1: Illustrated biographical sketch, Samuel Cahan's "Incidents in the Life of Abraham Cahan," June 11, 1922.
Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), the author of Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, was born in a shtetl in an area that is now Belarus but was then the Russian Empire. He received a traditional Jewish education and later matriculated at a Russian government-authorized Jewish school designed to Russify Jewish youth. In his youth, he became involved with underground revolutionary activities. In 1882, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, he fled Russia for the United States. In America, Cahan became involved with politically activated Jews, and played a leading role in anarchist and labor groups.
Cahan began his writing career with a Russian journal in New York, and then, shortly after learning English, with such outlets such as the New York Sun and the New York Press. Cahan went on to publish several novels and short stories in English which garnered him much attention as a realist writer of “ghetto fiction,” representing the tough realities of immigrant life in New York. In the Jewish world, however, Cahan was most famous as the editor-in-chief of the large and influential Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), which he helped to found in 1897 and edited from 1903 until his death in 1951.
In the English-language press, Cahan enjoyed a reputation as a representative of Jewish immigrants to the United States. This illustration from a 1922 profile of Cahan in the San Francisco Chronicle provides some biographical information on Cahan while revealing his status as a colorful figure who had earned respect from the English-reading public.
Suggested Activity: Have your students study the illustration and discuss: how is Cahan represented in the sketch of his arrival in New York City (top left), and how does he look different after ten years (top right)? What might the artist be implying when he writes that Cahan, "Discovered America ten years after his arrival in New York"?
How do Cahan's transformation, and the vision of America ("The Land of Realities") as seen in the top right, compare to Yekl’s? (Note that the title of the article in which this image appears is, "One Man's Progress from Realism to Realities: Remarkable Recital of How Abraham Cahan Discovered America Ten years After Disembarking in New York," seemingly making reference to Cahan's evolution from being a proponent of literary realism to actually confronting realities upon settling in New York and seeking to improve the lot of the people there.)
The artist says that Cahan's message to his Jewish readers is, "Become Americans." What do you make of this? Was this the message of Yekl?
Source: Samuel Cahan, "Incidents in the Life of Abraham Cahan," illustration for Charles W. Wood, “One Man’s Progress from Realism to Realities: Remarkable Recital of How Abraham Cahan Discovered America Ten Years After Disembarking in New York,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 11, 1922).