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Legacy Bintel: 1922 Montreal sisters quarrel over nothing

The original Bintel Brief column was founded at the Forward in 1906 and ran through the 1980s. Written in Yiddish, letter writers sought advice on heartbreak, poverty, religious quarrels, family disputes, love triangles and more.

Legacy Bintel revisits these original Bintel Brief letters. Many appear here in English for the first time. They have been researched and translated for this column by Chana Pollack.

This Week in Legacy Bintel:

This 1922 letter about Montreal sisters, arguing back and forth publicly in the pages of The Forverts after one took the other in, seemed particularly apt for the Covid era. The pandemic has caused rising unemployment has left many people unable to meet rent, meaning more people find themselves moving in with, or taking in, family members. Whether it’s siblings living together for the first time as adults or children regressing as they live with parents, close living quarters can strain relationships of all kinds. Hopefully, however, most of us are able to talk through our disputes in a more tactful manner.

Shira Telushkin


Respected Editor Sir!

As your reader for the past dozen years, I read my own sister’s letter published in your Bintel Brief dated September 8th:

“To move or not to move,” and I find it necessary to clarify things, as I know you listen to all sides of an issue.

A year and a half ago, when it was possible to emigrate from Poland, I received the first letter from my sister stating that she’s practically barefoot, naked and starving. She asked me to bring her and her partner over here.

Upon receiving such a letter from my sister, I immediately sent them a ship’s ticket and enough money for their expenses. Unfortunately she arrived without her love, who by then was her legal husband, though she denied that to us.

When she arrived, I asked her: where’s your partner? She then explained that though they were legally married, he wasn’t able to get his visa for that time period and so couldn’t travel together with her.

He arrived shortly thereafter, and I found him work immediately. For 6 entire months, they lived with us in our home and didn’t spend a cent. After 6 months, they paid a third of the expenses, according to what they would have paid had they been boarding with strangers. That’s how I treated my sister and brother-in-law.

Now I want to convey how they acted towards me: they lied to me worse than strangers.

Once, I was ill and bedridden for two days. I have a 1 and a half year old child and my sister wouldn’t watch him. She didn’t even offer to get the kid a glass of milk. The child was so upset the whole time, until finally he fell asleep on the floor. My husband works in a shop all day long, so I was forced to drag myself out of bed and lift the child off the floor and put him to bed.

When I felt better, I asked my sister if she thought she was treating me right to which she replied, “Shut your mouth, I didn’t come here to serve you!”

Over time, things changed. My husband was unemployed for 3 months and we experienced some difficulties. It wasn’t our best time. I asked if she could start contributing something to make up for what I’d been spending on them. Nu, a fight broke out and they moved out.

Now I ask you, respected editor, must I make amends with this kind of a sister? Can I even have anything good to say about her?

Thank you in advance.

I remain,

—YOUR MONTREAL READER

When we published your sister’s letter in The Forverts, we responded to her that the sooner she moves out of your house, the faster you’ll become good friends. We still believe it. Living together causes friction. You mustn’t hate her as she hasn’t really done any harm. We don’t see that she’s done anything terrible to you. Neither of you can claim you’re of the best sister stock. We deleted the sharpest words from her letter that were deemed unsuitable for a sister to write — and from yours too. You’re both wrong.

Now that you’re living apart, you should get along well. You remain sisters, from the same flesh and blood. You’ve done more good for each other than bad. Sisters will have words. Surely, now that you live separately you wish only the best for each other. Stop your petty squabbling. It’s unsuitable and not a good look.

Your children will suffer from it. They’ll also learn to quarrel and fight because that’s how their mothers behave. And should your children go around bickering over nothing, you’ll know how horrible and bitter it is to argue.

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