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The Heritage Broker and the Cultural Mediator: Navigating the Past and the Present in Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York

By Matt Reingold

Jana Krige and Marcelyn Oostendorp write: “One of the most important features of advice columns is that the exchange is made public and although the genre seems like a personal exchange, the publication thereof means that it will reach a larger audience” (11). The public nature of the afdvice column, therefore allows the advisor to speak directly to the letter writer, but also to anyone else who might have a similar question. Globally, advice columns have addressed a staggering array of topics including questions posed to the health advice column Dr. AMREF (African Medical Research Foundation) in Uganda’s daily English newspaper The New Vision about HIV/AIDS, to Chinese legal questions asked to ‘Lawyer Bao’ in the Beijing Evening News and assimilation and acculturation questions written by New York City Jews to Der Forverts’‘A Bintel Brief’.[1]

Rose Asera, Henry Bagarukayo, Dean Shuey, and Thomas Barton have noted that “the written format, with its inherent distance and lack of direct personal contact, allows presentation of questions too embarrassing or stigmatized to ask in a spoken forum” (6). While radically different in their focus and target audience, what links Dr. AMREF, Lawyer Bao, and ‘A Bintel Brief’ is the opportunities for communication that the advice columns facilitate. Through the anonymous interaction, people are able to ask relevant and pressing questions while also providing a forum through which the questioner can unburden him or herself of their troubles and receive the advice of someone with greater knowledge and expertise. Concurrent with this is the immense trust that the questioner places in the columnist to solve their problems with no actual dialogue.

Under the leadership of Abraham Cahan, the New York City Yiddish daily newspaper Der Forverts printed letters from Jewish immigrants about their struggles to adjust to life in America in the early 1900s. Cahan’s goal was to provide insights and explanations to Jews who were trying to better understand American society and the interplay between Judaism and modernity. Cahan’s letter writers described their personal struggles with immigration, and the tension between being Jewish and American. While initially published in Yiddish, Cahan’s writings have since been translated into English and published for a wider audience (Metzker) and in 2014, turned into a graphic novel by Liana Finck.

Liana Finck’s graphic novel A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York makes use of eleven of Cahan’s original letters and answers and weaves them into a cohesive narrative about a present-day character Liana Finck who is reading the original letters and learning about old Jewish New York for the first time. Accompanying her through this journey is the ghostly spirit of Abraham Cahan who acts as her tour guide for understanding her own family’s past as well as the history of the American Jewish community. At the same time that Cahan acts as a tour guide for Finck, she serves as one for Cahan as he comes to understand what it means to be the newcomer in a society and how to best adjust and adapt to fit in to contemporary New York City.

Finck’s graphic novel has recently been analyzed from two different perspectives. Dana Mihāilescu notes how Finck’s work uses “history as a form of confession about the dynamics between past and present lifestyles of Jewish Americans” (272). Mihāilescu’s analysis of the text revolves around the ways that Finck subtly changes the language and wording of the original letters and how she blends words with images to ‘make accessible the content of the Bintel Brief letters for contemporary readers’ (273). Tahneer Oksman has focused on the ways that Finck comes to understand her own history and her gendered identity, and with this, the ”empowerment [and] orientation“ that comes with the “renderings that bridge together past and present versions of a self alongside the real and imagined communities that influence that ever changing self… and in this case, one’s intersectional Jewish, American, and female identities” (222).

The following paper builds on the work of Mihāilescu and Oksman by analyzing Finck’s text through a theoretical framework of travel and tourism studies. Specifically, I posit that by analyzing the fictional personas of both Cahan and Finck in light of the ideological orientations towards the past and present that are taken by tour guides, cultural mediators, and heritage brokers, it becomes evident that while at first the two develop a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship, as the text progresses, the two eventually end in reverse historical settings from where they began. So successful were they as tour guides, that each permanently moved the other into the society that they were tasked with introducing and framing. By analyzing the different ways that Finck and Cahan navigate the past and present through the theoretical lens of travel and tourism studies, the reader is better able to understand the different ways that meaning is construed from the past, and the delicate balance that is needed in order to not become either subsumed by the past or oblivious to it. Rather, for the lives of these Jewish characters, preserving the Jewish historical experience, without being lost to it, poses numerous challenges, yet, as evidenced by the character of Finck, it is possible.

