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A brivnshteler (letter-writing manual; Heb., igron) is a collection of formulas for composing letters on topics ranging from business to courtship to family life. In addition to providing templates for composition, the collections were widely used for teaching handwriting skills. Because many of the manuals were bi- or even trilingual, they served as textbooks for learning Hebrew, German, Russian, Polish, and respectable, educated Yiddish.

The brivnshteler is part of a European genre that goes back at least as far as the Renaissance. Hebrew-language collections appeared at the very outset of Jewish publishing in the sixteenth century. From the beginning, such collections were both needed and derided. Because they taught writing, and specifically an elevated style meant to honor both writer and recipient, they were an important component of educational and communal life. At the same time, their obvious and unavoidable artificiality made them the object of mockery. The very early Igrot Shelomim (Augsburg, 1534), true to its title “Letters of Greeting,” provides the user with formulaic salutations and blessings: “To a supporter: Great is his beauty. May his rulership be esteemed. May his peace be increased and the sun shine on his strength, and may he be blessed in coming and going.” Directly after the blessings are texts whose mundane nature is apparent from the subject headings, as in the following: “Letter 1—For one who is angry at his friend because he has slandered him; Letter 2—One who wants to let his friend know that he has the capability to take revenge but would rather not do so.” More than three hundred years later, Sholem Aleichem’s fictional characters Menakhem Mendl and Sheyne Sheyndl exploited this same contrast between lofty language and the realities of day-to-day social relations to great comic effect.

In Eastern Europe, the publication of Hebrew igronim began in the seventeenth century. While some collections reprinted sections of the Igrot Shelomim (showing a willingness to recycle that would remain a feature of the genre), the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century collections were more inclined to draw on rabbinical and scriptural sources than earlier igronim. Me’ir ben Levi, author of Tofse mikhtavim (Żółkiew, 1750) targets as readers those who were hampered by poor knowledge of scripture: such writers need appropriate quotations, which his book supplies. At the same time, coverage of the secular world also expanded, with Torah citations and even commentaries sharing space with legal forms and explanations of arithmetic. The reason for the eclectic mix was commercial: both then and in the future, the collections provided what would sell.

Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hebrew manuals often reflected the maskilic orientation of their authors, who wanted Hebrew and German (later, Russian) to be the primary languages of educated Jews. Bilingual igronim from this period present material in both Hebrew and “Jüdisch-Deutsch” (High German in Hebrew script) as a way of weaning readers from Yiddish. Hebrew was considered the language for the soul, as opposed to a practical language such as German. It was only later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that igronim with Zionist orientations began to promote Hebrew as a language to be spoken in everyday life. Enlightenment ideas feature prominently in content as well. In the preface to Divre Igrot ve-shir (Budapest, 1867), Aharon Tsevi Hirsh Kurlander describes himself as having had his “eyes opened” by an earlier Enlightenment igron. Other books refer to arguments among various factions of maskilim, on how maskilim regarded Hasidism, the military draft, and generational rifts between fathers and sons.

Yiddish-language brivnshtelers had their heyday in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century and addressed a more popular audience than the educated classes targeted by the igronim. Like the igron, the brivnshteler was used to teach handwriting, a skill of obvious economic and social value that was not generally part of the heder curriculum. Even girls learned to write from brivnshtelers, sometimes with the help of tutors, and sometimes—as attested to by memoirs—on their own. People who believed that their everyday Yiddish was not up to educated standards turned to the brivnshteler for models of prose that they could use in their own correspondence. The type of Yiddish presented ranges from the daytshmarish (Germanized) once considered high class to language more in keeping with the ideas of linguistic reformers who promoted the use of a “purer” Yiddish purged of Germanic spelling, syntax, and vocabulary.

Even brivnshteler authors who expressed disdain for the language approached seriously the task of teaching readers to write it properly, as did the playwright Shomer, who aimed to teach readers to write reyn zhargon (pure, or echt Yiddish) in Der nayer Shomer’s briefenshteler (Vilna, 1908) only a decade after asserting, in an earlier brivnshteler, that “the zhargonishe language is not equal to other languages [and] does not have any rules of grammar” (Shomer’s briefenshteler [Vilna, 1898], Foreword). In the front matter, readers would find lists of names—to facilitate correct spelling—and compilations of Hebrew abbreviations, salutations, and other words and phrases appropriate for the formal opening of a letter. Bilingual brivnshtelers also served as language textbooks. Yiddish–Hebrew brivnshtelers taught Hebrew through letters—with the additional function, should a reader simply want to copy a Hebrew letter, of providing an understandable gloss. Russian–Yiddish brivnshtelers provided Russian documents for both business and personal subjects, including an occasional Jewish subject such as an announcement of a circumcision. People who bought brivnshtelers would have found that the topic of education was almost ubiquitous, constituting the subject matter of numerous letters in almost any collection. Model correspondence between fathers and sons, for example, is often about the son’s studies—even when it is not clear from the content whether those studies are religious or secular.

Modernity in many guises found its way into model letters. There are letters from young men and even young women who left the shtetl for big cities. Some writers mourn the lost intimacy of their past lives, while others show no nostalgia for the “small, poor, dirty shtetl” they left behind (Bernshteyn’s nayer yudisher folks-briefenshteler [Warsaw, n.d.], p. 41). One brivnshteler includes a letter from a young man in ecstasy over an anthology of Russian literature that he will have to hide: “Nobody knows that I read the book; if they did I would be called an apikores [heretic]” (Poliak-Gilman, Der nayer obraztsover brifenshteller [Berdichev, 1904], p. 32). Another provides letters from young women who are proudly earning their own living, though they are clearly of marriageable age.

