Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America

Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America

Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America

Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America

Synopsis

At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish families scattered by migration could stay in touch only through letters. Jews in the Russian Empire and America wrote business letters, romantic letters, and emotionally intense family letters. But for many Jews who were unaccustomed to communicating their public and private thoughts in writing, correspondence was a challenge. How could they make sure their spelling was correct and they were organizing their thoughts properly? A popular solution was to consult brivnshtelers, Yiddish-language books of model letters. Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl translates selections from these model-letter books and includes essays and annotations that illuminate their role as guides to a past culture.

Excerpt

In 1913, Sonia Lubelski, a young woman living in the Lithuanian shtetl of Baltrumants, wrote a letter to her fiancé in America. The two young people were trying to negotiate a present and a future through the mail, and Sonia was still uncertain about whether to join Morris—the former Meyshe Abba—in Lynn, Massachusetts. “I too want to put an end to the paper life,” she writes, hopefully. But her next words are more resigned: “As the women say, ‘They take people and they exchange them for paper.’”

Sonia and Meyshe Abba were hardly the only young couple who were living through the mail. A paper life—a life of correspondence—ran parallel to the real lives of East European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. People wrote letters of all kinds: family letters, business letters, courtship letters. For a highly migratory people, letters were a necessity. Even within the Russian Empire, sons left home to study, or to make a living, or to board with in-laws, or because they had been drafted. Daughters left with husbands or went alone to seek a better life in big cities. Men traveled to seek business opportunities. And few families were unaffected by emigration.

Letters presented all sorts of opportunities beyond satisfying the desire to maintain contact with loved ones. Write the right kind of letter, and you present yourself as you want to be seen; use good arguments, and you impel others, for example, your grownup children, to act in ways that match your expectations. But to take advantage of these opportunities, lower-middle-class Jews needed skills they might not have had a chance to acquire. Jews in Russia and Poland needed help in writing correct Yiddish, and sometimes, Hebrew and Russian (in America, they needed English). They needed examples of how to express feelings in a formal or . . .

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