Imagine, esteemed reader: Your son has recently arrived in America from your shtetl, and you want to warn him about the temptations of the goldene medina. But how do you find the right words in the right order to remind him to keep shabbes and not spend too much time at the theater? You need a guide—a brivnshteler.
And for those of us secure in our theater-going ways but still curious, the guide to letter-writing guides—the brivnshteler-shteler, if you will—has finally arrived. In Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America, authors Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman provide a glimpse into how Jews led “a paper life,” or a life in letters. Besides teaching literacy in prestige languages like Hebrew, Russian, and German, the brivnshteler, which go back to the Middle Ages, provided a road map for any number of sensitive situations in business and personal relationships.
The most delicious part of the book is its extensive anthology of translated Yiddish letters in which recent American immigrants warn their friends back home about the hard work that awaits them, and sons thank their fathers for the advice that kept them from the theater on the day it burned to the ground. Seems safe to say that this book is one of a kind.