“Worthy Editor . . .” Selections from the Bintel Brief
The “Bintel Brief” [“A Bundle of Letters”] has been in existence since 1906, when the editors of the Jewish Daily Forward—the largest and most influential Yiddish daily in America—first opened its pages to inquiries from its readers. Unlike the usual advice-to-the-lovelorn columns in journalistic vogue, the “Bintel Brief” was not limited in subject matter, but dispensed guidance on every aspect of the immigrant experience—from the proper use of the knife and fork to the proper relation between bosses and fledgling trade-unionists. Almost immediately the feature became a kind of nerve center and public bulletin board for the Lower East Side Jewish community, as well as an effective forum for that “Americanization” of its readership which the Forward saw as one of its primary tasks.
The letters below, along with the original replies from the Forward’s editors (in italics) , span the years 1906-1938. All the selections have been taken from a larger sample of letters compiled and edited by Isaac Metzker which will be published by Doubleday in the spring under the title, A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward.1
We are a small family, not long in the Golden Land. My husband, my boy, and I are together, and we have a daughter who lives in another city. . . .
My husband has become a peddler here. The “pleasure” of knocking on doors and ringing bells cannot be known by anyone but a peddler. If anybody does buy something “on time,” a lot of the money is lost, because there are some people who never intend to pay. In addition, my husband has trouble because he has a beard, and because of the beard he gets beaten up by the hoodlums.
Also we have problems with our boy, who throws money around. He works every day till late at night in a grocery for three dollars a week. I watch over him and give him the best because I’m sorry that he has to work so hard, but he costs me plenty and he borrows money from everybody. . . . I want to point out that he is well versed in Russian and Hebrew and he is not a child anymore, but his behavior is not that of an intelligent adult.
I don’t know what to do. My husband argues that he doesn’t want to continue peddling. He doesn’t want to shave off his beard, and it’s not fitting for such a man to do so. The boy wants to go to his sister, but that’s a twenty-five dollar fare. What can I do? I beg you for a suggestion.—Your Constant Reader, F. L.
Since this woman’s husband doesn’t earn a living anyway, it would be advisable for all three of them to move to the city where the daughter is living. As for the beard, we feel that if the man is religious and the beard is dear to him because the Jewish law does not allow him to shave it off, it’s up to him to decide. But if he is not religious, and the beard interferes with his earnings, it should be sacrificed.
In the name of all the workers of our shop, I write these words to you: We work in a Bleecker Street shop, where we make raincoats. With us is a thirteen-year-old boy, who works hard for the two-and-a-half dollars a week he earns.
Just lately it happened that the boy came to work ten minutes late. This was a crime the bosses couldn’t overlook, and for the lost ten minutes they docked him two cents. Isn’t that a bitter joke?—Sincerely, V.
. . . I came to America as a shochet. The ship I was on sank. I was among the lucky ones who were rescued from the waves, but my valise with my possessions, including the license that authorized me as a shochet, was lost.
Since I could no longer be a shochet, I became a shirtmaker. Later I worked my way up, and became a cloakmaker. All was well, but I was not satisfied, as I don’t have to tell you about conditions for the workers. The physical labor and the degradation we had to endure in the shops was unbearable.
Meanwhile, two of my brothers came from Europe. We stayed together and worked in a shirt shop. Several times we tried contracting, but it didn’t work out. At that time, white collars for shirts came into fashion. We had to sew on neckbands, to which the white collars were buttoned. This became a nuisance that delayed the work. Imagine having to cut out a band to fit each shirt we made! . . .
In short, one of us got an idea. Since the whole trade found the neckbands a problem, why not make them ourselves for all the manufacturers? Said and done! It worked out well. They snatched the bands from our hands and we got very busy. We were the only ones in the line from the start, and we prospered. Later a few more shops opened, but that didn’t bother us because the trade grew even bigger.
Now we have a huge factory with our names on a great sign. But the bands that gave us our start are not made by us brothers alone, and all this time we have paid little attention to our workers because we are so involved with our own fortune.
In time I began to read your newspaper, and out of curiosity, even the “Bintel Brief,” to see what was going on in the world. As I read more and more about all the troubles my conscience awoke and I began to think: “Robber, coldblooded robber, . . . just look at your workers, see how pale and thin and beaten your workers look, and see how healthy and ruddy your face and hands are.”. . .
My conscience bothers me and I would like to correct my mistakes, so that I will not have to be ashamed of myself in the future. But do not forget that my brothers do not as yet feel as I do, and if I were to speak to them about all this, they would consider me crazy. So what is left for me to do? I beg you, Worthy Editor, give me a suggestion.—Yours sincerely, B.
We are proud and happy that through the Forward and the “Bintel Brief” the conscience of this letter-writer was aroused. We can only say to the writer that he must not muffle the voice of his conscience. He will lose nothing, but will gain more and more true happiness.
