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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Abraham Cahan (c. 1860-1951)

[3046] Lewis Hine, Old Jewish Couple, Lower East Side (1910), courtesy of the George Eastman House.

As a journalist and fiction writer, Abraham Cahan explored the social, cultural, and spiritual tensions of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in New York. His sensitive treatment of the dual identities of Jewishness and Americanism, and of issues of accommodation and acculturation, made him an influential spokesperson for his community.

Born into an educated, Orthodox Jewish family in a small village near Vilna, Russia, Cahan trained to become a teacher. By the time he graduated from the Vilna Teachers’ Institute in 1881, he had embraced the socialist cause and had become involved in radical intellectual circles. Because of these connections, he came under suspicion for anti-Czarist activities and was forced to flee Russia for the United States. Upon arrival in America, Cahan settled in New York’s Lower East Side, at that time a neighborhood inhabited mainly by immigrants, including a large population of Eastern European Jews. He soon became a leading figure in the community, lecturing on socialism, organizing labor unions, teaching English to other immigrants, and writing stories and newspaper articles in Russian, English, and Yiddish.

Cahan’s writing career was varied and long. He served as co-editor of the first Yiddish-language socialist weekly paper, the Neie Tzeit, and by 1890 edited the Arbeiter Zeitung, the newspaper of the United Hebrew Trades. In 1897 Cahan helped to found the influential and widely distributed Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward and served as its editor for almost fifty years. In the Forward, Cahan pioneered the use of conversational, Americanized Yiddish that could be easily understood by his immigrant readers. He also introduced the popular Bintl Briv column. An early, Yiddish, “Dear Abby”-style advice column, the Bintl Briv (or “Bundle of Letters”) printed questions from readers and offered authoritative advice on romantic, family, and social issues.

Cahan paralleled his career as a journalist with a distinguished career as a creative writer of short stories and novels, both in Yiddish and in English. In 1895, one of Cahan’s Yiddish stories was translated and published in Short Stories, where it attracted the attention of the prominent literary critic and realist writer William Dean Howells. Impressed by the story, Howells encouraged Cahan to write a longer work focusing on the Jewish immigrant experience in New York. The result, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, appeared in 1896 to great acclaim. In a front-page review of the novella for the New York World, Howells proclaimed Cahan “a new star of realism.” After Yekl Cahan found himself an established part of the New York literary scene. In the decade that followed, he published a series of short stories and novels dealing primarily with the social realities of the Jewish immigrant experience. His career as a creative writer culminated with his masterpiece, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The story of a poor Jewish immigrant who rises to become a wealthy garment producer, the novel details the costs and conflicts of pursuing material success and assimilating into American capitalist society.

In 1946, Cahan suffered a stroke that slowed his writing career and led him to give up the day-to-day management of the Daily Forward. When he died, he was recognized as both an influential leader of the Jewish American community and the foremost chronicler of the Jewish immigrant experience. His ability to mediate between cultures and to articulate the struggles and successes of Jewish Americans left an enduring legacy that has shaped the work of a long line of important twentieth-century Jewish American writers.

Teaching Tips

  • Cahan’s Bintl Briv advice column was enormously popular with his immigrant readers. As he stated in his memoirs, “People often need the opportunity to be able to pour out their heavy-laden hearts. Among our immigrant masses this need was very marked. Hundreds of thousands of people, torn from their homes and their dear ones, were lonely souls who thirsted for expression, who wanted to hear an opinion, who wanted advice in solving their weighty problems.” Have your students consider what kinds of problems the advice-seekers would probably have shared with the editor. How would their problems be specific to their position as Jewish immigrants? How would their concerns compare to those expressed in such contemporary advice columns as Dear Abby? Ask students to imagine that they are newly arrived immigrants in the United States. Have them compose their own Bintl Briv letters and/or answers. (A selection of Bintl Briv letters can be found in Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology.)
  • Ask your class to analyze the title of “A Sweat-Shop Romance.” Why might Cahan have given the story this title? To what contradictory immigrant experiences does the title allude? What kinds of connotations do the words “sweat-shop” and “romance” have? Does a sweatshop seem a likely place for romance? As they try to define the term “sweatshop,” students could look at the pictures of Lower East Side dwellings and workplaces featured in the archive and read carefully Cahan’s description of Lipman’s “cockroach” shop.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does Beile refuse to obey Zlate’s command to run an errand for her? Do you think her reasons have more to do with her reluctance to waste time and thus lose money or with her anger at being treated like a servant? Comprehension: Lipman’s factory is described as a “task shop.” What is a task shop? How are the workers paid? What distinctions exist among the machine-operator, the baster, the finisher, and the presser?
  2. Comprehension: Lipman’s factory is described as a “task shop.” What is a task shop? How are the workers paid? What distinctions exist among the machine-operator, the baster, the finisher, and the presser?
  3. Context: In both Anzia Yezierska’s “The Lost ‘Beautifulness’ ” and Cahan’s “A Sweat-Shop Romance,” the main characters are treated unfairly by fellow Jewish immigrants (the greedy landlord Mr. Rosenblatt in Yezierska’s story, and the overbearing Zlate in Cahan’s). What social and economic differences divide the Lower East Side Jewish community in these stories? How does wealth– and the adoption of American capitalist values–seem to affect the immigrants depicted in these stories?
  4. Exploration: Cahan later expressed doubt about the romantic, happy ending of the story–in his memoirs he wondered, “How on earth did it pop into my head?” Do you think the story’s romantic resolution troubles its status as a piece of realist writing?

Selected Archive Items

[3046] Lewis Hine, Old Jewish Couple, Lower East Side (1910),
courtesy of the George Eastman House.
Upon arrival in the United States, Eastern European Jewish immigrants were faced with difficult questions: which aspects of their ethnic identity should they preserve, which reshape? Abraham Cahan addressed these and other topics in his Bintle Briv column.

[5023] Detroit Publishing Company, Mulberry Street, New York City (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-1584].
New York City received huge numbers of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. In the bustling streets of the Lower East Side, Old World met New in a population that ranged from Eastern European and Russian Jews to Irish Catholics.
[5124] T. De Thulstrup, Home of the Poor (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75197].
This illustration shows an interior view of a crowded New York City tenement. The living conditions of the city’s poor at the turn of the twentieth century eventually sparked a wave of social reform.

[7034] Anonymous, Peddlers–New York’s “Little Jerusalem” (between 1908 and 1916),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-95683].
New York’s densely populated Lower East Side was home to innumerable vendors, as well as great poverty. Its largest ethnic community was Jews from Eastern Europe.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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