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
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.