. . . Last year I met a young man, a few years older than I, a businessman with a good income. He soon fell in love with me. He began to bring me presents and begged me to say yes. . . .
Once he declared his love, my heart told me I would have trouble with him. I had no one here to advise me, and at one time I wanted to leave New York and so escape from him. But I stayed and did nothing. As time went on, he began to introduce me to his friends as his fianceé Then he began to talk of renting an apartment. I want to state here that we are both free-thinkers, yet I didn’t want to hear of just living together. But he won out, rented an apartment, furnished it, and ordered me to move my luggage and possessions there.
Dear Editor, it’s possible I should be scolded for my actions, but believe me, I can’t explain to myself why I obeyed him. Well, we’re living together now for the eighth month and I feel as if I’m losing my mind. I can’t stand his bass voice, it’s as if a saw were rasping my bones. I hate him because he’s a terrible egotist. When he starts talking about eating, or sits at the table with the cigar in his mouth, or pokes a toothpick around his teeth after eating, I feel so disgusted that I fear I am going out of my senses. . . .
I have no tears left from crying. I want to save myself but cannot. Often I choke from his talk, but when he is near me I lose control and become his slave. When he leaves I feel disgust and hatred. I want to escape from him because if I stay any longer I’ll surely take my own life. Save me and advise me what to do.—Thankfully, Unhappy
The writer of this letter, we believe, could easily save herself. She could free herself if she really wanted to. By the “really wants to” we mean, if she had a strong enough character to accomplish it. From what she writes of her own feelings toward the man, and from the story she relates, the best move would be for her to free herself.
I am a working man from Bialystok, and there I belonged to the “Bund.” Later, I came to Minsk where I joined the Socialist-Revolutionaries. What convinced me to join was the following: In Minsk there had been a Bundist demonstration which was attacked by the police. They beat up the demonstrators brutally, and arrested many of them. The prisoners were lashed and many got sick. One worker from Dvinsk was sentenced to fifty lashes, which caused him to develop epilepsy. In the middle of his work he would suddenly fall down in a fit.
When we, his co-workers, saw this, it aroused in us a desire for revenge against Czar Nicholas and his tyrannical police force. But a convention of the “Bund” at that time declared a policy against revenge, so many of our former “Bund” members joined the Socialist-Revolutionaries. In the meantime, war was declared against Japan, and since I was a reservist, I began to get mail from home advising me to flee to America. I allowed myself to be talked into it and left.
I have been here for two years now, and life is not bad. I work in a jewelry store, for good wages. But my heart will not remain silent within me over the blood of the pogroms that took place in Bialystok, where I left old parents and a sister with three small children. I haven’t heard from them since the pogrom and don’t know if they’re alive. But since they lived in the Piaskes where the Jewish defense group was located, it’s possible they are alive.
Now I ask your advice. I cannot make up my mind whether to fulfill my duty to my parents and sister and bring them to America, if I hear from them, or to go back to Russia and help my brothers in their struggle. If I had known what was going to happen there, I would not have gone to America. I myself had urged that one should not leave for America but stay and fight in Russia till we would be victorious. Now I feel like a liar and a coward. I agitated my friends, placed them in danger of the soldiers’ guns. And I myself ran away.—Respectfully, M.G.
If the writer had asked us the question before leaving Russia, we would not have advised him to leave the revolutionary battlefield. But since he is already here and speaks of his two duties, we would like to tell him that the Assistance Movement in America has attained such a position that anyone who wants to be useful will be able to do enough here. He should bring his parents and sister here, and become active in the local movement.
Worthy Mr. Editor,
I am a workingman, and two years ago I entered into a partnership with another worker. We took in several other people, whom we paid well, and we all earned good wages.
During the two years we worked together, I was sick for three weeks, but my partner . . . gave me the usual half of the profits. I didn’t want to take it, since I hadn’t worked, but my partner, an honorable man, brought me the entire half.
Some time ago my partner got sick, and the first two weeks I, too, gave him half of what we earned. But when I wanted to give him his share after the third week, he didn’t want to take it. He explained to me then that the partnership was dissolved because his doctor had told him to stop working.
My former partner is now in business, but he is not doing well. I, on the contrary, have worked a full season . . . and earned a good deal, because the extra profit remained for me alone.
Now my question is whether I have any obligations to my former partner, because since he became sick and left me, I am earning more than usual. I want to remark that I am a family man with young children, but I don’t want to take what belongs to another. If you, Mr. Editor, will tell me I have a duty toward him, I will fulfill it. . . .—Respectfully, A Reader
It is comforting to see that there is still compassion in the world. According to the official rule of “mine” and “thine,” the writer of the letter, after the partnership was dissolved, owes his partner nothing at all. But according to a rule of human kindness, he should give any and all help with an open hand to this faithful and honorable friend.
Worthy Mr. Editor,
Please decide who is right in a debate among friends, about whether a socialist should observe Yahrzeit.
