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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor


Abraham Cahan has been described as the single most influential personality in the cultural life of well over two million Jewish immigrants and their families during his lifetime. As a journalist and writer, his unique ability to mediate among the various sensibilities and languages of the Lower East Side in New York City placed him at the center of American Jewish culture and Jewish writing. His major fictional works, Yekl (1896) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), are widely recognized as classic accounts of the immigrant experience of Americanization.

Born in Podberezy, Russia, Cahan was educated at traditional Jewish cheders and also studied at the Vilna Teachers Institute, a Russian government school for Jewish teachers. After graduating in 1881, he began teaching and at the same time became deeply involved in radical, underground anti-czarist activities. Forced to flee, he joined a group of immigrants bound for America and arrived in Philadelphia on June 5, 1882. The next day he reached New York, where his religious training proved useless and secular success beckoned. In 1890 he became editor of the weekly Arbeiter Zeitung, the paper of the United Hebrew Trades. Using the pseudonym "Proletarian Preacher" he wrote columns that mixed Russian fables, Talmudic parables, and Marxist ideas to convey his socialist critique of capitalism.

National prominence came to Cahan in 1896, when his novella, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, was published in English. Like many of his contemporariesóDreiser, Crane, and Norris, for exampleóCahan was probing the impact of America's social and economic forces, their power to influence acculturation and assimilation. In Yekl, Jake compromises his religion, values, dress, and behavior to become an "American" (that is, not a greenhorn) and to acquire money and a new identity. On the arrival of his wife, Gitl, with her son Yossie, he compares her with Mamie (an Americanized Jewish woman) and chooses Mamie. After a Jewish divorce (a "get") he seems to be reluctant, at the end, to go to City Hall with Mamie, perhaps realizing too late that in the "exchange" he emerges a victim, not a conqueror.

During the decade that followed Cahan published The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), The White Terror and the Red: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia (1905), as well as stories in Cosmopolitan. In 1913 he published a four-part series for McClure's magazine, "The Autobiography of an American Jew." Enthusiastically received, this work was the genesis of the novel that appeared four years later, Cahan's masterpiece, The Rise of David Levinsky. The story of an immigrant who becomes a successful cloak manufacturer, the novel probed deeply into the tensions and conflicts involved in pursuing the American dream of success that had begun to surface in Yekl.

Cahan paralleled his career as a novelist and short-story writer with a long, distinguished career as a newspaperman and editor. From 1903 to 1946 he served as editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, a socialist paper that he transformed into a mass circulation pacesetter for the Yiddish press. Originally a political radical, Cahan became a pragmatic socialist, influenced by the forces of Americanization so evident in his fiction and journalism. His dynamic leadership, his use of conversational instead of literary Yiddish, and his pioneering "Bintel Brief," a Yiddish "Dear Abby" column, endeared him to his fellow immigrants and placed him at the center of American Jewish culture and writing. Under Cahan's guidance the Forward developed into a powerful national voice in journalism, and he gained influence in American society, especially in liberal and progressive circles.

Cahan's five volumes of memoirs, Bleter fun mein Leben (Leaves from My Life), published from 1926 to 1931, spanned the decades from the 1860s in Russia to the beginning of World War I. When he died in 1951, Abraham Cahan was revered in both Yiddish and American communities as an immigrant who had succeeded in the New World but had never forgotten the Old.

Daniel Walden
Pennsylvania State University

In the Heath Anthology
from Yekl
††††† Chapter 10: "A Defeated Victor" (1896)
††††† Chapter 4: "The Meeting" (1896)
††††† Chapter 9: "The Parting" (1896)

Other Works
The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)

Cultural Objects
text file Virtual Tours of NYC's Tenement Museum

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A Ghetto Wedding
Full-text version of story originally printed in The Atlantic Monthly in February of 1898.

The Russian Jew in America
Full-text version of story originally printed in The Atlantic Monthly in July of 1898.

Congregation Emanu-El
A short biography of Cahan's contribution to Jewish-American intellectual movement.

Secondary Sources

Jules Chametzky, From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan, 1977

Stanford Marovitz, Abraham Cahan, 1997.