writings in six volumes, but the outbreak of WWII interrupted the work. In April 1940 they succeeded in bringing out volume 5 of Cahan’s Gezamlte ksovim (Collected writings): Yidishe folks-mayses (Vilna, 1940), 238 pp., but the manuscripts for all of the other volumes were lost. The only material that was preserved remained in New York, and from this material, under the editorship of Max Weinreich, was published Shtudyes vegn yidisher folksshafung (Studies in Yiddish folklore) (New York: YIVO, 1952), 374 pp., with a preface and an afterword by Weinreich (a foreword and table on contents in English are included as well). To mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of this acclaimed folklorist, Yidishe folkslider mit melodyes (Yiddish folksongs with melodies), “collected by Y. L. Cahan, compiled and newly published by Max Weinreich” (New York: YIVO, 1957), 559 pp., with a preface by Weinreich (p. 2) and an “accounting of the compilation” (pp. 525-40) was published.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2 (with a bibliography); Reyzen, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (September 5, 1930); N. Shtif, in Emes (Moscow) (January 13, 1928); M. Erik, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (History of Yiddish literature) (Warsaw, 1928), pp. 436-37; Erik, in Yidishe shprakh (Kiev) 3.10 (1928), p. 37; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (August 1928); Niger, in Tog (New York) (March 22, 1931); Yisroel Tsinberg, Geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (History of Jewish literature), vol. 6 (Vilna, 1930), p. 53; Tsinberg, in Evreiskaia starina 13 (1930), p. 160; Tsinberg, Kultur-historishe shtudyes (Cultural historical studies) (New York, 1949), pp. 297-305; H. D. Nomberg, in Shriftn (Warsaw) 8 (1930); V. Anderson, in Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 3 (1932); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, in Vokhnshrift far literatur (Warsaw) (August 28, 1931); M. Gaster, in Yivo-bleter 1 (Vilna) (1931), pp. 24-27; Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (June 12, 1931); Mukdoni, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (December 1957); Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), vol. 3 (Vilna, 1935), pp. 73-74; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Tog (April 6, 1937); Shtarkman, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 15.1-2 (1940), pp. 125-32; Shtarkman, in Yorbukh (New York, 1943); A. Oyerbakh, in Tsukunft (May 1937); E. Almi, in Nyu-yorker vokhnblat (New York) 65 (1937); Dr. Y. Shatski, in Yorbukh fun amopteyl fun yivo (Annual from the American branch of YIVO), vol. 1 (New York, 1938), pp. 9-38; Shatski, Yude-leyb kahan (Judah Leib Cahan) (New York, 1938), 37 pp.; Shatski, in Yedies fun yivo (Vilna) 71-72 and 75-76 (1938), 83-84 (1939), and (New York) 40-60 (1957); Tashrak, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 19 (1942), pp. 134-35; D. Ignatov, in Tsukunft (December 1944); Ignatov, Opgerisene bleter, eseyen, farblibene ksovim un fragmentn (Torn off sheets, essays, extant writings, and fragments) (Buenos Aires: Yidbukh, 1957), pp. 78-79; Sh. Ginzburg, Amolike peterburg, forshungen un zikhroynes vegn yidishn lebn in der residents-shtot fun tsarishn rusland (St. Petersburg of old, research and memories of Jewish life in the imperial capital of Tsarist Russia), vol. 1 (New York, 1944), p. 246; Y. Mark, in Tsukunft (December 1953); Rivke Rubin, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (October 1955); V. Yunin, in Tog (June 3, 1957); Y. Bernfeld, in Undzer shtime (Paris) (April 6-7, 1957); Bernfeld, in Heymish (Tel Aviv) (July-August 1957); Sh. Secunda, in Forverts (New York) (May 7, 1957); A. Leyeles, in Tog (August 17, 24, 31, 1957); Leyeles, Velt un vort (World and word) (New York, 1958), pp. 250-63; M. V. Bernshteyn, in Ilustrirte literarishe bleter (Buenos Aires) (September 1957); B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 19, 1957); M. Shveyd, in Forverts (October 2, 1959); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Der veg (Mexico City) (January 10, 1959); Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (January 5, 1959); Y. Rabinovitsh, in Keneder odler (April 22, 1959); Biblyografishe yorbikher fun yivo (Bibliographic yearbooks from YIVO), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1928); obituary notices in the entire Yiddish press throughout the world.