Tourism Studies

Alessandro Cavelzani et al. note that tourism can both positively and negatively affect a community. It can, of course, introduce different cultures to each other and build bridges between them; conversely, it can also hamper growth in a region and, if the interactions do not go well, lead to negative relationships between groups. To help facilitate positive interactions, they suggest that the tour guide needs to adopt the persona of a cultural mediator. They define this role as someone who “seeks to balance the interests of tourists with those of residents” (9).

Successful cultural mediators build positive relationships between tourist, site, and community in such a way as to move beyond superficial experiences and towards deeper and more meaningful experiences. To do this effectively, Lü Shisheng and Li Shuang argue that the mediator “has to be flexible in switching his cultural orientation from one to another” (150). Additionally, the mediator needs to have a high threshold for accepting difference and to also subscribe to notions of cultural relativity. LaetitiaBedeker and IlseFeinauer posit that translators can serve as effective cultural mediators. To do so, “the translator has to be an expert in intercultural communication…in order to embrace the cultural differences involved in the production of a fully-fledged target culture document” (139).

The role of the cultural mediator is to serve as a bridge between individuals who are seeking to explore a new community and the community itself with the emphasis on the contemporary experience. The role is different from a heritage broker. Heritage brokers focus their emphasis on connecting individuals to their heritage or past. Significantly, Paul van de Laar argues that the experiences with heritage or history do not necessitate remaining fixed or focused on the past. Conversely, experiences with heritage brokers can be a “resource for creating the future” (van de Laar, 40). These encounters should “stress the importance of dynamic interpretation” as this will lead to what van de Laar calls “bonding heritage” which is based “not on romanticizing the past, but on heritage as a collective purpose of community building” (41).

Sharon Macdonald argues that the position of the heritage broker is complex. The role “entails a complex work of visual mediation in which guides attempt to enable visitors to see the site in a set of different ways; of temporal mediation, between various pasts and the present, and sometimes also with the future…and identity mediation, between the possibilities that the site, and the history of which it is part, suggests” (emphasis in original) (135). The challenging role envisioned by Macdonald is evidenced in Erica Lehrer’s important analysis of non-Jewish heritage brokers in the present day Polish city of Kazimierz. There, the guides have played important roles in facilitating a regrowth of Polish-Jewish culture and identity in the wake of the Holocaust. Given their relationships with local and foreign Jews, the non-Jewish heritage brokers engage in ‘active dialogue about the past’. At the same time, the fact that it is non-Jews, as opposed to Jews, who lead the tours for Jews also contributes to the renewed dialogue and leaves these Jews as more than just passive recipients of information; “the mere confrontation with Poles positively engaged with Jewish heritage can be a ‘reality-rearranging’ experience for Jewish visitors’ which leads to a dynamic and interactive exchange” (Lehrer, 278). Lehrer writes: “Heritage spaces are…where our abstracted, homogenizing national stories are called into question through the daily telling and living of our unique and overlapping individual stories” (283).

As a theoretical framework, analyzing a literary text through the lenses of cultural mediators and heritage brokers offers a way to understand the complex relationships that form between people and the ways that characters interact with each other. While neither of the two main protagonists in Finck’s A Bintel Brief purports to be either a cultural mediator or heritage broker, the role that each assumes as they shepherd the other through contemporary and historical New York City reflect the ways that cultural mediators and heritage brokers operate. While a tour guide is the profession, being a cultural mediator or heritage broker is an ideological orientation. In this paper I employ these ideological orientations to provide ways of understanding how each of Cahan and Finck behave, and as a result of their orientations, arrive at an understanding of why, ultimately, their friendship becomes terminated.

A Bintel Brief

When describing the origins of the letter column “A Bintel Brief”, Cahan wrote:

“People often need the opportunity to pour out their heavy, laden hearts. Among our immigrant masses, this need was very marked. Hundreds of thousands of people, torn from their homes and dear ones, were lonely souls who thirsted for expression, who wanted to hear an opinion, who wanted advice in solving their weighty problems. The ‘Bintel Brief’ created just this opportunity for them” (Cited in Metzger, 13).

Cahan’s use of the phrase “weighty problems” reflects his understanding that the problems that are discussed are not simple or easy to solve. At the same time, they reflect a belief from his readership that he is uniquely qualified to be able to respond to their problems.

