Sisterhood Blog

Merissa Nathan Gerson: A 'Yenta' for a New Generation

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

By her own admission, Merissa Nathan Gerson’s qualification as an advice columnist is mainly “10 years of talk therapy.” “Add a few rabbis, a Buddhist-inspired education, monks, stupas, shrine rooms and the like, stir, and you get a 28-year-old Yenta,” writes the former farmer, waitress, teacher, lamp-maker, and creative writing teacher at a juvenile detention facility. But bona fides aren’t the point of her burgeoning site The site riffs on traditional advice columns to provide distinctly feminist perspectives on local, global and personal issues. Gerson answered the Forward’s questions via email from Johnson, Vt., where she is at a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center.

Merissa Nathan Gerson

Michael Kaminer: The site says is a “self-help resource hub masquerading as an advice column.” Can you explain?

Merissa Nathan Gerson: Yes. I don’t just give advice. For a lot of questions I supply resources, from books to magazine articles, Web sites, stores and hotlines. Sometimes I need to do research for a question, but more often than not I know a book title or a support group that could help my readers. My life experience somehow tacked resources on to my repertoire daily. … It is as if I have been soaking it in for years and this site is a collection of all I learned, for everything from how to find a BDSM support group to locating a meditation center in your community.

A recent question for the Yenta comes from a woman who apparently upset a friend by going out with a guy the friend had her eye on. What other kinds of questions are you getting? What was the weirdest?

I get all sorts of questions, everything from “Help, my boyfriend wears a sock on his penis when we have sex” to “My roommate washes his hair in the kitchen sink with MY shampoo.” I do know what “weird” means and what it looks like in theory, but I don’t think there is a “weirdest” only because if I judged people as weird, I would not, honestly, be able to answer the questions to begin with. At this point in my life, nothing fazes me.

Your site cites “wise people” from Joan Nathan to Martin Buber. How do they figure into the Yenta’s advice?

From the long list of Jewish wise people, everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, it is funny (and perhaps a veiled endeavor) that you happen to pick these two from the list. Ms. Joan Nathan figures in quite heavily, since she clothed, fed and bore me into this world. I quote her every now and then, and learned a lot of social codes from watching her.

People like Martin Buber shaped me in my understanding of my own self, the world, and my view of other human beings. He also molded my pride in being Jewish, unfolding a whole beautiful side to the religion for me. He, along with a yeshiva student, helped answer one question from someone asking what they would be when they grow up. If I am not quoting him, you can bet, in my purer advice-giving moments, that if I am being nice he may have something to do with that “I-Thou” relationship.

It was a little disturbing to see some of the definitions of “Yenta” on — “Meddler, gossiper, meddlesome, busybody, nuisance. Mostly Judaic and female”, was one. Another: “1) Yiddish word which describes an old woman who is a matchmaker. In modern use the meaning has become that of an annoying old hag.” How are you reclaiming the word?

I am reclaiming the word with humor. Think Heeb magazine and Bitch magazine. Neither hates Jews or women, instead they are imploding a word saying, “See, this is what we are. Is this really something to hate?” It is tongue and cheek, but also making a point. I am taking the Yenta veneer and imploding it.

One woman recently defined a Yenta as someone “who minds other people’s business.” Isn’t that exactly what is happening here? Me minding their business? There seems to be a generational gap in the understanding of this term. Jewish women in their fifties and sixties are generally repulsed when I mention the title, whereas Jews in their twenties and thirties always chuckle knowingly. People have called me a Yenta for years, based on my ability to see through people’s masks, straight to what is ailing or moving or exciting them. At times I was a nuisance, a gossip, completely meddlesome. And now I have made a life out of it, only in a purer form without hurting others (I hope). The key to my post-nuisance Yenta-ing is that people invite me to meddle in their business.

In the age of Oprah and reality shows, what makes a Yenta’s advice different?

A Yenta, I don’t know. This Yenta is like a Jewish Oprah with a feminist, Buddhist, pop-culture, youthful spin. The point is 40% entertainment and 60% begging my generation to raise their personal standards. I want people to be happy and healthy, to dream way bigger and to have the tools to do so.

Can you tell me a little about your Jewish background?

Yes. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. We had Shabbat dinner at my father’s parents’ house every week. After they passed away, we continued the tradition at home. Jewish food was an integral part of our existence, to say the very least.

Post-college I was a farmer for a summer and read a lot of Martin Buber on the beach and spent a lot of time in silence picking beans. That was when I started going to synagogue regularly and began taking pride in my Jewish identity. I think that was the first time I connected to the religion without obligation, wherein I discovered a softer more readily accessible side. Mystical thought explained my understanding of the world far better than the angry wrathful god and religious shame so often interlaced with synagogue in D.C.

No matter where I go now, I always find a Shabbat. I have been to Chabad in Salvador, Brazil, Eugene, Oregon, Venice, Italy and Santa Fe, N.M. I made challah in a township in South Africa, did Rosh Hashanah with ex Umkhonto weSizwe [resistance fighters], and found a tiny chapel full of middle-aged Jews in the middle of Eastham, Mass. Once I had Shabbat in Panama City. and was amazed by how much everything sounded smelled and tasted like my grandmother’s Friday nights when I was little. That was priceless, finding those memories so far away.

The more I learned to love Judaism for the religion, not the warped politics, the more important it was to tag myself as Jewish, and in this case, a Jewish Yenta.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Merissa Nathan Gerson, Martin Buber, Joan Nathan

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.