The Shmooze

Bintel Brief Goes All 2014

By Forward Staff

  • Print
  • Share Share

Starting in 1906, the Forward launched “A Bintel Brief,” a Yiddish-language advice column which documented the trials and tribulations of adapting to life in America. More than a century later, our friends at the Tenement Museum have picked up the torch — with a few modern touches.

The Jewish Daily Forward, the most widely read newspaper in the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, ran a famous advice column for many years; “A Bintel Brief”, or “A Bundle of Letters,” helped new immigrants navigate through their new lives in America, dealing with everything from love to loss to how to learn English and learn American customs. While the Forward’s Bintel Brief may be no more, people on the Lower East Side still need some advice now and then. Tenement Museum Staffers asked one of our sagest coworkers for a little help. Below are real problems from real Tenement Museum Staffers, and real answers:

Dear Bintel Brief,

I am a mother with three children living in New York City. In 1900, I understand that children contributed up to 30% of their family’s income, but in my case the children seem to be sucking out at least twice that much!

Seriously, my husband and I could be living like the 1% but for having to buy 4 boxes of organic milk every week ($7 each!), 20 organic bananas ($5 per bunch!), 15 organic apples ($5 for 3!), 6 cartons of free-range, DHA-enhanced, organic eggs ($7 each!), and much, much more! Never mind educational enrichment activities like German-language guitar lessons, sushi-making classes, and yoga for tots.

How can I get my children (ages 7, 4, and 12 months) to contribute more to our family economy? What kinds of work can they do that will be legal? And in the meantime, should I ask my boss for a big raise?

Yours truly, Sucked dry by my ungrateful children

Dear Striving Mother,

Oh, if only our modern times were able to recognize aspirations as worthy as yours! What confidence we could have in the next generation if everyone wanted only the best in consumer products, locovore diet, and enrichment experiences for their children! You seem to have done everything for them short of a trip to Disneyworld!

I do worry, though, that you are willing to consider child labor for children so young. Put toddlers to work in sweatshops and next you’ll be cutting nutritional corners by serving them swill milk—or even having them rush the growler at the downstairs beer hall! Be aware that little of the beer served locally meets USDA standards for organic production.

By the way, I do think that some of the merchants you patronize may be taking advantage of you with their high prices. Have you thought of joining one of Brooklyn’s finer food coops?

Your impressed and concerned editor

This mother wishes she hadn’t even read that article about new pram models in the New York Times.

Help Bintel Brief!

Library of Congress
These boys know the value of good, clean fun. Running water wasn’t added to the tenements at 97 Orchard till around 1895 and even then the poor water pressure on the upper floors would have made washing difficult.

I live with three roommates in a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. As you can imagine, four people in a two bedroom apartment can get a little cramped, but most of the time it’s manageable. Most of the time.

The only real problem is the shower line in the morning. Whenever I get to the shower first, I feel like my roommates are angry at me for making them late for work, but when they beat me to it, I’m angry at them! We’ve talked to our landlord and asked for another shower – the landlord just laughed and hung up the phone.

Should I continue evoking the ire of my roommates or continue to come to work unshowered (I think my desk mate might not appreciate that)?!

Thank you, Stinky Coworker

Dear Stinky,

Your problem is actually a simple one. You seem capable of getting to the shower before your roommates but worry that your roommates will think ill of you for hogging your apartment’s limited amenities. This—and your desire not to offend your desk mate—shows commendable consideration for your fellow creatures. You have wonderful personal qualities!

Consider waking up earlier than your roommates and showering before they stir. This might require you to retire earlier in the evening, a small price to pay for staying in their good graces. You might even be able to save money by cutting back on your late night activities. Who knows but that these savings, applied judiciously, might allow you to buy your own apartment or open your own firm?

Your respectful editor

Dear Bintel Brief,

I live in an old tenement building in Manhattan. One of my neighbors, I don’t even know which, plays loud music at all hours of the night while I am trying to get my beauty rest. I have tried yelling through the airshaft, banging on the walls and ceiling with a broom, and making a noise complaint. I even called the police once, but since I don’t know who it is playing the music, there isn’t much I can do. Help me!

Sincerely, No Rest for the Weary

Dear Weary,

You describe a difficult situation, one too common in the hard circumstances of tenement life. I sympathize with your desperation. Yet what sometimes seems a distraction may actually be a message. You write that you are unable to get your beauty rest; but you may already be beautiful enough! Why not enjoy what you already have—and enjoy the music as well.

Your tired editor

And you think the neighbor’s ihome was loud… This photo actually shows the Edison Home Phonograph probably being used at the Metropolitan Opera House in around 1901.

New York Public Library
If your management company is unresponsive you could always attempt to feel better through comparison. This photo was taken by inspectors of the New York City Tenement House Department in 1935.

Dear Bintel Brief,

How do I really get my management company to fix something? They have repeatedly done shoddy repairs on a leaking bathroom ceiling. Now there are new cracks and black/brown residue. Is there some language I could use that would make them take me seriously?

Thanks, Disgruntled Tenant

Dear Disgruntled,

Your letter is a reminder of how misguided was the Tenement House Law of 1901; the very thought of moving privies into homes—where they sit over your head!—is as repugnant today as it was when the state adopted the law in 1901. But the law is the law, and we must obey it.

You ask about what language would make your landlord take you seriously. Have you considered Yiddish? The language is colorful enough to describe any stains—and its hundreds of expressions of complaint may tire your landlord into acquiescence.

Your sympathetic editor

This post first appeared on the Tenement’s Museum’s blog as “21st Century Bintel Brief.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: tenement museum, bintel brief, advice

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.