The Dream Diaries Of Ab Cahan
The Strange Subconscious Of the Forward’s Founding Father
Abraham Cahan’s many kholoymes, his dreams, can be checked off his proverbial bucket list. His life’s work of a Yiddish paper is still going strong 120 years later. His desire to literally have that paper’s presence dominate Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the muse behind our historic building at 175 East Broadway, shapes the neighborhood’s skyline to this day. And his own literary dreams of being a novelist came true with the success of his book “The Rise of David Levinsky.” His short novella, “Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom,” even became a film known as “Hester Street.” Beyond his wildest dreams, one could say.
But what happened when he was no longer hunched over lines of text, when arguments with composers, writers, editors and capitalist owners were done for the day? What about the magic hour when not only the paper was put to bed, but our esteemed founding editor-in-chief himself was at rest?
Seemingly asleep deep within his own archival papers, housed at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is a humble folder simply labeled “Dreams” in Cahan’s own handwriting. So, happy 120th, Forward. Here, published for the first time, is a glimpse into the furthest reaches of the man who dreamed us up.
Cahan recorded his memories of his subconscious in English, unedited, in pencil, on unassuming notepad pages. One imagines it lying on his bedside table, perhaps next to a cup of bicarb, consumed after a long day at the Forverts. Cahan removes his glasses and places them there before his head hits a couple of down-filled pillows, causing a few stray feathers to burst their seams and gently rise just above his head.
Our founder then slides into a dreamland that reads mostly like a series of
koshmarn, nightmares, on repeat shuffle. It’s Cahan’s world, and you’re welcome to visit where mad fiddlers play passersby into extreme melancholia. You may find yourself, in the best-case scenario, in a field of flowers — only to be struck blind. Then a friend points out that you’re naked in public, and you spend the rest of that dream trying to convince your friend that you are in fact fully clothed. You’ve known another friend for ages, when suddenly his familiar features morph into those of the president (Theodore Roosevelt at the time). Your feet melt and in another series of fantasies your subconscious lets you fly, and it’s so simple, but why will nobody believe you?
A 2-year-old holds forth on the reasons for war and you are deemed insane. Poets are decadent liars and you think up an audible dictionary. Even your hot dreams are all manner of chaos filled with un-kissable kisses, and a sheet of punishing waters — resembling Niagara Falls — separates your from your lover. You dream of a woman you know who is now a man, you dream yourself to be a woman yet are deemed homely. Why can’t you be beautiful you ask in your sweet sleep? A sex-obsessed genius draws crowds of women to his concerts but his music is weird and replete with erotic sighs, his improvisation you deem obscene.
On a good night for Cahan in slumberland, time goes backward and a girl tries to teach a crowd the simplest of tunes but they don’t get it. They sigh, they wring their hands in despair, for the tune is the meaning of life.
LIKE DREAMERS DO:
The dreams of Forward founder Ab Cahan were recorded
on notepad paper that is currently in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish
PHOTO: CHANA POLLACK/ARCHIVES OF THE YIVO INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH RESEARCH, NEW YORK