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On the Bookshelf

Jotted down: letters, diaries, recipes, and other random scribblings

Josh Lambert
June 06, 2011

The Bintel Brief, the iconic advice column of the Yiddish Forverts, has been well preserved. You can listen to letters from the column read by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, or download Isaac Metzger’s collection of samples onto your Kindle, or enjoy excellent pastiches of the form in E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Johanna Kaplan’s O My America! (1980). It’s relatively easy to recall, then, how Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early years of the 20th century sounded when they poured their hearts out to the editor of their beloved newspaper. What Gur Alroey offers in his new book, Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear: Letters From Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century (Wayne State, June) are 66 examples of the personal letters written by such immigrants before they set out on their journeys, expressing all the hopes and worries of people whose lives were about to be flipped upside down.


Letters from this period can be shockingly intimate, and banal, too. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933 (Yale, May) offers hundreds of missives exchanged by the famed American painter and her husband, the German-Jewish photographer, in the first decades of their relationship. The letters skip charmingly from everyday trivialities to art and politics: In one fairly representative example, from December 1933, O’Keeffe tells Stieglitz that she’s now putting a raw egg in her orange juice every morning, and that she “talked way into the night” with the avant garde poet Jean Toomer about the “the race problem,” inspired by Waldo Frank’s article, “Why Should the Jews Survive?” from a recent New Republic, which Stieglitz had sent her.


Among other sources, Carrie Pitzulo’s Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (Chicago, May) examines another journalistic trove of American letters, at least as reflective of its historical moment as the Bintel Brief was of its own: the Playboy Forum. Through the letters from readers they printed and responded to, Pitzulo argues, the magazine’s editors “articulated a progressive view of sexual politics,” which included “a distinct tolerance for, if not outright embrace of homosexuality.” Pitzulo acknowledges Nat Lehrman as having edited this section of the magazine “for much of the sixties,” but, unlike your friends at Tablet, she does not mention that Lehrman, Playboy’s sex editor, was a Brooklyn mensch.


Even more revealing than letters are private diaries, which can seem to offer a window into a writer’s mind. Alfred Kazin’s Journals (Yale, June), edited by Richard M. Cook, serves up the great literary critic in vivid detail and in all his human complexity. At the top of a page in July 1933, when he was an 18-year-old sophomore at City College, Kazin scribbled “Alfred loves Nancy; Alfred loves Sex: Nancy!” and then, below that: “The essence of fascism is not so much the capitalist as it is the nationalist ideal.” The journals dramatize Kazin’s astonishing energy, which he saw as a requirement of his vocation: As he says, apropos an essay by his contemporary Milton Hindus, “the Jewish intellectual has to perform so many functions at once.”


A certain type of intellectual proclaims in public what another might be content to scribble in a diary. An infamous example took place on the Dick Cavett Show on January 25, 1980, when Mary McCarthy quipped, of Lillian Hellman, that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Hellman—a Jewish playwright and McCarthy-era blacklistee, notorious for fudging her personal details—wasn’t laughing; she sued McCarthy for slander. The case, which played out political schisms of 1930s leftists, serves as a jumping-off point for Alan Ackerman’s discussions of language, libel, privacy, and autobiography in Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America (Yale, May).


Jewish intellectuals, like Kazin and Hellman, have a tendency to cluster in cities, but out in the American hinterlands Jews take on all sorts of other roles. In the Midwest, they’ve been chefs who incorporate local flavors into traditional classics, with results like cornmeal-crusted rye, sour grape ketchup, Syrian spinach souffle, and Eli’s Cheesecake; Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost cover the history and recipes in From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways (Illinois, June). In Deadwood: “Cattlemen and bankers, watchmakers and innkeepers, purveyors of cigars and whiskey, and suppliers of hardware, boots, and bread,” according to Ann Haber Stanton’s Jewish Pioneers of the Black Hills Gold Rush (Arcadia, April), further evidence that David Milch got it right on HBO. In Belleville, Virginia? Black base-ballers. Yes, seriously: Rebecca Alpert’s Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford, May) tells the tale of the Belleville Grays, “the only Jewish team in the history of black baseball,” and details the role of Jewish owners and journalists both in Harlem Globetrotters-style “Baseball Comedy” and in the integration of America’s pastime. The good news is that according to Uzi Rebhun, a Jewish demographer at the Hebrew University, and his new book The Wandering Jew in America (Academic Studies, June), American Jews were still moving from state to state late in the 20th century. This suggests that there may continue to be new stories of Jews in the American wilderness, innovating further in the fields of sport, mining paraphernalia, and cholesterol delivery.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.