The Bintel Brief—“Bundle of Letters”—was the iconic advice column in the Forverts. Begun in 1906 by Forverts editor Abraham Cahan, the column was a forum in which readers could share their stories, seek counsel, and even find relatives. The Bintel Brief was a valued resource for Jewish immigrants trying to establish a new American identity. These selections (from 1906) are a letter requesting advice regarding an unplanned pregnancy, the editor’s response, and a rare example of another reader (or in this case, a group of readers) writing to offer another opinion.
Written by a man, this letter concerns an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the disproportionate price paid by the woman. Is he obliged to marry her, he asks, even if he does not love her? The editor’s response to this moral dilemma is surprisingly progressive, arguing against marriage without love but advocating for taking financial responsibility. In a departure from its normal practice, the paper published a reader’s response to the editor’s advice (see next letter).
September 10, 1906
I am confident that you will publish my letter in the Bintel Brief column, just as you have others. Please give me good advice, and I assure you that I will act accordingly.
Five years ago, when I was a youth of 18, I became close with our neighbor’s daughter, a girl of about my age, whom I had known since childhood. Living in the same building and always being together, we fell in love with a childish passion. Our love grew increasingly stronger and more intense, and our relationship became too close. As a result, we were carried away. We used to take walks on the outskirts of town, along the riverbank near the woods. Once, while sitting like that, she told me that she thought she was about to become a mother. This made me despair. Only then did we begin to consider our deed; only then did we begin to take into account what we had done. But it was already too late. I consoled her by saying that I was expecting a ship’s ticket and travel expenses from my brother in America and that as soon as I arrived there, I would bring her over. Soon, the ticket arrived, and I departed with a sad heart and with much regret.
Now, not being close to my beloved, I realized my big mistake. Now, I felt that I did not love her. Now I understood that it was just a passionate attraction devoid of love. Nevertheless, I left with the determination that as soon as I arrived in New York, I would try to get the money from my brother, bring her over, and then marry her. Upon arriving here, I told my brother about my situation with the girl and asked him to loan me the money to bring her here, assuring him that I would pay him back with interest.
My crying and beseeching were of no help. He even yelled at me to knock this foolishness out of my head.
I used to get letters from her relating her desperate situation, being forced to leave her parents and wandering about far from home. Later she shared with me that she delivered a stillborn child. In the beginning, I used to answer her letters immediately, but later, seeing that I could not help her, and feeling no love towards her, I wrote more seldom until I stopped altogether and tried to forget her. On the occasions when my conscience bothered me, I tried with all my might to suppress these feelings. And this is how three years passed.
One day, I was shocked to find her on my doorstep. I saw her in body, but of my former beloved there was hardly anything to recognize—before me stood a skeleton with dull eyes in which one could see a sea of troubles. It was obvious that three years of exile from her parents and friends wounded her. You can imagine how this meeting affected me. Now she demands that I marry her. She insists that I am responsible for her. Under the circumstances, she thinks that she has no chance of marrying anyone else. And if she were to marry someone else, she would never be happy. Given her history, she would always feel like a condemned convict, and if her husband were to find out, he would abandon her. I am the only one she can marry.
I, however, do not love her, and if I marry her, I will be unhappy my entire life.
But my conscience torments me, knowing that because of me she was driven out of her parents’ home, because of me she suffered, because of me she became despondent, lost her youth and self worth. And I cannot decide what to do. Should I marry her and condemn myself to a loveless existence for a sin I committed when I was not yet mature? Or should my conscience be consoled by the fact that she was an equal partner in our deed and that my sin is no greater than hers? I do not deserve a life-long sentence for her suffering.
So, please advise me what to do. I would like to handle the situation as an honorable man, but I do not know how.
— A Reader
The writer, as it appears from the letter, is a man of conscience and feeling. We believe that in the very least he should do everything in his power to help her achieve independence. Naturally, it is true that given the customs and attitudes of our times, such a woman is likely to have difficulties were she to marry. If someone who was willing to take her found out about her past, a tragic drama could ensue. It would be much better if she were to present herself to the world as a divorcée.
