Skip to content

Abraham Cahan A Ghetto Wedding Analysis Essay

Abraham Cahan

socialist newspaper editor and novelist

BornJuly 7, 1860
Podberezhie, Belarus
DiedAugust 31, 1951 (age 91)
New York City
Occupationnewspaper editor, writer
Alma materTeachers Institute of Vilnius

Abraham "Abe" Cahan (July 7, 1860 – August 31, 1951) was a Belarusian-born Jewish-American socialist newspaper editor, novelist, and politician.[1]


Early years[edit]

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.[2]


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.[3] By 1879, when Cahan was still a teenager, he had associated himself with the growing radical revolutionary movement in Russia.[4] After the Emperor Alexander II of Russia 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.[4] 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).[5] 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.[6]

Socialist leanings[edit]

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.[7] 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.[4] In 1887 Cahan formally joined the Socialist Labor Party,[8] which until the early 1900s was supported by very few intellectuals.[9] 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.[10]

Cahan in America[edit]

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.[11] 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.[12] Fellow journalist Hutchins Hapgood said that Cahan taught with simplicity and directness in his attempts to educate the “ignorant masses” into socialism,[13] 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."[14] 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."[14]

Cahan was the progenitor of Yiddish language publishing and production in America.[13]

Journalism career and the Jewish Daily Forward[edit]

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")[4] Cahan edited the Arbeiter Zeitung from 1891 to 1895, and followed that position with an editorship at the paper Di tsukunft through 1887.[15] 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.[16] Cahan founded the Forward with its first issue coming out in 1887, while he was still juggling several newspaper jobs.[17] 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.[18] 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.[17] Cahan received criticism from fellow Jewish journalists because he didn’t limit the Forward to Jewish topics, but wrote on a variety of themes [13] 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.[4]

Cahan as novelist[edit]

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.[17] 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 [12] and demonstrating the Jewish-socialist cultural establishments in New York.[19]

Death and legacy[edit]

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.[4]


  1. ^Sanford E. Marovitz, Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 1-5.
  2. ^Marovitz, Abraham Cahan, pp. 1-12.
  3. ^Jeffrey S. Gurock, American Jewish History: East European Jews in America, 1880-1920: Immigration and Adaption. New York: Routledge, 1998; pg. 60.
  4. ^ abcdefMarovitz, Abraham Cahan, pp. xvii-xix.
  5. ^Gurock, American Jewish History, pg. 83.
  6. ^Isakov Vladimir, "The Conspiracy Conception in the Radical Socialist Thought of Russia of the 1840s-1880s: Periodization and Typology." Social Sciences, vol. 38 (2007), pg. 35.
  7. ^Ehud Manor, Forward: The Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts) Newspaper: Immigrants, Socialism and Jewish Politics in New York, 1890-1917. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2009; pg. 28.
  8. ^William I. Gleberzon, "'Intellectuals and the American Socialist Party, 1901-1917," Canadian Journal of History, vol. 11 (1976), pg. 48.
  9. ^Stephen Wade, Jewish American Literature. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 42.
  10. ^Lori Jirousek-Falls, "Abraham Cahan and Jewish Immigrant Education: For Men and Women." Studies in American Jewish Literature 27 (2007), pg. 36.
  11. ^Jirousek-Falls, "Abraham Cahan and Jewish Immigrant Education: For Men and Women," pp. 38-40.
  12. ^ abWade, Jewish American Literature, 32.
  13. ^ abcMark Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993; pg. 105.
  14. ^ abGerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; pg. 74.
  15. ^Jirousek-Falls, "Abraham Cahan and Jewish Immigrant Education: For Men and Women," pg. 36.
  16. ^Yaavoc Goldstein, Jewish Socialists in the United States (Portland: Academic Press, 1998), 73-75.
  17. ^ abcManor, Forward, pg. 38.
  18. ^Manor, Forward, pg. 37.
  19. ^Tony Michaels, "Exporting Yiddish Socialism: New York's Role in the Russian Jewish Workers' Movement," Jewish Social Studies, vol. 16 (2009), pg. 4.


  • "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"
  • "The Imported Bridegroom, and other stories of the New York ghetto", 1898, Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin and company.
  • "Yekl. A Tale of the New York Ghetto". New York D. Appleton and Company 1896.