One of the disputants is a socialist and freethinker who observes his mother’s Yahrzeit in the following manner: He pays a pious man to say the Kaddish prayer for the dead, and burns a Yahrzeit candle in his home. He himself doesn’t say Kaddish because he doesn’t believe in religion. But his desire to respect the memory of his mother is so strong that it does not prevent him from observing it even when it involves a religious ceremony.
Others among the debaters do not want to know of such an emotion as honoring the dead. But they argue that if one does desire to do so, one should say Kaddish himself, even if he does not believe in it.
Therefore, our first question is: Can we recognize the beautiful human emotion of honoring the dead, especially when it concerns one so near as a mother? The second question: If so, should the expression of honor be in keeping with the desires of the honored? Third: Would it be more conscientious and righteous if the free-thinker said Kaddish himself, or if he hired a pious man to do it for him? . . .—With regards, The Debating Group
Honoring a departed one who was cherished and loved is a gracious sentiment and a requisite for the living. And everyone wants to be remembered after his death. Socialists and free-thinkers observe the anniversaries of their great leaders—just recently they commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. Saying Kaddish is certainly a religious rite, and to pay someone to say Kaddish is not the act of a free-thinker. But we can understand the psychology of a freethinker who feels that hiring someone else is not as much against his own convictions as saying Kaddish himself.
. . . Max! The children and I now say farewell to you. You left us in such a terrible state. You had no compassion for us. For six years I loved you faithfully, took care of you like a loyal servant, never had a happy day with you. Yet I forgive you for everything.
Have you ever figured out why you left us? Max, where is your conscience? You used to have sympathy for fallen women and used to say their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need. And how did you act? I was a young, educated, decent girl when you took me. You lived with me for six years, during which I bore you four children. And then you left me. . . .
Be advised that in several days I am leaving with my two living orphans for Russia. We say farewell to you and beg you to take pity on us and send us enough to live on. My address in Russia will be. . . .—Your deserted wife and children
We were sitting in the shop when the boss came over to one of us and said, “You ruined the work: you’ll have to pay for it.” The worker answered that it wasn’t his fault, that he had given out the work in perfect condition. The boss got mad and began to shout, “I pay your wages and you answer back, you dog! I should have thrown you out of my shop a long time ago!”
The worker trembled, his face got whiter. When the boss noticed how his face paled, he gestured and spat and walked away. The worker said no more. Tired, and overcome with shame, he turned back to his work and later he exclaimed, “For six years I’ve been working here like a slave, and he tells me, ‘You dog, I’ll throw you out!’ I wanted to pick up an iron and smash his head in, but I saw before me my wife and five children who want to eat!”
Obviously, the offended man felt he had done wrong in not standing up for his honor as a worker and as a human being. In the shop, the machines hummed, the irons thumped, and we could see the tears running down his cheeks.
Did this unfortunate man act correctly in remaining silent under the insults of the boss? Is the fact that he has a wife and children the reason for his slavery and refusal to defend himself? . . .—Respectfully, A. P—ski
The worker cannot help himself alone. To defend their honor as men, the workers must be well organized. There is no limit to what must be done for a piece of bread. One must bite his lips till they bleed, and keep silent when he is alone. But he must not remain alone. He must not remain silent. He must unite with his fellow workers and fight.
Dear Mr. Editor,
. . . I am a barber, and have been practicing the “art” for ten years and become quite adept at it. Sounds good, yes? But then the following happened:
A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon when there were no customers and the boss was out somewhere, I dozed off while reading the Police Gazette. I soon dreamed that a customer entered. The boss and I took our positions near our chairs, and as usual the customer selected the one manned by the boss. As usual, I was a bit insulted as a craftsman, and a little vexed over being robbed of the tip. But it happened that the boss was called away in a hurry and he asked me to tend to the customer. I began to work on him and he laughed in my face. He grimaced, made strange faces, stuck out his tongue, and began to yell at me. Though I didn’t understand the language, I felt he was calling me a clumsy barber. My patience finally gave out. And as I held the razor in my hand (don’t question a dream!), I slit his throat. So naturally there was screaming and tumult and I awoke. From habit, I spat three times to banish the dream, but it didn’t help.
Dear Editor, it must seem strange, or like a story created by a sick imagination, but what I write here is the truth: since my foolish dream, I cannot rest. I can’t forget the dream. When I stand at my work and have to use my razor, I get a sudden impulse to do what I did in my dream. The greatest temptation I have to withstand is when my razor gets under the chin to the neck. Oh, then it’s terrible! I am afraid I will go mad. I tried staying home from work for two days, but I can’t get these thoughts out of my head.
I haven’t told anyone about this yet, because I am ashamed. I beg you to advise me what to do. Shall I give up my job? I am willing to do anything to rid myself of my puzzling dilemma and my suffering. . . .—A Mad (?) Barber
Man’s thoughts often weave automatically through “Idea-Patterns,” as they are called in Psychological Science, and the muscles respond automatically to the ideas. Every man with a healthy will can shake off the unwanted ideas and the reflexes they call forth to the muscles.
