A Bintel Brief by Liana Finck

Written and Illustrated by Liana Finck
Published by Ecco Press

In our modern era, it’s kind of amazing that the advice column persists -- it’s visible and very alive in both the quaint moral conundrums posed to Dear Abby by grandmas and tweens and the “How do people even have these problems?” sexual and romantic entanglements of Savage Love. Despite the premium our culture puts on self-sufficiency, and the instantly available (and often unreliable) advice generator that is Google, we still seek guidance from some public authority about how to fit in and relate to the world.

Advice columns can stand as an anthropological means to access a particular culture, and A Bintel Brief aims to do just that. Starting in 1906, the back page of New York City’s Jewish Daily Forward was given over to letters to the editor from newly arrived immigrants facing the challenges of acculturating to an American way of life. The Forward, and their letters, were written in Yiddish -- Bintel Brief translates roughly to a bundle of letters -- but isn’t Bintel Brief just way catchier?

For her graphic reflection of a time gone by, Liana Finck has selected eleven letters from the Brief that strike a particularly melancholy tone. Letter-writers try to hold onto their Jewish identity and values while scrambling to become recognized as true Americans. Problems as simple as neighborly disputes and as serious as suicidal tendencies are addressed. But through all of them runs a thread of existential dread at the unrelenting pace of the new world -- am I doing the right thing in the eyes of myself, my community and my God? Are my responsibilities to those things in conflict? It’s a huge question at the heart of even the simplest query.

Finck frames each of the eleven stories with an imaginary conversation between herself and Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Forward and wise advice-giver of the Brief. They discuss his work on the forward, the changing face of Judaism in America, and ultimately, the fact that the Brief’s mission was to put itself out of a job. As Cahan advised letter-writers on how to be more American and less attached to the ways of the old country, so they left behind their Yiddish newspapers and Jewish customs. As their imagined discussion continues, he becomes less and less strange himself, eventually fading anonymously into the bustle of today’s New York. 

It all comes off as a bit on the nose, and the arrangement of the letters feels episodic and a little stilted -- it doesn’t quite come together as one cohesive story making a huge point. But that’s alright, as it’s clearly a work of love and elegy for Finck, and as such, it definitely tugs at your heartstrings.

I liked the illustration style quite a bit - Scribbly but deliberate, liny and nervy, claustrophobic and lonely at once. While reading A Bintel Brief I mentally compared it to Roz Chast’s neurotic, wacky New Yorker cartoons and Maira Kalman’s just-slightly surreal historical works, off-kilter yet deliberate. Finck’s style is at home among those sketchy, wild cosmopolitan woman, but it’s also very much her own. In particular, there’s something haunting about the visual anonymity of the Bintel letter writers - blank eyes and mute mouths abound -- almost Edward Gorey-esque in their spookiness. Visually and narratively, it very much feels like a book filled with ancestral ghosts.

A Bintel Brief doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive, complete look at the immigrant experience in the early twentieth century, but it almost certainly wasn’t meant to. It is a personal and profound look at the mysterious patchwork of rules and values that make up America, a country of immigrants, and the ongoing balancing act of self-definition and cultural assimilation in the Jewish diaspora. Am I doing the right thing? Finck seems to demand -- and where do I belong? Answers elude her, but perhaps it’s the questioning that counts