The New York Times Magazine recently underwent a redesign, which included a new version of its long-running advice column “The Ethicist.” Chuck Klosterman, the latest in a line of successors to the irreplaceable Randy Cohen, has himself been replaced by a team of “Ethicists.” The column is now a transcript of their blog of the same name.
“The Ethicist” ran out of steam a while ago — the questions about everyday ethical dilemmas now seem repetitious, and none of Cohen’s successors has had his wit or empathy. Cohen was a humorist, and admitted that he came to the column with zero credentials as a philosopher, theologian, legal scholar, or whatever else you might need to be in order to offer ethical advice. Instead, he brought a certain humility, and a “let’s work through this together” sensibility to the task.
As I’ve written before, I suffer from “advice column envy.” I’d love to be the guy who answers readers’ questions and offers life-changing instruction with the tap of a key. My role model is, of course, Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward in its early-20th-century heyday. The magisterial Cahan would step down from his lofty editor’s peak to write “A Bintel Brief,” which offered the Forward’s immigrant readers advice on navigating the unknown waters of their adopted country.
A successful advice column either meets a real need among its readers, or offers a distinctive perspective that enlightens readers on the worldview of its writer. “A Bintel Brief” did nothing less than teach a generation of new Yiddish-speaking immigrants how to be Americans. Cahan filled in for traditional providers of guidance — rabbis, parents, friends — who were similarly unsure how to behave in their strange new world. Almost 100 years later, “The Ethicist” served a secular, educated audience that seemed hungry for the kinds of advice for which people used to turn to their clergy.
In the second category of advice columns is the wonderful “Ask a Mexican!,” which appears in alternative newspapers. Gustavo Arellano, himself Mexican-American, is a sort of mirror image of Cahan — instead of helping immigrants acclimate to their new surroundings, he teaches white people (gabachos, in Mexican slang) about their Hispanic neighbors. Sometimes he punctures a stereotype (“Why do Mexican men always sexualize white women?” is a typical slow pitch for Arellano), and sometimes he offers sage sociological perspectives (as in his answer to the question, “Are Mexicans more conservative, liberal, or libertarian?”). Arellano once wrote that he hopes to create “the fullest depiction of Mexicans in the land,” and after a decade of writing his column, he has largely succeeded.
Others have tried to copy Arellano’s formula, with limited success. “Ask a Hipster,” in the San Diego Reader, offers advice on style and behavior according to the retro aesthetic and finicky code of urban trend-setters. The recurring joke is that The Hipster is both too cool to render judgments and too demanding not to.
Although I’ve despaired of coming up with a distinct and contemporary Jewish advice column, the English-language Forward has delivered nicely with “The Seesaw,” which promises to answer “all your questions about interfaith life.” The column is a smart resource for a new cohort of Jews entering unexplored territory. A rotating team of writers addresses the dilemmas of both Jewish and non-Jewish partners. “Will Chrismukkah Ruin My Nice Jewish Kids?” asked one reader. “Will Jewish Camp Turn My Sons Into Members of [the] Tribe?” asks another. “The Seesaw” provides families answers to questions Cahan might never have imagined.
As I’ve also written before, the secret of a good advice column is an insecure readership. The column only works if readers are uncertain of their place in society, or charting new emotional territory. And for better or worse, I suspect that American Jews are so comfortable in their Americanness and in their Jewishness that they don’t need or seek advice on either. Our questions have been answered, at least to our satisfaction.
That sounds good, I suppose — who would choose to be insecure? But there is something to be said for living in tension, and being even just a little bit unsure of yourself and your choices. The very name “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” The Jewish way is to constantly ask questions, and challenge the answers.
But if we don’t need advice, maybe we need a dose of straight talk. Here’s my nomination for the next great Jewish advice columnist: Susie Essman, the comedian who played the foul-mouthed Susie Green on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Just imagine the possibilities:
Dear Susie Essman: Whenever we go out to dinner with our friends, we split the check — although I suspect my friend is charging the meal to his company credit card, and we end up giving him cash. Should I say something?
Dear Reader: Tell him he is worthless piece of &(!# and an ugly %$&* who can go $%^# with a $%*&. Meanwhile, you should man up, you $%^&@.
Now that’s an advice column I would read.