“My Dear Beloved Brother”

Sore Reyzen (also Sarah Reisen, 1885-1974) is perhaps best known as the sister of Avrom Reyzen (Abraham Reisen), a prolific Yiddish poet and short story writer, and Zalmen Reyzen (Zalman Reisen), compiler of the Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese, un filologye (Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Press, and Philology), one of the most important Yiddish reference works.  However, she was also a poet, prose writer and translator in her own right, and in addition to her original writings, translated works by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Tagore, and Defoe into Yiddish. Until now, little has been known about her relationship with her brothers or her involvement in their literary careers. However, dozens of her letters to her brothers were recently digitized by YIVO as part of the Vilna Collections (RG 3, Folder 2874) and are now freely accessible online. It turns out that Sore was heavily involved in negotiating with Warsaw editors and publishers on her brothers’ behalf in the 1920s and early 1930s (particularly for Avrom, who had moved to New York in 1911). Her letters reveal a commanding personality and an intimate familiarity with the Yiddish publishing scene, and they are studded with casual mentions of the stars of Yiddish literature.  In a literary scene that was heavily male, it’s intriguing to discover this detailed snapshot of a woman playing the role of literary agent – not to mention bossy big sister!

Below are translations of excerpts from five of Sore’s letters to Zalmen. Not all of them are dated, but they seem to deal with two separate incidents: first, the refusal of Tsevi Pryłucki, the editor of the Moment (one of two rival daily Yiddish newspapers in Warsaw, the other being Haynt), to honor an agreement to continue publishing Avrom’s work, citing the lack of a written contract; and second, Sore’s attempts to get Avrom’s memoirs, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from My Life), serialized in the Warsaw Yiddish press for a decent price (in the end, it seems, only a few installments of Reyzen’s Epizodn were printed, in the Vokhnshrift in April and May of 1931). In both cases, it’s clear that the Reyzens needed the money desperately – and that it was like pulling teeth to get the Yiddish newspapers to pay up! All this provides a tantalizing and rare inside look at the day-to-day functioning of the Yiddish press in Warsaw in the interwar period.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Harriet Reisen for her enthusiastic permission, on behalf of the Reisen family, to publish these translations of Sore Reyzen’s letters.[1]

 

No Written Agreement with the Moment

Letter 1 [undated]

Dear beloved brother,

I was just at the post office [to use the telephone] and wanted to speak to you, but you weren’t in the editorial office.  I received 100 złotys at the Moment – and not at all easily.  It was Pryłucki, Noah, that is, who helped me. The elder Pryłucki doesn’t acknowledge any agreement, seeing as we don’t have it in writing.  And he says that he prints Reyzen without obligation.  If he wants to, he prints him – and if not, he doesn’t.  Reyzen’s pieces, he says, aren’t current.  So I went to the Haynt, but they said they can’t accept any new pieces right now.  I even went to the Folks-tsaytung, but [Henryk] Erlich said they’re not doing well right now either. Yes, they’d very much like to print Reyzen – that is, of course, those pieces that are in keeping with the spirit of their newspaper – but as far as payment, he himself says that they can’t pay promptly. So the idea of abandoning the Moment is unappealing. The Writers’ Union [the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw] doesn’t want to intervene, claims that it can’t intervene because there was no written agreement. [Hersh Dovid] Nomberg behaves toward me as if he doesn’t know me and doesn’t want to know me. So I wanted to take the hundred złotys and go back to Vilna. But considering the circumstances, I do want to at least try to organize an evening at the Writers’ Union. If that turns out to be possible, I’ll organize it and stay here just a few more days. Out of the hundred złotys, I’m sending 80 to Strilovski for the apartment. […] I borrowed 50 złotys from [Sholem] Asch, but they’re already gone. […]

 

Letter 2

Warsaw, Thursday, August 20th, [1925]

Dear brother,

This trip has been a disaster. I have no money and no way to get any. I didn’t go to Otwock.  Day after day I’ve waited to see Pryłucki, who’s about to leave town, and thus I ran through the money that I got from the Writer’s Union (50 złotys). And now I even owe Paula [R., Noah Pryłucki’s wife] for lunches. I’m not even sure why I’m pestering you with my troubles, but I partially blame you for the fact that I’m in this situation. You should have gotten a proper contract and kept a copy. Although who could have anticipated this? But considering this experience, don’t make the same mistake in the future. And do you have a copy of the contract with [Boris] Kletskin for your Leksikon? If [our brother] Hirshl doesn’t send money, I don’t know what’s going to happen. When money comes in, send me a hundred złotys right away – because what’s the point of me being stuck here? Anyway, write me a couple of words. Why didn’t you send a note with [Nakhmen] Mayzel? 

Heartfelt greetings to Mirl and the children. Yours, Sore-Basye. Write to me right away.

