Posts Tagged ‘letters’
April 3, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
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.
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.”
June 19, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
May 20, 2013 | by Italo Calvino
To Eugenio Scalfari—Rome
March 7, 1942
I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey. The accusations you make later on are completely without foundation: the idea that there were thousands of youths with literary ambitions was something I knew even in the irresponsible days spent behind our school desks, and this thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who Italo Calvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things. This is what I am for the people of Turin, Pigati included, but except for Roero and Maiga, of course. Only in this way can the deluded man of Via Bogino live. I don’t know how you feel in the environment you say you’ve moved into. Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art. Eh, am I not good?
8 March: I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:
POSTERITY IS STUPID
Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!
Excerpted from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin, published by Princeton University Press today, May 20th. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
April 2, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Last Christmas, my brother, Charlie, gifted me with a piece of paper on which was scrawled, “Good for 1 tattoo.” This was perhaps a slight improvement over his gift of the year before (“Good for one dinner with Charlie. On you”) and arguably approaching his 2010 present-giving apex (autographed baby pictures of himself.) But it was still a pretty low-risk investment on his part; Charlie knew I was never going to break down and actually ink a permanent Dimples on my shoulder, something I’d flirted with through the years. “Just a small, classic Dimples,” I would explain to my mother. “A tribute!” And she would say, “Munnie would be appalled. And so would Yumma.”
As might be clear from the nomenclature, we have entered the Land of the WASP. Yumma, my grandmother (née Ruth Mary), was the daughter of Munnie (Margaret), whom I am said to, but do not, resemble. Munnie was a legendary figure, a mother of five who managed to render even the hardships of the Depression magical with her ingenuity, her creativity, her sense of fun. A hard worker who held things together after her husband died, she maintained a busy, cheerful existence until her death from cancer in her sixties.
Although Munnie died many years before I was born, she has always been a vivid presence to me, kept alive by Yumma’s stories of cream-puff swans and Halloween parties, and by the Scrapbook. The Scrapbook is a remarkable thing: two volumes in which Munnie hand-copied every scrap of correspondence she and my grandmother ever exchanged and bound them, with photographs and newsclippings and tracings of any drawings, into two large volumes, each 300 pages long. Munnie made one of these for each of her five children. My father calls the resulting tomes the Least Jewish Thing Ever Created. Read More »
March 5, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
“I was speaking to Mde. B. this morning about a boiled loaf, when it appeared that her master has no raspberry jam; she has some, which of course she is determined he shall have; but cannot you bring a pot when you come?”
—Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra