A bundle of letters

(This review of A Bintel Brief is edited from a post which originally was written for my Angelfire page around 2003 or 2004, but never published. I was saving my book reviews to publish as a list of links on a master page when they were completed, but that mentally unstable blogger and her sycophantic friends had my entire webpage taken away from me before that could happen. I was lucky to recover as many book reviews as I could from cache searches.)

4.5 stars

This book is a collection of letters from 1905–67, from a very popular feature in the Yiddish-language daily paper Der Forverts (The Forward). Originally a minor advice column for those who felt they had nowhere else to turn, it soon became wildly popular. People presented all sorts of problems, none too bizarre, personal, or embarrassing to hide from all-knowing editor Abraham Cahan.

Many subjects in the early years concern marriage, anti-Semitism, deadbeat husbands, unemployment, poverty, and labour unions. Others include feeling ashamed of having red hair and a husband who refused to shave his beard.

A childless woman said her husband of seven years kept reminding her it’s “sooner rather than later” till the time they must divorce. Under traditional Jewish Law, a man may divorce his wife if she hasn’t had any kids in ten years. Mr. Cahan began his response, “The husband is severely scolded for his inhuman behavior towards his wife.” He said childlessness is no reason to divorce a loyal, loving wife, and comforted the wife by saying she might still become a mother in the next three years.

Later subjects include Zionism, wanting to make aliyah (move to Israel), intermarriage, differences in religious practice among family members, the Shoah, and:

A man overcome with emotions when he encountered the Polish Gentile who’d murdered his sister, brother-in-law, and niece after pretending he was going to hide them from the Nazis. The editor said it was good he’d restrained his urge to kill the man when he ran into him by a boxing match, and that he shouldn’t take justice into his own hands.

A mother-in-law acting like a young woman and being a real drain on her daughter-in-law

A young man upset that the vibrant Jewish culture his grandparents grew up with isn’t being exhibited by his generation

Concern over a son who, while married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish kids, put up a Christmas tree

A wife addicted to television.

No matter what the problem was, these people poured their hearts out to the wise, all-knowing editor, confident he or other readers would have a solution.

This is a great historical document, but the editorial commentary was written in the late Sixties, and therefore can be quite a bit dated.

The introduction says there are many similarities between the hippie movement “of today” and the freethinkers at the turn of the twentieth century. The comments about intermarriage are also very dated. The reasons and consequences have vastly changed, and most parents no longer force their children to break up with a Gentile.

There are also dated comments to a letter about a young woman who’s upset her parents, esp. her ultra-Zionistic father, by pretending to be Christian at work. He says that even nowadays, some Jews have to pretend to be Christians to work in certain places, and that one of his sisters wore a cross necklace to work and tucked it inside her clothes when she was on the bridge home.

Another fun bit of datedness comes from a letter sent in by “concerned” parents during WWII. They’re very deeply upset one of their sons has begun refusing to eat meat, and that he still refused to eat it when they took him to a restaurant to show him “everyone” eats meat. The editor’s response was no better, suggesting they take him to a psychiatrist who’ll figure out what gave him such a “terrible” idea and induce him to start eating meat again.

Following this is a letter from the Society of Jewish Vegetarians in America, giving information about their group and surprised the editor didn’t refer the parents to them. They rightly pointed out that more and more people are becoming vegetarians, and that it’s very possible to have a healthy diet without meat.

Still, however dated parts of it are, it’s a great chronicle of life in a certain place, culture, and time, which sadly is vanishing.

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WeWriWa—Closeness in distance

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when one of the rescuing Czech partisans, Jaroslav, asked Emánuel about the semi-fast day he mentioned. It’s the ending of this section of the chapter.

The illustrations are from illuminated scrolls of the Book of Esther.

“It’s called Ta’anit Esther, and commemorates how Queen Esther fasted before going to make her petition to King Xerxes for her people’s lives.  Tonight, the holiday of Purim began, celebrating our deliverance from evil.  God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, but he was working behind the scenes the entire time.  Sometimes God is closest to us when he feels most distant, perhaps because he wants us to be proactive in fighting for our deliverance and not passively wait for Divine intervention.  Tonight you were God’s emissaries, after Adri and I made a run for it.”

“What about all the other guys still on the march?” Adrián asked. “God hasn’t delivered them yet, and most of them didn’t try to escape.”

“We each have our own destiny, existing alongside free will.  It’s not for us to try to understand Divine ways, though it’s nice to know the chapter of our lives as slaves has ended.”

Emánuel’s sentiment about how “God is closest to us when he feels most distant” is echoed a number of times by unplanned secondary character Tímea, a Bible Student (Jehovah’s Witness offshoot) who’s with the girls. She never wavers in her strong faith, though she often says she doesn’t know why any of this happened or why some people fared relatively better than others.

Yizkor

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Redelheim Machzor (High Holy Days prayerbook), Source, pgs. 182–3, 1807

Yizkor (Remembrance) is a brief prayer service held during Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret (the holiday right after Sukkot, featuring the prayer for rain), the last day of Pesach, and the second day of Shavuot. Though the tradition is to recite Yizkor with a minyan (quorum of ten), one may recite Yizkor on one’s own if the need arises.

