The Dream Diaries Of Ab Ca­han

The Strange Sub­con­scious Of the For­ward’s Found­ing Fa­ther

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Chana Pol­lack

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.


The dreams of For­ward founder Ab Ca­han were recorded

on notepad pa­per that is cur­rently in the archives of the YIVO In­sti­tute for Jewish



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