Cahan’s qualifications stem from his multicultural background and his wealth of experiences. Cahan was born in Belarus in 1860 where he trained to be a teacher at a Jewish school. He was influenced by socialist ideas and, following a hostile visit by Russian policemen to his apartment, he emigrated to the United States. Cahan arrived in Philadelphia in June of 1882 whereupon he moved to New York City and learned English. He founded Der Forverts in 1897 and he served as its editor from 1903-1951 with one short break in that span. Cahan’s knowledge of both Yiddish and English and of the Old World and the New World, positioned him as a transitional figure who could be a resource to newly arrived Jews who were unsure how to fit in as well as to established American Jews who did not know how to interact with new immigrant Jews. Steven Cassedy argues that Cahan “had undergone … a process of assimilation that brought him from the status of a non-English speaking novice to the peculiar status [he] earned in his adopted country: advocate and spokesman for his less-educated fellow Jewish immigrants” (119).

The letters that Cahan began receiving in 1906 reveal “a sense of identity crisis”(Cai, 86). The younger generation of immigrants often “identify themselves more as American than their parents…but they feel lost when they find that their American identity is neither recognized by mainstream society nor by their parents” (Cai, 86). It is with this group of people that Cahan tries to help navigate their conflicting identities as Jews, immigrants, Americans and, for many, refugees fleeing persecution in Europe.

The content of the letters that Cahan chooses to publish reflect many of his own interests – labor issues, tension between religion and society, and, of course, the Jewish immigrant experience. In an analysis of Cahan’s responses, Harvey Greenberg and Rima Greenberg write: “his advice is sympathetic, yet firmly grounded in reality…[he] is consistently supportive of abandoned wives and children and unsympathetic, whatever the circumstances, to husbands who had sundered a Jewish home” (225). Alice Nakimovsky notes that despite his personal rejection of organized religion, “his responses are nonetheless remarkable for the respect they show for the feelings of immigrants who are observant” (163).

Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief

Before moving into an explanation of Finck’s rendering of Cahan’s columns through the lens of travel and tourism studies, a brief explanation of Finck’s text is needed. As mentioned above, Finck’s text depicts the discovery of the original Bintel Brief texts by a fictionalized version of herself who remains unnamed throughout the text but is illustrated as a self-portrait of herself.[2] Since the letters that she finds are written in Yiddish, Finck receives a translation of the questions and their responses by an apparition of Abraham Cahan. While modelled on biographical details of Cahan’s life, Finck’s work is distinctly non-biographical given the creative licenses that she takes in transporting him to present day New York even though the real Cahan died in 1951. Cahan is initially depicted dressed and fashioned as he was during his lifetime, but over the course of the text, he shaves his moustache and adopts the clothing and grooming styles of a 21st century American. Beyond the fact that he is a ghost, the only other noticeably non-human aspect about him is that his head is the shape of a heart (Figure 1). Suggestive of feelings and emotions, Finck’s artistic choice to illustrate Cahan’s face as an oversized heart is likely a reflection of how the real-life Cahan championed the causes of the disenfranchised. It is also a reflection of the burgeoning feelings that Finck has for Cahan as she sees in him a lifeline to the past and a person with whom she can communicate and express her curiosities and desires to unravel the mysteries of the Jewish past.

Fig 1: Abraham Cahan with a heart-shaped head.

The text begins with Finck’s discovery of the original letters in a box that she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. Upon opening the box of letters, she is greeted by Cahan, and from this point onwards, the text is structured around a recurring pattern which repeats eleven times. First Cahan narrates a letter, then he reads his response, and lastly, there is an interaction between Finck and Cahan. Each illustration of a letter is done in a unique and different style and so each has its own personality. Finck’s choice to vary her techniques is effective in reinforcing how each letter in Der Forverts was stand-alone and independent from the next. At the same time, by presenting Cahan’s response in an identical format of a typed letter, she reinforces the consistency in Cahan’s editorial voice, and reminds the reader that Finck has joined the letters together in a purposeful manner. Furthermore, when considered together, the consistent style employed in her artistic renderings of the present coupled with the different styles of illustrating the past create a sharp juxtaposition that suggests that while the individual letters interrupt Finck and Cahan’s story, it is Cahan and Finck’s relationship which is the consistent anchor within the text.

Given that hundreds of letters were published in “A Bintel Brief”, Finck needed to be selective about which ones she employed. An analysis of the letters and the subsequent dialogue between Finck and Cahan demonstrate a clear link between the texts. Some of the connections reflect similarities in content. For example, the first letter is about a family that is starving and believes that their neighbor stole a watch that they had hoped to pawn; part of Cahan and Finck’s first interaction is about how Cahan is hungry for old New York/Eastern European Jewish staples like pickles, kugel[3], gefilte fish[4], or schav[5] while Finck is very sad hearing about the family’s struggles and feels that the story is about her. Later, in letter four, Cahan reads Finck a story about a barber and in their conversation, he decides that he wants a haircut.