Further reading[edit]

  • Melech Epstein, Profiles of Eleven. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1965.
  • Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt, 1989.
  • Seth Lipsky, "The Rise of Abraham Cahan." New York, NY: Nextbook/Schocken, 2013.
  • Ernest Poole, "Abraham Cahan: Socialist — Journalist — Friend of the Ghetto,"The Outlook, Oct. 28, 1911.
  • Ronald Sanders, The Lower East Side Jews: An Immigrant Generation. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1987.
  • Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
  • French Strother, "Abraham Cahan, A Leader of the Jews,"The World's Work26, pp. 470–474.
  • Leon Wexelstein, "Abraham Cahan,"The American Mercury9, No. 33 (Sept. 1926), pp. 88–94.

External links[edit]

Abraham Cahan in his later years.

Abraham Cahan 1860-1951

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Sotius and David Bernstein) Lithuanian-born American novelist.

Through his accomplishments as a newspaper editor and journalist, Cahan became a highly influential figure in early twentieth-century Jewish-American letters. His innovative editorship of the Jewish Daily Forward made it a major cultural force in the Yiddish-speaking American community. Writing in both English and Yiddish, Cahan also produced novels and short stories that were among the first to realistically depict the experiences of his fellow Russian Jewish immigrants in the United States.

Biographical Information

Cahan was raised in the lower-class Yiddish-speaking Jewish subculture of Vilna, Lithuania. As a young student, he taught himself Russian in order to gain access to the Gentile-dominated public schools and library in Vilna. He attended college, preparing for a career as a teacher, but involvement in a radical socialist group at the time of the unsuccessful 1881 revolution made it dangerous for him to remain in Russia, so he emigrated to the United States in 1882. He took up residence in a poverty-plagued, overcrowded section of New York City's Lower East Side that was populated predominantly by Jewish immigrants. While working in a cigar factory Cahan experienced firsthand the deprivations and exploitation suffered by many immigrant workers. Cahan became a successful union organizer and prolabor orator. He also learned his trade as a journalist, serving as a correspondent for Russian newspapers and contributing to both Yiddish and English-language American publications, notably under editor Lincoln Steffens at the New York Commercial Advertiser. His work as a reporter brought him into daily contact with people of all classes in the Jewish and Gentile communities, and in his articles Cahan demonstrated skill as a canny social observer. Adapting the market-driven editorial strategies of mainstream American newspapers to the needs of America's new Jewish immigrants, Cahan built the Jewish Daily Forward, which he cofounded in 1897, into the most widely read Yiddish-language daily newspaper of its era. The Forward, which he edited until just before his death in 1951, championed socialist and progressive political causes, provided its readers with a forum for expressing their views and learning about American culture, and served as a showcase for fiction in Yiddish by such authors as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. While engaged in his groundbreaking work as a journalist and social activist, Cahan also produced a number of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books in Yiddish and English, most of which expanded on themes of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience.

Major Works

Cahan's first published short story, "Motke Arbel un zayn shiddokh" (1892; "A Providential Match"), introduced the topic that would typify his fiction: the struggles of Russian Jews to assimilate into American culture, and the moral, social, and psychological effects of this cultural change. The story's protagonist, a poor peasant who has made his fortune in America, sends for the daughter of his former employer in Russia, intending to marry her; however, his intended bride takes advantage of her newfound American freedom to choose her own mate. With the enthusiastic encouragement of one of his mentors, the novelist and critic William Dean Howells, Cahan expanded on this theme in his novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), about an ambitious young immigrant who rejects his devoted Orthodox Jewish wife for a flashier, more Americanized young woman. In such stories as "The Imported Bridegroom" and "Rabbi Eliezer's Christmas," Cahan further explored this theme of the clash of cultures experienced by new Americans. The novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Cahan's most highly regarded work of fiction, evolved from a series of magazine articles he was commissioned to write about Jewish-American entrepreneurs. Cahan chose to tell this story as the personal history of one fictional representative of this type of man, an impoverished Russian yeshiva student who becomes a millionaire in America, but in the process loses his religious values, his respect for himself and his fellow human beings, and his ability to love.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Cahan's work as a newspaper editor and journalist overshadowed his career as a creative writer. Reviewers, tending to view him primarily as a reporter rather than literary artist, praised his novels and short stories for their accurate depiction of social conditions while downgrading their stylistic merits. With the emergence of interest in ethnic literature in the decades following Cahan's death, scholars have favorably reevaluated his fiction, particularly The Rise of David Levinsky. Critics have compared his experiments in social realism to those of his contemporaries Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, and have observed that his frank, unromanticized treatment of the Jewish- American experience prefigured the work of later writers, including Irving Howe, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.