You want to find the right person. You want your children to find true love. No matter the era, a breakup is still a breakup. There’s no better proof that some problems are always with us than reading the letters from the original Yiddish Forward’s advice column, “A Bintel Brief.”

In print from 1906-1967, “A Bintel Brief,” which translates as a “bundle of letters,” was the brainchild of the Forverts founding editor Abraham Cahan. The Forverts was remade in 1990 as The Forward, an English language weekly full of Jewish news, opinion and culture. In 2019, the paper switched exclusively to a digital platform under the editorship of former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren.

Selections of the published letters will be dramatized in “A Bintel Brief: A JArts TheatreWorks Stage Reading” as presented by the Jewish Arts Collaborative on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Laura Conrad Mandel, JArts executive director, recently talked to JewishBoston about the production and observed how “eerily relatable the letters still are. The production tells a timeless story in that it’s old, but it’s new.”

Mandel said that immigrant themes commonly emerged in most of the letters, and questions of assimilation drive many of the inquiries. “How much do I adapt and change from the old country concerned many of the letter writers,” she said. “How do you look and become American when you are from somewhere else?”

Cahan’s idea to have an advice column was as much progressive as it was necessary for Eastern Jewish immigrants acclimating to America. Cahan himself answered the letters. Jonathan Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, speculated that many Forverts readers turned to “A Bintel Brief” before they read anything else in the paper.


 In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Sarna noted that the column “dealt with modern problems. One gets a sense of the problems when Jews live and work in close proximity to their non-Jewish neighbors.” Sarna added that the column had a special appeal to women dealing with difficult marriages or husbands who refused to allow them to seek an education. “The ‘Bintel Brief’ punctures all those illusions that Jewish husbands don’t beat their wives,” he said. “It also frequently addressed issues of when one spouse was religious and the other lost their faith. Those kinds of problems reflected the challenges of modernity.”

While “A Bintel Brief” initially introduced the notion of an advice column to a mostly Jewish readership, the idea spread to the American press. A few decades later, the Lederer sisters famously took up the mantel of dispensing advice as Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Today, Meredith Goldstein’s popular advice column in The Boston Globe, “Love Letters,” can trace its origins to Ann Landers and Dear Abby’s long-running syndicated features. “When I started this job, someone asked me, ‘Why are all advice columnists Jews?’ It’s not totally true, but a lot of them are,” Goldstein recently told JewishBoston. “I didn’t have a particularly Jewish upbringing, but I come from a Jewish home. Writing an advice column for me was completely tied to being Jewish, and I was excited to devour a history I didn’t initially know was there.”

As for who writes to advice columnists, Sarna noted that although “A Bintel Brief” aimed to appeal to women, men also wrote letters. Dori Robinson, director of the “Bintel Brief” stage reading, told JewishBoston that one of the first letters that will be read at the performance is from a young man who described himself as a “greenhorn.” Robinson related that the man had been in America for just five weeks and was working hard to send money back to his family in Russia. “The letter pulls at everyone’s heartstrings,” said Robinson. “It moves us to remember that we all come from immigrant families.”

Robinson further related that other letters included in the reading tell stories of “women figuring out how to be in the workplace—how they can have authority over themselves. Other topics include women trying to vote. Other letters pointedly ask how to start a new life in America. There is often a tension between immigrants’ previous lives in the old country and their current lives. Many times, their parents weren’t around to advise them, so they asked “A Bintel Brief” how to create a new intersection that previously wasn’t there.”

Sarna, Mandel and Robinson each said that Cahan was a progressive thinker who intuited that immigrants, mostly alone in America, needed to turn somewhere for advice. “The fact that Cahan pulled it off reminds us of how in touch he was with his readers,” said Sarna. “That was the genius of the Forverts and Cahan. He was able not to alienate his readers and keep them going.”

Goldstein said that being part of a Jewish legacy of advice columnists enriches her perspective of how her Jewish identity relates to the job. “There is a rich history of Jews talking about issues that other people do not want to face,” she said. “Advice columns were the start of acknowledging that the private can be public. I feel so lucky to have a heritage and come from a people who admit their humanity—who talk about the elephant in the room. It’s our cultural legacy of admitting there is a problem and then trying to fix it. It’s so revolutionary to have that in writing.”

Get free tickets for “A Bintel Brief” on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. here.