Title page of Kiryat sefer, by Mordekhai Aharon Gintsberg (Vilna, 1855). This igron, or book of model Hebrew letters, is an example of a maskilic genre whose aim was the enrichment of Hebrew epistolary style. (YIVO)

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Letters and Letter Writing

Throughout East European Jewish history, the letter was an important vehicle of written communication about everyday concerns. Letters were written to serve many practical purposes: to communicate about Jewish law; to report on communal affairs; to engage in commerce; and to discuss personal matters, among others. Naturally, letters could be written with more than one purpose in mind. Singly and in constellations, they also served as a literary form.

Like Ashkenazic literature in general, letters were written principally in Hebrew and Yiddish, although increasingly in the modern period Jews corresponded in non-Jewish vernaculars. Hebrew was the preferred coin of expression; however, the language a letter writer chose generally reflected the degrees to which the writer and the intended recipient had a formal (Hebrew-based) education, access to which depended on gender, socioeconomic station, and ability. Women rarely wrote or received letters in Hebrew. A well-educated man might write a letter to a peer entirely in Hebrew. One somewhat less educated might begin a letter with Hebrew epistolary flourishes and switch to Yiddish to discuss matters of substance before signing off with further Hebrew formulas.

The letter writer might seek guidance in a brivnshteler or an igron (Yiddish or Hebrew letter-writing manuals, respectively). Such manuals compiled Jewish epistolary conventions, some antedating Ashkenaz and others derived from non-Jewish societies, presenting them in the form of model letters for diverse occasions and purposes. The conventions included terms of address and titles, greetings and closings, and the dating of letters according to the week’s Torah reading, but could also extend to the main body of a letter; the writer would append minimal adaptations (names, places, dates, and so forth) to fit the immediate occasion or purpose.

The manuals were frequently more than compilations of form: they often bore the seedlings of a narrative when one model letter was followed by a response. Some of these illustrative exchanges of letters attain full narrative development. In a letter in Zalmen Pezner’s Yidish-English brivnshteler (1960), a woman accuses her fiancé of infidelity. He replies by accounting for his unsettling behavior and reaffirming his love. She then responds to retract her accusation. No doubt such set pieces, in which a conflict flares and then is resolved, served to enliven these works. They also frequently provided instruction in morals or, at least, manners and etiquette—the precise enactment of the form of conventional behavior appropriate to a social situation.

It is therefore not hard to see how valuable a work like Alexander Harkavy’s Amerikanisher briefen-shteler (American Letter-writing Manual; 1902) would have been to new immigrants to the United States as they sought to find their way—and their place—in an unfamiliar society. Letters served the interests of Jewish immigrants in still other ways. Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers had long been publishing their readers’ letters on issues, events, and people. Early in the twentieth century, advice columns, such as A bintl briv (A Bundle of Letters) in the Forverts, began publishing readers’ letters about their personal problems, finding in them occasion to teach and acculturate their readership at large.

The “modern” advice column fits, however precariously, into a larger Jewish tradition of epistolary instruction reflected, for example, in some of the responsa literature and in the ethical will. The letter form also served to disseminate new ideas and experiences. Hasidic epistolary literature began as far back as the Ba‘al Shem Tov, the movement’s founder, and continues to the present, when the many volumes of letters by Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, are a source of guidance and spiritual nourishment to his followers.

If Hasidim could use letters to spread ideas and justify the movement, then their maskilic critics could use letters to lampoon the same, as in Yosef Perl’s Megaleh temirin (Hebrew ed., 1819; Yiddish ed., 1937), an epistolary novel that travesties the sorts of stories collected in Shivḥe ha-Besht (1814/15). Some of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl and Marienbad, two early twentieth-century examples of the genre, turns on the artifice of letter writing, particularly the disconnection between flowery phrases (drawn, one might imagine, from a brivnshteler) and the increasingly intemperate language used to report, accuse, react to, or generate further gossip to stoke the emotional furnace.

For hundreds of years, letters have played a vital role in personal affairs, helping family, friends, and commercial partners maintain strong social bonds when people are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. Marienbad is a brilliant exploration of the pathological side of such long-distance gregariousness. It also captures an array of epistolary styles—old-fashioned, florid, unbuttoned, and telegraphic. While the last of these is the direct result of technological innovation, all reflect, in part, the spectrum of language ideologies in Ashkenazic culture at the turn of the twentieth century.

Suggested Reading

Lewis Glinert, trans., Mamme Dear: A Turn-of-the-Century Collection of Model Yiddish Letters (Northvale, N.J., 1997); Judith Halevi-Zwick, Toldot sifrut ha-igronim (ha-brivenshtelers ha-‘Ivriyim): Me’ah 16–Me’ah 20 (Tel Aviv, 1990); Frank Kobler, ed., Letters of Jews through the Ages, 2 vols. (New York, 1978); Alfred A. Landau and Bernhard Wachstein, eds., Jüdische Privatbriefe aus dem Jahre 1619 (Vienna and Leipzig, 1911); Zalmen Pezner, Yidish-english brivnshteler (New York, 1960); Andrew Sunshine, “Opening the Mail: Interpersonal Aspects of Discourse and Grammar in Middle Yiddish Letters” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1850-1970s.