A Bintel Brief

This is a wonderful book on the advice column of the Yiddish paper The Forward (now English language) where New York’s Jews could piss and moan about everything. The author uses simple drawings to illustrate the problems people wrote about, along with the events of the times. Keep in mind that Bintel Brief was from a time when the Jews of New York lived in poverty and couldn’t afford therapy; writing to the advice columnist was the only way to talk about your problems. The Forward had its own building on the Lower East Side, but the neighborhood that is now hip and expensive used to be a dirty slum. It was a terrible neighborhood, crowded, polluted, and filthy. Families were very large, so the mothers were worn out from repeated pregnancies, and of course they had to work to feed all those kids. There was no public welfare at the time; you worked, or you went hungry. Therapy was unaffordable to most families, so this was the only alternative to talking to your clergyperson. The writers of this column were usually better educated than most Rabbis, so the advice would be a little more practical.
A lot of the problems written about in Bintel Brief had to do with marriage. There wasn’t any casual dating in those days, and a lot of Jewish New Yorkers had arranged marriages. Some of the letters were from women whose husbands were not as wealthy as they claimed; some were from women whose children were in love with non-Jews. You can learn a lot about how people lived in those days, before the safety net of food stamps and social security.
There have been other books on the Bintel Brief column, which ended in the 1970’s, but I think the last book was published in 1990. This fresh and vibrant comic about the column will keep the memory alive for years, in an era when few Jews still speak Yiddish. As for The Forward, it’s also a bit of an irony that the building is now high class apartments; by the 1930’s, the Jews had fled the Lower East Side in droves, and by the 1950’s it was not safe at night. My mother used to visit the building in the early 60’s, when they had a renowned kosher cafeteria in the basement, and she has fond memories of the place. But you couldn’t be there at night, even in the 50’s, because of all the junkies that came out of the woodwork. The paper itself is now in English, but not as much fun to read. It no longer celebrates Jewish life the way it used to, now relying on stories about Israel’s bombings, or who’s donating the most money to UJA. Perhaps when people have real problems in their lives, they’re more concerned with reading about good things? The Jewish community weren’t always financially successful in this country; there was a time when a lot of us lived in the “low income” area.

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