In hon­or of the 65th Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil asked some of this year’s win­ners to share their top rules for writ­ing an award-win­ning book. Co-authors Alice Nakhi­movsky and Rober­ta New­man, recip­i­ents of the 2015 award for Antholo­gies and Col­lec­tions for Dear Mendl, Dear Rey­zl: Yid­dish Let­ter Man­u­als from Russ­ian and Amer­i­ca, decid­ed to stay true to form.

Hamil­ton, New York, Torah por­tion Mish­pa­tim, 5776

Dear Rober­ta, Shin­ing Light of Her Generation,

What is this Jew­ish Book Coun­cil after? They want Nine Rules for Writ­ing Let­ters. I under­stand that every­one wants to write a good let­ter, because how else can we keep in touch, and most impor­tant­ly keep tabs on our grown-up chil­dren, may they live. Frankly it would be bet­ter if read­ers went straight toDear Mendl, Dear Rey­zl, from which they can extract let­ter-writ­ing rules for all sit­u­a­tions a Jew might encounter, not just nine of them. For exam­ple, what if you are a wife stuck in Europe with three small chil­dren while your hus­band is cavort­ing with a mis­sus some­where in Man­hat­tan? What you need in this sit­u­a­tion is a good sen­tence. You need, I’m writ­ing not with black ink but with the last drops of blood.” That’ll show him. 

In the mean­time, up here in Hamil­ton, all is well. Isn’t it won­der­ful that I can write you a let­ter and you will get it in a week or so? On the oth­er hand, the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil says it wrote to me, and I haven’t got­ten that let­ter yet, but Hamil­ton has only one mail­man, and maybe he’s ill, poor thing. 

From me, your true devot­ed friend,

Man­hat­tan, Torah por­tion Terumah, 2016

Dear Alice, may you live,

I’m in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I see from your let­ter that we have giv­en the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil our first rule: if you are in a bad sit­u­a­tion, deploy a good sen­tence. I’m glad you said that all is well in Hamil­ton,” because I was afraid you had for­got­ten Rule 2: speak of health fre­quent­ly and repetitively.

It’s very inter­est­ing that you write to me in the week in which we read the Torah por­tion Mish­pa­tim, because those chap­ters of the Torah deal with all sorts of reg­u­la­tions. And let­ter man­u­als are full of rules. Imag­ine if those man­u­al read­ers could text! There would have been much less need for rules. And yet, our abbre­vi­a­tions like LOL, IMHO, CUL8R — do they not resem­ble the Hebrew acronyms with which Jew­ish cor­re­spon­dence is replete? Mem-zayin-tet (Mazel Tov), Ayin-mem-shin (Im mish­pakhto, with his fam­i­ly)… There are hun­dreds of them, and they appear in tables. Isn’t that modern?

Of course, the main thing that let­ter man­u­als are full of is fake let­ters for peo­ple to copy or just read. And the fake let­ters are full of dra­ma. So now we can take up Rule 3: Let it all hang out. Anger and sor­row are why you’re writ­ing. No emoti­cons, though: it would have been con­sid­ered uncouth and une­d­u­cat­ed to express emo­tions in pic­tures instead of words. Writ­ing well was what it was all about. Remem­ber when we thought that Jew­ish lit­er­a­cy in Rus­sia and Poland was so wide­spread? It didn’t spread to every­body, and even for the edu­cat­ed it only went so far and didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly extend to the kind of skills required for every­day life. Let­ter man­u­als filled the gap, giv­ing all com­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate or sim­ply copy good Yid­dish prose. And so, Rule 4: Edu­ca­tion counts, even if you got yours from a let­ter man­u­al. Write gram­mat­i­cal­ly. Spell correctly. 

I have to say, dear Alice, I was a lit­tle dis­tressed that you dropped out of sight all last week. As a let­ter man­u­al would put it, From what I can see you have once again for­got­ten that you have a friend.” Let that be Rule 5: guilt-trip­ping is cul­tur­al­ly sanc­tioned. But no more of that from me tonight. Hop­ing that the mail­man in Hamil­ton will deliv­er this to you and that you will remain hap­py and healthy,

Your loy­al friend,

Hamil­ton, New York, Torah por­tion Tet­za­veh, 5776

Dear Rober­ta, may your light shine,

I received your dear let­ter with the great­est of joy, which was fol­lowed by ter­ri­ble anx­i­ety because we have only five rules, and we promised nine, and this may lead to some kind of mis­for­tune, God for­bid. I know you are busy, going to work every day, so here are four more. Rule 6: Authen­tic­i­ty is over-val­ued. Writ­ing from Amer­i­ca to Europe, it is fine to say one thing to your par­ents and anoth­er to your friend. She won’t talk to them. Rule 7: No pol­i­tics. No pol­i­tics in Rus­sia, because there’s a cen­sor, and they don’t like Jews any­way; no pol­i­tics in Amer­i­ca, because this is a com­mer­cial genre, and we don’t want to cut off our mar­ket. Rule 8: if you’re writ­ing a love let­ter before 1905, keep in mind that it will be read aloud to the whole fam­i­ly. Post 1905, you’re on your own. Rule 9: If you are writ­ing a busi­ness let­ter to a Russ­ian or an Amer­i­can, prac­tice brevi­ty and restraint. If you are writ­ing to anoth­er Jew, why would you bother?

From me, your devot­ed friend,

Alice Nakhi­movsky is a pro­fes­sor of Russ­ian and Jew­ish Stud­ies at Col­gate Uni­ver­si­ty, where she directs the Pro­gram in Russ­ian and Eurasian Stud­ies. Rober­ta New­man is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, cur­rent­ly the Direc­tor of Dig­i­tal Ini­tia­tives at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research.

Relat­ed Content:

Alice Nakhi­movsky is a pro­fes­sor of Russ­ian and Jew­ish Stud­ies at Col­gate Uni­ver­si­ty, where she directs the Pro­gram in Russ­ian and Eurasian Stud­ies. She has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on Russ­ian-Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and every­day life, and served on the edi­to­r­i­al board of The YIVO Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jews in East­ern Europe.
Rober­ta New­man is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar liv­ing in New York City. She is the Direc­tor of Dig­i­tal Ini­tia­tives at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research and was the Illus­tra­tions Edi­tor and Direc­tor of Archival Research for The YIVO Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jews in East­ern Europe.