Many of the juxtapositions between letter and interaction move beyond the content of the letter and address themes that are present in the letter. In the second letter, a family is unsure whether to bring their father to America because they worry that he will not fit in. This letter is followed by Finck sharing with the reader how happy she is now that Cahan has joined her and how he completes her life. Through this act of sharing her feelings, Finck assumes the role of the letter writer and shares how satisfied she is now that she has brought Cahan, a man from the ‘old world,’ to life by opening the book that contained him. Letter six tells the story of a woman torn between loving a man from Europe but struggling when her new American friends don’t respect his European accomplishments in America. The tension between the old and new worlds that is present in this text is equally present in the interactions between Finck and Cahan; as their story has progressed, Cahan becomes increasingly interested in contemporary New York City and less interested in conversing with Finck, since she is primarily interested in the past. To remedy this, and to keep Cahan invested and anchored in the past, Finck prepares him his favorite food, schav, which brings him to tears.

Lastly, both letters eight and eleven address instances of lost love. In letter eight, a man is tricked into divorcing his wife so that she can marry his brother and in letter eleven, a young bride is left bereft when her husband dies in a fire and she feels unable to resume her life. Both letters are juxtaposed by depictions of Finck feeling lost without Cahan. Following letter eight, the reader is presented with a series of images of recalcitrant husbands who have left their wives. The juxtaposition of husbands who have abandoned their wives and Finck travelling around New York alone is a reflection of how bereft and devastated Finck is knowing that Cahan has left her and is enjoying his life, while she feels stuck, unable to live without him.

Finck’s text concludes with her return to her grandparents’ home and a conversation with her grandmother. The decision to end the graphic novel at the same place that it began shows that a cycle has completed in which the story begins with Finck feeling lost and confused at her grandparents’ home, she then gains new understandings of her family’s history, and she then returns home. Whereas at the conclusion of letter eight she felt inconsolable, by literally and figuratively returning home at the end of letter eleven, Finck suggests a way to move forward. Without Cahan to serve as her guide and unable to find him in local Jewish haunts, Finck turns to her grandmother, the individual who most closely is able to recapture the magic and spirit that Finck felt with Cahan, as her guide, as Finck’s grandmother is her relative who has the most vivid memories of life in old New York.

As noted earlier, Finck employs a varied artistic style to depict different components of the narrative cycle. There are two additional significant visual features to the text. First, all of the letters are illustrated in black and white while all of the responses to the letters and the interactions between Finck and Cahan are blue and black. The exception to this is that in each letter, one object – a hat, a star, a piece of yarn, a heart – is also illustrated in blue. Finck’s use of a muted blue to highlight a specific feature of the panel draws attention to the object’s significance as an emotional anchor within the letter and draws the reader’s attention directly to it. Furthermore, the muted blue that is employed throughout Finck and Cahan’s scenes helps establish the somber tone and mood, and suggests to the reader, long before Finck realizes it, that her story with Cahan will not end in the happy way that she imagines.

Finck and Cahan Explore New York Together

Applying the models of cultural mediator and heritage broker to the ways in which Finck and Cahan explore historical and contemporary New York City together provide opportunities for understanding their respective behaviors and attitudes to each other’s worlds. Through Finck’s visualizations of New York City, the reader is able to travel alongside Finck and Cahan and be a tourist with them. Through their shared exploration of both past and present New York City, the reader is able to see what each character sees and experiences, and to also visit the sites for themselves. This lets the reader be similarly affected by the visuals that are so transformational for both of the characters as they immerse themselves in their new lives and become increasingly distanced from each other. This separation emerges as a result of the simultaneous operations they play on each other which ultimately culminate not only in Cahan’s absorption into contemporary New York City but also Finck’s frustration that he has abandoned her for this new world, as she simultaneously becomes increasingly immersed in the old world.

