Dear Mendl, Dear Rey­zl: Yid­dish Let­ter Man­u­als from Rus­sia and America

  • Review
By – April 2, 2014

While, for many, let­ter writ­ing has by now been replaced by faster, more effi­cient, and trendi­er modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, there was a time when hand­writ­ten cor­re­spon­dence was a dri­ving force in social, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al dai­ly life. This was espe­cial­ly true for tran­sient, large­ly lit­er­ate pop­u­la­tions, like the emi­grat­ing East­ern Euro­pean Jews of the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, who often remained tied to the fam­i­lies, lovers, friends, and acquain­tances that they left behind. Two recent books,Alice Nakhi­movsky’s and Rober­ta New­man’s Dear Mendl, Dear Rey­zl and Liana Finck­’s A Bin­tel Brief — explore the Jew­ish past via let­ters that reflect con­nec­tions and col­li­sions between old and new worlds. Through their very dif­fer­ent looks at the art of cor­re­spon­dence, these books remind us that paper archives con­tin­ue to be rel­e­vant sources of his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary knowl­edge and inspi­ra­tion, even in this dig­i­tal age.

Nakhi­movsky and New­man pref­ace their aca­d­e­m­ic book by dis­cussing the pow­er of let­ters in both the per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lives of East­ern Euro­pean and Amer­i­can Jews of the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies. The focus of Dear Mendl, Dear Rey­zl: Yid­dish Let­ter Man­u­als from Russ­ian and Amer­i­ca is the brivn­shtel­er, an anthol­o­gy of let­ters for busi­ness and pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence” that was pop­u­lar at the time. The authors con­tex­tu­al­ize these man­u­als first, offer­ing read­ers a his­to­ry of their rise along­side a more gen­er­al upsurge in Yid­dish pub­lish­ing” toward the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. They also describe the ways the man­u­als were used to help fill the gap between sec­u­lar and reli­gious edu­ca­tion, and how the con­tent of the man­u­als reflects eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al shifts in the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions that were using them. The sec­ond half of the book includes excerpts of brivn­shtel­er let­ters orga­nized into dis­tinct and help­ful cat­e­gories like Moder­ni­ty and Mobil­i­ty,” Courtship and Mar­riage: Amer­i­ca,” Busi­ness,” and Judaism and Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty.” As the authors explain, the cen­tral para­dox of read­ing through and ana­lyz­ing such doc­u­ments is that even though they were meant pri­mar­i­ly as ped­a­gog­i­cal tools, peo­ple did not nec­es­sar­i­ly use them in real life — per­haps because they were all too aware that their cor­re­spon­dents might have the very same brivn­shtel­er sit­ting on their own book­shelves.” Nev­er­the­less, these man­u­als pro­vide us with a lens to bet­ter under­stand Jew­ish life at the time, as they mir­ror many of the chal­lenges and con­cerns that Russ­ian and Amer­i­can Jews were expe­ri­enc­ing, and as they res­onate with the emo­tion­al reg­is­ters found in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and let­ters more generally.

Liana Finck­’s A Bin­tel Brief: Love and Long­ing in Old New York is also a book that employs, at its foun­da­tion, doc­u­ments from a bygone Jew­ish paper archive. Bin­tel Brief was a long-run­ning advice col­umn pub­lished in The For­ward and cre­at­ed by the cel­e­brat­ed edi­tor of that paper, Abra­ham Cahan. In her book, Finck, a car­toon­ist, trans­forms select­ed let­ters from A Bin­tel Brief that have been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish and into beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered comics. Through her some­times dream­like draw­ings, which vary in style depend­ing on the let­ter, she brings to life the cast of char­ac­ters with­in this bun­dle of let­ters,” who look to their learned mis­ter edi­tor” for advice on how to deal with tran­si­tions and hard­ships in the new world. One writer, who left his home after his fam­i­ly was dev­as­tat­ed by a pogrom, won­ders what to do with the reli­gious father he left behind, whom he just can­not real­ly pic­ture… in the promised land.” Anoth­er cou­ple asks advice about whether or not to adopt a child, giv­en the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the father could have been… a nogood­nik” and the moth­er might want the child back even­tu­al­ly. Finck inter­weaves these mov­ing, often dis­tress­ing sto­ries from the past with a fan­tas­ti­cal nar­ra­tive in which a young woman from the present finds the let­ters and reads through them with the help of a ghost­ly Abra­ham Cahan. In Finck­’s A Bin­tel Brief, the stag­nant paper archive is revived as past and present, word and image, let­ter writer and let­ter read­er col­lide on the page.

Relat­ed Content:

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Tah­neer Oks­man is a writer, teacher, and schol­ar. She is the author of How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Mem­oirs (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), and the co-edi­tor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Your­self (Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Stud­ies Soci­ety (CSS) Prize for Best Edit­ed Col­lec­tion. She is also co-edi­tor of a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Spe­cial Issue of Sho­far: an Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Jew­ish Stud­ies, titled What’s Jew­ish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writ­ing, you can vis­it tah­neeroks​man​.com

Discussion Questions