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
Sometimes, the lives of our ancestors come to us in mythical tales of triumph or sorrow. Sometimes they are just sad love stories. This week’s letter writer is in a sad love story, but also clearly on the precipice of making some _dumb choices. It can be nice to remember that the woes of the early 1900s were every bit as dramatic and petty as today. — Shira Telushkin_
March 26, 1906
Esteemed Forverts Editor sir!
As a daily reader of your Bintel Brief, I observe folks spilling out their distressed hearts, and I decided to empty mine as well. Surely you’ll be able to offer advice to lighten it for me.
I’m a married man with a wife and 3 year old child in Russia. For five years, before marrying, I carried on with a girl I’d met when still quite young—I was 12 years old and she was 14. As I got older, my parents began demanding I end the relationship, but that only inflamed my passion for her. It got so bad that I wanted to leave home.
But when I turned 17, my outlook changed and I began thinking about my future. I saw that the stronger my love for her, the more I felt buried at her feet. I was at her beck and call. I couldn’t budge without her, couldn’t even get a job. If I tried to leave, she threatened me with trouble.
I realized I couldn’t go on this way and had to rattle her loose from my mind.
I took off for Vilna but as soon as my train arrived there, I turned around and went back to her. The more I tried to leave her, the more my heart longed for her.
She noticed my earlier coldness towards her, and she changed some of her ways. Thinking then that I had her in hand, I started treating her quite tenderly, asking only that she amend her behavior.
I might as well have been speaking to a wall. She wanted me to say “I do” but I couldn’t. We weren’t good together.
I gathered my strength and left for nearby Shavel, where in time I met a young woman. We worked together in typography where I was a machinist and she was a typesetter. She was really smart, and a good person too. She soon began talking about us getting married. I was 17 and she was 19. I couldn’t imagine us marrying, though,, because I felt drawn back to that other girl. She was still writing to me but I saw I couldn’t live with her. I married the young woman I worked alongside.
The day before the wedding I fantasized I saw that other girl in front of me and didn’t know what to do. Breaking our engagement seemed like a bad idea — my fiancee would never get over it. My life was in shambles at that point.
And so I got married.
We were together a year and a half and had a son, yet I never felt true love for her. I couldn’t get that other girl out of my mind. My wife used to ask me why I seemed so forlorn and I’d make something up. She’s no fool and understood; she just stopped asking, crying bitterly on her own.
And so it went, until rumors of war began.
My wife was convinced I should emigrate to America. In brief, I followed her instructions and I’ve been here two years already and still have no idea what to do. My heart still belongs to that other girl and she just arrived here. I haven’t seen her yet, but a friend wrote and told me she’s here. I can’t live with her nor will I divorce my wife. I’ve lost the will to live, frequently woolgathering that my wife is here now too, but thenI think about that other girl and, in my mind’s eye, my wife suddenly turns grotesque.
I think I should die. I shouldn’t bring my wife over here. I’m in pain and now she is miserable thanks to me. Bringing her over here is an even worse idea. So, I’ve no idea of what to do.
Impatiently, I await your guidance, ready to do the right thing. I will do whatever you suggest.
The Forward answers:
Life isn’t nor should it be merely about pleasure. There is also responsibility. And that, we hope, is also pleasurable. We deem likely the best the writer can do is dislodge that past lover from his mind. He must bring his family over here, for their happiness which is also his. Most of all, we don’t believe his first lover could create a harmonious life with him, even if he’d have married her earlier. That’s the impression we got from his letter.
My wife is in Russia and I’m in love with another