Abraham 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.
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