Custom holds that Yizkor isn’t recited during the first year of mourning, when one is still saying Kaddish. However, like all minhagim (customs), it’s not binding law. The Sephardim traditionally don’t have Yizkor, though in its place, they have Hashkabóth, prayers recited on Yom Kippur for all those who’ve died during the past year.

1867 Machzor, Source

An old Ashkenazic superstition holds that anyone with two living parents leave the synagogue till Yizkor is over, for fear of the evil eye befalling one’s parents. When I’ve been by a very traditional shul for a holiday with Yizkor, I’ve had to do this too, though I always stay when I’m by a Conservative shul. There’s absolutely no halachic requirement or law dictating this. It’s just yet another Ashkenazic superstition, and makes me glad I didn’t grow up like that.

When I began living a Jewish life at age 18, I was free to choose the customs that most spoke to me, and those customs were Sephardic. Sephardim have always tended to be more lenient and rational, instead of elevating superstitious customs into quasi-law.

Parents aren’t the only people we mourn. I always say Yizkor for my grandparents, my uncle, my great-grandmother Alice, my favourite writer (Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn), George Harrison (whom I consider my spiritual mentor), and several other people as the time allows. I always feel so cheated when I’m by a super-traditional shul that dictates one only say Yizkor for a parent.

Secular Yizkor in Kiryat Shaul military cemetery, Copyright יעקב (Ya’akov)

A modern Yizkor service often includes poems, prayers, and additional readings about Death, mourning, and our martyrs, as well as the El Malei Rachamim prayer. Many shuls now have two versions of El Malei Rachamim, the traditional prayer and a modern one for the victims of the Shoah. There’s also a third version, for IDF soldiers.

My characters participate in a Yizkor service for the first time on Yom Kippur 1945, in Dohány Utca Synagogue. There’s no mass exodus as usual, since almost every congregant has lost at least one parent. As Mrs. Goldmark says, that superstition robs people of the chance to lovingly remember other loved ones. To save time, they include all the names together, instead of making separate prayers for each.

Memorial in Gedenksteen, The Netherlands, Copyright P.J.L. Laurens, CC-BY-2.5

The prayer, loosely translated:

May God remember the soul of my [relationship to the mourner], [Name], who has gone to his/her eternal home. I promise, without making a vow, to honor his/her memory with charity and good deeds in his/her name. In this merit, may his/her soul be bound up with the bonds of life, together with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, and the other righteous people in Gan Eden, and let us say, Amein.

Xaver Suppe and Xoriatiki Salata

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Xaver suppe, or Xavier soup, is an Italian dish traditionally served on 3 December, the Feast of Saint Xavier. My character Caterina is Italian, and very familiar with this food. Being kosher, she has to make some modifications, since the true recipe uses both chicken broth and lots of dairy products!

Recipe (source: Cooking With the Saints, by Ernst Schuegraf, Ignatius Press, 2001):

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped (for dough)
12 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons chervil, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped (for soup)

Over low heat, work the flour, cream, butter, and Parmesan into a solid dough. Work in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs, yolks, and parsley. Put the mixture into a piping bag with a big nozzle and pipe pea-sized balls onto a buttered tray. Let stand for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, heat some salted water until it boils, then drop in all the “dough peas.” Cook for 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the warm chicken stock. Season soup to taste and add the chervil and 2 tablespoons parsley. Serves 10 to 12 people.

To make it kosher or vegetarian, simply use vegetable broth. For a vegan version, use non-dairy butter, your favorite vegan Parmesan, non-dairy milk in place of the cream, and your egg substitute of choice, equivalent to one egg and one egg yolk.

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Xoriatiki Salata is a dish many people are familiar with. It’s Greek salad, made with ingredients which can include:

Feta
Lettuce
Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Red and/or green peppers
Spinach
Olives
Lemon juice
Onions (which I always skip or pull out!)
Olive oil
Sea salt
Oregano
Red wine vinegar

Non-traditional ingredients some people enjoy adding:

Chickpeas (I love them!)
Baby corn
Bok choi
Avocado (I love adding it!)
Mushrooms (particularly Portobello!)
Dried cranberries
Walnuts
Pine nuts
Slivered almonds

There’s no one set recipe, since you can add as much or as little of each as you prefer. Maybe you love extra feta and tomatoes, but don’t care so much for olives and cucumbers. You might hate onions as I do, and so never include them by choice. And though it’s not traditional, you can add extras like avocado and chickpeas.

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While my characters are staying in a vacation apartment in Florence over Chanukah 1945, Caterina tosses an extra-large Xoriatiki Salata for the days they’ll have dairy meals. This is a dish many people serve during Chanukah, not just those of Greek descent, because of the feta. It’s traditional to eat dairy and foods fried in oil during Chanukah, because of their symbolic relationship to the holiday’s origins.

