To the Editor:
I read Irving Howe’s review of The Education of Abraham Cahan [Books in Review, March] with interest, and I agree with Mr. Howe that Cahan’s five-volume opus is truly a classic. However, I disagree with Mr. Howe’s gnawing doubt whether Cahan knew that he was working not only “toward” but “for” the disintegration of Yiddish culture in America. I am surprised in fact that such a close observer of this culture as Mr. Howe should be in any doubt on this matter. It is clear both from Cahan’s memoirs and from his entire career that he was quite consciously working for the dissolution of the Yiddish subculture, despite the fact that, as the editor of the Forward, he was head of the world’s largest Yiddish newspaper and a literary dictator in the community.
Cahan was not only not a Yiddishist, he wasn’t even pro-Yiddish; he was one of the first to acknowledge that he was “clearing the way for the leap into America.” Cahan opposed the Arbeiter Ring‘s formation of Yiddish after-hours schools (not even . . . day schools), he had little sympathy for the cultural nationalism of the Bundists who arrived in America after 1905, and he disdained those who wanted to refine and regulate the language. He looked upon his own work as a preparation for the eventual submersion of the Jewish immigrant into the American environment—not only politically and socially but also linguistically and culturally. Cahan was under no illusions as to the fate of Yiddish in America. . . .
As it happened, what Cahan regarded as an instrument became, somewhat to his distress, an end in itself, and like his contemporary Leo Wiener (also born around 1860), he would have predicted the language’s demise long before the allotted time. Not only would Cahan himself have found it “bearable to acknowledge” the death of Yiddish, he would have welcomed it.
B. G. Kayfetz