“I recently met a good girl but there is a problem. She has a dimple in her chin and people say that if someone has this, their husband will die early. So I don’t know if I should keep on seeing this girl — please help me.” … “A pogrom took place in Bialystok, where my old parents and a sister with three children live. Should I try to bring them here, or go there and help my brothers in their struggle?”
These questions were answered, in the early part of the 20th century, in Yiddish Forward’s legendary advice column, “A Bintel Brief.” Today the questions posed to columnists are more likely to deal with JDate stalkers and Facebook etiquette, but the appetite for good advice is no less voracious.
Advice is a field in which Jews, particularly Jewish women, have long excelled. Two prominent (and, yes, Jewish) advice columnists, Emily Yoffe, Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” and The New York Times Magazine’s former “Ethicist,” Randy Cohen, joined me last week to discuss why people like reading answers to problems they don’t have, the ways in which Judaism influences their work and how we can all be better advice-givers.
Here are some highlights from our public discussion, held at New York’s Museum at Eldridge Street. The museum is currently hosting an exhibit, inspired by the Bintel Brief, featuring the work of graphic artist and Forward contributor Liana Finck.
Gabrielle Birkner: The media has changed drastically since [the Forward’s founding editor] Ab Cahan answered Bintel Brief letters, and since Ann Landers became a household name in the mid-century. But the advice column has endured. What gives it such staying power?
Emily Yoffe: I think there are two things: 1) “Oh my God, the same thing happened to me,” and 2) “Oh my God, my life is so much better than this person’s. Thank goodness I didn’t have an affair with my stepmother, and now I have to tell my father.”
Gabrielle Birkner: So there’s something in it for everyone.
Emily Yoffe: I was re-reading [“A Bintel Brief”] and the human drama, the desire to get a peek into other people’s lives never changes, even though there are some letters in here about pogroms, the grinding poverty of the immigrants who were shipped here — that’s different — but there are other letters in here very similar to the ones that come into my inbox.
Randy Cohen: My experience is very much yours when you use the word “drama.” In 75 words, the questions in my column do what Tolstoy would do in 100,000 words. In drama, someone has to want something. And how you feel at the end is different from how you feel at the beginning. It’s a glimpse into other people’s lives. The same reason that pornography is popular, I was popular.
Gabrielle Birkner: When people talk about ‘the oldest profession,’ the business of advice has got to be up there, too. Time was, people went to rabbis and sages…
Randy Cohen: It’s very Jewish, giving advice. Who dominates the field? We do. Is that good? Is that bad? Is it just that we’re pushy and all too willing to chime in? We don’t really know. Maybe. I mean, [Dear] Abby, Ann [Landers] …
Gabrielle Birkner: Jeffrey Zaslow, Jeffrey Goldberg, Joyce Brothers, present company.
Emily Yoffe: I realized that even though I wasn’t raised particularly religiously, I do have quite a Jewish take on things, and I do bring a Jewish sensibility to what I do. One of the things I realized, as I started getting letters, is the whole question of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a very Christian issue; justice is more a Jewish issue, and I’ve gotten over the years a lot of letters from people who had very abusive childhoods and are tormented now, and under pressure to have closure with this horrible abusive parent or make amends or forgive. “And I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. That makes me a terrible person.” So they’re tormented by this forgiveness thing. And I really was taken aback. And sometimes I’d write back privately and say, “Is your mother, is your father saying, ‘Please forgive me?’” No. Don’t forgive. That’s ok. Don’t be stuck, but don’t forgive.
Randy Cohen: You’re tough!
Emily Yoffe: Forgiveness is not drilled into us as Jews. The other thing is that Judaism is a this-world religion, so suffering is not ennobling. Another thing is that it’s an observance, not so much a faith religion. So it’s what you do, not what’s in your heart. So for an advice column, we’re dealing with what people are doing, not, “there’s really a good person somewhere in there.” It’s dealing with human behavior.
Randy Cohen: Yeah, especially since I was obliged to respond from an ethical perspective, and that is entirely about action, what you do — not what you think. There aren’t unethical thoughts; there are unethical acts. It’s very much about justice, by which I mean how your actions affect other people. Judaism is a religion of laws, not a religion of faith. We don’t you care what you believe; we care what you do. Here’s what we think right from wrong is, and here’s why. And I’m not a Talmudic scholar. I bring you the precious flower of my ignorance, but that tradition, to try to make a reasoned case, seems to be also a very Jewish thing.
Gabrielle Birkner: Not even Judaism is a prerequisite for the business of advice. In fact, there are no hard-and-fast qualifications for what you do. You don’t need a specialized degree or training. So what makes someone good at it?
Randy Cohen: There are professions where there’s a recognized body of knowledge that all practitioners must have, and often there’s a test, there’s licensing. We don’t have that. In my case, The Times came up with the idea for the column. They invited some people to audition. They gathered something like 10 or 12 people, most of whom had strong philosophy backgrounds. They gave us questions, and we wrote answers. Now as to why they chose me, instead of someone else, I thought it was a clerical error for a really long time. I think it comes down to a question of style. I wrote with a lot of humor, and the magazine thought that was a good thing.