Every man can dream he commits a terrible crime, because in dreams the controllable will is slumbering. The writer of this letter must simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head. But if his nervous system is for some reason weakened and therefore his control over his will power likewise weak, he must consult a doctor. But he, himself, must be strong and overcome his impulse.
. . . I worked for the police department for a year and my job was to trail thieves and pickpockets and gather evidence against brothels. The state paid me seventy dollars a month, and my record for the year was very good. My boss, Officer Bingham, was very pleased with me, and took me in to work at headquarters. . . .
One day a complaint came that a certain restaurant was selling liquor without a license and I was sent to investigate. I came into the restaurant, sat down at a table and read the Forward. Soon a man came over to me, and I ordered a complete dinner. After the appetizer I asked for a schnapps and drank it. I finished the meal, and paid the sum of eighteen cents to the man. Then I looked around and saw the owner’s seven children with their pale, emaciated mother, and I felt I could not be such a murderer as to take the father away from his children and send him to the city jail for a hundred and twenty days. . . . Well, I warned him to stop selling liquor, and showed him the complaint letter. He thanked me kindly and wanted to give me five dollars, but I wouldn’t take it.
When I returned to the station I told the lieutenant who questioned me that there was no liquor or beer in the restaurant. But the lieutenant said he would send me back there with a man who had worked in the restaurant as a waiter and he would show me that there was liquor there. I returned to the restaurant with the former waiter, winked at the owner and asked for a schnapps. When he answered that he didn’t sell whiskey, the waiter ran over to the counter, grabbed a bottle of whiskey and showed it to me. . . . When we got outside I told him he should be ashamed of himself for squealing on such a poor man. We had an argument and I slapped him around a little.
Later, when we got back to the police station, I was called into the captain’s office, and he told me I was fired. I told him goodby and good luck and left. A few days later the captain called me back, but I told him I didn’t want to do that kind of work any longer. . . . (I must add here that I am not a real police detective, because I don’t wear a badge, and that’s because I am not yet twenty-one years old.)
I don’t want to go back, because I haven’t the heart to do such a thing as allow a man to be punished for selling a glass of whiskey for three cents. I would rather starve than send such a man to prison. . . . Now I ask you to give me an idea how to act. I will do what you tell me. I have taken a dislike to the job, and if times weren’t so bad now, I wouldn’t even consider the idea of going back.—Respectfully, Former Assistant Detective
The young Assistant Detective is praised for his actions, for not wanting to inform on a poor man. He is advised to flee from the job as from a fire, because this work is not fit for such a fine young man, with such a kind heart. It is not right for him to place himself in servitude to the police, as they carry on these days, because of the danger that he might, in time, not be able to withstand the temptation and it would be hard for him to guard against sinking into the slime of immoral police practice.
I often spend time with a group that is made up of about forty people, thirty men and ten women. Among them are various people, religious and non-religious, and we do not pass the time in idle discussions.
Recently we read in a newspaper a report about the movement to give women the right to vote, and for the past few weeks we have been carrying on a debate about it. I am one of the group that is in favor of giving women full rights, and most of the others are against it. The opposed argue that it would be very bad to let the women get to the ballot box, because that would destroy their family life. The woman would then no longer be a housewife, the mother to her children, the wife to her husband—in a word, everything would suddenly be destroyed.
A woman must not mix in politics, they say. She was created to be dependent on the man, obey him, love him, supply him with comforts, and be a mother to his children. The question arises: Must the woman then be considered a slave, and the man the master? Isn’t it obvious that women in many cases show themselves to be cleverer than men? These same people who recently celebrated the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, for having freed the Negro slaves, now talk with a satirical grin about women’s freedom. . . .—With socialistic regards, L. V.
The arguments against the opponents of women’s rights are very good ones. The fact is that many intelligent women are already taking part in various activities and they still remain excellent homemakers.
Justice can reign among all kinds of people only when they all have equal rights. If one has more power than the others, it leads to injustice. Those men who are opposed to giving women the same full rights they possess are acting from tyrannical instincts because they actually want to be rulers over the women.
Dear Mr. Editor,
I was born in a small town in Russia, and until I was sixteen I studied in Talmud Torahs and yeshivas, but when I came to America I changed quickly. Influenced by the progressive newspapers and the literature. 1 developed spiritually and became a free-thinker. I meet with free-thinking, forward-moving people, I feel comfortable in their company, and I agree with their convictions.
But the nature of my feelings is remarkable. Listen to me: Every year when the month of Elul rolls around, when the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approaches, my heart grows heavier and sadder. A melancholy descends on me, a gnawing longing cries out in my breast. At that time I cannot rest, I wander about through the streets, lost in thought, depressed.
