Family & Education

My year of giving — and getting! — advice in the JC

'The problems I’ve received are the perennial type, which affect everyone in our society whatever their religious or cultural background'


This week, my column is a little different from all my other columns. But, date aside, this has nothing to do with Pesach. It’s because it’s exactly one year since I became the JC’s first agony aunt.

I thought I’d use this anniversary as a good time to reflect on what I have learned — and been surprised by — over the past year.

And I have to admit, you, the JC readers, have surprised me. When, a few years ago, I wrote an article about why so many agony aunts throughout history have been Jewish, I talked about the particular historical and cultural traditions that make dispensing advice the perfect vocation for a Jewish woman. But until I became this newspaper’s agony aunt, I didn’t anticipate how being Jewish would also colour the readership, or your reactions to my words.

You know the old Jewish joke, “Two Jews, three opinions,” well that pretty accurately sums up the response I’ve had to my column. JC readers like to be heard, and you like to answer back, sometimes with praise, sometimes with criticism, but usually with a new opinion altogether. “What you should have said was x!” “Why didn’t you mention x?” “I totally disagree with x and don’t think it has any place in the Jewish Chronicle.”

And, of course, much of this correspondence has been contradictory, proving that you can’t please everybody all of the time. Especially when they’re Jewish.

Believe me when I tell you, receiving this type of feedback — while generally very welcome — is a novel experience.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve been an agony aunt on several diverse publications, both in print and online, for teenagers and for adults, and I can honestly say that, aside from the odd polite email, I’ve had very little feedback at all — let alone advice on how to do my job better.

What I’ve found even more surprising is that much of my JC column feedback hasn’t actually been sent to me. It’s been passed on by word of mouth, via friends and family, because — in the Jewish world — everybody knows somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody else, who knows you… and that’s if you’re not directly related to them! Opinions of my work have been shared at synagogues, at barmitzvahs, book groups and committee meetings. I believe one strongly critical opinion was even fed back to me after a relative bumped into somebody at a funeral at Bushey Cemetery.

But what isn’t surprising is that the majority of the problems I’ve received are the perennial type, which affect everyone in our society whatever their religious or cultural background: problems forming or maintaining relationships; family disputes and friendship issues; loneliness; parenting concerns etc. But I have also had to deal with several problems that are specific (in their details, at least) to Jews: issues with levels of religious practise; dilemmas about circumcision; conflict over marrying-out, making aliyah, and so on. It is often these letters — in particular the subject of circumcision — that generate the most diverse, critical opinions. As an agony aunt, advising on these types of problem can be challenging. One of the unspoken ‘rules’ of my role is not to appear to be judgemental. When it comes to religion — about which I, like everyone else, have strong opinions and feelings — that can be tricky.

Being asked to give my opinion and advice to people, on what are often intimate or difficult subjects, is a privilege. One thing that has been disappointing is that I haven’t received the volume of letters I’d hoped for. Several people have admitted to me that they have been put off writing to the JC because the community is so small and so close. Please be assured that, like your doctor or therapist, anything you tell me is confidential. Even if you know my mother, or my brother, or are a friend of a friend, I will not tell them it’s your problem.

But if you really don’t want me to know your name, you can send me an email anonymously, using a generic email address, or you can even — radically old-fashioned, I know — write me a letter. You can choose to leave out identifying details, or I will take them out for you, as I have done in the past.

Thank you for giving me a glimpse into your lives over the past year. I hope that I’ve helped you and, in the years to come, will continue to help you. Or, at the very least, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the column. Please do send in your problems!


Contact Hilary via email at, anonymously or not. Or write to her at 28 St Albans Lane, London NW11 7QF


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