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Bintel Brief is Back: ‘Dear Abbys’ dish advice in dark times

From its creation in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, and a trendsetter for advice columns across the United States. Yiddish for “a bundle of letters,” the column began out of necessity as so many readers wrote in sharing their troubles. The editor’s blunt answers helped waves of Eastern European immigrants learn how to be American.

We are reviving the column now to help readers navigate the complexity of being Jewish in the 21st century: we planned to do it before coronavirus, but it now seems all the more urgent. Answering your questions will be not one but two wise women named Abby — yes, “Dear Abbys,” in homage to that other legendary advice column.

Abby Sher is a stand-up comic, memoirist and author of young-adult novels who lives in Maplewood, N.J., with her husband and three children. Abby Rasminsky is a writer, teacher, and former professional dancer who recently moved to Los Angeles from Austria with her husband (a convert she actually met via The Forward!) and their daughter. Send questions (not just about the pandemic!) to [email protected].

Illustrations are by Liana Finck, whose 2014 graphic novel about the original Bintel Brief brought it to life for a new generation. In reintroducing the column, we have relied on the wisdom of the Forward’s archivist Chana Pollack, who has translated a couple of Bintels from the 1918 flu epidemic for context. You can read them here.

Yes, you should keep paying the cleaning lady

Dear Abbys,

I told my cleaning lady not to come today (my daughter uses the same one, and she is deciding what to do, as the woman uses the subway). I will pay her for today, and possibly the next time. But how long do we have to keep this up? I was thinking of splitting the cost and paying her half.

The other piece of this is that I need someone to clean the house, change my bed linens. And soon there is Pesach. How will us elderly people deal with that without help?


Menorah, New York City

Illustration by Liana Finck

Image by Liana finck

Dear Menorah,

Thank you for being a mensch!

Yes, absolutely continue paying your cleaning lady. I say, pay her for as long as it is financially feasible for you. People who work hourly, in low-paying jobs — who are often undocumented — are the most vulnerable to financial ruin in a situation like this, so the best thing you can do is continue paying her. If you can’t afford the full amount, give whatever you can.

You’re also right to have her stay away, especially if you’re “elderly” (your words, not ours) — and tell your daughter to do the same. In a few weeks, once you’ve all been in isolation for some time, and granted that you are both healthy, ask your doctor if it’s O.K. to have her back. I would still keep your distance while she is there — use it as a time to get some fresh air — and make sure she disinfects everything. Make it abundantly clear that she cannot come if she has any symptoms, or has been in contact with someone who did.

In the meantime, if you need help with linens, laundry or basic cleaning before then, ask your (healthy) daughter to come over!

As for Pesach, remember: the Egyptians had to slog through 10 plagues before Pharaoh let us go. At least we haven’t been hit with vermin or frogs (yet). Look, this crisis is unfolding so rapidly, no one is sure what Pesach will look like. We’ve been getting familiar with Zoom so we can do a virtual seder. If you need help getting the house ready, think of it as (another) bonding opportunity with said daughter.

If all else fails, perhaps leave the chametz and just…ignore it. It is not worth risking your health. You can always repent on Yom Kippur.

Who’s to blame for missing Doritos?

Dear Abbys,

As soon as I heard that patient No. 2 was an Orthodox Jew, my heart leapt in fear, worried that the Jews would be blamed for an outbreak in NYC. Same feeling I had when the planes brought down the towers — we’ll be blamed for this. Is this rational or is this historical DNA rearing its ugly face?


PTSD Flareup in Sullivan County, N.Y.

Dear PTSD Flareup,

Ah, the Blame Game. When you lose too many tiles to play Scrabble, don’t have the mental capacity for Old Maid, and just give up on pretending to like Twister, the Blame Game is a sure crowd-pleaser. Played by all ages and levels of expertise in any language, and no pegs or operating instructions to lose! (Batteries always included.)

In the past few weeks we’ve heard about people blaming horseshoe bats, deforestation, uninformed world leaders and something called zoonotic spillover. One of us Abbys has also blamed nosy neighbors and a missing bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

But why Jews? As you said, Jews have been blamed for pandemics and global tragedies throughout history — from the Black Death in 14th-century Europe to last year’s measles’ outbreak. These were often baseless and anti-Semitic accusations, and they are being echoed dangerously in our day.

