In January 1906, a woman wrote a letter to a Yiddish daily newspaper called the Forward, to complain that her watch had disappeared. The letter was written in choppy Yiddish; the woman was not used to writing and it was obviously a struggle for her to put her thoughts on paper. The watch was the woman’s only valuable possession. When her son, who supported the family, couldn’t find work, she would pawn the watch so that they’d be able to buy food. The woman suspects her neighbor, an even poorer woman, of taking the watch. She writes “Now the watch lies in the hands of your pawnshop man and not in the hands of my pawnshop man.”
At first, the newspaper editor who read the letter thought the woman had written it in spite, and was trying to shame her neighbor. But on closer inspection, he realized that the letter was actually an exercise in tact. The woman didn’t want to hurt her neighbor’s feelings by confronting her; but she knew the neighbor read the Forward, and hoped to plead with her anonymously through its pages. The letter ends: “I swear on the life of my sick husband that I will remain your friend…just send me the pawn ticket in the mail and I won’t say a word… But give me back my bread.”
The Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan, published the letter the next day, under a new heading, “A Bintel Brief”—a bundle of letters. The advice column ran in Forward for the next sixty years. A Bintel Brief was an advice column to the highest degree and the most operatic power. Through it, young, alienated Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were given a rare chance to be heard. Mothers wrote in to find the children they’d put up for adoption; despairing people were urged against suicide; starving families were directed to charity organizations; fathers with tuberculosis bared their sorrows about not being allowed to hug their children; women publicly shamed their ‘missing’ husbands. Heavy stuff. And yet: the letters have the anecdotal lightness you’d expect of a more normal advice column. They are surprisingly sweet, often funny—like small, brightly lit windows into the lives of people caught at their most vulnerable, who, through some trick of the printed word, seem like characters in the best kind of fairytale; their lives are hard, but their sadness has meaning, their difficulties are tempered by something otherworldly. Cahan read the letters and answered them concisely, in a fatherly, rabbinical voice.
The Forward was already popular in 1906, but A Bintel Brief touched a nerve. By 1912, the newspaper’s circulation had rocketed to 120,000, making the Forward a formidable presence in the world. Abraham Cahan edited with an iron hand, changing the definition of Yiddish publishing. His vision for the Forward was a newspaper that the uneducated could read, which would educate them and bring them joy. He urged people to join the labor movement and fight for better working conditions and wages; he also published simple, ‘fluff’ articles that explained the rules of baseball, the importance of sending children to college, the proper way to use a handkerchief, and how to preserve peaches like a real American. Alongside articles about politics were Yiddish translations of great European novels, printed serially, and pieces of yellow journalism about sensationalist murders and the ‘white slave trade.’
On the side, Cahan wrote novels in English about his world. He wanted to educate the American public about the Jewish immigrants and where they’d come from. His books were radical—no one wanted to read a novel about the New York slums, or the Jews. His most famous novel is called The Rise of David Levinsky. It is a Dickensian tragedy about the American dream, and is full of vivid details from a vanished New York, as well as the thriving Jewish towns in Eastern Europe that have been destroyed since then.
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