For the thousands of Jewish immigrants who flooded into America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Jewish Daily Forward was far more than a newspaper ? it was a lifeline, an advocate and a basis of community. Led by its legendary founding editor, Abraham Cahan, the Forverts helped generations of newcomers adjust to life in America. Unabashedly leftist in bent, the paper tirelessly chronicled the hardships of life in New York?s fetid factories and cramped tenements, while boosting trade unionism and socialism.
But the work of helping immigrants and promoting a leftist agenda also continued off the page: The Jewish Daily Forward sponsored English classes, charity balls and a pro-labor summer camp, and hosted vaccination days in the lobby of its building. The paper?s editors spoke at political rallies and lobbied government officials on behalf of Jewish immigrants who were detained or turned away at Ellis Island. Readers, in turn, did more than just read the news; they reported it to the paper by letter and in person, often appealing directly to the staff for help and advice. From the outset, the relationship between the publication and its readers was interactive.
A Bintel Brief, or ?A Bundle of Letters,? was the nexus of that interactive relationship and one of the paper?s most popular features. The column, initiated by Cahan in 1906, invited readers to tell their own stories in the pages of the paper. Many of the readers, struggling to make it in America and concerned for loved ones left behind in Europe, wrote in seeking counsel, thereby cinching A Bintel Brief?s reputation as one of the earliest ?advice? columns. Less known today is that the feature was also an indispensable clearinghouse for readers in need: Through the column, relatives were reunited, orphans found new homes and difficult communications were proffered under the cover of anonymity. Among the first three printed letters was a missive from a woman who suspected that her desperately poor neighbor had stolen and pawned her son?s beloved pocket watch. Appealing to the unnamed woman to send the pawn ticket in the mail, the letter-writer also assured her that the two would remain friends.
Collected in English translation in 1971 by long-time editor Isaac Metzker, A Bintel Brief provides a window into Jewish life in America and the cataclysmic events of the 20th century, including World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the rise of communism. Particularly in the earlier years of the column, the letters told of poverty, unemployment and the spread of tuberculosis in the sweatshops, as well as young girls forced into the ?white slavery? of the brothels, and desperate, poverty-stricken women deserted by their husbands. The number of abandoned wives writing in became so great, in fact, that the Forverts established another feature, ?The Gallery of the Missing Husbands,? to track down the vanished men. Some themes remained constant throughout A Bintel Brief?s decades-long tenure. Readers wrote about matters of the heart, questions of faith and society, and about the ever-shifting relationship between their American and Jewish identities.
? Jennifer Siegel