It took me almost two months to read this very well-researched, dense, but intriguing book by historian Ronald Sanders, digesting (well, trying to) a chapter or half a chapter at a time. It is a very interesting book, at times evoking a world so unfamiliar, yet so fabled. It soars — for me, at least — when it describes literature, stories. It bogs down — again, for me — when discussing the nuanced, seemingly hair-splitting battles between socialists and communists of a very bygone era.
The title is a misnomer. This is no collective biography, no “portraits of an immigrant generation.” It gives only the most general depiction of “the downtown Jews” in the sense of the teeming huddled masses. Rather, it focuses generally on the political culture of the Lower East Side around the turn of the century and more specifically on the thoughts, life, and writings of Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.
Many thoughts occurred to me during the reading of this book. First was the mobility of this generation. I am used to thinking of the Eastern European immigrants as having renounced all, come to America, and turned their back on the Old World. That’s apparently what my great-grandparents did when they arrived here, my maternal great-grandfather first in the 1860s, and the rest by the turn of the century. But Cahan and his peer group had perhaps a bit more money, and maybe a bit more motivation. In any case, it was rather fascinating to read of Lower East Side Jews attending conferences in Europe, traveling as freely as Henry James. Like modern-day immigrants, and unlike the “teeming masses,” many of these intellectual revolutionaries did not turn their backs on their past, but looked to Europe and the broken colonies of their revolutionist confreres for inspiration and guidance.
Another aspect of this mobility specifically involves Cahan, who moved from his little world in the Lower East Side to “uptown.” During one of the countless squabbles among socialists, anarchists, and communists — faithfully and carefully delineated by Sanders — Cahan leaves the early incarnation of the Forward to work for the Commercial Advertiser, a peculiarly named newspaper — and a particularly odd destination for a passionate socialist — run by Henry Wright, and featuring such staffers as Jacob Riis, Hutchins Hapgood, and Lincoln Steffens. Here, Cahan learns how to write for a mainstream newspaper, and the difference between “Yiddish” and “Yankee” journalism couldn’t be greater. Cahan and his counterparts in the Yiddish press wrote from their hearts, utterly subjectively; there was no attempt to present just the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In fact, Sanders relates how Wright tried to send Cahan to cover a Republican rally as an early freelance assignment; Cahan turns him down, explaining he is a socialist. But in time, he learned American journalism and then commuted back downtown ( he lived in the upper West Side) to create an apparently winning combination of Yankee-Yiddish press traditions that culminated in a readership exceeding a quarter of a million in 1924 — “as great,” notes Sanders, “as that of any other newspaper in America.”
I was also struck by the relationship of these Jewish intellectuals — Cahan and his circle of political thinkers — to Judaism. Most rejected it outright, some embraced it later on, some — like Cahan — relaxed into it in later life. Their religion to them stood in the way of assimilation. But their desired assimilation was not with America, which many of the group held in outright contempt. Rather, they considered themselves socialists or communists, and felt more of a kinship with their political fellow travelers than with their co-religionists. This sentiment changed somewhat with the increase in pograms. There is also the identification of German versus Eastern European Jews. The German Jews arrived first, stolid burghers practicing Reform Judaism and easily adapting to American capitalism, moving swiftly from peddlers to shopkeepers to department store owners. The Eastern European Jews came to escape foremost and to embrace only later. Those of Cahan’s wave of immigrants were relatively well educated; the later arrivals would be far humbler — the farmers, the laborers. But like all immigrants unfamiliar with the new land’s language and mores, even those with advanced degrees have to start with manual labor.
Cahan seems very canny, astute, and empathetic. He unfortunately appears to have also been petty, highly opinionated, and somewhat megalomaniacal. These latter traits are displayed in his numerous feuds with rival Yiddish journalists, actors, and other downtown noteworthies. To his credit, Sanders pulls no punches, but he also refrains from judgment. Excellent practices — and all too rare — for a biographer. His balanced, careful, scholarly tone is sometimes off putting, and occasionally couched in awkward and repetitious syntax.
Around the time I was reading this, the Post’s Book World reviewed a book called The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia, tracing the notorious rise of Giuseppe Morello. Morello lived in the Lower East Side fairly contemporaneously with Cahan. What I found fascinating was that both Morello and the Jewish intellectual refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe were engaged in similar activities: organizing among their compatriots. The difference, and it is quite a difference, is that Morello was organizing protection rackets, exploiting his fellow Sicilians. Cahan and his peers were organizing unions to protect and defend the working man (and woman) against the capitalists.