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Posts Tagged ‘A Bintel Brief’

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Summer

June 10, 2016 | by

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Summer issue to write about what they’re reading. 

It’s coming. The Mister Softee Jingle will clang down on you like a recurring nightmare, then distort itself around the bend like a lost memory of something crucial you’ll die trying to reclaim. This is summer—and I can think of no better way to get yourself in the mood than by reading Ritual and Bit, Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, which is steeped in nostalgia and foreboding. The cinematic, otherworldly play of images—“bit[s] of dream you almost had hold of”— will leave you achey, haunted, indiscriminately homesick. It’s like sleepaway camp all over again. Or, if we’re doing similes, then Ostrom’s poetry is like an exfoliating scrub for souls. Your tender self is stripped of its winterized, anesthetized hull, and everything is suddenly more dicey and exquisite. Or (final simile), in Ostrom’s words, “it will be like watching a church service through a keyhole”—stolen, mystifying glimpses of a choreographed sequence that feels timeless and charged. Here is the religion you (I) wanted, all stained glass and incense smoke, spooky-sublime chanting and devil-may-care suspension of disbelief; no Sunday sermons or starched shirts: “Cattywompus, pray for us.” —Danielle Blau (“I Am the Perennial Head of This One-person Subcutaneous Wrecking Crew”)

I’m reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief. Though both books do many other things, each lovingly renders a past love. For Batuman it is her ex-fiancé, Eric, “with his gentle blinking Chinese eyes, as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy,” highly alert and strategic but always sounding a bit dreamy, like a navy reserve intelligence officer with a delusive fever, which he sometimes is. For Finck it is Abraham Cahan, editor and advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan’s disembodied head, in Finck’s drawings, is either a peach or a heart. He is never quite real enough to be mistaken for a father or a boyfriend, always a bit incorporeal or out of human scale or dressed a century out of style. Eric trails Batuman to Samarkand, and Cahan trails Finck around her aimless roomy freelance days. I like feeling the lasting affection for such ghosts. —Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (“Lifeguards”)Read More »

In Brief

April 3, 2014 | by

bintel

From the cover of Liana Finck’s A Binkel Brief.

Dear Editor,
I am a Russian revolutionist and a freethinker. Here in America I became acquainted with a girl who is also a freethinker. We decided to marry, but the problem is that she has Orthodox parents, and for their sake we must have a religious ceremony. If we refuse the ceremony we will be cut off from them forever. Her parents also want me to go to the synagogue with them before the wedding, and I don’t know what to do. Therefore I ask
you to advise me how to act.
Respectfully,
J. B.

Answer: The advice is that there are times when it pays to give in to old parents and not grieve them. It depends on the circumstances. When one can get along with kindness it is better not to break off relations with the parents.

You have probably heard of “A Bintel Brief,” the famous Yiddish advice column that ran in Der Forvertz, guiding several generations of newly arrived Jewish immigrants through the confusions of the new world. Penned by editor Abraham Cahan, the column, which has been anthologized, makes for evocative reading. It’s often heartbreaking and sometimes funny; the tersely definitive responses are compassionate and generally wise.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I came upon a copy of Liana Finck’s new graphic novel, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York. Finck illustrates a number of the “Bintel Brief” letters—from an educated young woman engaged to an old-world greenhorn; from a poor mother whose watch has been stolen by an even poorer friend; from a cuckolded husband—but she does more than that. She speculates about what might have happened to the writers. She illustrates unspoken byplay, read between the lines. She records her own reactions. In so doing, she brings an entirely new dimension to what has become, for modern readers, a portal into a world that feels impossibly distant. It is about nostalgia, yes—Finck would not have been alive when the column ran—but it is also about how we engage with the past. The letters alone feel like such an anachronism.

But are they? Funnily enough, I was reading through Finck’s book, which I have been meting out like a treat, when a friend sent me this. It’s gotten some exposure on Reddit, as one might expect.

There is one particularly moving letter that Finck chooses to illustrate, in which the survivor of a pogrom wonders whether to uproot his elderly father, now alone, and bring him to safety in America. Cahan wrote, “For various reasons we need to answer this heart-wrenching letter privately. The writer should send us his full address.”