I’m a little embarrassed to admit it but I have a soft spot for commencement speeches. They provide a rare opportunity to hear people at the top of their game — actors, politicians, scientists, musicians, inventors — shelve their normal talking points and share a bit of wisdom they’ve acquired through their life.
Since graduating from Barnard College in 2007, I have watched Anna Deavere Smith, Meryl Streep and Sheryl Sandberg address the graduates of my alma mater. No matter the speaker, the role of women in our world is always front and center in these speeches. This year’s speaker — President Obama — seemed to offer the ultimate opportunity to hear someone I admire speak about women’s rights.
Cloaked in one of Columbia’s signature pale blue gowns, Obama stood behind the podium and joked about his time at the university in the early 1980s, when Michael Jackson’s moonwalk was the pinnacle of cool. More significantly, the president went on to discuss the improvements in the gender gap in higher education and in the workplace.
But what struck me most about this year’s graduation was not the speaker himself or what he had to say, but a small black book that was presented to him shortly before the ceremony. The book, “Pass It On: Wisdom from the Barnard College Class of 2012 to Sasha and Malia Obama,” is made up of 74 letters from members of the graduating class addressed to the First Daughters. The book embodies the sentiment of a Madeleine Albright quote that student body president Jessica Blank stated during her speech: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” So here, the Barnard Class of 2012, put pen to paper to help two young women.
The introduction of the book states: “To Sasha and Malia…We are honored that [your father] chose to share his words with us at our Commencement… and we wanted to share our thoughts with you in return.”
Barnard shared excerpts of the book with The Sisterhood.
“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.
Amy Alkon, the witty syndicated advice columnist behind “The Advice Goddess,” thinks rudeness has reached epidemic proportions.
Alkon opens her book “I See Rude People” with a description of being subjected to a stranger’s decibel-crushing cell phone conversation. And woe to the person who shouts out his phone number within earshot of Alkon. She’s at the ready to take down that number and call him back to tell him how rude it is to be conducting loud personal conversations in public spaces.
The L.A.-based Alkon is an advice columnist for the 21st century — grappling with the intricacies of what constitutes polite behavior in these chaotic and unprecedented technological times. “People are basically the same as they always were,” she told The Sisterhood during a recent phone interview. “Technology enables rude people to disseminate rudeness faster and more effectively.”
I’ve been summoned to give wedding advice. Well, I along with 156 other wedding guests. Two of my friends are marrying each other in Upstate New York. And while they’ve known each other since their Hebrew School days they’ve only begun dating as adults. It’s all very sweet and loving and good.
This week they sent out an email to their wedding guests letting us know about a Quaker tradition that will be incorporated into their Jewish wedding: Before the blessing of the rings, guests will be able to offer well-wishes and advice to this couple, based on the religious tradition of “witnessing.”
I want to be a part of this ritual. But as an unmarried person I felt that any advice I could offer would be tempered by my marital status. After all, isn’t the best part of advice that it comes from someone else’s lived experiences?