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Poster Commentary
"A human being is like a letter of the alphabet: to produce a word, it must combine with another."Benjamin Mandelstamm
Poster design:Carin Goldberg


by Erica Brown

It is no surprise that Benjamin Mandelstamm compared human beings to letters. Words are the way in which we construct reality; sentences are the building blocks of communication. Each sentence is broken down into words, each word into letters. But letters rarely stand alone if they intend to communicate meaning. They must be combined with others to make the most basic words. Forget just one letter, and you’ve misspelled a word. In the shorthand of today’s communication, just try sending an email with one wrong letter in the address. It won’t work.

Benjamin Mandelstamm was born in Zagare, Lithuania, in the 19th century. He was a writer and a leading political reformist who organized Jews to resist Russian oppression. Mandelstamm wrote a book about the Jews of Zagare, but no copies are known to exist today. He understood that revolutions require more than one person. The collective voice is always stronger than a voice alone.

Zagare suffered many significant fires, and a cholera epidemic wiped out a large number of its Jews in 1848. The fact that Mandelstamm was interested in the history of his town may also be significant in inspiring this idea of words being like people, both working best in combination with each other. Mandelstamm died in 1886.

In isolation we can work, create, master and inspire others. The letter i stands alone. It is powerful, but not as powerful as it could be in conjunction with others. Like the letters in words, together we can rebuild, rethink and shape a culture. We can change the future.

Conversation Guide


Benjamin Mandelstamm, a nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment figure, challenges individuals to join together—like letters that compose words. The commentary to this poster sheds light on some details of Mandelstamm’s past, and concludes that only when working together can we rebuild, rethink and shape a culture.

How do you understand the comparison between people and letters/words? What happens when there are missing letters in a word? What about when there are too many letters in a word? How can you relate these questions to human beings?

What human “combinations” do you see around you? Which ones are central to your life?

Other posters and quotations in this series also deal with the challenge of the individual versus the community. How does Mandelstamm’s quotation relate to Hillel’s teaching, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” How does Mandelstamm’s statement about the alphabet compare with the Midrashic statement, “A community is too heavy to carry alone”?



Each image calls out to us to examine it, to note our thoughts and feelings, and relate these impressions to the quotation. Often clues in the artwork suggest meaning and invite interpretation.

Graphic designer Carin Goldberg brings the alphabet alive in her depiction of this quotation. 

How does the image present the quotation? Was this how you interpreted the quotation without the image?

What was your experience in finding the quotation embedded in the image? How did you feel when you found it?

What do you think Goldberg meant to convey by the following elements:

o   Most of the letters are uppercase.

o   Punctuation marks are interspersed.

o   Some letters are filled in, others are circled, and still others are crossed out.

o   Some words are grouped together.


Copyright© 2012 Harold Grinspoon Foundation

Please use this guide creatively in your programs.  We’d also love to see what you’re doing and share it with others, so please post on our website using the Share button in The Exchange


Masters Series©2012, Carin Goldberg, Quote: Benjamin Mandelstamm,

Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA