Sunday 27 January 2019


AVROM KAHAN (AB., ABE CAHAN) (July 7, 1860-August 31, 1951)
            He was born in Podberez’ye, Vilna district, Byelorussia.  His father was a religious Jew, a shopkeeper, itinerant teacher, an innkeeper, and later a bookkeeper.  He attended religious elementary school and yeshiva, and he studied Hebrew with his father.  He later attended a Russian Jewish public school and a drawing school.  In 1877 he entered the Russian Jewish Teachers’ Institute.  At the same time, he became active in revolutionary circles.  After graduated from the Institute in 1881, he became a teacher in the Russian Jewish state school in Velizh, Vitebsk Province.  He then moved to Moliev (Mogilev), and from there in 1882 he set off with an “Am olam” (Eternal people) group for the United States.  He abandoned the idea of establishing communist colonies and began to work in the cigar industry and later with sheet metal.  He mastered English rapidly and in 1883 was already teaching English to others.  He became active in the socialist movement and in the first Jewish socialist organization in America, the Propaganda Union.  There he plunged into leading socialist agitation among Jews in Yiddish, and in August 1883 he gave the first socialist lecture in Yiddish in America.  He helped found the Russian Labor Lyceum and in 1884 the first Jewish union, the Progressive Tailors’ Union.  In June 1886, Kahan and Charles Rayevsky brought the socialist weekly newspaper Di naye tsayt (The new times)—three issues appeared.  Kahan’s many-sided journalistic and literary work began in 1890 with the weekly Di arbayter tsaytung (The workers’ newspaper), for which he was one of the principal founders and contributors.  For the latter, he wrote articles, stories, poetry, and a weekly sermon based on the Torah portion of the week.  In these sermons—under the pen name “proletarian preacher” and with the articles dubbed “Fun a vort, a kvort” (From a word, a quart)—Kahan treated a variety of aspects of life.  He popularized Marx and Darwin, translated Émile Zola’s Germinal, stories by Victor Hugo, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev, William Howells, and Max Nordau.  He published there: Rifoel neritskh (Rafael Neritskh) (1894), a description of a simple Jew, a carpenter, and how he adapts to his new life in America; Di tsvey shidukhim (The two matches) (1894); Yankl un yekl (Yankl and Yekl) (1895), a translation of his English novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto.  His work Di neshome yeseyre (Sabbath festiveness) (1900) consisted of fiction, moralizing verbiage, and satire—an image of the new immigrants.  Fenni’s khasanim (Fenni’s bridegrooms) was initially sketched out in English, and in 1913 Kahan translated it into Yiddish.  At the same time, he published fictional items in: North American Review, Short Story, The Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan.  His novel Yekl in English appeared in 1896.  He often published in Russian periodicals in Russia.  He also published in Tsukunft (Future) in New York (1893-1897).  At the same time as these literary works, he was active in the Socialist Party.  He was a delegate of the United Jewish Trade Unions to the second congress of the Second International (Brussels, August 1891).  There he raised the issue of the attitude of workers to the Jewish problem. The adopted a resolution denounced both anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism.  The publishers of Di arbayter tsaytung began on October 15, 1894 to bring out a daily newspaper, Dos abend-blatt (The evening newspaper)—the Sunday edition retained the old name.  Philip Krants became editor of Abend-blatt, and Kahan for the Sunday edition which in 1897 was discontinued.  Because of struggles in the Socialist Labor Party and hostility for its leader Daniel de Leon, Kahan, Louis Miller, Mikhail Zametkin, and others brought out a new newspaper entitled Forverts (Forward), beginning April 22, 1897, with Kahan as editor.  He created a popular newspaper, conforming to the tastes of his immigrant audience, with a socialist tendency.  There arose opposition to Kahan’s manner of editing the newspaper, and on two occasions Kahan left the editorship—August 1897-March 1902 and fall 1902-October 1903—and thereafter he remained editor until his death.  Kahan also contributed articles during the periods when he was not serving as editor.  He transformed Forverts into a mass newspaper but socialist in content.  From September 1905 to July 1908, Forverts also brought out a weekly entitled Der tsayt-gayst (The spirit of the times), which Kahan also edited.  In 1906 he introduced into his newspaper “Bintl-brif” (Batch of letters), which became popular among readers but was criticized by a number of journalists.  In 1907 he published in English his novel The Red Terror and the White,[1] and in 1917 his novel The Rise of David Levinsky which was considered a classic work in English-language literature.  In Tsukunft (1896) he published “Kritishe studyen fun zhargonishe mayster-verk” (Critical studies of Yiddish masterworks)—on Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Y. L. Perets, and Sholem-Aleichem.  He praised Sholem-Aleichem, but when his play Der oysvurf (The scoundrel) or Shmuel pasternak (Shmuel Pasternak) was staged (February 1907 in New York), he harshly criticized it.  He attracted to Forverts important writers of fiction and journalists.  He systematically published the works of Sholem Asch, Y. Y. Zinger, Avrom Reyzen, Zalmen Shneur, Yoyne Rozenfeld, and for a time Dovid Bergelson as well.  Conflicts often arose between Kahan and other writers.  He reserved his fiercest criticism for Yankev Gordin (1904, 1908).  His criticism of the exalted poetry of Mendele Moykher-Sforim in Yiddish literature, as well as of other recognized Yiddish writers (he stopped publishing Morris Rozenfeld, Yoyne Rozenfeld, and others), frequently provoked a reaction against him.  One of Kahan’s sharpest conflicts was with Sholem Asch, when Asch began publishing his Christological novels, and Asch left Forverts at the time.  Kahan’s school years in the Russified Vilna Teachers’ Institute left a lasting impact on him.  The Institute’s negative view of Yiddish planted a hostile attitude in him toward Yiddish as well.  He even published a series of articles opposing Yiddish schools in America (February-April 1931).  He was a central figure in American Jewish life.  He helped form the American Jewish community.  His influence was immense in the rise of the Yiddish press, in the development of Yiddish literature and theater, and in the Jewish labor movement in America.  His works include: Der iḳer fun sotsyalizmus und der ḳampf far im (The principle of socialism and the fight for it) (New York, 1892), 14 pp.; Rifoel neritskh, an ertseylung vegen a stolyer vos iz gekumen tsum seykhl (Rafael Neritskh, a story of a carpenter who came to his senses) (New York, 1896), enlarged edition (1912), 199 pp.; Der alef beys fun sotsyalizmus (The ABCs of socialism) (New York, 1898); Oylem haze un oylem habe fun der arbayter bevegung (This world and the next in the labor movement) (New York), 32 pp.; Dmitri un zigride, ertsehlung fun emigranten-leben in amerika (Dmitri and Sigrid, a story of immigrant life in America) (Minsk, 1906), 26 pp.; Di neshome yeseyre un fenni’s khasanim (Sabbath festiveness, and Fenni’s bridegrooms) (New York, 1913?), 211 pp.; Historye fun di fereynigte shtaten (History of the United States) (New York, 1910-1912), 2 volumes; Der moskver kunst-teater (The Moscow art theater) (Chicago, 1923), 64 pp.; Bleter fun mayn leben (Pages from my life), 5 volumes—(1) “In der alter heym” (In the old country); (2) “Mayne ershte akht yohr in amerike” (My first eight years in America); (3) “Zibn yohr kool’she tetigkeyt” (Seven years of community activity); (4) “In di mitele yohren” (In the middle years); and (5) part 1, “Biz der velt-milkhome” (Until the world war), part 2, “Di frenk drame” (The drama of [Leo] Frank)—(vols. 1-4, Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1926-1928; vol. 5, New York: Forverts, 1931); Palestine, a bazukh in yor 1925 un in 1929 (Palestine, a voyage in the year 1925 and in 1929) (New York, 1934), 426 pp.; Rashel, a byografye (Rachel, a biography) (New York, 1938), 338 pp.; Sholem ash’s nayer veg (Sholem Asch’s new path) (New York, 1941), 96 pp.  Among his translations: Leo Tolstoy, Kraytser sonata (The Kreutser Sonata) (New York, 1911), VI + 169 pp., reprinted (1914), enlarged edition (1918); Tolstoy, Der toydt fun ivan ilitsh, ertseylung (The death of Ivan Ilych, a story) (New York, 1918), VI + 233 pp.  His English-language works: The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto (Cambridge, 1898); Yekl (New York, 1899); The White Terror and the Red (New York, 1907); The Rise of David Levinsky (New York, 1917).  The last of these works appeared in installments in Forverts in a translation by L. Krishtol.  It was translated into Russian by S. I. Tsederboym as Kar’era Levinskogo, roman (Leningrad, 1928 or 1930).  Bleter fun mayn leben was translated and published in an abridged form as: The Education of Abraham Cahan (Philadelphia, 1969), trans. Leon Stein, Abraham P. Conan, and Lynn Davison.  He died in New York.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 3; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 4 (New York, 1963); Shmuel Niger, in Di feder (New York) (May-July 1928), pp 78-81; Z. Vaynper, in Oyfkum (New York) (August-September 1930); Y. Opatoshu, in Oyfkum (October-November 1930); Elye (Elias) Shulman, in Zaml-bukh tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher prese in amerike (Anthology, toward a history of the Yiddish press in America) (New York, 1934), pp. 27-39; Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1943), pp. 42, 52ff; Y. Yeshurin, Ab. kahan biblyografye (Ab. Cahan bibliography) (New York, 1941); Y. Khaykin, Yidishe bleter in amerike, a tsushteyer tsu der 75-yoriker geshikhte fun der yidisher prese in di fareynikte shtatn un kanade (Yiddish letters in America, a contribution to the seventy-five year history of the Yiddish press in the United States and Canada) (New York, 1946), see index; H. Rogof, Der gayst fun forverts (The spirit of the Forverts) (New York, 1954); Kalmen Marmor, Yankev gordin (Yankev Gordin) (New York, 1958), see index; D. Shub, Fun di amolike yorn (From years gone by) (New York, 1970), see index; M. Osherovitsh, manuscript, in YIVO archives (1947 published sequentially in Forverts); M. Rischin, The Promised City (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); R. Sunders, The Downtown Jews (New York, 1969); J. Zlotnik, “A Neglected Realist,” American Jewish Archives (April 1971); Irving Howe, The World of Our Father (New York, 1976), see index; J. Chametzky, From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan (Amherst, Mass., 1976); Moses Rischin, comp., Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan (Bloomington, 1885).  And, two dissertations: T. Pollack, The Solitary Clarinetist (Columbia University, 1959); and A. Waldinger, Abraham Cahan as Novelist, Critic and Folks Advocate (Boston University Graduate School, 1971).
Elye (Elias) Shulman

[1] Translator’s note.  Every source I have seen give 1905 as the publication date for this novel.

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