Life & Culture

The perfect agony aunt? She makes chicken soup

You don't have to be Jewish to be an agony aunt, but it certainly helps.


You don't have to be Jewish to be an agony aunt, but it certainly helps. Look back over the media from the last century or so and you'll see that wherever there are people with personal problems asking for advice, there are Jewish women ready to dispense it.

The recently broadcast BBC documentary, Sex, Lies and Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story showed just how influential Jewish women were in establishing the role of the media agony aunt in the second half of the twentieth century. It profiled both Marje Proops and Claire Rayner, two indomitable and unshockable Jewish matriarchs, now no longer with us, who pushed society's boundaries. Proops was for many years the most famous and popular agony aunt in Britain, writing the Dear Marje column in the Daily Mirror and even being sculpted as a waxwork in Madam Tussauds. Her contemporary, Rayner, who had columns in teenage magazines and in the Sun, achieved notoriety as the first person on British pre-watershed television to demonstrate how to put on a condom.

I have been an agony aunt for 17 years, giving advice to teenagers and adults in magazines, papers and on websites, and occasionally on TV and radio, too. It was something I wanted to do from my early teen years, when I first read the agony columns in Just Seventeen magazine, and paid a summer holiday visit to the magazine's offices to go through the post-bag. It didn't occur to me until much later that, by becoming an agony aunt, I was following a well-trodden path for Jewish women: offering chicken soup for the soul.

Readers of a certain age might remember the sitcom, Agony, which was broadcast on ITV between 1979 and 1981 and which featured everyone's favourite Jewish mother/grandmother Maureen Lipman as a successful agony aunt whose personal life was a shambles.

It's not just in the UK where Yiddishe mamas have reigned supreme. America had the late Ann Landers (born Esther Friedman), whose daily advice column ran for half-a-century in the Chicago Sun-Times until her death in 2002. It was eventually printed in 1,200 US newspapers, to be read by an astonishing 90 million people. And who could forget sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, better known as Dr Ruth, now 86, who turned the airwaves blue in the 80s with her fast-talking, frank advice on sexual matters?

So why have there been so many Jewish agony aunts? With its requirements of open-mindedness, communication skills, common sense and life experience, it's not really a job you can train or qualify for; it's more of a vocation.

Irma Kurtz, who has been agony aunt for Cosmopolitan for 40 years, and is the author of My Life in Agony, Confessions of a Professional Agony Aunt, believes Jewish women's talent for giving advice is partly the result of centuries of persecution. "Our brothers were taught the violin - a portable instrument which is easy to take on the run. We women took another portable instrument: common sense.

"Traditionally, Jewish women ran the kitchen court, planning marriages, taking care of the emotional concerns of their large and extended families, engaging in what is now dismissed as gossip but is actually really valuable. Their wisdom was what kept families together, especially on the road."

This wisdom, Kurtz believes, has been passed down in the collective consciousness to modern Jewish agony aunts.

Although the religious establishment would doubtless disapprove of the sexual frankness and liberal attitudes of most agony aunts, you could argue there is also a religiously inspired aspect to what they do.

Giving advice or cheering up someone who is depressed can be seen as a form of tzedakah or charity. Rather than giving money, the agony aunt is bestowing kindness, sharing her knowledge, wisdom and insights.

Columns help and inform not just the individual letter writer, but thousands of readers, too.

The golden age of the agony aunt appears, sadly, to be over. Certainly, it's unlikely that anybody - Jewish or not - will be making it their long-term career in the future. Now, Yiddish credentials are irrelevant; you are only likely to become an advice columnist if you are already a "celebrity" - Danny Dyer, Katie Price and Ozzy Osbourne have all had a stint at it in recent years - and your words will probably be ghosted.

Thanks to digital technology, teenage and many women's magazines have disappeared from the shelves, the agony aunts of old replaced by online Q&A services such as Ask Yahoo, where your peers will give you their - often unreliable - and highly subjective advice. Nobody wants to pay for common sense any more.

And yet, despite the ease with which one can research any question on the internet, my experience shows me that there is still a requirement for named, trusted individuals who can be relied upon for balanced, insightful opinion and practical information.

Even in this millennium, I've received correspondence from teenagers asking if it's possible to get pregnant standing up, or when "doing it" for the first time. Research shows that, as a society, we are lonelier than ever.

Suicide rates are on the increase, especially among men, and social media has led to new forms of bullying.

As for the extended family, it is all but obsolete. If anything, we need the matriarchal wisdom of the Jewish agony aunt more than ever.

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