At the onset of the text, Finck assumes the stance of a cultural mediator for Cahan, helping him explore contemporary New York, whereas Cahan unintentionally assumes the identity of a heritage broker for Finck in her attempts to understand her past. As noted above, the roles and identities of cultural mediators and heritage brokers are similar but there are key differences between each. Cultural mediators operate in the present and attempt to build bridges between tourists and the communities that they are visiting; heritage brokers tend to build bridges between historical settings and with individuals in the present with whom the history has a personal and/or familial connection. The cultural mediator links together different cultures and communities that occupy shared time but different physical spaces; the heritage broker links together groups that occupy the same physical spaces and cultures but different times. In this way, the cultural mediator operates in the present to make meaning while the heritage broker operates across time in order to make meaning.

Evidence of Finck serving as a cultural mediator resound throughout the first five letters of the text. In their dialogue following the reading of the first letter, Cahan is hungry and begins to cry over the absence of foods in Finck’s refrigerator that he enjoyed from when he was alive. Instead of offering to acquire for him the kugels and pickles that he desires, Finck suggests that he try sushi. Foreshadowing her later disappointment, Finck comments how this suggestion was “her first mistake”. Nevertheless, the introduction of local cuisine, as opposed to the food of his historical home, serves as Cahan’s first interaction with contemporary society. Like the multicultural New York of Cahan’s time, Finck’s New York also has a wide range of cultural expressions and sushi is a prime example of this given its historical origins in Japan and its adaptations in America. Finck’s suggestion of local and contemporary food as opposed to historical food reflects one of the key ways that Cavelzani, Lee, Locatelli, Monti and Villamira posit that cultural mediators can operate. They suggest that beyond introducing the visitor to more authentic experiences, by employing local services, Finck is “in a position to better explain it to tourists, (9-10)” or in this case, to Cahan.

So successful is Finck at introducing 21st century America to Cahan that he begins to explore other aspects of this world under her tutelage. Following the fourth letter, Cahan wants to get a haircut and to shave off his moustache, and after the fifth letter, he purchases an entire new wardrobe, including sunglasses, headphones, a backwards baseball hat, a basketball jersey and a beanie (Figure 2). Noticeable about all of his clothing is how contemporary it is. Cahan has, at the approximately halfway mark of the text, fully immersed himself into the material elements of Finck’s world and become an American just like Finck.

Concurrent with Finck’s instructions on American society, Cahan provides information and emotional connection for Finck to better understand her own heritage. In her very first meeting with Cahan, Finck observes how the way Cahan licked his finger before reading to her “reminded [her] of [her] grandpa” (Figure 3). This scene is beautifully illustrated as the reader is catapulted back in time and no longer sees Cahan reading to Finck but her own grandfather reading to her. The link between Cahan and her own grandparents is a powerful recurring motif throughout the work, and in Cahan, Finck sees a way back to her past and to understanding her own story. As Mihāilescu notes, “by overlapping her personal, affectionate, remembrance of her caring grandfather with the…image of Cahan…Finck offers us a family-centered means of access to this distant lost world” (278).

Fig 2: Cahan’s outfit transformation.

As Macdonald has observed, the heritage broker’s role is complex given that the broker and his audience live in and experience the present, while their ideas and context exist in the historical past. Macdonald argues that the successful heritage broker needs to be able to simultaneously see the physical space in multiple ways so as to construe meaning from the past in the present. Finck challenges the traditional role of the heritage broker by casting Cahan in the guise of a heritage broker who only occupies temporal space in one world and was actually alive in the historical period that he brings to life. In this way, Cahan is able to provide a genuinely authentic historical experience given that he lived in the early 1900s and is able to bring the time period alive; at the same time, however, he also has a more limited ability to actually construe meaning of the present given that he is an immigrant in contemporary New York.

Even though Cahan’s work as heritage broker does not entirely reflect how Macdonald describes an exemplary one, Finck sees in Cahan an exceptionally skilled heritage broker. This is likely because Finck is already aware of the contemporary world, and because of her disinterest in it, she is not bothered by Cahan’s inability to make meaning across time. As a result, by the end of the first letter, Finck is already very emotionally invested in Cahan’s world and narrative. While Cahan is reminiscing about pickles and kugel and crying over their absence in her fridge, Finck is crying over hearing a story about a starving family. The comedic juxtaposition of their reactions foreshadows Finck’s heavy investment in the emotional and historical past alongside Cahan’s material interest in the past, and his obliviousness to the ways that he impacts Finck’s life. She is so moved by the story that she asks a series of follow-up questions – to which Cahan does not know the answers – and feels like the author was personally addressing her despite the over 100 years separating them.

Fig 3: Finck is reminded of her Grandfather when Cahan reads to her.

