The ProsenPeople

Changing Times, Changing Letters, and Moving Forward

Friday, April 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liana Finck wrote about how she discovered A Bintel Brief and shared the history behind the column. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning.

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’s Forward 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.

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Read more about her here.

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Finding a Story to Tell

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liana Finck shared the history behind the Forward's Bintel Brief column. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I 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 Brief letters 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.

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Read more about her here.

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The Beginnings of A Bintel Brief

Monday, April 14, 2014 | Permalink

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

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.

Read more about Liana Finck here.

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My Influences Are Showing

Friday, January 27, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liana Finck let us peek behind the curtain at her source material for him comic based on A Bintel Brief. She showed us the first two pages and the second story. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

I keep a collection in my head of the names of stories, movies, pictures that seem perfect to me. They all have a certain feel to them.

“The Artist of the Beautiful,” a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Black Monk,” a story by Anton Chekhov
Charulata, a movie by by Satyajit Ray
The Rules of the Game, a movie by Jean Renoir
The Deleuge at Norderny, a story by Isak Dinesen
The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare
The Enchanted Castle, a novel for children by Edith Nesbit
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Ponyo, an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki
Aladdin and other stories from the Arabian Nights
A lot of Japanese prints, Chinese scrolls, Islamic pictures

What do these things have in common? A certain magic. I think it’s that they are all miniatures, stories glimpsed through a keyhole. I think comics are miniatures, too.

For this story about Nasye Frug, I borrowed the butterfly (not introduced in this page) fromThe Artist of the Beautiful, aspects of the garden from The Black Monk, the marriage from Charulata, the observant girl character from Alice in Wonderland.

I think Nasye was the most ambitious of the stories I made for this project. I’ve had to do it over a few times to simplify it. I do my first drafts painstakingly, with a lot of different types of pens and white-out. Then I scan the pictures into the computer and change them around a lot in photoshop. I make later drafts by printing out the first draft drawings, and tracing them quickly on a light table. These later drafts are a lot of fun because I know what I’m doing and am confident enough to improvise. The first drafts are stressful.
This is a page from the tenth and last story. A girl, much like Nasye, is wrestling with the angel of death, a cartoon, after having lost her fiance in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This story was influenced by a comic I looked at but didn’t read by Racheli Rottner called The Other Side of the World. I like when more or less realistic characters interact with imaginary ones. I think comics are the best medium for treating fantasy as reality. Because they’re so simple, and drawing in different styles on one page is like having a conversation in your head with imaginary friends, different versions of yourself.


***

People I’ve spoken to about the Bintel Brief agree that Abraham Cahan wrote some of the letters himself. The connective tissue of my comic, the part of the book I’m still working on, will revolve around this mystery. It will be very loose and light and I’m nervous about making it come out just right, which is why I’ve saved this part of the book for last. I hope it will leaven the stories somehow. Anyway, fun fact about this narrative: whenever any character sets out to do something (Abraham Cahan sets out to help the woman whose watch was stolen, I set out to learn about my culture and heritage) he or she will wake up, disoriented, in his or her bed.

Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is being made with help from the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists, a partnership between Avoda Arts, JDub Records, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. The comic is being serialized inThe Forward Newsaper.

The Wedding Guest

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 | Permalink
Liana Finck is adapting old Yiddish press self-help columns into a book. This week, she's letting us peek behind the curtain at her source material. On Monday, she looked at the first two pages of her comic. Today, she takes a look at the second story.  She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

This is the text from the second story (translation by the excellent Jordan Kutzik):

Honorable Mr. Forvertz Editor,

Allow me a little space in your distinguished newspaper to tell your esteemed readers about what transpired at my house in the month before my wedding. As you probably know the bride whom God has blessed with many good friends receives various gifts for her wedding. I too have many friends as well as many acquaintances from the old country. A week before my wedding they all gathered at my mother’s. They brought a whole wagon full of wedding gifts to my room.

Among my countrymen, however, there was also a man who was considered to be somewhat of a “crank.” (I didn’t consider him as such, just my countrymen.) When he saw the presents that they had brought, the spirit took him and he began to scream. “Fools!” “What exactly have you all brought here? Four muslins, ten lamps, three sets of beddings for a couple…Come, it would be better if we all came into this room here and had a meeting to decide what every individual should bring based on what the couple needs to have, and what not to bring if they don’t need it.” But as my clever countryman is of course a “crank,” nobody paid much attention to his proposal.

Therefore I turn to you Mr. Editor. Tell me who’s right, the “crank” with his proposal to give me one coordinated set of wedding gifts or the rest of my fellow countrymen, who’ve brought me four sets of beddings?

Nasye Frug

And here is a page from my version of the story. This is the one I was least faithful to, and the first one I made.



Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is being made with help from the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists, a partnership between Avoda Arts, JDub Records, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. The comic is being serialized in The Forward Newsaper. 

A Bintel Brief: A Bundle of Letters

Monday, January 23, 2012 | Permalink

Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is currently being serialized in the Forward. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This is the first page of a comic book I'm working on. It's based on the Bintel Brief, a popular Yiddish advice column published in the Forvertz Newspaper beginning in 1906. It was the brainchild of Abraham Cahan, the man behind the huge success and sophistication of the Forvertz.

About this page: Jacob Zemsner is a fictional character, and this myth about the tears is fictional too, but Abraham Cahan is one of my favorite real characters ever, a self-made American. His face really was vaguely heart-shaped, and he was cross-eyed and terribly embarrassed about that. More facts: he loved Charles Dickens. He was a humanist from a distance, a misanthropist close-up. He was an anarchist (he had to flee Eastern Europe at twenty-two because he was involved with the group that had assassinated the Czar), then a socialist, but not enough of a purist to satisfy any die-hard idealogues. He kept remaking himself. I completely recommend his autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan. A page-turner. Also his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which is slightly dated but no less wonderful because of that. And easier to find in a library than his autobiography.



Seven of the ten stories I made are adapted from Bintel Brief letters that hadn't been translated into English yet, and lifted the other three stories from the collection of Bintel Brief letters in English, owned by most grandparents.The book is not finished yet, and I'm often asked why I chose to make it. I'm not sure. I was raised in Jewish circles but never could kindle much of a feeling of belonging to any group. And why comics? I had to start forcing myself to learn about comics a couple of years after deciding (late) that comics would be the easiest artform for me to squeeze my interests (drawing, telling stories) into. So I'm not a Jew in the traditional sense, and not a comics artist either, but the one thing I feel strongly about is that honesty is not something you can aim for. 

In art you have to painstakingly build a story (first you have to painstakingly build a self to tell it). Once your house is complete, down to the artificial windows, real light will shine through. I hope something will shine through these stories, in the lines and letters. Whatever the outcome, I'll make comics for the rest of my life. Time is a good tool for art. 

Here's the first page of the first story. This story is based on the actual first letter that was written to Cahan. Cahan wrote about the letter in his autobiography


Liana Finck's Bintel Brief comic is being made with help from the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists, a partnership between Avoda Arts, JDub Records and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. The comic is being serialized in The Forward Newsaper.