This collection of Yente Serdatsky’s letters was published in the Nyu yorker wochenblatt (The New York Weekly) between the years 1949 and 1962. Serdatsky had written some very popular short stories in her youth but had a falling out with Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forverts (The Forward), in 1922. After their split, she was effectively blacklisted by all publishers. In the 1930s, she was given some funds in the form of a “pension” by the I. L. Peretz Writers’ Society; however, in 1949, these payments stopped. She decided she would make her living by writing again. In order to convince the editor of the Wochenblatt to let her write for him, she started to send letters to the paper. Because the letters were funny, they were published, and she was ultimately able to convince the editor to give her a column. This sampling of her first letters to the newspaper contains uproariously funny diatribes in which Yente Serdatsky takes aim at her enemies, plays with her sassy new public persona, and manages to smoothly transition from a colorful crank who writes occasional letters to the editor into a regular contributor.
A Letter from Yente Serdatsky
Sept 16, 1949
My Dear Colleague Yitzhak Liebman,
We come once again to make use of your freethinking and honest platform—the Nyu Yorker Wochenblatt, this time to further defend my literary honor. This concerns the series of articles by the esteemed man of letters Mr. Wolf Younin.
In his first article in the Wochenblatt, he criticized your colleague, the esteemed man of letters Dr. Shloyme Bikl. I wrote a letter of correction and demands in the Tog. Given that your paper costs me twenty dollars a year, I want no ersatz craft. If the allegations were really true, the paper should either fire Dr. Bikl from his post for his uselessness, or find him a children’s tutor who can teach him to compose a sentence.
Mr. Younin has written about my letters in his column in the recent issue of the Wochenblatt. He starts right in about a “former author-ess,” and so on.
These two words are not ethical, and of course not grammatical. That a grown man doesn’t know to write simply “author” and not “author-ess”!
But what puzzled me more is the “former.”
What an offense. A very crude woman once remarked to me, “You’re a former writer.”
Most recently, in my quarrel with the I. L. Peretz Writing Society, which by the way is not yet resolved, I had the occasion to hear this from Mr. Ben Zion Goldberg, from Mr. Mordecai Dantzis, and now from Mr. Younin.
If one has nowhere to publish, does one become, therefore, a former writer? I want to ask if such a rule exists.
At the same time, I’d like to say that through the years when I’ve had nowhere to publish, I’ve written more copy than when I had a job at a newspaper. That my work now comes in the form of letters doesn’t matter; at least I make my point . . . and how!
Incidentally, my situation is better than that of the ancient Rashi, who also had no job, and who was required to carry his Commentaries himself and lay them in the doorways of his readers. I have the post office.
Yet More from Yente Serdatsky
November 18, 1949
Esteemed Colleague Wolf Younin,
Our debate in the Wochenblatt is a hit! Readers beg for more.
I still owe you several words about your second article, “Literary Moles”: the article really had nothing to do with me personally, but the blemish on my nose inspired you. When you wrote of the flaws in Shloyme Bikl’s work, you proclaimed, “The trouble is that the blemish is not under the arm but in the middle of the nose.”
If the blemish really did matter, then it’s little consolation to learn a trouble is only a half trouble. A blemish under the arm is still there.
The story goes like this: my countryman, the Kovner rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, looked just like me and had the same blemish on the center of his nose. However, I have never seen someone as well loved and respected as he was.
There you have one proof.
The second is I. L. Peretz, may he rest in peace. When I met him he was almost sixty. He had no blemish, but a big nose, thick lips, a massive mustache, a wide, bent figure, and a big paunch sticking out like a mountain under his chest. Nevertheless, he was adored by countless women, and men as well.
The third proof is me: I’ve had more admirers than a Ziegfeld Follies starlet. My last adventure was just a few weeks ago. I sat just so with my seventy-two years, with my blemish, resting on a bench in the park. A sixty-year-old man sat next to me, a tall man, a wide-shouldered man, and began to speak about Israel, where he wished to travel. We spoke comfortably. In the morning he returned a much bolder man. He didn’t sleep all night. He showed me his accounts in his checkbook and called me to the chuppah to marry!
“What’s the miracle?” you ask. It’s simple. Talent is godliness; it radiates a light, a warmth that fascinates and is visible through the years.
As you see, I don’t eat my heart out over my blemish. And since it doesn’t bother me, it of course cannot bother you. And if it’s not bothersome, you could find a better point of comparison for your article than a blemish on the nose.
See here, there are other things that should trouble you concerning me. The outrage by the I. L. Peretz Writing Society, which has ceased to pay me the five dollars a week that is so desperately necessary. The even greater outrage from the delinquent payers, yourself included, not a single one of whom has come to my aid in any way . . . and so on, and so on.
