Decades before Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren received letters from distraught readers seeking advice, there was Abraham Cahan and his Yiddish advice column, “A Bintel Brief.” First published in Cahan’s The Jewish Daily Forward in 1906, “A Bintel Brief” (literally translated from the Yiddish as “a bundle of letters”) gave the thousands of Jewish immigrants pouring into the United States a place to turn with the heartbreaking and often absurd dilemmas they were facing in the New World.
The Forward continued publishing their original advice column well into the 20th century. To help it transition into our contemporary world, artist Liana Finck is breathing new life into many of the original Bintel Brief letters. As a poet and graphic artist, Finck is adapting the century-old daily dilemmas into a graphic-novel format, seen from the point of view of a columnist inspired by Cahan.
Here’s how Cahan introduced the first “Bintel Brief” letter, in 1906 (translated by Jordan Kutzik):
Among the letters which the Forward receives for the column “from the people to the people” we find many letters which have a general “human interest,” as American critics call it. From now on we will collect these letters and print them separately, either with or without comments, under the name “a bundle of letters.” Letters regarding union-life and guild-affairs etc and whatever else will still be printed as usual but separately.
In this issue of “a bundle of letters” the reader will find interesting pages from the book of life. Life itself speaks through them. Hundreds of different emotions, interests, and shortfalls will be expressed in them; hundreds of different strings of the human heart will be touched by them.
We will begin with the least expected letter and the one from the reader who relies the most on our help. This is a letter from a woman to her neighbor. Upon reading it we thought that the writer wanted only to lash out at her neighbor through the pages of the Forward. But it became clear that she didn’t have such thoughts in mind. She doesn’t want to do her neighbor any harm. The letter gives the street and several signs by which the neighbor should recognize who is writing to her. We’ll skip these details, however, and just print the following lines.
“…..My boy who brings in the income is as deaf as a wall. He didn’t even hear the crying of his unhappy parents during the whole time that he worked saving his money to buy a watch and chain so that he’d be able to live off it during “slack time.” We’ve already lived through a great deal during slack time thanks to the watch. And now, thank God, it’s slack time again. But the watch and chain are nowhere to be found…..My friend, I know well that you’re also a poor working Miss. I was away from home for six minutes. I asked you to keep an eye on things for a while. Unfortunately you’ve…. and the watch now lies in the hands of your pawnshop man and not in the hands of my pawnshop man. I give you my honest word as an old grayed woman, and I swear on the life of my sick husband, that I will remain your good friend just as we have been these three years that we’ve lived together on the same floor. Just send me the pawn ticket through the mail. I won’t make it known that anything has happened…. But give me back my bread…”
It is not impossible that the neighbor is suspected without reason. The woman is punished by her bad situation and it can be that she has no grounds upon which to accuse her neighbor. But in any case we can remark at what a picture of the wretchedness of the worker’s lot is to be found in this letter!
If these lines were to portray how hundreds of workers kill themselves it would make less of an impact than this little story with the watch and chain.
Rebecca Guber is the Director of the Six Points Fellowship where Liana Finck is currently a fellow. At the core of the Six Points Fellowship is the belief that creative expression is essential to Jewish community, identity, and our understanding of the world. The Fellowship was created to support the artists contributing to that process. Check out Guber’s presentation of Liana Finck’s work at Le Mood on October 14th.