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.”