Oh yes, I wrote to Berlin to Yakob Kahan to borrow a little money. I gave him your address. So keep an eye out for it and if it arrives, let me know right away.

Dear Zalmen,

I didn’t send this letter yesterday.  I saw Pryłucki.  We had a big fight.  He insulted me terribly.  After such an insult it’s impossible to have any dealings with him.

He refused to be persuaded and tried to leave the room. I said, “I’m not going to let you out.” He said, “I’ll get them to throw you out.” And after that (woe is me) he gave me 40 złotys. We agreed that half of what he prints he’ll pay for, and half will go toward debts. Send the current pieces right away. […] Of the 40 złotys, I gave 25 to Paula and now I have no money again. My situation is so bitter that I can’t even begin to describe it. And I’ll say it again – I deeply regret this trip. But it’s too late now. Send me the current pieces right away. Maybe I’ll still organize an evening – then I’ll be able to leave. If money arrives from Hirshl or Yakob Kahan, let me know right away. I think Yakob will send something. 

I greet you all,

Yours,
Sore.

 

Avrom’s Epizodn fun mayn lebn

Letter 3

Monday, March 9th, 1931

My dear brother!

I got your and Avreml’s letters today. I don’t know what to do either. Who can figure this out. And on the other hand, I think he can print [it] in the Moment. What a quandary, I can’t even express it. I’m thinking of asking them for 75 złotys per feuilleton and getting a contract stating that they’ll print 20 feuilletons. Or 15. What do you think? Answer right away. It’s silly not to print [it]. [Printing it] isn’t going to hurt him. And [otherwise], he’ll just be forgotten, if he doesn’t publish in the daily press. That’s what I think. Write me right away about this. I’m upset that you haven’t gone [to the doctor] to ask about your eye. I’m begging you a million times, go. It’s not a good idea to neglect it, even if it’s a small thing.

Greetings to you, Mirl, Shoelke. Be healthy and happy.

Yours,
Sore-Basye.

 

Letter 4 [undated]

My dear, darling brother Zalmen,

I was just at the Moment. I wanted to make an executive decision and give the Episodes to the Moment to print. But as I wrote to you yesterday, I wanted to ask them to commit to [printing] at least twenty installments. And that they’re not willing to do. Of the 26 pages which you sent me, they’re going to print three chapters. He ([Ber] Karlinski is in charge of the negotiations) is offering 50 złotys not for a feuilleton but for a chapter. And even if they divide a chapter into two feuilletons – he still won’t pay more. So I said no fewer than 75 złotys for a chapter. After all, some of the other chapters are quite long. He promised to answer me tomorrow. So how to decide? Won’t Avreml complain at some point?  Either about printing it in the Moment, or about giving them chapters at 75 [złotys] apiece. What do you think? You need to answer me about this right away. I’ve decided to talk to you tomorrow (Wednesday) on the phone. So you need to be in the editorial office at 9:30. I’ll call you. We’ll discuss it and decide. Be healthy – my heartfelt greetings.

Your sister Sore-Basye. 

[My son] Mishke sends his greetings.  Mirl, Shoelke – write to us.

 

Letter 5

Wednesday, April 15th, 1931

Dear brother!

I didn’t answer you because I wanted to wait until I finally knew something about Avreml’s Episodes. I went to see [Nakhmen] Mayzel [editor of Literarishe bleter] on Sunday quite early. In short, he accepted it without much excitement. I already knew that he’s not one of our admirers. He even said as much.  First, he can’t give 40 złotys, so I said 35. He said that he’d consult with [Yoysef] Kamermakher, and sent off a letter to Kamermakher to ask whether it would be possible to use the formes from the [Kletskin edition of the] Episodes to avoid having to do a separate typesetting. I just called him now and he told me to come tomorrow because Kletskin is there and he’ll discuss it with him. I also gave him Avreml’s piece about Mani Leib – and he took it at first. He even put it in his briefcase. So I asked him for 10 złotys for it. He read it over and said that it’s too short to save him an article, so – considering that it’s a reprint besides – he’ll hang onto it, and when he has another article, he’ll print the two of them together. “It’ll lie around for a couple of weeks.” So I said if it’s just going to lie around, then there’s no point. I thought to myself that it’s not worth it. For that article, I won’t get more than 10 złotys. So it’s better to print it in the Tog or the Folkstsaytung even for free. Or in the Vokhnshrift, where I could certainly get no fewer than 15 or 20 złotys for it. But as far as the Episodes, I’m waiting until tomorrow. […]

 

[1] Reyzen’s letters are held in the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY, in the collection RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Folder 2874. Available digitally here.

RI J. TURNER is currently an M.A. student in the Department of Yiddish at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is a three-time alumna of the Uriel Weinreich Summer Program at the YIVO Institute in New York, and was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2014 and 2018. Her translations and original writing have appeared, in English and in Yiddish, in The Forward, Afn Shvel, Pakn Treger, and elsewhere.