In ‘A Bintel Brief,’ Liana Finck draws a love-letter to the cowards, stoolies, brides, and sons who inspired Abraham CahanBy Seth Lipsky for Tablet Magazine
One of the mysteries of the life of Abraham Cahan is why in mid-career he quit writing fiction. By the end of World War I, Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, had met with much success with The Imported Bridegoom, Yekl, and The Rise of David Levinsky. Then suddenly, with more than 30 working years ahead of him, he quit. It bothered a lot of people, including H.L. Mencken. My own theory is that Cahan got wrapped up in the struggle against communism. But it may just be that the stories bubbling up on the Lower East Side were better in real life than anything Cahan could conjure.
A Bintel Brief, Love and Longing in Old New York, a wonderfully illustrated gem of a book by Liana Fink, would confirm the latter view. In it, Finck tells some of the tales from readers that came into the Forward each day and were answered by Cahan or the other editors in the famous column known as the “bundle of letters.” They wrote of missing the old country and being confused by the new. They sought advice on the problems that beset them in the new world. Some were mundane, such as how to use a handkerchief, or whether to play baseball. Others were profound.
The eleven stories illustrated by Finck are particularly choice. They start with one of the most famous letters, from the woman who told her son “not to be such a good boy.” But he worked in the sweatshop until his fingers bled and saved his pennies until he had enough money to buy a watch. At one point, the family pawned it to buy food, but got it back. Eventually, though, it “disappeared.” She suspects the woman down the hall, and writes to the Forward in hopes that the suspect will see the letter and return the watch. She promises “we will remain friends like we always have been.”
Cahan advises that the “letter-writer is in a bad situation” and that “it can be that she has let her imagination run away with her.” So he goes off on a harangue about the “wretchedness of the workers lot.” Not that Cahan is indifferent. He allows that the story “pierces our hearts” and adds: “If these lines were to portray how hundreds of workers kill themselves each day, it would make less of an impact than this small but extraordinarily human story about the watch and chain.” I’ve read that story several times over the years, but rarely savored it quite the way I did with Finck’s book.