“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.