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Bringing A Bintel Brief back to life

Graphic novelist interprets the bygone Yiddish advice column

By Cindy Mindell

Liana Finck calls drawing her first language, a medium of expression that came before words. Her passion for books developed during her teenage years. The poet and artist come together in a newly published graphic novel, A Bintel Brief (Ecco), inspired by the early 20th-century advice column published in the renowned Yiddish-language New York newspaper, The Forward.

Finck will discuss her work on Sunday, Sept. 14 at Temple Israel in Westport and on  Nov. 23 at the JCC of Greater New Haven.

Finck, 26, was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Chester, N.Y., 60 miles north of her parents’ birthplaces of Brooklyn and Queens. The family kept kosher and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Through 12th grade, she attended Jewish day school and summer camps and took part in Jewish youth groups.

bintel brief“I never really fit in, and the smallness of the Jewish schools didn’t help,” she says. “My family lived in the country and I felt happy being alone in nature, and I loved to draw.” Finck moved to Manhattan in 2004 to study at Cooper Union College, honing her skills in fine art and graphic design, and leaving behind the Judaism of her childhood. She spent a semester during junior year studying drawing and cartooning at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. In 2007, she won an award from the Academy of American Poets. Two years later, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study graphic design and illustration at Université de La Cambre in Brussels, where she created a graphic novel based on Tintin creator Georges Remi’s bad dreams.

After returning to the U.S. and beginning a career as a cartoonist, Finck answered a call for applications for the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists and asked her family to suggest Jewish subjects that might make for an interesting graphic novel. “They told me about the Bintel Brief and I wasn’t taking the grant application too seriously until I read the book of letters,” she says. “I fell in love with it. I won the fellowship, so I had the financial and social support I needed to make the book.”

For the two-year project, Finck studied Yiddish and researched Jewish life in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. She also drew on her own New York Jewish upbringing for her adaptations of some of the early Bintel Brief letters. While working on the project, she taught several workshops in which New Yorkers wrote their own modern Bintel Brief letters. The final project is a tour of Lower East Side New York, narrated by an imaginative conversation with the Yiddish “Dear Abby,” Abraham Cahan, The Forward’s legendary editor and creator of the Bintel Brief (“A Bundle of Letters”) column.

In an essay for MyJewishLearning.com, Finck wrote, “While I worked on my book, I felt like I was writing my own Bintel Brief letter to Abraham Cahan: ‘Where are the Jews I can relate to?’ I asked. ‘Where is the old, scrappy New York; the New York that corresponds to my intense, worried, immigrant’s soul?’”

The project has been exhibited at the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C.; the Museum at Eldridge Street in New York; and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.

Finck has been artist-in-residence at Camp Ramah in Wingdale, N.Y. and worked with poet Mark Rudman and artist Maira Kalman. Her work has been published in many national publications, including Tablet Magazine, where she served as artist-in-residence; The Forward; The New Yorker; and The Huffington Post. She is author of The Shul Detective, a graphic blog for Lilith Magazine in which she explores synagogues in New York City; Revelations and the Stupid Creatures (Mark Batty/Random House), a collaboration with stuffed-animal maker John Murphy on a visual adaptation of the End of Days; and Phèdre: A Comic Tragedy, a rhyming graphic novel adapted from her own translation of Racine’s classic play.

“I only wanted to include the letters I could relate to – funny, romantic, lonely,” Finck says of the selection process for her graphic novel. “But I could relate to most of the letters. So I started turning a lot of letters into comics. Some, I’d found on microfilm versions of The Forward from 1906 and 1907 and had translated into English; some were from my grandma Helen’s copy of the collection of letters edited by Isaac Metzker. The ones I finished first and best made it into my book.”

When asked what she hopes readers get from the work, Finck says, “the warm kind of ambivalence. Silliness. Weirdness. Simplicity. Feelings.”

A Bintel Brief with poet and graphic novelist Liana Finck:

Sunday, Sept. 14, 10 a.m., Temple Israel, 14 Coleytown Road, Westport. For information: (203) 227-1293, tiwestport.org.

Sunday, Nov. 23, 10:30 a.m., JCC of Greater New Haven Arts & Culture Festival, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge. For information: (203) 387-2522, ruthg@jccnh.org.


Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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