Review of Seth Lipsky’s “The Rise of Abraham Cahan”


Robert Parmet is Professor of History at York College of the City University of New York and author of The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement.

The Rise of Abraham Cahan
by Seth Lipsky
Schocken, 2013

Founded in 1897, the Jewish Daily Forward was a newspaper published in the Yiddish language when  in 1990 it added a weekly English version and hired Seth Lipsky as its editor. One of Lipsky’s predecessors was Abraham Cahan, the legendary founder and editor of the publication for half a century, and naturally, he was acutely aware of the significance of his new position.  

He discovered that reading Cahan’s writings helped reveal political positions with which he could readily relate, notably, staunch opposition to communism and support for the State of Israel.  In time, his interpretation of Cahan’s views became controversial as he was often accused of misrepresenting Cahan’s  opinions. In the process, Lipsky shifted the Forward politically from left to right.  In 2000, Lipsky moved on and revived an earlier newspaper The New York Sun as a conservative voice, which he edited for eight years.

Cahan first demonstrated an independent streak in his Czarist Russian homeland.  There he abandoned the Orthodox Judaism of his parents to become a “nonbeliever.”  Nevertheless, Lipsky notes, quoting Cahan’s friend and associate David Shub, he became a “warm Jew” who “preached tolerance for religious Jews.”  Long an ardent socialist, Cahan in time embraced capitalism, and as an anti-Zionist initially influenced in Russia by the General Jewish Labor Bund, he eventually became a friend of Israel.. 

Though his views changed over time, Cahan remained a fixture on the New York City scene.  He was in essence a newspaperman who built a journalistic beacon for the city’s Jewish immigrant community, which he attempted to Americanize.  In addition, he was a short story writer and novelist whose tale of an immigrant’s material success in the garment industry, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), became a classic that reflected his conscience as well as that of the community he addressed.  Lipsky generously quotes from this novel, as well as Cahan’s other works, including the novels Yekl: A Tale of the NewYork Ghetto, and The White Terror and the Red, short stories, an autobiography, andthe Forward’s human interest feature, A Bintel Brief.  The latter was a popular column that featured letters from readers who sought and received advice from the newspaper’s editor.

Eager to identify with Cahan as a fellow right-winger, Lipsky views him as heroic and insightful.  Without citing specific issues, he cites a “pattern” that Cahan discovered among “leftists.”  They were enthralled with “a fantasy of universal or populist liberation,” and “sided with their natural enemies in the hope of purging from their own group any particularistic taint.”  Cahan knew better than to stay with such people.  Lipsky says that his “later” positions became those held by Democrats who had also moved rightward.  He cites two recent examples of such individuals, AFL-CIO president George Meany and “labor organizer” Irving Brown.  Without explaining why, Lipsky notes that Meany was “shut out of the New York delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1972.” As for Brown, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan.  In other words, Democrats had in effect abandoned both men.  Nevertheless, Lipsky concedes that “Cahan was no Republican” and belongs “in the pantheon of America’s greatest newspaper editors.”  Aligning himself with Cahan, Lipsky suggests that he should perhaps be recognized as “the first neoconservative.”  These and similar observations give The Rise of Abraham Cahan a distinctly political orientation.

Cahan made several trips to Europe, and Lipsky’s accounts of them are especially interesting.  For example, in 1912 he visited France and met with Socialist leader Jean Jaurès through whom he was also able to visit Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the army officer who had been wrongfully convicted of treason because he was Jewish.  In 1925 he visited Palestine and returned with a positive view of Zionism.  Two years later he was in the Soviet Union, where he received first-hand accounts of government repression.

As Lipsky relates, David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was among those who eulogized Cahan when he died in August 1951.  In addition, he notes that Dubinsky credited Cahan with having helped defeat the communists during the 1920s when they fought with socialists for control of the ILGWU.  The author does not mention the tangible assistance that Dubinsky received from the Forward.  The newspaperdevoted its front page to a staunchly anti-communist “manifesto” and placed its “entire treasury at the disposal of the ILGWU.” Dubinsky also reported that Cahan’s “hardline” anti-communism in the 1920s was highly unpopular, causing the Forward, in Lipsky’s words, to experience“a plunge of circulation.”

Written for the general reader, with a distinct point of view, The Rise of Abraham Cahan is in essence an immigrant success story.  Strong-willed and combative, Cahan could not be ignored.  Whether he may indeed be regarded as a neoconservative is intriguing to contemplate.

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