The Serdatsky Project for the Improvement of the Nyu Yorker Wochenblatt
November 25, 1949
Esteemed Mr. Yitzhak Liebman,
Let us not miss the window of opportunity. You are always being presented with proposals to strengthen the economic position of the Wochenblatt. Let me propose something as well.
Let’s begin with Professor Einstein: he came to America with his great fame and illustrious personality. People loved him right away. Two earthly angels with golden wings, a brother and a sister, did not forget about his profession, but helped him get settled in their area at Princeton College, where they donated several millions. Mr. Einstein’s work cannot continue in poverty; he needs laboratories and assistants and secretaries and all the other tools of a great undertaking.
I do not compare myself to Professor Einstein, but every creator has their domain. I, in my time, through my writings, have also created. I and other writers were required to cease our work due to the sibling rivalry that had taken hold between Yiddish writers on the left and those on the right. We hung our harps upon the willows and awaited better times . . .
It has been three decades since then. The sibling rivalry has only grown stronger, the atmosphere for certain writers more suffocating, but our harps call out for us and beg to be once again taken into our hands.
The newspapers and periodicals belong to the parties. The only publication that is not beholden, that is honest, uncorrupted, and of literary merit, is the Wochenblatt, and so it is here, to the Wochenblatt, that I’d very much like to return, and begin again to say my piece.
I’ve had an interesting life. I’d like to write about it, memoirs of the most tantalizing social and historical matters. Among my former readers are fabulously wealthy people, even millionaires, even some who operate gold and diamond mines!
What do you think, Liebman, my friend? When my column reaches them, won’t one or more of these people send a few grand to the Wochenblatt? When they do so, it will be my Princeton, and their monument for all eternity.
I see potential here. If you see it as well, publish me. Print this letter of mine, if you please, and request that kindly disposed editors reprint it.
Yente Serdatsky, Writer of Stories
January 6, 1950
Esteemed Colleague Yitzhak Liebman,
Allow me to write a few words to the fine artist Mordecai Yardeini about his column in the most recent Wochenblatt, “Word and Sound.”
My dear colleague Mr. Yardeini, the “sound” of your “word” this week was magnificent. The only shame is that I was not there with my picket signs to hear it. You slapped the editor of the Tog right in the face, he who tormented you for a year before firing you from your job, and what’s more, insulted you.
Some editor! He ought to thank G-d he encountered a Jewish foe; when one torments a Gentile writer, it ends in something worse than blows.
Let me express my sympathy for the loss of your position. No doubt the salary was a large part of your living, as well as that of your family.
I’d also like to say that raising a hand against a man ought not to trouble your conscience, but rather, it shows the nobility of your character—you still believe he’s a human being worthy of your concern. Others who are tired of the “Writers’ Clique” don’t bother slapping its members because they aren’t sure its members are real humans, with human faces.
Incidentally people in this Writers’ Clique are accustomed to slaps. Even Mr. Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, on whom nobody wishes ill, was once slapped by the writer Fradel Shtok for writing such negative criticisms of her book—which he tore to shreds—and, in the process, personally insulted her.
So relax, your slap didn’t harm the editor. What do faces mean to them when they’ve already sold their hearts, their souls, to the devil? A simple slap can’t harm them any worse.
What concerns me is your splendid articles, which I used to read so happily in the Tog.
After such a slap, you won’t be allowed back into the Writers’ Clique. Where will you write now? And here I come to the point: we are like those who stand by a clear spring and still search for a drink. I mean the Wochenblatt. A wonderful, uncorrupted newspaper, a freethinking, honest venue, with an editor who is a martyr and an idealist in the loftiest sense of the word.
The newspaper and the editor are toiling in poverty. When we join together our admirers and they contribute among them several thousands to the paper, we can distribute it. To attract more writers, we’ll need to put out advertisements and so forth. This could become a good business and a pleasure to write for. For readers it would also be a blessing: thousands of readers have turned to cards, buying out of habit the daily papers, chewing them over without enjoyment, then falling to the cards. A Sunday paper costs ten cents; they would with pleasure give fifteen cents for the Wochenblatt, encounter more writers, and help to distribute the paper more widely.
I am, unwillingly, entangled in your conflict with the editor of the Tog, as I will explain in my coming article.
With respect to you and your writing,
CADY VISHNIAC'S stories have won prizes at Mid-American Review and Ninth Letter; been published in Glimmer Train, Joyland, and New England Review; and been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest. She is earning a PhD in English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan on an Endelman/Gitelman Fellowship. She was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2018, with translation forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review.