Tag Archives: the forward

Changing Times, Changing Letters, and Moving Forward

a-bintel-briefAbraham Cahan loved Yiddish, but he was not afraid of change. He urged his readers to be less religious, and to learn how to be Americans. While other Yiddish newspapers refused to print Americanized Yiddish, Cahan’sForward welcomed the English words that found their way into Yiddish—vinda (window), boychik (boy).

The early Bintel Brief letters are timeless and could have been written anywhere, by anyone who had left his old life behind and traveled across the ocean to a new world. To read them is to get to the essence of things. The later Bintel Brief letters, on the other hand, are bitter. As the Forward’s readership aged and dwindled, the letters were more often written by older people, no longer new to America. They were the last bastions of the Yiddish language, watching sadly as their children grew up, went to college, made money, and became ashamed of their parents. ‘Dear Mr. Editor,’ people would write, ‘Our children have a Christmas tree;’ ‘Our children don’t keep kosher;’ ‘Our children don’t want us to read a Yiddish newspaper in public. It embarrasses them.’

If the early Bintel Brief letters make me feel connected to my great-grandparents and to my past, the later letters hold an uneasy mirror up to my newfound nostalgia. To me, the letters embodied a bitter-sweet kind of longing for my own culture, and homesickness for my own city. Not many people speak Yiddish anymore—a loss that is too big to fathom; our culture lived in that language, more than in any place.

While I worked on my book, I felt like I was writing my own Bintel Brief letter to Abraham Cahan: “Where are the Jews I can relate to,” I asked. “Where is the old, scrappy New York, the New York that corresponds to my intense, worried, immigrant’s soul?”

How did Cahan answer the late Bintel Brief letters? He didn’t.

Not one for sentimentality, he handed off the role of advice columnist to a staff-member at the Forward, occupying himself with more interesting matters, such as writing a great American novel, eating schav (a green soup), and taking up bird watching. If Cahan were alive now, I don’t think he’d have been the editor of a Yiddish newspaper. He’d be one step ahead of the rest of us, finding the new zeitgeist before we knew it existed. I love the past, and long for it, and seek it always. But Cahan’s spirit is not in the past. It is here. It is now. It does many good things in the world, including teaching nostalgic misfits like me to understand that we do belong in the here and the now.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Finding a Story to Tell

a-bintel-briefI did not mean to fall in love with the Bintel Brief letters. I grew up Jewish in the New York suburbs and defined myself by what the Jewish suburbs were not—I was an odd, shy kid who loved animals and nature and who drew, and I felt like an alien among the mall rats. (At least, that is how I remember things.) I escaped as soon as I could, to art college in New York, in search of ‘my people’—artists and writers—and art, and books. I knew before I graduated that I wanted to make graphic novels, but it didn’t matter to me what story I told. The medium was the message. After college, I went to Belgium on a Fulbright grant. I had wanted to get away from everyone I knew; I still felt more comfortable with art and books than with people. I sensed that the sooner I made a book of my own, the sooner I would feel that I had a reason to exist; and I believed that the fastest way to create that book would be in a kind of social vacuum. But I sunk under the weight of the graphic novel I was trying to work on (which was to be about a comics artist’s tortured friendship with a fine artist); I was frustrated by what I later realized was a lack of fluency in the craft of comics-making. Mid-way into my year abroad, my grandmother sent me the first half of Isaak Metzker’s two-volume collection of Bintel Briefletters translated into English—A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (Doubleday, 1971).

Reading the collection of Bintel Brief letters was the most urgent thing that happened to me that year. I hadn’t brought any English books to Brussels because I wanted to force myself to learn French; so the book was rare and precious, like a relic from my lost civilization. When I started reading, the letters reminded me why I wanted to make a book in the first place. They made me cry. I also began to relate to the letter-writers—who had left home in search of a new life, and landed in New York. Then, with a shock, I realized that the letter-writers could have been my great-grandparents. I’d set out on a journey looking for a treasure, only to find it buried deep down under my own doorstep. When I got home from Belgium, I chose some of the Bintel Brief letters from Metzker’s book—and some other, untranslated letters from microfilm copies of The Forward—and began adapting them into a graphic novel. I still wrestled with my medium, but less. It was easier because I had a story to tell.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Beginnings of A Bintel Brief

a-bintel-briefIn 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.” Continue reading

Posted on April 23, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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