Looking back at the Yiddishkeit of New York City’s Lower East Side, we tend to view the American Jewish immigrant experience with rose-tinted glasses, imagining how excited and industrious the arrivals must have felt after coming to their new homes. But the reality of crowded housing and heated sweatshops made it clear that the New World’s streets were not paved in gold, raising many questions and uncertainties in the immigrants’ minds.
There was no better place to turn to than the Yiddish-language Forverts (The Forward), which came to be regarded as “the voice of the Jewish immigrant and the conscience of the ghetto.” Founding editor Abraham Cahan not only turned the paper into one of America’s premier metropolitan dailies, he also spoke directly to Jewish immigrants and their personal problems through his popular advice column, the Bintel Brief.
As stated on the Forward’s website, “In thousands of Jewish households across the country, the Forward was for decades more than just a daily newspaper – it was a trusted guide and a member of the family.”
The heartbreaking letters that Jewish immigrants wrote to the Forward’s editor take center stage in the graphic narrative A Bintel Brief by Liana Finck (Ecco, April 2014). Subtitled “Love and Longing in Old New York,” the book is a colorful tour of the Lower East Side, brought to life in poignant tales of the hopes, isolation, and confusion of the Yiddish-speaking arrivals.
Liana Finck, a talented artist who served as Tablet‘s artist in residence in 2011 and whose comics and cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker, selected and adapted actual letters, some of which were specially translated into English for the first time. Other letters were taken from the 1971 publication of A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters From the Lower East Side to The Jewish Daily Forward by Yiddish novelist Isaac Metzker.
The only previous graphic novel I had ever encountered prior to reading A Bintel Brief was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. There is definitely a bit of Spiegelman in Finck’s creative vision, but there is also the magical spirit of Marc Chagall in the artist’s comical, yet endearing renditions of peasants captured as they transition from European mentality to the realities of their new homeland.
This book will be enjoyed by enthusiasts of graphic novels as well as by anyone who wonders what the New York immigrant experience was all about.