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Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America
Jun 17 2014

TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2014 | 7pm
Click HERE to watch the video.

Elissa Bemporad, Moderator, Queens College, CUNY; Alice Nakhimovsky, Colgate University; Roberta Newman, YIVO; Allen Lewis Rickman, Actor; Yelena Shmulenson, Actor

At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish families scattered by migration could stay in touch only through letters. But for many Jews who were unaccustomed to communicating their public and private thoughts in writing, correspondence was a challenge. A popular solution was to consult brivnshtelers, Yiddish-language books of model letters for every occasion. Alice Nakhimovsky (Colgate University) and Roberta Newman (YIVO), authors of Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America (Indiana Press), joined with moderator Elissa Bemporad (Queens College, CUNY) for a lively discussion about this little-known genre of literature.

Actors Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson began the evening with dramatic readings of selected letters.

Read a review at the Jewish Book Council.


Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Assistant Professor in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College, City University of New York. Her book Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press) was awarded the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, and the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for an outstanding work of 20th century history. She is currently working on a social history of the blood libel accusation in the Soviet Union and Poland.

Alice Nakhimovsky is Professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, where she directs the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies. She has written extensively on Russian-Jewish literature and everyday life, and served on the editorial board of The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Roberta Newman is an independent scholar living in New York City. She is Director of Digital Initiatives at YIVO and was the Illustrations Editor and Director of Archival Research for The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. She also writes fiction, mostly short stories that explore Jewish history and Jewish identity.

Allen Lewis Rickman is a writer, director, and actor. His plays have been produced in France, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden, and New Jersey. His directing work includes the Yiddish Pirates of Penzance, which he also co-adapted and acted in, and which was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Revival; Paul Kane’s Dancing On Nails Off-Broadway; and The Small Empire, which he co-wrote and directed for Centenary Stage. Acting credits include Relatively Speaking on Broadway, Barry Levinson’s You Don’t Know Jack (with Al Pacino), a recurring role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and extensive work Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and in Yiddish theatre. He appears in two movies in current release, Fading Gigolo and Chinese Puzzle. But he’s probably best known for his performance in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man.

Yelena Shmulenson was born in Belarus, spent her early childhood in Siberia, her adolescence in the Ukraine, and emigrated here in 1993. She’s perhaps best known for her performance as the icepick-wielding wife in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated “A Serious Man”. Other film and TV credits include “Boardwalk Empire” (as ‘Mrs. Manny Horvitz’), Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd”, “Romeo & Juliet in Yiddish”, and “Chinese Puzzle” (w/ Audrey Tautou; upcoming); stage credits include five seasons Off-Broadway with the Folksbiene, two at the Ellis Island Theatre, “The Golem of Havana”, “The Essence: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum” (Fringe/tour), “Covers”, (New York and Moscow), etc. She’s won three Earphones Awards for her recorded books, and is fluent in five languages.