Changing customs were expressed most noticeably in courtship letters. Flowery letters between khosn (bridegroom) and kale (bride) marked the incursion of modern ideas of romance into the arranged marriage, in the period between the engagement and the ceremony itself. While most letters are decorously romantic, there are occasional references to problems such as “battles”—presumably parental opposition—that have been won. Modernizing sensibilities of a different kind come through in an exchange between a young man and a young woman who by custom should already have been engaged to each other. When he expresses anxiety that he doesn’t know her well enough to take that momentous step, she, “as a daughter of the twentieth century,” readily agrees to an additional meeting (Miller’s nayer brifenshteller in tsvey theyl [Piotrków, 1911], p. 75).

Russian–Yiddish bilingual brivnshtelers offer passionate declarations of love that occasionally refer to non-Jewish customs and sometimes even cite correspondents with non-Jewish names. While the origin of such letters is certainly a Russian model-letter book (pis’movnik), the fact that they were compiled for a Yiddish-speaking readership is evidence of new expectations about the content of a modern brivnshteler.

The center of emotional intensity in the brivnshteler is its correspondence between parents and children. In a letter from 1904, a boy anticipates his father’s worries and seeks to counter them, declaring his devotion in words that would not be out of place in a love letter: “Don’t think, dear father that when you go away I veer off the correct path like other children . . . I write you this letter to calm you, so that you will be freer to attend to your business. . . . When I finished the letter I kissed it and it seemed to me that I was kissing you.” (Poliak-Gilman, 1904, p. 11). Suspected illness is a source of anxiety for parents writing to adult children living in other towns. One brivnshteler father tells his son that he and Mother both noticed that the young man did not look well. Now they have not heard from him in awhile and are out of their minds with worry. Illness is not the only potential problem: “If, God forbid, you have had a misfortune, you should have told us right away, perhaps we could have helped you” (Miller, 1911, p. 10).

Some parental phrases are clearly intended to induce guilt: “We live in great anxiety, nothing in the world can make us forget you. If you saw your mother, you already wouldn’t recognize her” (Poliak-Gilman, 1904, p. 44). But children can also raise the specter of guilt, as in this postscript from a married daughter: “Dearest Mother, you must know that for me it would be a very good thing if you would come to visit us, at least for a couple of weeks, in order to prove to people, especially my father- and mother-in-law, that you are interested in us and the children.” (Horodinski, Der postalion, 1985, p. 1). The high intensity of this parent–child correspondence, replete with exasperation, guilt, love, and, above all, anxiety, has no equivalent in Russian pis’movniki, where parent–child correspondence is mostly confined to formal birthday and New Years’ greetings and—in older editions—abject apologies from wayward sons.

The brivnshteler came to the United States with the great wave of Jewish immigration at the turn of the twentieth century. The aforementioned Shomer published an American version (Shaykevitsh’s nayer briefensheteler [New York, 1905]) with new-world adaptions, including advice on how to describe America in letters sent back home. Other American versions, such as Harkavy’s amerikanisher briefen-shteler (New York, 1902), are primarily concerned with teaching English and use letters taken straight from non-Jewish American manuals. But even as he teaches Jews write courtship letters in the style of the American public, Harkavy’s substitution of Jewish names for the American originals and his focus on Jewish needs (for example, business letters for the garment trade, correspondence for Jewish benevolent organizations) reveals his engagement with his immigrant readers.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Bar-El, “Di yidishe brivnshteler fun 18-tn biz 20-tn yorhundert” (Ph.D. diss., Jewish Teachers Seminary and People’s University, New York, 1970); Yankev Birnboym, “Brivnshtelers,” in Dertsiungs-enstiklopedye, ed. Khayim Bez, vol. 1, cols. 466–482 (New York, 1957); Elisheva Carlebach “Letter into Text: Epistolarity, History, and Literature,” in Jewish Literature and History: An Interdisiciplinary Conversation, eds. Eliyana R. Adler and Sheila E. Jelen. (Bethesda, 2008): 113–133. Judith Halevi-Zwick, Toldot sifrut ha-igronim: (Ha-brivenshtelers) ha-‘ivriyim (me’ah 16–me’ah 20) (Tel Aviv, 1990); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz Tsisho: Dos ruslendishe yidntum; In gerangl far shul, shprakh, kultur (Mexico City, 1956); Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, “Dos papirene lebn: Brivnshtelers vi a shpigl fun yidishe aspiratsyes,” Forverts (26 June 2009): 12–13; Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, “A Paper Life: Model Letters and Real Letters As a Key to Russian-Jewish Aspirations at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” in Violence and Jewish Daily Life in the East European Borderlands: Essays in Honor of John D. Klier, ed. Eugene Avrutin and Harriet Murav (Brighton: Academic Studies Press, forthcoming [2011]); Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, “‘Free America’: Glimpses of Jewish Immigrant in Life in the Pages of American Brivnshtelers,” American Jewish Archives 16.2 (2009): 73–98; Max Weinreich, “Levin Lion D’ors brivn-shtelers,” YIVO-bleter 18.1 (1941): 109–112.