At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish families scattered by migration could stay in touch only through letters. Jews in the Russian Empire and America wrote business letters, romantic letters, and emotionally intense family letters. But for many Jews who were unaccustomed to communicating their public and private thoughts in writing, correspondence was a challenge. How could they make sure their spelling was correct and they were organizing their thoughts properly? A popular solution was to consult brivnshtelers, Yiddish-language books of model letters. Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl translates selections from these model-letter books and includes essays and annotations that illuminate their role as guides to a past culture.
Nakhimovsky, professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate, and Newman, a director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, offer a fascinating look at a phenomenon all but forgotten today: the use of "brivnshtelers," anthologies of "letters for business and private correspondence." These manuals enabled Eastern European Jews who lacked the skills to compose important letters from scratch to make use of a template to communicate in writing. Brivnshtelers were especially important at the start of the 20th century, as Jews continued to grapple with the changes to their identity, culture, and religion wrought by increased exposure to modern secular society. The authors trace the origin of such books to ancient Sumer and Egypt, where scribes were trained by copying texts; they began to be written in Hebrew in the 16th century, at the outset of publishing in that language. Reproductions of brivnshtelers form the core of the book and comprise the majority of the text, providing a ground-level window into a largely obscured past. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.