What’s Southern and Jewish About Advice?

In Conversation with A Bintel Brief

We recently had the chance to chat with Ginna Green and Lynn Harris, co-hosts of the new podcast A Bintel Brief from the Forward. The podcast is new, but A Bintel Brief is more than a century old: it was a Yiddish advice column published in New York City in the early 20th century. To celebrate this new iteration of Jewish advice-giving, we spoke with Ginna and Lynn about what it means to give Jewish advice, and how Ginna’s southern roots inform the podcast. 

(If this interview intrigues you, you can catch Ginna, Lynn, and ISJL staff members giving advice LIVE on the ISJL Facebook page on Wednesday, November 17, at 4pm Central!)

ISJL: A Bintel Brief is over a century old. How did you prepare to continue this project? Did you go back and read old columns?

Lynn: Even though it felt like we were taking on a significant mantle, there was so much to do production-wise that the historical element was more the emotional piece of it. “Oh my God, it’s the Bintel Brief, and it’s me! Whoa!” It was my emotional response, and then the rest of it was  “Alright, what are we going to do, and how do I set up the [podcast] equipment in my laundry room?”

Ginna Green / image by Alexa Curran.

Ginna: I did read some of the old columns, but like Lynn said, so much of it was bringing it into the modern era and not looking too far back. 

In the podcast, you feature Chana Pollack, the Forward’s archivist, who shares advice from the Bintel Brief archives. How do you think the practice of giving advice has changed since those early columns?

Ginna: It’s different now because we have a wider, broader consciousness. When people were writing a hundred years ago, they were living in more insular communities. And now we’re giving advice to people who represent a more diverse range of the Jewish community and who represent a more diverse Jewish experience—economic and racial and ethnic and geographic. Back then, we’re thinking about Yiddish-speaking immigrants coming from a particular corner of the world. Now in North America, Jewry looks completely different. So giving advice now means being open to that and recognizing that in a way that wasn’t required a hundred years ago.

Why a Jewish advice column now? Do we still need a specifically Jewish advice column?

Ginna: There’s giving advice to Jews, and then there’s giving Jewish advice. One hundred and fifteen years ago, we were giving Jewish advice to Jews. Now because the Forward is our home, the people we get letters from are still Jewish. But because of what access looks like, we’re not just talking to the Jewish community anymore. We’re giving Jewish advice to the world. 

Lynn Harris / image by Denise Winters

Lynn: It’s Jewish in that we treat questions as text. Ginna and I are in this chavrutah analyzing the text: “Why did they choose that word? Why did they include this detail and what can we speculate about what was left out?” 

How did you come together for this project and what are your qualifications as advice-givers? 

Ginna:  Lynn has advice-giving in the genes. Her mom was an amazing advice giver, but Lynn also did it professionally. I have given advice in a different way as a consultant and as a strategist. I help the organizations I have worked for do the right things to achieve the things that they want. So I think I bring a real tactical element and a strategic orientation to what people should do. If you listen to some of the episodes, I might be saying, “Okay, working backwards from what the letter writer wants, what do they need to do to get there?”

Lynn: Giving advice doesn’t mean that you’re more right than other people or that you know better, or that you’re smarter or more strategic. Rather, it comes from being able to impose a set of consistent values. Those may or may not lead you to the same answer. 

On behalf of the whole ISJL team… Ginna, we’re really interested in your perspective as someone who is from the South and has now returned to the South! How does that play a role in who you are as a person and in the podcast?

Ginna: The story that the Jewish people tell about who we are is so important, and I think that there are so many Jews who feel as if the story about Jews and Jewishness has not included them. There is this idea that New York is the center of the Jewish world. And it isn’t, and there has been thriving Jewish life in so many places throughout the country for hundreds of years. So I think it’s really important that there are people who can signal that to the rest of the world and that there are people who have a lived experience that is different from the dominant one. It’s important that it’s known that we’re here; we’re everywhere. And we thrive with different traditions, different ways of life, that are fundamentally and still deeply Jewish but might not look the way that even other Jews think Jewishness and Jewish life should look. Anyone who is concerned about Jewish continuity has to be concerned about Jewish diversity and representation and knowledge of who we really are. 

How do these questions of Jewish diversity and representation come up in the advice that people ask for?

Ginna: There is a question in the queue for season 2 about a family that had disowned a family member for having a biracial child a couple decades ago. Now the family is asking about how to reunite. Jews are not immune to the familial challenges that come up and that cross race and class and ethnicity in this country. When we think about the Jewish community we have to remember that we are almost as diverse as America itself. When there are issues of racism or ableism or classism that people who are Black or disabled or poor experience, they are experiencing those as Jews, too. I bring to my advice-giving not only a range of exposure to communities, activism, engagement, and people, but also my own experiences. I think that colors—no pun intended—some of the advice that I might give. I think that’s a good thing.

Are there any common themes in the advice that you give people?

Lynn: We joke that if we didn’t already have such a core brand, the real name of our podcast would be “You Gotta Go Talk to Them.” Because that’s what we say almost every time. But even though we often tell people that they’ve got to go talk to someone, it’s not necessarily to get a result. Because no matter how thoughtfully you articulate whatever it is you’re articulating, it doesn’t mean you can make anybody do anything or deliver a particular outcome. It just probably means that there’s something that you need to get out in the open in some thoughtful way. 

What do y’all hope listeners get out of the podcast?

Ginna: I want them to feel like they learned something and we took them on a journey and told them a story. And I want them to get to know us a little bit, too. I want our personalities to come through. I want them to get to know us and develop a rapport with us. And that makes our advice stronger, right? 

Lynn: For the folks who wind up listening who aren’t Jews and who might have a preconceived notion of what a Jewish podcast would be, I hope that we blow their minds a little bit. Because there’s almost no access in mainstream media to representations of people just being Jewish. I hope that we can contribute to that conversation, to the mainstream normalization of “everyday Jewishness.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark your calendars: Ginna, Lynn, and ISJL staff members are giving advice LIVE on the ISJL Facebook page on Wednesday, November 17, at 4pm Central!

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