Illustration of title page of Alek [A. K. Kartuczinski], Oyster mikhtovim [Otsar mikhtavim]. Warsaw: F. Baymritter, 1906. This illustration appears on the title pages of a number of different brivnshtelers.(Courtesy of the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg)

“A trustworthy person, one of our friends, has told us that you have been seen going around late at night with young men. You are also seen very frequently at dances, masquerades, and picnics.” So starts a letter to a young Jewish woman from her worried father who warns her of the peril that awaits if she continues her misbehavior. The letter is one of many having to do with social mores and business concerns. It is also a fiction. That is, it is a sample letter dating from 1905. Sample letters were written in the late 19th and early 20th century to help teach people not just how to read and write, but also how to conduct themselves in all aspects of a modernizing world. These letters were written in different languages and targeted at different populations, Jewish and non-Jewish, across Europe. The specifically Yiddish sample letters that were collected in manuals, called brivnshteler, not only taught Jews across the Pale of Settlement literacy and acculturation, they also served as entertainment for their readers.

In Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals From Russia and America, Alice Nakhimovsky, a professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, and Roberta Newman, the director of digital initiatives at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, explore what these brivnshteler tell us about the world their readers would have lived in. Nakhimovsky and Newman join Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss how Yiddish letter manuals differed from letter manuals targeting non-Jewish audiences and why the letters so rarely grapple with political matters, and point out what strikes them in particular about a few stand-out samples, read for us quite memorably by Wayne Hoffman, Gabriel Sanders, and Amelia Kahaney.