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, Judith famously beheaded General Holofernes. She fed him very salty cheeses which made him thirsty, and then got him drunk. Once he was asleep, she cut off his head and displayed it to the Greeks. They fled in panic and disarray. Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi frequently painted this subject. In the most famous painting, she modelled Judith after herself and Holofernes after Agostino Tassi, a friend of her father who raped her and whom she was gutsy enough to bring to court.

Wesselényi Utca and the White Paper

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Wesselényi_street

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Wesselényi Utca is part of Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the historical Jewish quarter of District VII of Budapest. During the German occupation of 1944–45, it formed part of the large ghetto. There were two ghettoes, a small, international ghetto for those with phony foreign citizenship enabling them to live in the relatively protected Yellow Star Houses, and a large ghetto for everyone else.

The street runs about a kilometer and a half (a bit under a mile).

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Budapest JCC, 7 Wesselényi Utca, Copyright Globetrotter19

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Detail of cast-stone reliefs depicting the Twelve Tribes, Sculptor István Strasser Örkényi, Copyright Globetrotter19

The street got its modern name in 1872, from reforming politician and patriot Baron Miklós Wesselényi de Hadad (20 December 1796–2 April 1850). Only the downtown side was developed until 1887, when it began expanding and improving.

Landmarks include the former Metropolitan Shoemakers’ Guild HQ, the Ministry of Education, Henrik Meyer Baptist Theological Student Hostel and Baptist church (in the same building), the stage door of the Magyar Theatre, former HQ of the Paint Industry Board, a former Jewish elementary school (converted to a hospital in the ghetto), and the former JCC.

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Classicist monument house, Wesselényi Utca 15, Copyright Globetrotter19

My characters the Goldmarks, widowed mother Lídia and her children Imre, Júlia, and Nándor, move into an apartment on Wesselényi Utca after the end of the war. Mrs. Goldmark was in the large ghetto without protective papers, but she managed to send her children to relative safety in the international ghetto with phony papers from Carl Lutz. They formerly lived in the Castle District on the Buda side.

Mrs. Goldmark found a way across the Danube and recovered what she could from their former home, including a fair amount of furniture, and brought it back across the river to their new apartment. Though they’re a religious Neolog family, they’re still upper-middle-class Budapestis used to a certain lifestyle.

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Former Shoemakers’ Guild HQ, Wesselényi Utca 17, built 1905, Copyright Diana, Source Flickr

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Detail of wall decoration, Copyright Diana, Source Flickr

The British White Paper of 1939 is one of the blackest marks on British history, very similar to America’s equal black mark of “The Emergency Immigration Quota.” Both significantly contributed to the number of people prevented from reaching safety before the Nazis devoured them.

Neville Chamberlain issued this most foul piece of quasi-legislation in response to the 1936–39 Arab revolts in the British Mandate of Palestine. The Arab population (who weren’t calling themselves Palestinians at this time, contrary to modern-day ultra-Left propaganda) revolted in part because they were very unhappy with the large mass of Jewish immigrants.

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1936 bus with wire over the windows, as a safeguard against terrorism

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Evacuating the Old City of Jerusalem, 1936

The White Paper was approved by the House of Commons on 23 May 1939, and limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over five years. Further immigration would be determined by the Arabs. Jews weren’t allowed to buy land from Arabs anymore, and Britain would only allow a Jewish state with Arab approval.

The British didn’t consider a binational state. They foresaw an Arab state which included a Jewish national home within ten years.

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Women’s protest by King David Hotel, Jerusalem, 22 May 1939

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Haganah HQ demonstration, Jerusalem, 1939

Though all self-respecting Zionists immediately rejected this piece of filth, it was heartily accepted by major scumbag and terrorist Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and an ally of Hitler. For several months, protests and attacks on government property reigned, and a general strike was called on 18 May.

The White Paper led to a very sharp uptick in illegal immigration, since these people desperately needed to leave occupied Europe, and there was no other way to get to Palestine. There were only 34,000 legal immigration certificates left by December 1942, when the Shoah became public knowledge (albeit buried in tiny print in the back pages and dismissed as Polish and Jewish propaganda trying to drum up sympathy).

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Women’s demonstration, 18 May 1939, King George Street, Jerusalem

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Youth demonstration, 18 May 1939, Zion Circle, Jerusalem

After the war, the vile Ernest Bevin (Labour Foreign Minister), nicknamed Bergen-Bevin, continued the policy of severely restricting immigration. Many survivors wanted to go to Palestine, the only place where they’d be fully, truly accepted and understood. Instead of being allowed to go to their homeland, these survivors were forced to remain in Europe, a continent which represented a blood-soaked graveyard.

Many of the ships attempting to bypass the British blockade were pirated, and the survivors attacked mercilessly. Some were killed during the resulting assaults and skirmishes. Other ships were sunk. Those who survived were forced into detention camps on Cyprus.

Even after Israel declared her independence in May 1948, the British forced many military-aged men to remain on Cyprus. Their wives and children usually chose to stay with them.

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Demonstration by Atlit detention camp in Palestine