Abraham Cahan was born July 7, 1860, in Podberezhie in Belarus (at the time in Vilnius Governorate, Russian Empire), into an orthodox Litvak family. His grandfather was a rabbi in Vidz, Vitebsk, his father a teacher of Hebrew language and the Talmud. The devoutly religious family moved in 1866 to Vilnius, where the young Cahan received the usual Jewish preparatory education for the rabbinate. He, however, was attracted by secular knowledge and clandestinely studied the Russian language, ultimately prevailing on his parents to allow him to enter the Teachers Institute of Vilnius, from which he was graduated in 1881. He was appointed teacher in a Jewish government school in Velizh, Vitebsk, in the same year.
Abraham Cahan lived in Russia when the country was a pre-industrial Christian autocracy that restricted the travel, settlement, and educational opportunities of Jewish subjects. The Czarist government treated the Jewish minority as a distinct, autonomously governable population; it was subject to discrimination and even brutality. By 1879, when Cahan was still a teenager, he had associated himself with the growing radical revolutionary movement in Russia. After Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in March 1881, all revolutionary sympathizers became suspect to the Russian police. In 1882 the Russian police searched Cahan’s room for radical publications that could be linked to the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The visit from the police prompted the young socialist schoolteacher to join the great emigration of Russian Jews to the United States that was under way (at the time, three quarters of Jewish immigrants to America came from the Russian Empire). Cahan arrived by steamboat in Philadelphia on June 6 of 1882 at the age of 21 and immediately traveled to New York, where he would live for the remainder of his life.
Abraham Cahan’s interest in socialism began in his youth in Russia. In July 1882, barely a month after arriving in the United States, Cahan attended his first American socialist meeting, and a month later he gave his first socialist speech, speaking in Yiddish. Although he found American society to be a vast improvement over life in Russia, he began to express certain criticisms of American conditions through the respectable outlet of socialism. In 1887 Cahan formally joined the Socialist Labor Party, which until the early 1900s was supported by very few intellectuals. Cahan’s education in Russian and English and his literary and journalistic abilities allowed him to become a principle Jewish champion and socialist educator, and toward the end of his career he was considered a leading figure of the radical Jewish left.
Upon his arrival in the United States Cahan quickly mastered the English language, and apart from getting involved in a variety of journalistic opportunities, by 1883 he dedicated much of his time to teaching English to adult Jewish working class immigrants. He taught at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) and often incorporated socialist speeches into his lesson plans. Cahan had fixed views on education; he believed that immigrants needed to combine formal learning with the informal studies of community to achieve not only an education but also integration into American society. He also encouraged women to use labor and education to elevate their status in society, and he preached the importance of immigrants taking control of their own fate. Fellow journalist Hutchins Hapgood said that Cahan taught with simplicity and directness in his attempts to educate the “ignorant masses” into socialism, and even Cahan viewed himself as an educator and enlightener of the impoverished Jewish working class of the city, "meeting them on their own ground and in their own language." Cahan not only immersed himself in America through the education of immigrants, but also through his contribution to Yiddish-language socialist propaganda.
Historian Gerald Sorin notes:
"As early as the summer of 1882, however, Abraham Cahan, in the United States only a very short time, challenged the Russian-speakers by pointing out that the Jewish workers did not understand the propaganda that the intellectuals were disseminating. It was proposed, almost as a lark, that Cahan lecture in Yiddish; and relatively quickly this so-called folk vernacular became the primary medium of communication. For some time, however, the consensus continued to be that Yiddish was strictly an expedient in the conduct of socialist activitiy and not a value in itself."
Cahan was the progenitor of Yiddish language publishing and production in America.
Cahan is most famous for his journalism and his role in the production of the renowned The Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts). Soon after arriving in America Cahan wrote articles on socialism and science, and translating literary works for the pages of its Yiddish language paper, the “Arbeiter Zeitung” ("Workers' News") Cahan edited the Arbeiter Zeitung from 1891 to 1895, and followed that position with an editorship at the paper Di tsukunft through 1887. Following these editorships, Cahan was made a full-time reporter for the New York Commercial Advertiser and it was in this position as an apprentice of reporter Lincoln Steffens that Cahan learned incidental reporting and was groomed for his coming role in the foundation of the Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan founded the Forward with its first issue coming out in 1887, while he was still juggling several newspaper jobs. The intrigue and drama of the Kishinev pogrom, which the Forward covered extensively, prompted Cahan to take on the Forward full-time in the early 1900s. Cahan took absolute control of the paper in 1903 and ran it full-time until 1946. In his years working at the Forward Cahan transformed the self-identified socialist newspaper from an obscure paper with only six thousand readers to the forefront of Yiddish journalism. The Jewish Daily Forward became a symbol of American socialism and Jewish immigration, and assumed the role of an Americanizing agent instructing its readers in the social, economic, political, and cultural aspects of the United States. Cahan received criticism from fellow Jewish journalists because he didn’t limit the Forward to Jewish topics, but wrote on a variety of themes and was one of the more temperate voices in the Socialist Party of America, respecting his readers' religious beliefs and preaching an increasingly moderate version of the socialist gospel as time progressed.
Cahan not only distinguished himself through Yiddish literature, which mostly centered around socialist propaganda, but also through his English novels that dealt with the social historical process of immigrants becoming Americans. By 1896 Cahan had published his first short story, “A Providential Match”, and just a year later he published his first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. By 1901 Cahan had six of his stories published in a variety of popular magazines. Cahan’s most popular novel was The Rise of David Levinsky, which was semi-autobiographical, mirroring Cahan’s own experiences of immigration, describing a Jewish immigrant's process of Americanization and demonstrating the Jewish-socialist cultural establishments in New York.
Cahan’s health gradually decreased throughout his career; in 1913 he had surgery for an intestinal ulcer, and in 1946 he suffered a severe stroke. Cahan died of congestive heart failure on August 31, 1951, at the age of 91.
Cahan’s education of immigrants, work through the Jewish Daily Forward, and commitment to socialism influenced the Jewish immigrants in New York who came into contact with his work. Broader than even America, the journalistic work of Cahan and other American socialist newspapers provided crucial Yiddish socialist literature through the media that spread overseas, influencing the Russian workers Jewish movement."A Dream No Longer," New York Call, vol. 11, no. 129 (May 31, 1918), pg. 6.
The Rise of David Levinsky. Harper Torch Books (1917; 1945; 1960)
"The Education of Abraham Cahan." Translation of Bleter Fun Mein Leben, Volumes I and II by Leon Stein, Abraham Conan, and Lynn Davison. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969.
"Bleter Fun Mein Leben"