When I go past a synagogue during these days and hear a cantor chanting the melodies of the prayers, I become very gloomy and my suffering is so sharp that I cannot endure it. My memory goes back to happy childhood years. I see clearly and brightly before me the little town, the fields, the little pond, and the woods around it. I recall my childhood friends with our sweet childlike faith, my heart constricts, and I begin to run like a madman till the tears stream from my eyes and then I become calmer.
These emotions, or these moods, became stronger and stronger in me, till I decided to go to the synagogue—but not in order to pray to God.
I went to heal and refresh my aching soul with the cantor’s sweet melodies, and this had an unusually good effect on me. Sitting in the synagogue among landsleit and listening to the good cantor, I forgot my unhappy weekday life, the dirty shop, my boss, the bloodsucker, and my pale, sick wife and the children. All of my America with its hurry-up life was forgotten.
I am a member of a Progressive Society, and since I am known there as an outspoken freethinker, they began to criticize me for going to the synagogue. The members do not want to hear of my personal emotions and they won’t understand that there are people whose natures are such that memories of their childhood are sometimes stronger than their convictions.
And where can one hide on Yom Kippur? There are many of us like me. They don’t go to work, so it would be good if there could be a meeting-hall where they could gather to hear a concert, a lecture, or something else. . . .—Your reader, S. R.
No one can tell another what to do with himself on Yom Kippur. If one is drawn to the synagogue that is his choice. Naturally, a genuinely sincere free-thinker is not drawn to the synagogue. The writer of this letter is full of memories of his childhood days at home, and therefore the cantor’s melodies influence him so strongly. Who among us isn’t moved by a religious melody remembered from his youth? This, however, has no bearing on loyalty to one’s convictions. On Yom Kippur, a free-thinker can spend his time in a library or with friends. On this day one should not flaunt himself in the faces of the religious. There is no sense in arousing the feelings of the fanatics. Every man has a right to live according to his understanding. The pious man has as much right to his religion as the free-thinker to his atheism. To parade one’s acts and insults against religion in the faces of the pious, especially on the day they hold most holy, is simply inhuman.
Just as there is agitation all around us about the cloakmakers’ strike, so there is also a tumult about it in our Society of landsleit. A committee from the cloakmakers was sent to one of our meetings to ask for support for the strike, but our treasury was closed for six months by resolution of the members, and no expenditures may be voted. Knowing that time is valuable to the cloakmakers, we began a debate about it after we sent the committee away. As president of the Society, I had to speak in the interests of the group, even though I am a friend of the workers.
A motion was made to tax the brothers at the next meeting to raise money for the strikers. But the motion was defeated by the members with the argument that each one could, of his own free will, make his own contribution for the strike. We did not come to any conclusion, and the meeting was adjourned. Knowing the condition of the strikers, I decided not to wait for a second meeting and I brought to the Forward office five dollars for the striking cloakmakers in the name of our organization. . . .
I know that when I bring it up at the next meeting there will be some who oppose this and will say I had no right to do it, so I appeal to you for an opinion. I would like to hear from you whether I had the right to act on my own and give aid to the strikers.—A Constant Reader
We would certainly want a great deal of money to come in for the strikers. But what’s true is true: A president does not have the right to give contributions and make disbursements without the agreement of the membership.
. . . Does a married woman have the right to give up two evenings a week to educate herself? My husband thinks I have no right to do this.
I admit that I cannot be satisfied to be just a wife and mother. I am still young and I want to enjoy life. My children and my house are not neglected, but I go twice a week to evening high school. My husband is not pleased, and when I come home at night and ring the doorbell, he intentionally lets me stand outside a long time, and doesn’t hurry to open the door.
Now he has announced a new decision. Because I send out the laundry to be done, it seems to him that I have too much time for myself, even enough to go to school. So from now on, he will count out every penny for anything I have to buy for the house, so I will not be able to send out the laundry any more. . . .
When I am alone with my thoughts, I feel I may not be right. Perhaps I should not go to school. I want to remark here that my husband is an intelligent man and he did not want to marry a woman who was uneducated. The fact that he is intelligent makes me more annoyed with him. He is in favor of the emancipation of women, yet in real life he acts contrary to his beliefs. . . .—Your reader, The Discontented Wife
Since this man is intelligent and an adherent of the women’s emancipation movement, he is scolded severely in the answer for wanting to keep his wife so enslaved. Also the opinion is expressed that the wife absolutely has the right to go to school two evenings a week.
. . . I was born in Russia and was twelve years old when I came to America with my dear mother. My sister, who was in the country before us, brought us over. My sister supported us; she didn’t allow me to go to work, but sent me to school. I went to school for two years and didn’t miss a day, but then came the terrible fire at the Triangle shop, where she worked, and I lost my dear sister. My mother and I suffer terribly from the misfortune. I had to help my mother and after school hours I go out and sell newspapers.