Emily Yoffe: I was there, and that’s my primary qualification. I do get people who say, “Would you please tell me your background in psychotherapy?” And I say Psych 101. I don’t do therapy. This isn’t about therapy. People want judgment, a definitive answer, which is pretty much the opposite of what you do in a therapeutic relationship. This isn’t the word from on high. Take it or leave it, but it’s an answer for you.
Randy Cohen: I remember feeling quite daunted the first few months of the column, thinking, “What if someone runs out in front of a car and gets killed, or does something stupid?” It seemed an awesome responsibility. Then I realized no one’s going to do anyone I say. That’s the most disturbing thing about the job — apparently I have no authority. And so I began to see it as a kind of salon I was writing, just to start the conversation. Here’s an idea about what we should do, and you weigh in. We’re all in it together — all the readers and me — to sort out right conduct.
Gabrielle Birkner: So there’s being a good writer, being able to give people a definitive answer. What else makes someone good at this? Do you need empathy?
Randy Cohen: No, the opposite! I had to learn to develop a much thicker skin. I myself never went to the comment section. People say the most appalling things and they hurt my feelings. But I did read all the e-mail sent to me, and even that took some real toughening up. I don’t know if it’s the anonymity of it, or the ease of clicking send, or that email doesn’t convey tone; people say things that they’d never say to your face or on the phone.
Emily Yoffe: Sometimes I really understand that people are really angry at what I say. A few months ago I had a letter from a woman who said one of her friends who has a serious drinking problem had gone out to a bar, gone out, gotten drunk, met a guy, went back to his place. They had sex, she was saying to her friend, “I had another one night stand; I can’t believe I did that. It was really bad.” And then over the next day or so she said, “You know what, actually I was raped. I was so drunk I could not give consent. And what happened to me was date rape. I’m thinking of calling the police.” And so this woman writing to me was saying, “What should I tell her? And if she goes to the police, what should I do?” And I take a fairly controversial stance. I’m totally against rape. But I say over and over: Women, you have to be responsible for your own behavior. You cannot count on the kindness of strangers. If you go out and voluntarily throw six drinks down your gullet, but you’re still walking and talking and you’re saying to the guy next to you, “Gosh, you’re cute, let’s go back to your house,” is it really his responsibility to say “you’re too drunk?”
Randy Cohen: Yes, he’s a human being! Is he allowed to steal her money, too?
Emily Yoffe: I think there’s a difference between saying “Let’s go to your place and have sex,” and being beaten and having your money stolen.
Randy Cohen: It’s a trivial distinction to me. Maybe that’s why I don’t get asked out? While in the bar, the guy is presumably an adult, he realizes that this person is not in a position to give consent or withhold consent. When she said the words, “come to my house,” she slurred the words, maybe it was “come to my horse.” No, you don’t get to take advantage of people because they’re too drunk to protest.
Emily Yoffe: I heard back from some women saying, “That used to be me. And I would drink so much I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing, but I know I did appear to give consent. Anyone would think I was I was giving consent and going voluntarily, and I had to get my drinking under control.”
Randy Cohen: If wear a suit made of $100 bills, I’m probably going to get robbed, so it would be imprudent of me to do it. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to rob me, because I do something foolish.
Emily Yoffe: If you go up to someone and say “I really like you, and you look like you could use a hundred bucks, here’s a hundred bucks”?
Randy Cohen: Then yes. Unless I’m so drunk that they can see clearly I’m not in a position to do that in a coherent way, and then they’re not supposed to take advantage of my drunkenness.
Gabrielle Birkner: Everyone’s asked for advice at some point in their lives. So what can we all do to strengthen our advice-giving muscles?
Randy Cohen: There were a couple of things that helped me, and one was: People used to say, “What system of moral reasoning do you use?” And I was too ignorant to have a system. One of the things I came to was this thing John Mill said that you should regard moral thought not as rules for living but as tools for seeing. For some people it’s the golden rule, that’s the guiding principle, so apply the golden rule. That would lead you to one kind of answer. Then some people are big utilitarians. They think it’s the greatest good for the greatest number, that’s my central moral principle, then take that tool also, and look and look at the situation that way, and that may lead you to a different answer. Being able to pick these various body of different moral thought — they are tools to help you think. And that’s really useful.
Emily Yoffe: Often people want to know: “Am I right? Is this something I need to say, ‘No more,’ or am I overreacting? Is this something I should shut up and let go?” A large number of the questions I get come into that basic category. I get a lot of questions: My friend is getting married and I know her fiancé is cheating. Should I say something or not? One thing that can help people is to have people you trust, whose judgment you trust, who can give you feedback to say: “I think your boss is just a very moody person. I don’t think you’re being particularly singled out. Or someone who can say, “What happened Friday, you need to go back and address that.” But, again, people are going to do what they want to do.
Randy Cohen: I hate that about people.