Finck’s immersion into Cahan’s world does not end at the conclusion of the first letter. While the reader is not presented with all of the details, or even an indication of how much time has elapsed, by the conclusion of their dialogue at the end of letter two, Finck states: “My new friend made my life complete, in a way”. As heritage brokers are wont to do, Cahan breathed life into New York in a way that made the past real, alive, and personal. Cahan led Finck on walking tours of New York City and explained all about the old dance halls, cafés, and sweatshops to her. So engrossed is she in this world that Finck felt that Cahan “spoke so vividly that the year 1906 started to seem more real to [her] than [her] own time”.

Inherent in the role and identity of the heritage broker or the cultural mediator is the danger of overreliance and dependence on the person as a conduit to understanding the past or the present. This is evident when Finck becomes so caught up in old New York that she begins to see Cahan as hers and as her only way to connect to her past. This is evident when Cahan begins to explore New York City on his own and to change his style of dress, Finck feels that she can no longer access her past and becomes frustrated with his newfound independence. In an attempt to resituate Cahan in his own time period so that he can continue to teach her about her past, Finck assumes the role of heritage broker at the end of letter six by preparing Cahan schav, his favorite food. The soup is successful and brings Cahan to tears and Finck is, momentarily, content that she has made Cahan happy and brought him back to her.

The reversal of roles in how Finck moves from tourist in old New York to wanting to be a heritage broker for Cahan of his own home world in order to maintain control over him eventually backfires. At the conclusion of letter seven, Finck cries when the soup is finished and Cahan struggles to understand why; he remarks how they can prepare more soup. Finck replies that she does not want more soup, and, to the reader, she acknowledges that it was she who “came completely undone”. It is at this point in the text that Cahan and Finck never again teach each other about their respective worlds and the remainder of the work is about how they live independently of each other. Cahan begins to explore the contemporary world via Finck’s computer, and Finck visits the library to look at Yiddish issues of Der Forverts, which she does not even understand. Inherent in Finck’s decision to prepare Cahan soup is an abuse of her role as a heritage broker; the heritage broker does not work for his or her own experiences but rather for the tourist’s experiences and the historical experience as a whole. Here, Finck does not prepare soup so that Cahan can feel comfort in his own past but so that she can feel this way and her selfish decision leads to a rupture in their intercultural dynamic. Equally important in this scene is how unaware Cahan is of the way that he has made Finck feel about the past or the unintended impact that he has had on her.

Finck’s selfish treatment of Cahan alongside Cahan’s obliviousness to the changes that he is affecting in Finck raise important ethical considerations inherent in the roles of heritage brokers and cultural mediators. One of the limitations of the advice columnist is an inability to gauge the impact on the audience given the unidirectionality of the communication. This should not be the case with the cultural mediator or heritage broker. Both Finck’s and Cahan’s mutual mistreatment of each other and their willingness to take from the other with limited awareness or sensitivity belie the intended purpose of what an effective tour guide should do. Through the sharing of knowledge and experience, the tour guide gives of himself in order to benefit the visitor; despite their good intentions, Finck’s and Cahan’s limited awareness of how to successfully navigate their situations lead to a painful break in the relationship for Finck.

Throughout the text, Finck forms a very strong attachment to Cahan. This attachment is rooted in her initial reaction to meeting someone who reminded her of her grandfather and of her connection to her past. The relationship begins to crumble once Finck becomes entirely dependent on Cahan to teach her about her past and for helping her navigate her present. As Cahan becomes increasingly interested in the current world, and as he recognizes that Finck is no longer suited to be his cultural mediator, Cahan begins to distance himself from her and to explore New York on his own. This rejection leads to Finck becoming despondent and distressed over losing him. Through the theoretical lens of cultural mediation and heritage brokering, their conflict emerges as a result of differing expectations of themselves and of each other. Cahan’s decision to abandon Finck in historical New York and to explore and understand contemporary New York reflects his interest in cultural mediation and not heritage brokering. His role as the author of “The Bintel Brief” was to play the ideological role of a cultural mediator who would facilitate more positive interactions between recent Jewish immigrants and the established Jewish society. At the onset of his relationship with Finck, even though she saw him as a heritage broker who could link her to the past, from his perspective, he was a cultural mediator because the past was the only culture that he knew; discussing old New York was not an historical experience for him so much as it was a contemporary one since this was the world where he actually had lived. However, once he joins the modern world and learns contemporary culture and society, transitioning away from old New York and acculturating to the present is, for Cahan, an obvious and natural decision since he wants to live in the present and not the past. As a result, he has no interest in helping Finck bridge chronological eras as her heritage broker.

