A BINTEL BRIEF: Sixty Years of Letters From the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward. Edited and with an introduction by Isaac Metzker. Forward and notes by Harry Golden. Schocken Books. 214 pages. $8.95.
By the turn of the century, about a quarter of a million Jews, one-third of the entire Jewish population of Eastern Europe, had emigrated to the United States. Many of them settled in New York's Lower East Side. There, in crowded, teeming tenements, the East European Jews established one of the United States' most remarkable immigrant societies.
Somehow, in their life of oppressive, sweatshop poverty (they were often referred to as farloyrene menschen, "lost souls") they created a vibrant society with its own literature, theater and education system - and an enduring Yiddish newspaper that became an American legend, the Jewish Daily Forward.
These immigrants faced special problems. In the old country they had lived within ghetto walls and in isolated villages in a structured world where patterns of living seldom changed. But in America, they discovered, such a life came smack up against a differing set of mores. Each ethnic group was expected to submerge its own heritage in the American way.
For these immigrants, it was easier said than accomplished. Since they could not turn to their traditions (how to pray, how to court, how to marry, how to raise children, how to die), they had to turn elsewhere for authority. Many turned to the "Bintel Brief" column in the Daily Forward, a sort of forerunner to "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers." ("Bintel Brief" translates from the Yiddish as "a bundle of letters.") This book, the paperback version of the original published in 1971, is a collection of 60 letters and responses.
The Forward drew its authority from the talent and stature of its editor, Abe Cahan, and from the fact that it had the look of the Hebrew alphabet - familiar to the immigrants as the sacred language of the Bible.
Such problems! And such advice! By the thousands they poured out their grief-stricken hearts to the column, many addressing their letters to "Worthy Editor," about love and marriage, poverty and unemployment, failure and success. In this book, Isaac Metzger, an editor of the now-defunct Forward, has chosen examples from 1906 to 1967.
To read them is to learn, perhaps more quickly and accurately than any historian could convey, immigrant life in New York's Lower East Side during the first half of the century.
* A young man, poor himself, asks if he should nonetheless send money home to his father in the old country. Advice: Send the money; you are young enough to earn more, but your father is not.
* A businessman says that he was a success in Warsaw as a young man but that now he is a failure in New York. Should he go back to Warsaw? Advice: No. Since you left, Warsaw has changed and so have you. Try again - here in America.
* A young man of 22 says he has "every reason to be happy, but I am unhappy because nature saw fit to give me red hair." Advice: "A person is not valued by the hair on his head but by what is in his head."
"Bintel Brief" letters were not only characterized by their subject matter, but by their language - best described in Yiddish as gevein (a kind of heart-rending way of telling one's troubles): "I put on the white shirt that was wet with my mother's tears." "Silver bought me no solace; gold did not ease my pain." "Have pity on a suffering woman." "I harnessed my life to the wagon of family life."
The thousands of people writing the Dear Abbys of today may not use such language, but their concerns - pre-marital sex, abortion, relationships, drug abuse - are remarkably similar to those of these newcomers to America. The added pleasure here is glimpsing through their letters a bit of our immigrant history.
Gilbert Sandler writes the Baltimore Glimpses column Tuesdays on this page.