In 1906, Abraham Cahan was looking to boost the circulation of the Forward, the Yiddish daily that he edited. Warheit, a rival for the affections of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, had begun to publish letters from readers seeking advice. Not to be outdone, Cahan began publishing readers’ letters, but with a twist: He would answer them himself.
Cahan was a novelist, a political activist, and an all-around man of letters. You might think that writing advice for the lovelorn or comforting lonely immigrants might have seemed beneath him. But Cahan had a deep feeling for the personal travails of his fellow Jews. Besides, he was on a mission. As his biographer Seth Lipsky puts it, “Cahan was now focused on turning the Forward into a publication that would teach his new readers how to become Americans and embolden them to embrace their new country’s modernity.”
The result was “A Bintel Brief,” or “bundle of letters,” the Forward’s most popular feature in its heyday and still its best-known contribution to both Jewish life and journalism. It was a forum for new immigrants to learn American folkways, emotionally abandoned wives to shame their distant husbands, and religious mothers to complain about their “freethinking” sons and daughters.
I’ve always envied “A Bintel Brief” for its ability to engage readers in a spirited and important back and forth. As folksy as the letters could seem, they were also about the essential issues facing the swollen Jewish immigrant community: tradition, religion, economics, and even life and death. To call Cahan the “Ann Landers” of his day doesn’t quite capture the tone or significance of “A Bintel Brief.” He was more like a public Sigmund Freud, analyzing the traumas and fears of his audience and offering gentle advice on how to overcome them.
This aspect is captured beautifully and even hauntingly in a new graphic novel by Liana Finck called A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (Ecco). Finck adapts and illustrates 11 letters from the newspaper, tying them together with a backstory in which she interacts with the ghost of Cahan. (Full disclosure: Liana’s parents are members of my synagogue.) Exploded into multi-panel comics, the letters are each given a distinct treatment. The story of a father afraid of being left behind in the Old Country is darkly inked and drawn almost realistically (save for a few Chagall touches at the very end). A seemingly comic letter about a bride and groom who receive more pillows and lamps than they could ever use is illustrated with a more delicate pen. When a cantor explains that he’s lost faith in God and can no longer lead prayers in good conscience, he’s pursued by an ominous gazelle.
The effect is to turn these letter writers of long ago, no doubt already dead, into collaborators in what could be a series of short, impressionistic films.
But there is something else going on. Finck reminds us that “A Bintel Brief” was never just quaint or cozy, but terribly sad, wild, and weird. The longest letter is from a shattered young woman who loses her fiance in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “The angel of death is always before my eyes,” she writes Cahan. Could she ever learn to love the new suitor who wants to marry her?
And the framing story isn’t just a device — it’s a canny commentary on Cahan himself, who realizes how many of the letters (some of which, he admits, he wrote himself) are reflections of his own preoccupations. In Finck’s comic, as in Cahan's autobiography and novels, the immigrant protagonist is haunted by the Russian-speaking Poland he left as a young man. Recurring motifs from the letters — “An old mother or father, a backwards fiance from Eastern Europe, a Messiah-like character appearing from nowhere” — these, says Cahan, are the “dybbuks” that pursue him and his readers. Even immigrants who want to let go of the past are protective of it, saddened and confused by what they left behind. And Cahan is doubly haunted, creating a Yiddish-language newspaper whose success at turning greenhorns into Americans will spell its own demise.
In the decades since Jews fully entered the mainstream, Jewish advice columns have become niche productions. “Ask the Rabbi” columns are targeted mostly at observant Jews. The Forward itself has begun a new column, “The Seesaw,” offering advice to those touched by interfaith marriage. You might argue that — between Ann Landers and Dear Abby (two Jewish girls from Iowa) and Randy Cohen (the original “Ethicist” at The New York Times Magazine) — Jewish advice became a universal phenomenon. Lipsky also suggests that “A Bintel Brief” was the original social media, a personal, interactive feature in which readers create the content.
But I find myself pining for a time that is lost and cannot come back, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were literally on the same page, sharing similar problems, caring about each other, and hoping that a Jewish newspaper editor, of all people, could offer some sage advice.