I have to go to school three more years, and after that I want to go to college. But my mother doesn’t want me to go to school because she thinks I should go to work. She feels I am too old to learn. I tell her I will work days and study at night but she won’t hear of it.
Since I read the Forward to my mother every night, including your answers in the “Bintel Brief,” I beg you to answer me and say a few words to her—Your Reader, The Newsboy
The answer to this letter is directed to the boy’s mother, whose daughter was one of the shop-workers who perished in the Triangle Fire. The unfortunate woman is comforted in the answer, and she is told that she must not hinder her son’s nighttime studies, but must help him reach his goal. And an appeal is made to good people to help the boy with his education.
Worthy Mr. Editor,
. . . My husband’s parents were killed in a pogrom and he alone barely escaped with his life. Later he was forced to leave Russia and he came to America.
Since the world-famed case of Mendel Beilis began in Russia, my husband doesn’t miss reading anything that is written about it. And every time he finishes reading something in the newspaper about the bloodthirsty trial he gets so upset, so nervous, that he sometimes shows signs of madness. More than once, I’ve been afraid to stay alone in the house with him.
At first it was bearable, but lately the news about the trial affected his nerves so much that he took it into his head that he must go back to Russia to take revenge on Beilis’s persecutors. He had already packed his bags, but when he began to take leave of the children, they began to cry so bitterly that he remained at home. . . . A few days ago he went to a lawyer and signed over to me and the children the few hundred dollars he has in the bank. He told me he did this so that in case something happened to him in Russia the children and I would at least have a few dollars.
Therefore, dear Editor, I need your advice. Maybe your answer will calm him a little, and he will put these ideas out of his head—Mary
Thousands of Jews come to America with their pogrom-wounds that still bleed and can never be completely healed. And is it any wonder that this writer’s husband has shattered nerves? The murderers there killed his parents, almost brought about his death, and now the dreadful Beilis trial has reopened his old wounds.
Russia is full of such people, Jews and non-Jews, who feel the same hatred as he for the Black Hundreds, and if it were possible to take revenge on the guilty ones they wouldn’t wait for him to come all the way from America. But time will pay them what’s due them. This man must calm himself, he must have pity on his wife and children and stop thinking of leaving them. The most important point is, however, that the wife must take him to a good psychiatrist.
I come from Russia, where I was brought up by a father who was a Talmud-scholar and a cantor. I took after my father both in learning and voice, and when I became a Bar Mitzvah my leading the congregation in prayer made a sensation. My name became known in many cities and people came to hear me conduct the services.
When I turned eighteen, a respected man from a town near Kovno took me as son-in-law, gave me four-hundred rubles and five years of room and board as dowry and with all this, a pretty daughter of sixteen. I moved into my father-in-law’s house, ate, drank, and devoted myself to the study of Torah. Once in a while, on a special Sabbath or a holiday, I led the prayers in shul, but I took no money for that. . . .
I began to talk to my wife about going to America, and after long deliberation, we left home. When we came to this country, our landsleit helped us a little to get settled and when the High Holy Days came, I earned a hundred and eighty dollars as a cantor leading the Musaph prayers. I began to make a living as a cantor, and people began to hire me for weddings, funerals, and other affairs.
As time went on my horizons broadened. I read all kinds of books, I accumulated worldly knowledge, and began to look at life differently.
In short, I can’t reconcile myself to continue making a living as a cantor, because I am no longer a believer. I can’t act against my conscience, and the right thing to do is to give up my present religious livelihood. I simply want to learn a trade now, perhaps become a peddler or find another means of earning a living that would have no connection with religion. . . .
Now there are arguments over this among me, my wife, and our close friends, and we all decided to place the question in your hands. . . .—Your reader, The Progressive Cantor
This question would be answered by free-thinkers as well as religious people in the same way. Even the rabbi would say that according to Jewish law only a pious Jew may be a cantor. His wife and his religious friends who are trying to convince him to remain a cantor are really committing the worst sin according to their beliefs.
For a non-believer to be a cantor for an Orthodox congregation is without a doubt a shameless hypocrisy.
Worthy Mr. Editor,
. . . I was born in Russia of poor parents and when quite young I went to Vilna to study at the Romailes Yeshiva. Later I studied at a yeshiva in Kovno. I “ate days” at other people’s tables and often went hungry because there were many times when I had only three “days” a week.
When I was eighteen I came home to my parents. Because I had been listed through an error as a few years older, I was due to be drafted for military service so it was decided that I go to America. I had a hard time until I finally saw the Golden Land, and here during the first years I suffered a great deal. . . .
In time I married a girl who was as lonely as I, and we were happy, even though I made a meager living. When our big-mouth “Workers’ Liberator,” Teddy Roosevelt, was elected for his second term, it got so bad that I couldn’t find a job. We had five children by then and no money coming in. At that time I became a janitor, and for the work I was given two dark little rooms (on Stanton Street) where the sun was ashamed to shine.
