Guest Review by Lucette Lagnado
Lucette Lagnado is the author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years.
Seth Lipsky has written a vivid and engaging biography of Abraham Cahan, the journalist and social activist, and the hero and icon to legions of Jewish immigrants who treated the Forward, the Yiddish-language daily newspaper he led for several decades, almost as their bible. Under Cahan, the Forward became the largest and most powerful Jewish newspaper in the world, so this is at one level a fascinating journalistic story about the influence one paper can wield, at a time when newspapers are increasingly looked upon as ineffective and bound for extinction. In Lipsky’s hands, the story of Cahan—an immigrant from Russia who arrives here, true to immigrant lore, with nothing, and works his way up to a position of extraordinary power and prestige—becomes a way to recount the sweep of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Jewish history in all its drama, heartbreak, promise, and disillusionment. Cahan’s journey takes us from the small Russian villages where faith is central and life is precarious, to the revolt against the Czars and the longing for revolution, to the pogroms and anti-Semitic outbursts that make it clear that neither the old Russia nor the new Soviet Union has room for Jews. Cahan’s true greatness emerges as he and his paper serve as beacons to the waves of Eastern European immigrants to the U.S., many of whom land on the Lower East Side, steps away from the Forward’s headquarters. There begins “the seduction of America.” Cahan urged the readers of the Forward to master English and embrace American ways; he pushed them to integrate and assimilate and merge and blend, if need be by ruthlessly casting aside their past. His entreaties worked, perhaps too well. His immigrant readers worked hard and reveled in their new land, becoming active in labor unions and fighting for the freedoms and opportunities denied to them in the Old World. It is perhaps too late when Cahan recognizes that he has accomplished his mission beyond his wildest imaginings—generations of Jewish immigrants have come into their own, reinventing themselves as Americans.
But the price of Americanization turns out to be steep—steeper than even Cahan had anticipated. In casting aside their roots, their language, their religious convictions, their familial bonds, and their most sacred and precious traditions, some of these immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren, lost their identity and perhaps even their soul.
At a time when America confronts a new immigration crisis and debates what to do with newcomers, including whether to force them to learn English or even whether to let them in; during a period when appalling sweatshop conditions that produce the clothes we wear (no longer on the Lower East Side but now in Asia) dominate the headlines, Lipsky’s work has much to teach us about these old dilemmas, which suddenly seem new and critical again.
A lively, absorbing, and important work.
—Jewish Review of Books
“In The Rise of Abraham Cahan Lipsky has produced a vivid biography of a great journalist and socialist reformer.”
—Sam Roberts, “Bookshelf,” The New York Times
“At a time when too many biographers chronicle their subjects’ lives in excessive detail . . . it’s a pleasure to read Seth Lipsky’s brisk, cogent book. It provides a welcome opportunity for a new generation to discover this titanic figure in twentieth-century journalism. . . . Lipsky, himself a longtime newspaperman, is at his best recreating the vibrant panache with which Cahan and the Forward spoke to and for the immigrants flooding into America during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.”
—The Daily Beast
“Lipsky carefully charts Cahan’s influence [in] establishing the Forward as a vital source of breaking international news and providing Jewish immigrants with ‘a sympathetic, seasoned voice, an enlightened cousin who had been in America just that much longer and could serve as a guide to the country’s strange ways.’”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Not only a biography but also a vivid snapshot of a particularly robust period in the history of American journalism.”
—The New York Observer
“All readers interested in the fate of Eastern European Jewish life in 20th-century America owe a significant debt to Lipsky for his intelligent and nuanced portrait of Abraham Cahan. . . . Powerful.”
“Lipsky does justice to Cahan’s forcefully articulated, and frequently shifting, views. . . . Engaging.”
“A fluent intellectual and political biography.”
“An indispensible book: a wonderfully intelligent reckoning with a wonderfully intelligent man. Lipsky, a great newspaperman himself, brings Cahan vividly alive, not only as a witness to the spectacularly rich, dramatic, and consequential history of the first half of the twentieth century but also as a defining actor in that history. Lipsky’s portrait of the mighty Yiddish editor—at once admiring and critical—is lit by the fiery political and cultural debates that blazed in the pages he published, as the Jewish experience was reshaped by and did so much to reshape the modern world.”
—Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
“An extraordinary book about an extraordinary man. Cahan is a pivotal figure in both Jewish history and the history of American journalism, and Lipsky has done a superlative job of capturing his magnetism, his complexity, and his contradictions. Reading this book made me wish I could transport myself back in time, to the pressrooms and tenements and thunderous political rallies of the Lower East Side a hundred years ago. Lipsky has a Doctorow-like ability to bring to life the tumult, joy, and tragedy of life in the big city. He is also the best person alive to write the definite biography of Cahan because he is widely understood to be Cahan’s worthiest successor.”
—Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror
“Lipsky on Cahan—this is the book we have been waiting for! It took the boldest newspaperman of our time to nail the story of the boldest newspaperman of his time—the legendary Yiddish editor and English writer who successfully brokered the shidduch between Jews and America. Cahan’s readiness to dig out the truth behind ideological and political facades may be Lipsky’s bracing model for today’s media and for what we, their audience, deserve.”
—Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature, Harvard University
“Don’t believe that there was a time not long ago when a socialist daily newspaper in New York City—published in Yiddish!—commanded the attention not only of millions of Jewish immigrants but also of presidents and foreign leaders? Read this magical book. It will transport you back to some of the most tumultuous decades the world has ever known, as seen through the life of a fearless newspaperman whose paper didn’t simply cover events; it changed the course of them.”
—Jonathan Mahler, author Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning
“A riveting account of Cahan’s life and times. Cahan was as complex as he was courageous—Jewish immigrant, social democrat, labor organizer, anti-communist, our earliest neoconservative. Seth Lipsky is another fearless and brilliant newsman, and no one could have told Cahan’s story better. This is a book to savor and remember.”
—Peter Kann, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and former publisher of The Wall Street Journal
“Cahan was at the forefront of the postwar battle against communist subversion of the labor movement and powerfully helped to save Europe from the tyrannies of Stalinism, though he had arrived in America as a revolutionary socialist on the run from the Tsarist secret police. Lipsky has given his story pulsating life.”
—Sir Harold Evans, editor at large, Reuters, and author of The American Century