The format of the letters

There was a conventional format to Yiddish letters of the period which included dating  letters according to the week’s Torah reading followed  by flowery terms of address and titles written in an elevated style which, although artificial, was intended to honour both the writer and recipient.  This can be seen throughout the letters in the way Tuvye and Meishe Rubin greet every member of the family individually and very respectfully – e.g., “honoured and respected famous gentleman”, “chaste and modest”; “scholarly”, “erudite”.  

The chaste and  modest Neche and Getzel Morris, Shimberg

After the greetings came the blessings. Illness was a constant source of long-distance anxiety and he always mentioned his health and asked after that of Taube and the children. Only after those formalities came the news, or apologies for lack of news.

Furthermore, for the better educated, Hebrew was preferred to Yiddish as it showed that the writer had a formal Hebrew-based education, with the Hebrew usually followed by the rest of the letter in Yiddish. Few women could read Hebrew so the portion of the letter addressed to Taube were in Yiddish, with paragraphs in Hebrew reserved for Tuvye’s father, brother in law Moishe Schochet, and Taube’s grandfather. Greetings were conveyed to members of his extended family, both men and women.

Sometimes Taube’s cousin  Meishe Rubin, or visiting friends, added a paragraph for their own families. These usually contain little information apart from providing reassurance - “I am fine, how are you?”

Though in 1844 Jews in Russia were ordered to take surnames, these were not necessarily the names that Jews used when referring to individuals. On a handful of occasions Tuvye calls his brother in law by his full name -- Moishe Morris --  but almost always by his trade – Moishe Schochet, (or slaughterer). [i] When it comes to Taube’s grandfather, he is addressed as Zalman Berel Yaacov Katz, or Schneier Zalman Rubin, or Schneier Zalman Katz.


Seated, from left:, Moishe Morris (Taube’s brother), his wife  Sarah Morris ( originally Sarah Kretzmar, Tuvye’s sister,),  Neche Morris (Moishe and Taube’s mother). Standing, from left: Taube and Moishe’s  son, who died in World War 1, their daughter Taube (a Mrs. Schulmanwho later married a Mr. Schulman or who later became Mrs. Schulman) and Moishe and Taube’s sister Chana Reza Morris.

 

Notes:

[i] Tuvye’s eldest sister Sarah was married to Taube’s brother Moishe.

© Kaplan Centre
Letters courtesy of Phil Kretzmar