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No questions asked

Randy Cohen, who writes “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine, was in Morristown last week, hosting a panel discussion for rabbis and lawyers on Jewish legal ethics. It was a good fit: Cohen is neither a lawyer nor a rabbi — in fact, he’s a comedy writer — but his popular column is a lively and serious conversation about doing the right thing in a world of gray areas.

For years now I’ve dreamed of reading a Jewish advice column, or even writing one, that speaks to a 21st-century Jewish audience the way Cohen speaks to his (admittedly, there’s a lot of overlap). The fact that I haven’t had any luck says something to me about the nature of contemporary Jewishness.

I’m a sucker for advice columns, especially the ones that talk about health and fashion. Foods with bright, rich colors bind the damaging free radicals in my body? If it appeared in Men’s Fitness, it must be true! My belt and shoes should match? Then they will — thanks, Esquire!

It must’ve been over 10 years ago that I read a column in Gentleman’s Quarterly warning that I shouldn’t brush my teeth while wearing a necktie, unless I knew how to get spit stains out of silk. It’s advice I continue to live by.

It doesn’t matter that a lot of these columns are written by people basically like me: a bunch of scribblers pitching editorial ideas around a conference table. The point is, I have questions, and they have answers. Hell, they have answers to questions I didn’t know I had. And I come away feeling a little more in control. I can’t do much about the economy, but I can keep myself from wearing socks with boat shoes. Even if I never wear boat shoes.

The secret of a good advice column is insecurity and certainty — the reader’s insecurity, the columnist’s certainty. The column only works if the reader is uncertain of his or her place in society, however defined. The best columns are for people in transition. Their core readers are young brides making decisions about their first households; couples charting new emotional territory; parents wondering how to deal with the baby now that she’s a toddler, the toddler now that she’s a teen.

The most famous Jewish advice column was the Bintl Brief, which appeared in the Yiddish Daily Forward in its heyday in the early 20th century. Written by the Forward’s legendary editor, Abraham Cahan, the Bintl Brief helped generations of immigrants navigate the bewildering changes they faced in the New World. A son is taking ballroom dancing lessons — will this lead to trouble? Is a “freethinker” a hypocrite if he accompanies his zeyde to shul?

Often the questions took a tragic turn: An overwhelmed greenhorn would share her thoughts of suicide. A young bride would ask for help in searching for a missing husband.

Cahan’s answers were confident, direct, even authoritarian. His readers weren’t turning to him for “on the one hand, on the other.” And he was probably competing with rabbis, whose authority was under attack. Readers probably guessed what the rabbis thought about ballroom dancing. In Cahan, they found someone who was both steeped in tradition and, like them, already had one foot out the door.

The nature of Jewish advice columns — and the purpose of Jewish newspapers — turned 180 degrees after the mid-century mark. My father once told me, “The Forward taught your grandparents how to be Americans.” When the Forward was reinvented as an English-language weekly in 1990, one of its goals was to remind Jews how to be Jews. As its one-time literary editor Jonathan Rosen wrote, “The journey into American assimilation was complete. The time had come for the journey back.”

Recent Jewish advice columns tend to be of the “Ask the Rabbi” variety. Jews uncertain of the traditions seek traditional advice — how to build a sukka or pay a shiva call. Occasionally the questions are a little deeper, asking what Judaism “says” about issues like euthanasia or abortion.

But I sometimes get the feeling those seeking advice are trying to settle a bar bet, not shape a Jewish life. There doesn’t seem to be anything at stake in the questions or answers, unlike, say, in “The Ethicist.” Cohen hears from teachers, physicians, lawyers, and other professionals, and the dilemmas they face have real-life consequences.

So why can’t we have a similarly serious Jewish advice column? I blame the lack of Jewish insecurity. We’re comfortable in our Americanness and our Jewishness and don’t need or seek advice on either. (Now dieting and shoes — that’s another matter.) The Jewish journey isn’t forward or back — it’s over. We’ve arrived. 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.

Or at least it used to be.

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