For the thousands of Jewish immigrants who flooded into America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Jewish Daily Forward was far more than a newspaper — it was a lifeline, an advocate and a basis of community. Led by its legendary founding editor, Abraham Cahan, the Forverts helped generations of newcomers adjust to life in America. Unabashedly leftist in bent, the paper tirelessly chronicled the hardships of life in New York’s fetid factories and cramped tenements, while boosting trade unionism and socialism.
But the work of helping immigrants and promoting a leftist agenda also continued off the page: The Jewish Daily Forward sponsored English classes, charity balls and a pro-labor summer camp, and hosted vaccination days in the lobby of its building. The paper’s editors spoke at political rallies and lobbied government officials on behalf of Jewish immigrants who were detained or turned away at Ellis Island. Readers, in turn, did more than just read the news; they reported it to the paper by letter and in person, often appealing directly to the staff for help and advice. From the outset, the relationship between the publication and its readers was interactive.
A Bintel Brief, or “A Bundle of Letters,” was the nexus of that interactive relationship and one of the paper’s most popular features. The column, initiated by Cahan in 1906, invited readers to tell their own stories in the pages of the paper. Many of the readers, struggling to make it in America and concerned for loved ones left behind in Europe, wrote in seeking counsel, thereby cinching A Bintel Brief’s reputation as one of the earliest “advice” columns. Less known today is that the feature was also an indispensable clearinghouse for readers in need: Through the column, relatives were reunited, orphans found new homes and difficult communications were proffered under the cover of anonymity. Among the first three printed letters was a missive from a woman who suspected that her desperately poor neighbor had stolen and pawned her son’s beloved pocket watch. Appealing to the unnamed woman to send the pawn ticket in the mail, the letter-writer also assured her that the two would remain friends.
Collected in English translation in 1971 by long-time editor Isaac Metzker, A Bintel Brief provides a window into Jewish life in America and the cataclysmic events of the 20th century, including World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the rise of communism. Particularly in the earlier years of the column, the letters told of poverty, unemployment and the spread of tuberculosis in the sweatshops, as well as young girls forced into the “white slavery” of the brothels, and desperate, poverty-stricken women deserted by their husbands. The number of abandoned wives writing in became so great, in fact, that the Forverts established another feature, “The Gallery of the Missing Husbands,” to track down the vanished men. Some themes remained constant throughout A Bintel Brief’s decades-long tenure. Readers wrote about matters of the heart, questions of faith and society, and about the ever-shifting relationship between their American and Jewish identities.
A Bintel Brief From the Forward’s Mailbag
Dear Editor, I ask you to give me some advice in my situation. I am a young man of 25, 16 years in America, and I recently met a fine girl. She has a flaw, however, that keeps me from marrying her. The fault is that she has a dimple in her chin, and it is said that people who have this lose their first husband or wife. At first I laughed at the idea, but later it began to bother me. I began to observe people with dimpled chins and found out that their first husbands or wives really had died prematurely. I got so interested in this that whenever I see someone with this defect I ask about it immediately, and I find out that some of the men have lost their first wives, and some of the women’s first husbands are dead. This upset me so much that I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave my sweetheart; I love her very much. But I’m afraid to marry her lest I die because of the dimple. I’ve questioned many people. Some say it’s true, others laugh at the idea. Perhaps you, too, will laugh at me for being such a fool and believing such nonsense, but I cannot rest until I hear your opinion about it. I want to add that my sweetheart knows nothing about this. Respectfully,
The Unhappy Fool
The tragedy is not that the girl has a dimple in her chin but that some people have a screw loose in their heads!…
