‘A Bintel Brief’ Is Born

In His Own Words

A Classic Column: By this time the Bintel Brief had been offering advice for almost 66 years. In this issue, November 13, 1972, an older woman married to a widower wanted to know how to handle the fact that he constantly compared her to his first wife.
A Classic Column: By this time the Bintel Brief had been offering advice for almost 66 years. In this issue, November 13, 1972, an older woman married to a widower wanted to know how to handle the fact that he constantly compared her to his first wife.

By Abraham Cahan

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I had always wished that the Forverts would receive stories from “daily life” — dramas, comedies or truly curious events that weren’t written at a desk but rather in the tenements and factories and cafés — everywhere that life was the author of the drama.… How to do this? Not an easy task — much harder than writing an interesting drama or comedy…

One day in January 1906, [my secretary, Leon] Gottlieb told me about three letters that had arrived which didn’t seem suited for any particular department… All three letters were of a personal nature rather than a communal one, and each told an individual story.

I considered the three letters and my response was:

Let’s print them together and call it “A Bintel Brief.”

And then I realized that the name itself [meaning “a bundle of letters”] would attract readers, and that an interesting feature could develop out of it.

When I read over the three letters, it turned out that two of them were critically important for their content alone, and they could serve as examples to show what is meant by “interesting and true events” with “good reading material drawn from real life itself.”

The first letter was from a woman from Eldridge Street who wanted to use the Forverts in order to appeal to her neighbor to return a watch. Once, when she had to go out, the neighbor agreed to keep an eye on her house. When she returned home, she noticed that the watch was missing. It soon became apparent to her that it was in a pawn shop. She didn’t think her neighbor was a thief. But she suspected the neighbor of pawning the watch since her husband was out of work and the family was in extreme need.

In her letter to the Forverts, the woman wrote that she understood her neighbor’s situation and felt her pain. But she feared her husband would also lose his job and she, too, would have to frequent the pawn shop. Also, if her neighbor would give her the pawn ticket (the ticket for the item placed in the pawn shop), then she’d be perfectly willing to pretend that nothing had happened. Her neighbor could leave the ticket anywhere around the house; she’d soon find it. In her letter, she invited the neighbor to come over again. She assured her that she was always a welcome guest.

This type of letter would never have been sent to us by this woman had the Forverts not shown the public that such everyday events, human interest stories, were something we knew to be important for a newspaper.

The letter reflected a worker’s life better than any story the talented literati could create. I was happy about it. Here we had an outstanding example for readers about our intent.

One of the other two letters was also very interesting. A reader explained that a Jew had sold him his “grace after meals” for a few cents. For two cents, he had agreed to say the blessing for him, and the mitzvah [“good deed”] would belong to him, the purchaser. The third letter was something else entirely.

I published all three letters and wrote a brief introductory explanation regarding their content. I asked readers to send us similar letters about interesting events or observations.

The letter was published on January 20 and, as expected, with the helpful explanation, it drew interest and attention. Through our friends, unions and the Workmen’s Circle, we received frequent reports about how the Forverts was admired; also, we received many interesting reactions and comments about the three letters, especially the one regarding the watch.

Since then, I wrote a few more explanations and yet more — all indicating the type of material we sought for the “Bintel Brief.” And amazingly, the letter about that watch seemed to have opened the public’s eyes. “Now we understand what it is you are looking for.” We began receiving many interesting letters.

“The second bundle” was published on January 29. We kept receiving more letters, and eventually the “Bintel Brief” became a regular daily feature.

I wrote an explanation for each letter describing the situation or the events depicted in it and then, after printing the letter, advised the letter writer how to handle the situation.

And that’s how this feature developed. We noticed the following unfolding: Most of the letters that were submitted to “Bintel” were about domestic difficulties involving love, legal custody, and relations between man and wife and mothers and children — in brief, about the most intimate details of our lives. That was perfectly normal. Everyone wrote about that which was closest to their hearts.

The result was that the “Bintel Brief” would be assembled out of those letters that revealed the most interesting nooks of people’s souls. There was no end to public interest in this feature. The “Bintel Brief” became indescribably popular…

Gottlieb read over and sorted all the letters — discarding the unsuitable ones and placing acceptable ones to the side. Out of these, I’d assemble a “Bintel Brief” out of two or three letters and then write my responses — our reflections and advice…

Many American newspapers had a feature in which young women or men would write in for advice about romantic issues. But the question was published in only three or four lines… And the answer would also take up only a few rows.

In our “Bintel Brief,” we constantly printed entire letters. A few of them were long and detailed. The women writers, for example, poured their hearts out, recounting facts and details.… And our responses would also be a conclusion, in several lines, sometimes even a full column’s worth…

Many of the letters were poorly written, and to make them print-worthy, we had to rewrite them. Many were penned not by those whose hearts needed unburdening, but rather by others who were transcribing the events as told to them. Naturally, a specialty field of writing for the “Bintel Brief” developed. One could see signs: “‘Bintel Brief’ letters written here.”

Through the “Bintel Brief,” many mothers found their lost children whom they hadn’t seen for more than 20 or 25 years. Twice, engaged couples discovered through the “Bintel Brief” that they were, in fact, sister and brother. …

These are only a few examples from scores of events. Many of these encounters took place in the Forverts editorial offices. And often, when the readers knew in advance that a mother and son who had not seen each other for many years were to be reunited, a crowd would be waiting on the street near our building in order to watch the happy mother with her newly found child.

Yes, this and other sensational events were regular items in the “Bintel Brief.” But that’s not the source of its tremendous success.

The essence of the “Bintel Brief” surely is to be found in the quiet tragedies of our lives — true, incredible pages from the “book of life.”

The words “Bintel Brief” became a familiar phrase, a part of American Yiddish. Lots of Jewish women who were illiterate learned to read through the “Bintel Brief.”

During the feature’s first couple of years, I myself would respond to all the letters in “Bintel.” … I was more than happy to do the work, for it was through these letters that one saw a rare panorama of people’s souls. I had a literary interest in it. Later on, it took up too much of my time, and within three years B. Feigenbaum was writing the responses. Today, we have a special colleague who reads and sorts the letters and another one who writes the responses.

Translated by Chana Pollack.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.