Feb 12, 2021
A Yiddish love story sits in the University of Michigan’s Special Collections Library, where the letters of Uriel Weinreich (1926-1967) and Beatrice (Bina) Silverman (1928-2008) are preserved for posterity. Among their many missives is the Valentine’s Day card below written by Uriel in 1948. The two were already prominent members of the Yiddish youth movement in the United States; Uriel was the son of YIVO co-founder Max Weinreich and Bina was one of the elder Weinreich’s graduate students. They were certainly good friends and ran in the same New York Yiddishist circle, but it seems they had not yet become an item. Indeed, the letter’s tone is that of a young person falling in love, but hesitant to come right out and say it. Though playful and joking throughout, Uriel appears timid – even coy – in his conclusion, choosing to sign off with a series of question marks instead of a definitive statement of love. But it did not take long for this to change. By June 1949, the couple was married and on their way to a year-long research trip in Switzerland. The valentine here is a peek into this courtship just as it was heating up.
The card is more than just the traces of a budding relationship. As the product of a bilingual romance between young American Yiddishists, it is also an eclectic pastiche of post-war Jewish life in the United States. The valentine itself is composed of decorative flourishes and English quotes from many generic cards, which Uriel cut and pasted onto the sheets of paper that bear his Yiddish handwriting. In the card, Uriel mocks the American celebration of love for its nonsensical Christian roots and for the vacuous pronouncements it encourages. But, at the same time, he participates in its rituals, not wasting the “opportunity” to sincerely express his affection for Bina, even on this most saccharine of holidays. In this task, even Uriel’s Yiddish – a medium, it seems, far more suitable for declarations of love than the American English that is ridiculed throughout the letter – falters. In the end, Uriel eschews language altogether, opting instead to draw a small graph. This symbol recurs throughout the couple’s correspondence as a representation of their relationship extending eternally over time, a fitting emblem despite Uriel’s untimely passing at the age of 41. A variation of it – with a line heading towards infinity through a heart like an arrow – appears on the folder in which Bina kept her letters from Uriel, and which, in the archive, holds the valentine to this day.
My dear Bina,
The 14th of February, 1948
I went around for two weeks, looking for an acceptable “Valentine’s card.” I couldn’t find a single one that I wanted anywhere.
Printed on the cards was usually something like: “A message with something important to say”
Or even: “To you and you only, On Valentine’s Day”
And sometimes even: “You are the one I love the best”
But nowhere could I buy the words that I wanted to say to you. (Not even in the 15-cent section).
Because, how could they really know what I think of and how I feel about you?
I decided to make my own card –
Even if it doesn’t rhyme.
Alas, I am not so great a poet as he who wrote: “And wishes you always the happiness due/ because you deserve it for just being you!”
So instead, I must
Where should I start?
Until the year 1948, I knew nothing about this thing they call Valentine’s Day.
(I’ve been living under a rock!)
So, I asked Gabi
Act 1 (A home on Payson Avenue. Wintertime. At one table sits Gabriel, at a second table is his brother Uriel)
Uriel: What is Valentine’s?
Gabi: I don’t know.
Uriel: You don’t know?
Gabi: No, I told you that I don’t know.
Uriel: Ok, good, nevermind.
Well… How about that?
I looked in my
It says there (under “Valentine”):
“The association of the lover’s festival with St. Valentine seems to arise from the fact that the feast of the saint falls in early spring and is purely accidental.”
First off, I’ll be damned if I ever associate my love with that goy;
And second, if this is spring,
then I’m a rabbi’s wife.
But what do I care about this theory? For me this is a good enough opportunity to let you know that I’ve had my share of heartache – you know that well enough. For that, no one is guilty.
But I also have had a great deal of satisfaction (from time to time), and the credit for that goes to
YOU [in the heart].
How do you make it so that when I’m [alone] with you, I’m so happy, and when we’re with others, I’m so proud that you are with me?
And even more:
Oy, what am I writing?
I completely forget
That is all