September 18, 2019

Thrilling days of yesteryear

Nothing links the three books described below except that each, in its own way, is so charming that I couldn’t resist opening it up and, having done so, couldn’t put it down.

One of the treasures of American-Yiddish journalism was “A Bintel Brief” (“A Bundle of Letters”), an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward that serves as a window into the lives of the immigrant generation of American Jews around the turn of the 20th century. Now Liana Finck, a gifted young writer and artist, has reframed some of the most affecting of those letters in a comic-book format in “A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York” (Ecco).

Although Finck is unabashedly sentimental about her discovery of her grandfather’s yellowed clippings from the Forward, she decided to illustrate and dramatize some of the most troubling letters in the archive in a conscious effort to show us the complexity and consequence of the life experiences the letter-writers shared with their newspaper. So we are privileged to witness family drama and dysfunction, hard lives and broken hearts, operatic accounts of betrayal and loss — all of it illustrated in Finck’s endearing and often whimsical artistic style. 

The letters themselves show us the galvanizing process by which “greenhorns” turned themselves into Americans, as do the bracing answers, which were composed by the storied editor of the Forward, Abraham Cahan. A barber confesses that he has dreamed of cutting off the head of a troublesome customer and, when he stands at his chair in the barber shop, “I get a sudden impulse to do what I did in my dream.” The advice from Cahan is highly practical: “The writer of this letter must simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head,” unless “his nervous system is for some reason weakened,” in which case “he must consult a doctor.” Finck is always faithful to the voices in the original letters and the answers, but she also writes and draws herself, her cherished family and Cahan into the stories. Indeed, by the end of this enchanting book, the reader feels that he or she, too, has spent time in the company of patient, lovable but also inscrutable ghosts.