Once, when I went out to look for work, I unexpectedly met a friend with whom I had studied years ago in Vilna. I was thin as a rail, but he had a strong neck, a fat belly, and was well dressed. I asked him what his occupation was, but he didn’t answer right away. Instead, he invited me to his home and there told me that if I wanted to, I could be as well off as he. In short, he told me he was a Christian missionary and got one hundred seventy-five dollars a month, not counting gifts. I was in a tight spot and I let him talk me into it. . . .
When my wife, who was religious, found out that I had become a missionary, she didn’t want to know me any longer. I was sent to do my work elsewhere and I got no news from my wife and children. . . .
I cannot demand sympathy from my wife, because I do not deserve it, but I hope you will print my letter. Maybe my wife will read it and perhaps at least let me know where she is and how my living orphans are, because I would like to help them out. I also hope that my letter will serve as a warning to others to beware of making the terrible mistake I made.—With Respect, Unhappy, S. D. G.
This is the reward for treachery, for preaching something one does not himself believe in. If the writer of this letter is now sincere and has really repented, his wife should forgive him and come back to him with the children. She must remember that even God Himself receives a penitent with open arms.
Because of activity in the revolutionary movement in Russia, I was forced to leave the country four years ago and come to America. I had no trade, because I was brought up in a wealthy home, so I struggled terribly at first. Thanks to my education and my ability to adjust, I am now a manager of a large wholesale firm and earn good wages. In time I fell in love with an American girl, intelligent and pretty, and married her.
America was my new home, and my wife and I tried to live in a way that would be most interesting and pleasant. From time to time, however, I had the desire to visit Russia to see what was going on there. But in America one is always busy and there is no time to be sentimental, so I never went.
But now everything is changed. The Russian Freedom Movement, in which I took a great part, has conquered Tsarism; the ideal for which I fought has become a reality, and my heart draws me there more than ever now. I began to talk about it to my wife, but she answers that she hasn’t the least desire to go to Russia. My revolutionary fire has cooled down here in practical America, but it is not altogether extinguished, and I’m ready to go home now.
The last events in Russia do not let me rest, and my mind is not on my job. But my wife and her parents tell me it would be foolish to leave such a good job and ruin everything. My wife doesn’t want to go, and she holds me back. I can’t leave my wife, whom I love very much, but it’s hard to turn my back on my beloved homeland. I don’t know how to act, and I beg you to advise me what to do. . . .—Respectfully, A.
Many of those who took part in the freedom-struggle are drawn to take a look at liberated Russia. But not everyone can manage it. This is also the position of the writer, who has obligations to his wife. She is an American, she has her family here, so how can she leave her home and go to a strange country? Besides, while the terrible battles are still raging, there can be no discussion about visiting Russia.
I want to hear your opinion about the behavior of a woman I am acquainted with, who belongs to progressive groups and considers herself a radical.
Not long ago I was invited to their home by the woman and her husband, and I spent a pleasant evening with them. When the time came to eat supper, everyone went into the dining room to sit down at the table, and the poor woman who works for them ate in the kitchen.
Since I know the couple and I know they consider themselves radical people, I wondered why the servant didn’t eat at the table along with everyone. I took the liberty of telling the woman of the house that she ought to call the maid in to eat with everyone in the dining room because it wasn’t right for her to sit alone in the kitchen. Then my friend answered me that it has to be this way, that the woman who works for them must eat separately.
For me, this was not the right answer from such a woman, and it seems that one of us does not understand the ethics and morals of the socialist viewpoint. Therefore I ask you to explain to us which one is right.—With socialistic regards, A Reader
We are in agreement with the writer, and not with his friend. Progressive people should not discriminate between the servant and the members of the family. When everyone eats in the dining room and the maid is left sitting in the kitchen, they are wronging her because this is really degrading.
I consider myself a progressive woman who thinks there should be no difference between Jews and Christians. Years ago when I was a girl and sometimes heard that parents would not allow their daughter to marry a Christian, I maintained that they should not interfere. I believed that a fine Christian was as good as a fine Jew.
Now, however, when my daughter has fallen in love with a Gentile, I have become one of the mothers who interferes so that the match should not succeed. I am not one of those fanatic parents who warn their children that they will disown them because of such a match, but I’m trying with goodness to influence my daughter to break up with the boy.
My daughter argues with me. . . . She is educated, she knows how to talk to me, and often I have no answers to her arguments. But I feel this is no match for my daughter. Her friend comes here often, and as a person he appeals to me, but not as a husband for her.
I don’t know how to explain it; he is quiet and gentlemanly in his ways, but he talks differently from a Jew and is different in nature too. He is an intelligent person, his parents are ordinary American Yankees, they speak of President Coolidge as of a holy man, never miss a Sunday at church, and when I think that they might become my machutonim and their son my daughter’s husband, I just tremble. I feel (a mother’s heart feels) that my daughter could never get used to these people.
