Early Jewish Novelist Abraham Cahan, and His Alter Ego — David Levinsky
The conventional reading of “The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)” — encouraged even by author Abraham Cahan — is that it’s an ironic “rags to riches” tale of great wealth accumulated at the price of spiritual bankruptcy.
The book is said to be about how secular materialist America corrupted a pious Jewish boy, whose alienation from religion began when — as a “green horn” immigrant in New York — he shed his beard and sidelocks. He ends up a forlorn bachelor, worth $2 million, but lamenting “the tragedy of my success.” Clothing American women for less than his competitors, he scanted ethics in doing it.
In dissecting “David Levinsky’s Fall” in 1965, David Singer offered a different interpretation of the novel that brings to mind the old adage: “believe the book, not the author.”
Secularism — often equated by Jews in Russia with “Americanism” — embedded itself in David’s Levinsky’s soul while still in Lithuania, as his hunger grew for “violent change … piquant sensation.”
What Walter Lippmann called “the acids of modernity” were at work in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, where heterodox ideas, including socialism and then Bundism and Zionism, eroded traditional orthodoxies. Cahan’s novel is described as “semi-autobiographical,” but uses fictional plot devices — such as David’s mother murdered in a pogrom — for melodramatic effect.
Abraham Cahan’s real life was dramatic enough. The son of a Hebrew teacher and tavern keeper, Cahan was born in 1860 in a shtetl before his family moved to Vilna. His Hebrew education was disrupted by his passion for Russian language and literature. He also supported the Narodnaya Volya terrorist underground. The pogroms blaming the Jews for the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 precipitated the first mass emigration of Russian Jews to the US. Russian radicals, who taught Cahan that “he was a human being not a Jew,” shocked him by endorsing antisemitic riots as revolutionary acts.
Disguised as a Hasid, Cahan fled Russia one step ahead of the czarist secret police, arriving in the US in 1882 with literally no money. He was still essentially a Russian socialist. But he quickly concluded that the only way to reach “the Jewish masses” was through Yiddish, his childhood language, at the same time that he mastered English. He rose from factory work and tutoring immigrants in English, to Yiddish journalism, culminating in the launching in 1897 of the Forvertz (Forward) newspaper. He interpreted Jewish ghetto life to the American reading public through journalism and fiction, and wrote for New York’s Commercial Advertiser, where he introduced muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens to the Lower East Side. He consistently championed the union movement, and encouraged immigrants to assimilate, while courting East Side Jews by answering empathetically readers’ letters in the Bintel Brief.
Cahan largely abandoned religion — but not the Jewish people, whom he embraced in the US as he never had in Russia. At the end of his long life (he died in 1951), Cahan — who was called America’s “most important Jewish anticommunist” — loved Marx less than he hated Stalin. The Forvertz peaked at a circulation of 250,000.
Never a Zionist, Cahan welcomed the creation of the State of Israel. He crossed swords many times with the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, denouncing him one last time before Jabotinsky died in 1940. But then he wrote an apologetic editorial. Horrified by the rise of Hitler, Cahan did what he could to report the unfolding Holocaust to America and the world.
Historian Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans(Africa World Press, 2015).