A Reader’s Response to An Unwed Mother
This is a rare example of a dissenting opinion to an earlier letter. The fact that 68 people regularly met in a park to debate topics is a story in itself, as is the three-hour debate session about a Bintel Brief letter. It demonstrates the popularity of the column and illustrates the intellectual ferment of the period, especially within the ranks of the Jewish labor movement.
October 10, 1906
We, a group of 68 people who meet in a park to debate various topics, fell into a discussion about you Bintel. Someone read a letter that appeared in Forverts on Monday, September 10. We debated the letter and your response for nearly three hours, and after a vote of 63 to 5, decided to submit our opinion. The original letter concerns the following:
A boy of 18–19 fell in love in Russia with a girl his own age. And because of their “childish feelings” (as he writes), she was to become a mother. She shared this with him, and in a short while he left for America, promising to bring her over. And here, lacking the means, he eventually stopped writing her. During this period he received two letters from her. In the first, she wrote that her parents threw her out of the house, that her friends and close acquaintances distanced themselves and that she was wandering about among strangers. In the second, she writes that she gave birth to a stillborn child. He did not answer her. Three years later, she came to America. As he himself described, how she looks, stones should scream, let alone people with feeling.
Now, she was asking him to marry her. He said: “I do not know what to do. I do not love her. I will be miserable.” His justification was that he was a child, and that she was also guilty!
Taking all this into account, we can say the following: That he does not love her is a minor issue because, if he is a person of feeling, he will learn to love her first as a woman and later as the mother of their children. Let’s assume he were to wed through a marriage broker; he could not love her because he would not yet know her. Typically, love would follow later. If he is a man of feeling as he represents himself, he should consider what he has done to her! What will become of her? What is in her future? Suicide or a house of shame? He defends himself by saying: “I am not the only guilty one. She was no younger than I, and she agreed to this. I was also a child then.” One must laugh bitterly at his defense—a child of 18–19. “She also shares the guilt in this.” True, we agree. But he should read what he himself wrote, how she struggled in Russia, how she looked, how she suffered. It seems that even [Tsar] Nicholas would not mete out a harsher punishment. And he can allow himself to say: “I cannot marry her.” Then to whom should he be compared? What should she do now? Marry? Whom? We agree with the editor’s suggestion that she represent herself as a divorcée, but she would have to find a man on an island with no people. If she were to marry where there are people, it would be impossible for the husband not to find out eventually. We have plenty of “good” people who love to tell of such things. But what if the husband was to find out after there were a couple of children involved? What would become of them, of him, of her? To destroy a woman and then give her a few dollars to make it easier for her to fool a person for a short time is dishonest.
In the name of 53 socialist workers, with no less compassionate hearts, we say: Marry her and you will be happy, even more than happy!
As for his brother, we can say the following: If he were capable of saying, “Do not think of her,” then anything we could possibly say would be more than he deserves!
We conclude with the hope that you will live happily together.
— Z. Bernshteyn (volunteer writer)
There is no need to respond to this letter. Our opinion on this matter has already been stated. If the young man were to marry willingly and compassionately, as the writers advise him, it would have been best, of course. Furthermore, your premise that “a person of feeling will surely learn to love after the wedding” does not conform to life experience. There would be far fewer family tragedies if every man “who is a mentsch” were to learn to love his wife after the wedding and she him. We must also emphasize the fact that interesting letters of the Bintel Brief engender earnest discussion. The author of this letter is an intelligent man, and the interest of intellectuals in these important life-questions is one of the reasons the Bintel column is such a success.▪
As a child in postwar Vilna, Deborah (Dverye) Rothman spoke Yiddish and Russian interchangeably. Even after immigrating first to Israel and then to the United States, Yiddish remained the family’s primary language. In her professional career in Rochester, New York, Deborah was the public relations director for the city’s art museum and, prior to that, the founding director of the Rochester Holocaust Resource Center. Since 2007 she has returned to the rich cultural and literary heritage of mame-loshn, teaching Yiddish and translating short stories and nonfiction. Currently, Deborah is working on a fresh selection of Bintel Brief letters.