Abraham Cahan (1860-1951)
Contributing Editor: Daniel Walden
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students need to understand the following: (1) the Eastern European Jewish culture out of which Cahan came; (2) New York City as a fast-changing urban and technologized environment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; and (3) the nature of ethnicity in the context of the forces of Americanization.
To address these topics, I require I. Howe and E. Greenberg, Introduction to Treasury of Yiddish Stories (for the European culture), and Moses Rischin, The Promised City: New York's Jews 1880-1920, for the culture of New York City. For an introduction to Cahan as a realist, see Jules Chametzky, From the Ghetto and Sanford Marovitz, Abraham Cahan.
I also use the following films:
1. The Inheritance (a documentary made by Amalgamated, 1964).
2. The Distorted Image (a set of slides on stereotyping by B'nai Brith, Anti-Defamation League).
3. The Chosen (film of Chaim Potok's novel).
4. Hester Street (film of Cahan's novel, Yekl).
5. The Pawnbroker (film of Wallant's novel).
Students tend to identify with Cahan's attempts to find himself, a newcomer, a Jewish immigrant, in urban New York. They are surprised that this man, as an editor and novelist, was such a big influence in the 1900-40 era. They tend to ask about the Eastern European culture, what New York was really like in the 1910s, 1920s, and why and how people struggled for identity in the face of overt oppression, poverty, and discrimination.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Help students understand the parallel themes of ethnicity/identity and assimilation/Americanization. In Yekl, Cahan begins to address these themes; in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) he was able to develop character and relationships in the context of the turn-of-the-century culture.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Cahan was a realist who had mastered English. His style bore the impress of his Russian literary and cultural background, as well as having come out of an Eastern European Jewish culture.
It is necessary to prepare a word list or glossary of those few Yiddish words that are used. A contemporary American audience has to learn to tune in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian and Jewish cultures from which Cahan came.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The classic Russian authors, like Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev, should be mentioned and briefly explained. W. D. Howells and his circle were also an influence on Cahan. Lastly, Yiddish authors like Mendele and Sholom Aleichem should be referred to. All were influences on Cahan, who absorbed their work even as he reflected the culture of New York City in the 1890-1913 era.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Explain the religio-cultural ethos of nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewry.
(b) What was the literary culture of nineteenth-century Russia?
2. Abraham Cahan: Russian Jewish Realist.
Abraham Cahan: Yiddishist, Reformer, Novelist.
Abraham Cahan: Editor and Mediating Influence.
Abraham Cahan: American Democratic Pragmatic Socialist.
See works listed under "Classroom Issues and Strategies."