It’s a very simple idea: a woman receives a notebook with newspaper clippings from the Bintel Brief, a long-running letter column in turn of the century Yiddish newspaper The Forward. When she opens this notebook, the ghost of Abraham Cahan springs to life and they read the columns as they interact in the present. This is the charming premise of Liana Finck’s graphic novel A Bintel: Love and Longing in Old New York.
Finck adapts 11 letters-to-the-editor, using a different style based on the content of the letter. The illustrations vary wildly from blocky and dark to spacious and delicate. The tone of the book is lovely and heartfelt, perhaps because she is a character in the narrative. As she reads The Bintel Brief, she gets to know centuries of New York immigrant Jews and she gets to know Cahan himself. It can also be difficult to interest younger people in 100 year old advice columns when there is so much else to read, see, and do. Especially when that advice was written in a Yiddish newspaper! Finck breathes new life into these columns. Plenty of life was there before, but I’m not sure they had an audience.
Every story in the book actually appeared in The Forward. These are real problems real people wrote in about. They are all a bit sad, but not in an outright weepy way. People sought advice about missing husbands, thieving neighbors, and embarrassing spouses; but at the core they’re all very respectful and earnest. Many people were haunted by the ghosts of the old world, which never seems to be far from their minds. The letters are borne from the everyday hardships of immigrant life, which is sometimes quite bleak but at the same time poignant and hopeful. These letters can tell you as much about peoples’ lives at that time than any article about working conditions, poverty, or immigration ever could.
You can read some excerpts from the book on Liana Fink’s website. If you read this book and you want more (as I did), you can read the original columns in A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, edited by Isaac Metzger (libraries have it, but you can also buy it). The Forward also still hosts a Bintel Brief advice blog online.
Cover image via Goodreads.