Bintel Brief title in Yiddish with archival photo of three female students. by the Forward

Should I drop out of school to help with my siblings?

Image by Kayla Garb

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:

A fourteen year old reader writes to the Forverts about her troubles. Her mother wants her to quit school because she needs more help around the house.

“As September draws near and schools begin to re-open around the country, many families face another term of virtual education. The question of how to work full time with small children at home is newly urgent — who takes care of them while the parents work? And how do kids get an education when both parents work all day? Both parents and children struggle with their new roles in this uncomfortable reality.

In the shadow of this reality, I was drawn to this 1930s letter by a 14 year old girl debating whether she should quit night school to help her over-taxed mother. Her compassion for her mom, her sense of obligation to her family, and her fervent desire to not give up her education are moving, and serve as a reminder that 14 year olds have long had to make really tough choices about their lives. She’s also a really fun writer.”Shira Telushkin


Dear Forverts Editor!

As a young reader of your esteemed paper, I don’t skip out reading the Bintel Brief, and get great pleasure from your smart advice for the perplexed.

I’m writing with a request that you publish my letter and give me advice with my situation.

I’m a girl of 14. I’m here in America for a year, meaning I’m still a greenhorn. New and green.

I ended public school this past term. Due to circumstances, I have to work, and believe me, respected editor, it’s not a thrill. I leave home at 7 a.m. for work and return at 5:30 p.m. From 5:30 until 7 p.m. I attend Hebrew school and from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. we eat supper, read the paper and go to bed.

But my mother yells at me about going to school. Firstly, she says I’m stressing myself out too much. Secondly, she wants me to help here around the house.

You’ll surely say my mother is wrong about wanting me to quit school and I’ll tell you that she’s right about one thing: She’s 34 years old but has lived through more than a woman of 70. We’re four children and I’m the eldest. The youngest just turned 8.

You surely know that young children need all your attention and energy, but my mother has to work and only comes back home at 6:30 p.m. And then she still has to get supper ready and clean the house.

My father has a small store and earns little. He gives the house a budget of 10 dollars weekly and that’s to support six of us. You can imagine how my mother can barely sustain us all, and has to go work. And when she gets home exhausted, feeling like a doormat, she’s got the housework to do and attention to offer the kids.

And now, dear editor, you know a bit about my mother’s situation. I hope you’ll understand the reason she is against my attending night school.

Before, when I was still in public school during the day, I could help her clean the house until 5:30 p.m. Then I would go to Hebrew school until 7 p.m. and after that, I would be free again.

Now that I’m forced to go to work but want to study as well, I get home from school around 9 p.m. and can’t help her out at home because it’s late and I have to go to sleep.

I know my mother has the right to say I’m not getting enough rest and she’d rather I help her a bit around the house. But I don’t know what to do.

It’s a pity to quit school because I love to learn and I’m young and it’s the perfect time to get educated. But, at the same time, I have compassion for my mother who, night and day, toils so hard and I’d very much like to help lighten her load. But, I can’t do both.

My question is: Quit school or help my mother? I love both learning and my mother, and I don’t know which to choose.

I’m not, heaven forbid, angry at my mother for suggesting I quit school. I know she means well and I’m not conflicted with her about this. I get along well with my mother and love her so much — more than I love myself. And I do nothing without her. When I go to the movies or somewhere, we go together. I have no other friends aside from her and I listen to whatever she tells me.

I ask you to publish my letter as quickly as possible and tell me what’s best for me to do.


The Forvert Answers:

Education arms you in the struggle for your future life. Quitting school is not for you. But one doesn’t need to be stressed and overworked. When you’re physically worn out, you can’t have energy for absorbing your education.

We strongly suggest you continue studying but don’t overexert yourself. Studying is like taking medication. Two teaspoons in a timely, regular schedule will heal.

As far as helping at home, that too must be regulated. From time to time on a day off, maybe a Sunday or Shabbes sure. But to overload yourself with work, whether it’s studying or housework, is an injustice to your youthful energies.

We think the younger kids, including the youngest who is 8, can each do a bit of the chores. It’s good for them to learn how and to get used to the fact that each child should offer an hour daily for housework. That will lighten the load.

Should I drop out of school to help with my siblings?

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