Eden in a Distant Land
The Rise of Abraham Cahan
by Seth Lipsky
Nextbook Schocken, 240 pp., $26
In the 1950s I spent several summers at a Jewish children’s camp called Kinderland located on the shore of Sylvan Lake, about 60 miles north of New York City. The camp, founded in 1924, was run by the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, a front group of the Communist Party USA. On the other side of the lake, about 500 yards away, was another Jewish children’s camp called Kinder Ring, sponsored by the socialist Workmen’s Circle. It was the middle of the Cold War and virtually no contact was permitted between the children of the two camps. Yet sometimes our rowboats passed each other in the middle of the lake. The kids from Kinder Ring called us “commies” and we returned fire by calling them “social fascists,” a political term of art we learned from our elders. What the two camps had in common, though, was that the children were taught a smattering of Yiddish words and that each camp was connected to a daily Yiddish newspaper. Theirs was called the Forverts (Forward), and ours was the Morgen Freiheit (Morning Freedom).
It all seemed somewhat outdated and absurd, but what I didn’t know at the time was that our battles at Sylvan Lake had their roots in a serious cultural and ideological conflict dating from the beginning of the last century. In one of the great mass migrations in history, roughly two million impoverished Jews arrived from Eastern Europe to build a new life in the United States. Half of these mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in New York City, primarily on the Lower East Side. By their own efforts they created a democratic community life and a cultural renaissance. Great literature appeared in Yiddish and English, and a flourishing Yiddish theater emerged. In the 1920s, a half-dozen Yiddish daily newspapers, including the Forverts and the Freiheit, were regularly published in the city. From the grass roots, the new immigrants built a network of self-help social welfare organizations, militant trade unions, and political parties of the Left. It’s no exaggeration to say that the cultural and political ferment in this one American city (and mostly in one neighborhood) not only profoundly influenced the history of the Jewish people but also had a positive impact on America’s democratic institutions.