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An immigrant's secret

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

Reading A Bintel Brief

Years before Ann Landers and Dear Abby, these was A Bintel Brief. In 1906 the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish language newspaper addressing the more than half-million Jewish immigrants in New York City, began running an advice column under a title that translates as a bundle of letters.

The column spoke to Jews from Russia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Middle East, with different traditions and dialects as well as skills and opportunities, struggling with each other as well as their new circumstances in some of the most crowded neighborhoods in the world.

The paper's editor was Abraham Cahan, who also wrote several novels about immigrant life. Cahan contributed some of the letters as well as the responses. A Bintel Brief gave advice on all kinds of personal problems. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the century and speak of issues central to the experiences of most immigrants.

Below is an interesting letter and response

September 10, 1906
Worthy Editor,
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
Editor’s Response
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.

To read A Cobbler's Tale click here>

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