When one is young and in love, one is in the clouds and sees no flaws. But when the love cools down, she will see it’s no good. . . .
I would very much like to hear your opinion on this question.—Respectfully, A Mother
You, yourself, answered everything in your letter, and our opinion is the same as yours. Your daughter might also understand that according to logic the match with the Gentile is not a good one, but her infatuation draws her to the young man. And when love begins to speak, then all the sensible arguments are worthless.
. . . My sister, who was widowed in her twenties, had a good education in Europe; in America she graduated from high school and had two years of college. We in the family are proud of her, because she is smart, well-educated, and has a fine character. But it hurts us to see her wasting her best years alone. We would very much like to have her remarry. Since she is involved in business and seldom goes out, I expressed an opinion that she ought to go to a Shadchan who could easily arrange a match for her.
My sister answered that anyone with self-respect wouldn’t go to a Shadchan, because that seemed to her like going on the slave market. Marriage means to her the union of two people bound by deep friendship.
Then a discussion developed on whether an intelligent, progressive person should go to a matchmaker. Some expressed the opinion that when a person cannot find a match for himself, there’s nothing wrong if he marries through a shadchan, since this is no obstacle to happiness. Others agreed with my sister. They argued that going to a shadchan was only for ignorant people in some remote village in Europe. A modern intelligent person should not go to be weighed and measured like a cow at the fair.
So we decided to leave it up to you, Worthy Editor. May educated, progressive people go to a shadchan?. . .—A Reader in the name of a Group
It depends how a person feels about this, because consulting a shadchan has nothing to do with education or enlightenment. One person considers it like a fair where cattle are sold, and in some cases it does resemble a fair. Another person has an altogether different opinion because a shadchan does not match up brides and grooms nowadays sight unseen. He just introduces people so that they can get acquainted. If they like each other they can fall in love later. Couldn’t the parks, Coney Island beaches, or a dance hall where people meet, also be considered matchmakers?
. . . My parents, who are readers of your paper for years, came from Russia. They have been in this country for over thirty years now, and were married here twenty-eight years ago. They have five sons, and I am one of them. The oldest of us is twenty-seven and the youngest twenty-one. We are all making a decent living. One of us works for the State Department, a second is a manager in a large store, two are in business, and the youngest is studying law. Our parents do not need our help, because my father has a good job.
We, the five brothers, are Americans and always speak English to each other. Our parents know English too, but they speak only Yiddish, not just among themselves but to us too, and even to our American friends who come to visit us. We beg them not to speak Yiddish in the presence of our friends, since they can speak English, but they don’t want to. It’s sort of stubbornness on their part, and a great deal of quarreling goes on between our parents and ourselves because of it. Their answer is: “Children, we ask you not to try to teach us how to talk to people. We are older than you.”
Imagine, even when we go with father to a store on Fifth Avenue in New York to buy something, he insists on speaking Yiddish. We are not ashamed of our parents, God forbid, but they ought to know where it’s proper and where it’s not. Well, if they talk Yiddish among themselves at home, or to us, it’s bad enough, but among strangers and Christians? . . . They want to keep only to their old ways and don’t want to take up our new ways.—Respectfully, I. and the Four Brothers
We see absolutely no crime in the parents’ speaking Yiddish to their sons. The Yiddish language is dear to them and they want to speak in that language to their children and to all who understand it. It may also be that they are ashamed to speak their imperfect English among strangers so they prefer to use their mother tongue.
From the letter, we get the impression that the parents are not fanatics, and with their speaking in the mother tongue they are not out to spite the children. But it would certainly not be wrong if the parents were also to speak English to the children. People should and must learn the language of their country.
. . . I am a man in my fifties, and I came to America when I was very young. I don’t have to tell you how hard life was for a greenhorn in those times. But I harnessed myself to the wagon of family life and pulled with all my strength.
My wife was faithful and she gave me a hand in pulling the wagon. The years flew fast and before we looked around we were parents of four children who brightened and sweetened our lives. The children were dear and smart and we gave them an education that was more than we could afford. They went to college, became professionals, and are well settled.
And suddenly I feel as if the ground has collapsed under my feet. I don’t know how to express it, but the fact that my children are well educated and have outgrown me makes me feel bad. I can’t talk to them about my problems and they can’t talk to me about theirs. It’s as if there were a deep abyss between us that divides us.
People envy me my good, fine, educated children, but (I am ashamed to admit it) I often think it might be better for me if they were not so well-educated, but ordinary workingmen, like me. Then we would have more in common. I have no education, because my parents were poor, and in the old country they couldn’t give me the opportunities that I could give my children. Here, in America, I didn’t have time and my mind wasn’t on learning in the early years when I had to work hard.
That is my problem. I want to hear your opinion about it. I enclose my full name and address, but please do not print it. I will sign instead as—Disappointed. . . .
1 Translation copyright © 1971 by Isaac