Yes, we tend to congregate and schmooze in close quarters, and there is a lot of overcrowding in some Haredi communities. But this is not why Covid-19 is running rampant. We have scientists and scholars all over the globe studying this disease and the ways it’s being transmitted. There is no proof that someone, or a group of someones, is culpable for this catastrophe. Yet the Blame Game persists.

Blame is just fear trying to disguise itself in a top hat. And there is a lot to be fearful about — our physical health, our mental health, the financial avalanche that’s playing out from sea to shining sea. Not to mention isolation, joblessness, and hoarding of Doritos. But instead of recognizing and potentially dealing with these feelings, we can feel a sense of power or control when we find someone to blame.

So remember, if you hear Jews are to blame, look at the person pointing fingers. Then tell him/her to wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and admit that we’re all scared.

Yes, you have to cancel your vacation to go to your sister’s (rescheduled) wedding

Dear Abbys,

My sister’s wedding is scheduled for April 4. Of course, that now can’t happen because of coronavirus. The caterer said that if she wants to postpone, the only day he can offer is Aug. 15. Unfortunately, I have a vacation booked over that weekend. We are trying to rearrange, but it’s not all refundable. My family all assumes I will cancel half my vacation and I feel like a big jerk for not wanting to. What do you think?


Jewish Guilt is Strong, N.J.

Dear Jewish Guilt is Strong,

Of course you don’t want to cancel your vacation! Who wants to cancel a vacation, especially one scheduled so impressively far in advance?

And of course you have to cancel. Think about your sister: her wedding, the only day for which she can reasonably ask everyone she knows to drop whatever they’re doing to celebrate her, got upended by something she can’t even see. Years of planning — and surely piles of money — out the window. At this point, she should probably be grateful to have the date be far out into the summer: no one wants to cancel the same wedding twice.

Silver lining: it’s probably never been easier to reschedule a vacation. Get on the phone and explain the circumstances. You may even get an upgrade from a travel industry facing doom and disaster. And if you lose a deposit? You’re down a few shekels. Worse things have happened — worse things are happening all around us, right?

Illustration by Liana Finck

Image by Liana finck

Time is going too fast and too slow all at once

Dear Abbys,

Help! I’m supposed to be working from home and also homeschooling and also disinfecting our home and checking in on my parents, making what’s left of our food last, etc. etc. and I can’t keep track of any of it. Time seems confusing and irrelevant and going too fast and too slow all at once. What do I do?


Michelle, Los Angeles

Dear Michelle,

We feel your pain. In the past two days we’ve accused small people who live in the same domicile as we do of leaving the garbage-can open, only to realize the smell was because we still hadn’t showered.

It seems so hard to believe that we’ve only been #socialdistancing for a couple of weeks. It reminds one of us when her mother died in the middle of July and she walked outside the hospital and couldn’t fathom how the sun was still so high in the sky.

And yet, we do have to keep moving forward — in the confines of our homes. Setting up a structure to our days is crucial for mental and emotional well-being. Claudia W. Allen, a clinical psychologist, says that making a written schedule and being intentional about following it can do wonders — drill-sergeant whistle optional. Even getting dressed for “work” (and, yes, showered) can focus and calm you.

This might even be an opportunity to start new routines that really work for you and your family. King David woke up regularly at midnight to study Torah. Emergency Room nurses go to sleep at 8 a.m. In Australia, the autumn leaves are starting to fall.

So make that schedule. And give yourself space to deviate from it, too. Here’s a poem from the Rev. Lynn Unger of the Unitarian Universalist Church; maybe put time on the schedule to read it aloud as a family.

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider Shabbat-

The most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

center down.

And when your body has become still,

Reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

In ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

Are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has become clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

Of compassion that move, invisibly,

Where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love-

For better or for worse,

In sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

Abby Sher and Abby Rasminsky are writers living in, respectively, Maplewood, N.J., and Los Angeles. Need advice? Submit your questions to [email protected].


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