Despite the similarities in navigating sites for meaning, the roles and attitudes of cultural mediators and heritage brokers are very different from each other. The divergent understandings that are held by both Finck and Cahan of what Cahan’s ideological orientation is towards society is not merely an exercise in semantics. To adopt a position that views the past as central to understanding the present is radically different than adopting a position that operates cross-culturally in the present. It is their different understanding of Cahan’s role that ultimately leads to his departure from Finck’s life. Ultimately, while he knows that he has arrived from the past, Cahan does not want to remain moored there like Finck wants him to be. Despite his desire to be present-focused, Cahan does not resent or dislike Finck; he merely wants to experience life in an entirely different way. Therefore, given his positive feelings towards her, before he permanently leaves, he provides Finck with one final lesson. Cahan ambiguously informs Finck that she is a people watcher, and he then disappears from her life forever.

At first Finck is unsure what to do with this piece of information; she wonders: “was he telling me to keep my eyes open?”. With eyes wide open and an ideological orientation towards the past, she therefore begins looking for Cahan at locations that are historic and not contemporary. She looks for him in abandoned delis, pickle factories and synagogues. She joins Yiddish language classes and becomes a member at a synagogue. Unfortunately for Finck, Cahan is not to be found in any of these places, as he is more likely to be found at sushi bars and in the entertainment district of Times Square because his orientation is to bridge worlds and people together in the places where people are to be found in the contemporary world. While Cahan has become a modern New Yorker, Finck is left feeling like she can once again not make sense of the world, and she wanders the streets looking in places where Cahan could have been found in 1907.

Eventually, Finck clues in to the meaning of Cahan’s statement that she is a people watcher. Being a people watcher means being an observer, being a learner, being someone who absorbs the experiences that take place around them. Absent Cahan, Finck comes to realize that she can form her own layers of meaning and understanding from her grandmother who also lived during the 20th century New York City that she is so interested in. As Oksman points out, other than Cahan, “we never see Finck interact with anyone from her present life” (225) until she speaks with her grandmother on the last two pages of the graphic novel. By leaving her with a cryptic message, Cahan facilitates Finck’s investment in her own history and helps her realize that she can talk with her grandmother about her Jewish past. Furthermore, beyond her grandmother, Finck can now return to the synagogues, Yiddish classes, and dance halls where she had previously searched for Cahan, but now she can attend the programs as an active participant and member of a community that wants to keep vestiges of the past alive in the present. Visiting these sites and interacting with different types of Jewish people can serve, in their own way as, “resource[s] for creating the future” (van de Laar, 40). Additionally, the people who she meets while looking for Cahan “reflect a self-groping for a connection, a sense of identity… and while she does not locate Cahan, the search itself puts her in touch with a community of lost souls who, like her, just want the opportunity to be seen and heard” (Oksman, 230). Cahan’s absence from her life and his messages about people watching and living history serve as an alarm bell for Finck to realize that the past is not the past if you want to bring it in to the present. Even more importantly, Finck comes to recognize that she has her own link to the past through her grandmother who can bring the past to life through her lived experiences and explain Finck’s own Jewish story to her.

Throughout her entire experience, Finck develops a greater connection to her past in a way that she had never felt before as it leads her to explore her Jewish roots and to begin to have meaningful dialogue with her grandmother. This experience suggests that Finck is moving towards what Lehrer has termed an “active dialogue about the past” (278). The conversation with her grandmother suggests that Finck might have begun to embrace the opportunity to experience life in the two time periods simultaneously that the ideology of the heritage broker presents.


Finck’s A Bintel Brief was not the only Jewish graphic novel published in a 12 month span that actively made use of the heritage broker as a way for negotiating the past and present. Published in June of 2013, ten months before Finck’s A Bintel Brief, was Rutu Modan’s The Property. Modan’s text is a wholly original account of a non-Jewish Pole who is actually professionally a heritage broker who guides a Jewish Israel female traveler around post-Holocaust Warsaw. Much is different between the two texts – location and time period to name two – but what binds them together is how both demonstrate the power of the heritage broker in helping Jews navigate the lost and forgotten spaces of their past. In both works the heritage brokers themselves are also catalysts that help the Jewish characters uncover aspects and elements of themselves. As part of her experience in Warsaw, Mica comes to better understand her own family’s Holocaust trauma and Tomasz, her guide, serves as more than just a translator. He helps her understand local customs and cultural practices. More importantly, it is Tomasz who helps Mica come to understand that her father was the product of an illegal relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew and that her father never even knew this about himself. Similarly, it is Cahan who helps Finck not only physically visit the long-forgotten spaces of old New York but to also develop an emotional and spiritual connection with them. In her quest for gaining a clearer sense of self and understanding of her identity, Cahan provides an entry-point whereby Finck – despite her frustration over losing Cahan – can continue to explore her identity on her own.