Worthy Editor, I am a girl 22 years of age, but I’ve already undergone a great deal in my life. When I was born I already had no father. He died four months before my birth. And when I was 3 weeks old, my mother died, too. Grandmother, my mother’s mother, took me in and soon gave me away to a poor tailor’s wife to suckle me. I was brought up by the tailor and his wife, and got so used to them that I called them Mother and Father. When I grew up, I learned from the tailor how to do hand sewing and machine sewing, too. When I was 16, my grandmother died and left me her small, dilapidated house. The rabbi of the town sold it for me for 300 rubles and gave me the money. In time, one of the tailor’s apprentices fell in love with me, and I didn’t reject his love. He was a fine, honest, quiet young man and a good earner. He had a golden character, and we became as one body and soul. When I turned 17, my bridegroom came to me with a plan, that we should go to America, and I agreed. It was hard for me to take leave of the tailor’s good family, who had kept me as their own child, and oceans of tears were shed when we parted. When we came to America, my bridegroom immediately started to work and he supported me. He was faithful and devoted. I’ll give you an example of his loyalty: Once, during the summer in the terrible heat, I slept on the roof. But it started to rain in the middle of the night, and I was soaked through to the bone. I got very sick and had to be taken to the hospital. I was so sick that the doctor said I could be saved only by a blood transfusion. My bridegroom said immediately that he was ready to give me his blood, and so, thanks to him, I recovered. In time I went to work at the “famous” Triangle shop. Later my bridegroom also got a job there. Even at work he wanted to be with me. My bridegroom told me then: “We will both work hard for a while, and then we’ll get married. We will save every cent so we’ll be able to set up a home, and then you’ll be a housewife and never go to work in the shop again.” Thus my bridegroom mused about the golden future. Then there was that terrible fire that took 147 young blossoming lives. When the fire broke out, the screaming, the yelling, the panic all bewildered me. I saw the angel of death before me, and my voice was choked in my throat. Suddenly someone seized me with extraordinary strength and carried me out of the shop. When I recovered I heard calming voices and saw my bridegroom near me. I was in the street, rescued, and saw my girlfriends jumping out of the windows and falling to the ground. I clung to my bridegroom and rescuer, but he soon tore himself away from me. “I must save other girls,” he said, and disappeared. I never saw him alive again. The next day I identified him, in the morgue, by his watch, which had my picture pasted under the cover. I fainted, and they could hardly bring me to. After that, I lay in the hospital for five weeks, and came home shattered. This is the fourth year that I am alone, and I still see before me the horrible scenes of the fire. I still see the good face of my dear bridegroom, also the black burned face in the morgue. I am weak and nervous, yet there is now a young man who wants to marry me. But I made a vow that I would never get married. Besides that, I’m afraid that I will never be able to love another man. But this young man doesn’t want to leave me, and my friends try to persuade me to marry him, and say everything will be all right. I don’t believe it, because I think everything can be all right for me only in the grave. I decided to write to you, because I want to hear your opinion. Respectfully,
A Faithful Reader
It is senseless for this girl to sacrifice her life in memory of her faithful bridegroom, since this would not bring him back to life. What the earth covers must be forgotten. She has suffered enough in her life already and is advised to take herself in hand and begin her life anew.
Dear Editor, Four years ago, because of my activity in the revolutionary movement in Russia, I was forced to leave the country and come to America. I had no trade, because I was brought up in a wealthy home, so I struggled terribly at first. Thanks to my education and my ability to adjust, I am now a manager of a large wholesale firm and earn good wages. In time I fell in love with an intelligent, pretty American girl and married her. America was my new home, and my wife and I tried to live in a way that would be most interesting and pleasant. From time to time, however, I had the desire to visit Russia to see what was going on there. But in America one is always busy and there is no time to be sentimental, so I never went. But now everything has changed. The Russian freedom movement, in which I took part, has conquered tsarism. The ideal for which I fought has become a reality, and my heart draws me there more than ever now. I began to talk about it to my wife, but her answer is that she hasn’t the least desire to go to Russia. My revolutionary fire has cooled down here in the practical America, but it is not altogether extinguished, and I’m ready to go home now… I don’t know how to act, and I beg you to advise me what to do. I will be very thankful for this. Respectfully,
Many of those who took part in the freedom struggle are drawn back to a liberated Russia. But not everyone can do so. This is also the position of the writer, who has obligations to his wife. She is an American, she has her family here, so how can she leave her home and go to a strange country? The writer must take this into consideration. Besides, while the terrible battles are still raging, there can be no discussion about visiting Russia.
