Abraham Cahan, the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, would have been 150 years old today. He was born in 1860 in Lithuania and died in 1951 in New York, having lived one of the most astonishing newspaper lives of all time—and one that emerges, looking back, as an emblematic transition, even for those of us engaged in the Jewish struggle today. Following is an imagined interview with him, a look at what he might have said had he lived until today:
Was it hard to return to Orthodox Judaism after all those years in which you called yourself a “freethinker”?
Well, don’t forget I was educated Jewishly, thank God, and I’ve never had trouble admitting I was wrong. Thank God for that, too, and that may be because I made so many mistakes. Thank God for all of them.
Was it a mistake going underground against the czar?
No, I don’t think so, though it was a mistake going against Judaism—or at least abandoning it for freethinking. It would have been better to have fought the czar and defended Judaism.
Who made you realize that?
Levinsky. David Levinsky. He was a fictional character, of course, my own creation. But it’s no coincidence that at the start of the novel and the end of it, Levinsky notes that all his worldly success meant nothing to him and he was still, in his innermost being, the same Yeshiva boy who had swayed over his prayers. I wrote that at the peak of my career, and it was the most important thing I ever wrote, and it just came out of me. And I began rethinking my whole life at that time.
When was that?
Well, I started writing The Rise of David Levinsky in 1912 for McClure’s. I’m not sure the magazine understood what it was getting in to. I finished it in 1917, and we brought it out just before the Bolshevik Revolution. I was 57 at the time. There were a lot of friends, including that young fellow Mencken, who wanted me to give up newspaper work and spend the last third of my life writing fiction. I rather liked Mencken, by the way, despite his attacks on the Jews; we used to lunch once in a while at the Algonquin, and I helped him with his Yiddish monograph. He later wrote of his disappointment that I couldn’t give up the “razzle dazzle” of the newspaper life.
Was that it, the razzle dazzle?
Well, there were serious matters. And not just World War I, which was one of our mistakes, and a serious one—the pacifism was a serious mistake, but not as bad a mistake as the cynicism about America and America’s motives. The fact is that even as we all came to America we underestimated her.
Someone once made a remark about the little speech in David Levinsky about how, for all the exploitation of Jewish garment workers by the bosses, the Americans were the best-dressed people in the world. The remark was that it signaled your understanding that maybe the labor unions themselves were too cynical.
While I was writing that chapter, the garment workers were outside the Forward building throwing stones at my office. That’s because I’d urged a settlement in the strike. It was a bitter time. I began to rethink a lot of things then.
What was your error?
Arrogance. A lack of vision. I came to understand only later that no socialist, not one of them, could compete with Herzl in that department. He was just way ahead of us. And the people were with him.
Meyer London taught you that?
He was the first socialist ever elected to Congress, and he lost his seat over it because the voters, the workers, right here in the Lower East Side, the workers who had just elected a Socialist, they understood what it would mean to have a Jewish state. He was asked about the Balfour Declaration. He said: “Let us stop pretending about the Jewish past and let us stop making fools of ourselves about the Jewish future.” He promptly lost his seat. Looking back, we can see it was a kind of socialist arrogance. His own workers were ahead of him.
Can that be said of about your movement vis-à-vis the communists?
No, I think we adjusted to the facts sooner than most anyone. I declared my position in 1923 when I got back from the Soviet Union and said: “Russia has at present less freedom than it had in the earliest days of Romanov rule. … The world has never yet seen such a despotism.” It would have been impossible, illogical for me to go back to a literary career at that point. It was essential that we defeat the communists here, and that was what I gave it all up for. In the fight against the Soviet, we were not followers but we were in the lead. I gave up a lot for that fight. I think Mencken understood that better than most, believe it or not. I am like the son who gave up a literary life for business—only on my business everything depended, and I have sorrows, but no regrets.
You failed to lead on Zionism.
I met my match in Jabotinsky. It was an important error in my life, my denunciation of him after his speech at the Manhattan Opera House. That was 1940. He called then for the urgent evacuation of the Jews from Europe to Eretz Israel, and I turned around and belittled him in the pages of the Forward. I gave a whole page to it, and that’s when I wrote, “Six million is a pretty small state.” I was derisive, and I was wrong.
When did you realize that?
Immediately, and when Jabotinsky died a few weeks later—he lay down from fatigue at a right-wing camp in upstate New York where he was training young Jews to defend themselves, and his heart gave out as he was lying down—it was a terrible blow for all Jews. I was furious at the staff of the Forward, which refused to cover his funeral. So, I wrote the editorial that has been quoted ever since, saying that his death was, coming as it did at such a grim time for the Jewish people, “in the true sense of the word, a national catastrophe.” I predicted that he would be missed not only then, in the middle of the storm, but later, “when the storm is over and the time comes to heal the wounds and rebuild Jewish life on new foundations in a new time.”
New foundations—or old ones.
Hah! Alt-neu-foundations. How’s that?
Is that when you began to re-think religion?
Well, I’d been re-thinking it for a long time, as the beginning and end of The Rise of David Levinsky makes clear. It never left me. It was gnawing at me the whole time. But freethinking is a kind of addiction of its own. What started the dam to break was Sholem Asch. He came in and plopped his novel about Jesus on my desk, and it just came out. He was suggesting that Jews treat Jesus the way Christians view Jesus, and I threw him out. I told him to burn the novel. And when he resisted, I banned him from the Forward. And I wrote a whole book attacking him, and in that book I insisted that I wasn’t religious. And then the illogic of my position began to eat at me, and that is how it happened, and I worked my way back to the Torah and to Talmud and I made peace with the boy in the yeshiva, and I consider it my greatest achievement.
Did it destroy all that came before in your life?
[After a pause.] I would have to say it validates it. Remember that as Levinsky stood at the rail of the ship as it prepared to deposit him on American soil, he said a prayer, and it was that God would not hide his face from him in the new land. It was a promise as much as a prayer, and I tend to see my return to religion as a redemption of that promise.
This is an imaginary interview. So, what are we to make of it?
Read the record. It will show you where I was going. My great deputy at the Forward, David Shub, wrote long after I had passed away that what I lived for above all else was Russian literature, and it is true. It was my greatest love. But literature itself is something that can’t be proved and is a matter of faith and speculation. It doesn’t make it wrong.
Seth Lipsky is the founding editor of the English-language Forward. He is writing a biography of Abraham Cahan for Nextbook Press.