Where the two texts most sharply differ is how the heritage broker chooses to transition away from his role as heritage broker. With Modan, Mica and Tomasz begin a sexual relationship in which each continues to learn from the other, and Tomasz no longer serves solely as Mica’s guide to her past. Conversely, as has been explored here, Cahan abandons Finck because he never wanted to be a heritage broker in the first place. Like a genie out of the bottle, Cahan has his own identity and interests and he wants to explore contemporary New York. Unlike Mica and Tomasz who are able to transition from the heritage broker dynamic to a romantic relationship, Finck and Cahan’s relationship is punctuated by extreme emotions and feelings of attachment and abandonment. However, despite this difference, both Modan and Finck suggest that the role and ideological orientation of the heritage broker and cultural mediator is not one that is indefinite. To be a tourist is to live in flux and transition; a tourist is not a permanent role. And to be a heritage broker or cultural mediator involves moving in and out of people’s lives, hopefully making an impact and leading to further identity and heritage exploration.

By analyzing Finck’s text through the lens of travel and tourism theory, we can gain a better understanding of both Cahan’s and Finck’s own behaviors and attitudes towards experiencing the culture and customs of the other. The concepts of heritage brokering and cultural mediating offer a model for understanding how Cahan and Finck work to introduce old and new New York to each other. The concepts also help to explain why their relationship dissolves when Finck tries to move beyond just experiencing the past but also wanting to live in it. Most importantly, what we see through this lens is how the tour guide – as either heritage broker or cultural mediator – is an identity shaper. Both Cahan and Finck help mold each other’s new identities as each seeks ways to change themselves in light of their respective circumstances. The tour guide is more than just a person who ushers a visitor from one physical site to another. The guide, and especially the heritage broker, is an identity former and reformer who has the power to change the future based on the past, and whose guiding – as seen with Cahan’s impact on Finck – can last long after the guide has left given Finck’s quest to better understand her own Jewish self.

Perhaps most importantly, the ideologies offer ways of understanding contrasting models for construing meaning of the Jewish past. Like many other ethnic communities, the Jewish community has experienced its share of trauma in the years immediately preceding the publication of Cahan’s “Bintel Brief” through to the present day. The ideologies of heritage brokers and cultural mediators that have been considered here raise important questions about the persistence and necessity of memory, and to what extent memory should continue to impact the present. There is no correct way to calculate the required balance between the two ideologies, but it appears that until Finck emerges from her self-imposed exile following Cahan’s departure, neither character successfully navigates the dual modes of relating to the past and present. Finck’s initial commitment solely to the past comes at the expense of any type of meaningful relationship to the present, and while her stance preserves Jewish history, she is unable to communicate or share this past with anyone. Conversely, while Cahan is able to operate in the present (once he understands it), his stance towards the past seemingly abandons Jewish history and heritage in order to fully live in the present.

Ultimately, the final version of Finck, which involves a fusion of the best parts of her earlier self and of Cahan offer the best model for preserving the memory of the Jewish historical experience without being moored exclusively to it. This model involves forming meaningful connections with both the past and the present, and extends the concept of the heritage broker beyond immersing people, temporarily, into a foreign and historical community and into a lived experience. While the reader does not see Finck actualize her realization about what it means to be a people watcher beyond her conversation with her grandmother, this first leap demonstrates the potential that lies within her for bridging the disparate worlds of historical and contemporary Jewish life.


[1] The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Jenna Pasternak, his research assistant.

[2] While identical in appearance, I do not see the text as autobiographical and therefore draw a distinction between Finck as the creator of the text and Finck as the character in the work.

[3] A baked pudding or casserole typically made from egg noodles or potatoes.

[4] A dish made from deboned and ground fish formed into loaves or patties.

[5] Also known as green borscht, schavis an Eastern European soup made from sorrel leaves.

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