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‘A Bintel Brief’ Is Born

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.

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