Amaz­ing Abe: How Abra­ham Cahan’s News­pa­per Gave a Voice to Jew­ish Immigrants

  • Review
By – July 1, 2024

Immi­gra­tion is an impor­tant sub­ject in children’s books. In Amaz­ing Abe, Nor­man H. Finkel­stein (1941 – 2024) and Ves­per Stam­per offer a new per­spec­tive on this part of Jew­ish his­to­ry. In found­ing and edit­ing Forverts (The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward), Abra­ham Cahan took on the task of inform­ing, enter­tain­ing, and advo­cat­ing for the Yid­dish-speak­ing immi­grants of his adopt­ed coun­try. For many decades, Cahan’s news­pa­per was at the cen­ter of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca. The book’s con­ver­sa­tion­al tone and detailed images make it acces­si­ble to young read­ers liv­ing in a world of van­ish­ing print media.

Born in the mul­ti­lin­gual Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the Russ­ian Empire, the young Cahan stud­ied Hebrew in his reli­gious edu­ca­tion and Russ­ian in his sec­u­lar one. But the lan­guage he dreamed in was Yid­dish,” Finkel­stein points out, set­ting the stage for the pub­li­ca­tion that would become the voice of America’s Jews. Stam­per depicts the neat­ly dressed stu­dent with payos, his elbows rest­ing on a Hebrew text as he turns his head to look out the win­dow. As he grows into a slim young man with glass­es who brave­ly stands up to the Czar’s sol­diers, he is still iden­ti­fi­able as that child.

When Abe immi­grat­ed to Eng­land and then the Unit­ed States, his life improved but was still dif­fi­cult. Yet he wasn’t eas­i­ly dis­cour­aged — not even when he attend­ed pub­lic school at the age of twen­ty-two in order to learn Eng­lish. His expe­ri­ence with gru­el­ing fac­to­ry labor dur­ing the day rein­forced his com­mit­ment to labor rights, and his atten­dance at night school opened doors for him in the world of jour­nal­ism. A com­bi­na­tion of chal­lenges, per­sis­tence, and oppor­tu­ni­ty unit­ed to con­vert an ordi­nary work­er into a hero­ic fig­ure. Finkel­stein empha­sizes Cahan’s abil­i­ty to respond to chang­ing demands. He both exhort­ed work­ers to sup­port unions and real­ized that they need­ed to under­stand the rules of base­ball in order to par­tic­i­pate in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. After receiv­ing innu­mer­able let­ters from read­ers detail­ing their trou­bles, he ini­ti­at­ed the Bin­tel Brief (Bun­dle of Let­ters) advice col­umn, offer­ing solu­tions to their social, polit­i­cal, and finan­cial prob­lems. Finkel­stein con­veys the mes­sage that immi­grants need help, and mak­ing infor­ma­tion avail­able to them is essential.

Toward the end of the book, a white-haired Cahan wears a pin­striped suit and looks up at the impos­ing Forverts build­ing in low­er Man­hat­tan. Finkelstein’s flu­ent nar­ra­tive and Stamper’s expres­sive pic­tures show how an imag­i­na­tive child in the Pale of Set­tle­ment became an Amer­i­can suc­cess sto­ry who gave the Jews of Amer­i­ca a voice.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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