Worthy Editor, Though I am only a simple tailor, my mind is not occupied with only scissors and needle. I also like to read, to learn, and I have a great respect for educated people. I am a man of middle age with grown children, and I have been a reader of your newspaper for the past 20 years…. I am appealing to you for advice about one son who will soon finish high school. My son distinguished himself in chemistry all through high school and got the highest marks in that subject. He is absorbed in it with all his heart and soul. He studies day and night, carries on experiments and never gets tired. This pleases me very muchΙ but in spite of this joy I’m unhappy. Why? Because I read in the Jewish newspapers that in this profession there is no future for Jewish graduates. I read that a graduate chemist cannot get a position in a large firm if he is a Jew. I didn’t want to believe that in America, in such a free land, it was really so. But recently I met a graduate, a Jewish chemist, and he confirmed that what I read was true…. I think you might be better acquainted with the situation and you can advise me whether I should let my son continue his studies in this field. Maybe I should make my son a tailor. I thank you in advance for printing my letter and for your answer. Your Reader,
We maintain that your son should study the profession in which he is so strongly interested. In spite of all difficulties, he will, in time, find his way in life.
Dear Editor, I come to you with my family problem because I think you are the only one who can give me practical advice. I am a man in my 50s, and I came to America when I was very young. I don’t have to tell you how hard life was for a “greenhorn” in those times. I suffered plenty. But that didn’t keep me from falling in love with a girl from my hometown and marrying her. I harnessed myself to the wagon of family life and pulled with all my strength. My wife was faithful, and she gave me a hand in pulling the wagon. The years flew fast, and before we looked around we were parents of four children who brightened and sweetened our lives. The children were dear and smart, and we gave them an education that was more than we could afford. They went to college, became professionals and are well established. Suddenly, I feel as if the floor has collapsed under my feet. I don’t know how to express it, but the fact that my children are well educated and have outgrown me makes me feel bad. I can’t talk to them about my problems, and they can’t talk to me about theirs. It’s as if there is a deep abyss that divides us. People envy me my good, fine, educated children, but (I am ashamed to admit it) I often think it might be better for me if they were not so well educated, but ordinary workingmen, like me. Then we would have more in common. I have no education, because my parents were poor, and in the Old Country they couldn’t give me the opportunities that I could give my children. I didn’t have time, and my mind wasn’t on learning in the early years when I had to work hard. That is my problem. I want to hear your opinion about it. I enclose my full name and address, but please do not print it. I will sign as,
It is truly a pleasure to have such children, and the father can really be envied. But he must not feel he has nothing in common with them any longer because they have more education than he…. In thousands of Jewish immigrant homes such educated children have grown up, and many of them remain close to their parents.
Dear Editor, Not long ago, through the Forverts, I learned that my brother’s 8-year-old child was alive and living in France with a gentile family. They are fine people, but I do not want my brother’s child to remain with the gentiles. I had hoped my brother and his wife would survive the concentration camps where they were dragged by the German beasts three years ago, but there is no trace of them. I also had another brother with a wife and children in Poland, but so far I have heard nothing from them either. You can imagine how I feel and what is going on in my heart. Now I want to rescue at least this one child for our people, and I ask your advice about it…. My heart aches that my brother’s child was converted and is being raised by Christians. I want to bring the child to America. I’m prepared to sign papers that I will keep him as my own. But my family tries to talk me out of it. The fact is that the family in France that is raising the child doesn’t want to give him up, because they love him very much. They tell meΙ it will have to be fought in court…. What shall I do? Where shall I go? Respectfully,
Your Reader, H.Z.
The writer of this letter is advised not to let herself be put off by those who say it’s difficult to do anything in this matter. It is suggested that she go to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, not give up going to the various organizations, knock on many doors and write letters to special offices.