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Meet the two very different Jewish mothers making ‘A Bintel Brief’ into a podcast

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When I started at the Forward, two of my top priorities were reviving our signature, century-old  advice column and launching a must-listen podcast. Which is why I am literally overjoyed to introduce “A Bintel Brief: Your Jewish advice podcast” and its incredible co-hosts, Ginna Green and Lynn Harris. The first episode of this new audio Bintel is coming Thursday, but you can listen to the trailer here (or wherever you get your podcasts!). 

“A Bintel Brief,” Yiddish for “a bundle of letters,” started in the Forverts in 1906. Before Dear Abby, before Ann Landers, before Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” Its archive was famously turned into a play and a graphic novel by Liana Finck. Now, Ginna and Lynn are bringing it to your ears.

Ginna is a strategist-consultant-movement-builder and modern Orthodox mother of four, who calls herself “South Carolina born, raised and returned,” and who loves bourbon and obliterating opponents in  Scrabble and Bananagrams on Shabbat. Lynn is a writer-activist-comedienne and Reform mother of two teenagers, who lives in the Brooklyn brownstone where her husband grew up (his parents still occupy the first floor) and believes herself to be the only person in the world who is a member of the Friar’s Club, a member of the D.A.R. and married to a rabbi. 

They are wise, witty and warm. We chatted this week over Zoom about the podcast, their favorite Jewish holidays, what they’re reading, and what they want to be when they grow up. 

You two hadn’t met before this project — and in fact have still never met in person. But you’ve gotten to know each other over months of advice-giving and recording. So I want you to introduce each other. Lynn, how would you describe Ginna? 

Lynn: She is the kind of person where you say, well, let me see what Ginna thinks. Ginna is so smart and thoughtful and funny and sees things between the lines that I don’t and that other people wouldn’t. And she is warm, but then also has this edge. I just want a bracelet that says, ‘What would Ginna do?”

Ginna: Lynn’s got some quick wit and a big heart. And just a really sharp mind. I really like her whole, whole self. She brings a lot to our relationship as co-hosts of the pod. I feel really grateful that she is who she is, because we’re having a really good time.

“A Bintel Brief,” the Podcast, coming soon.

Lynn, you’ve written advice columns, starting in 1997 with Breakup Girl, a superhero who saves love lives, and later for Glamour and other magazines. Ginna, this is your first professional advice gig, but you’ve also done it for a long time. Why do people come to you?

Ginna: My colleagues really have come to me throughout my career. Sometimes it has been advice about work and strategy, what we’re doing, what our goals are, what’s on our agenda, and sometimes it’s about other things in their lives. I like digging through things; I like gaming things out and asking people questions.

Lynn: Being able to offer good advice is not a matter of being right about things. Giving good advice, I think, comes from a set of principles. I’ve got to shout out to my mom — my mother, who is the one that people went to for advice, she always would just drop pearls to me about how to treat others and how to treat myself.

She would say things like, ‘Never say to yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”’ She would always say, ‘Don’t wipe the floor with yourself,’ meaning, if you made a mistake or if you have a request, just own up or make a request. Stand up tall and straighten your back and do the thing. It wasn’t advice, it was principles. If you have a framework, consistent principles, that are compassionate, I think that all good advice is generated from there. 

Do you read advice columns or listen to other advice podcasts?

Lynn: I did always love Miss Manners, mainly for her style and her wit, and her principles. I definitely read — what were the ones when we were young? Dear Abby… there were two that were similar, right?

Ginna: It was Dear Abby and Ann Landers. I read those, too, and also Miss Manners. Miss Manners tripped me out. I loved her. She was also warm and with an edge. She could be super sharp and also piss on your leg and tell you it’s raining. 

I like “The Sarah Silverman Podcast,” which is sort of advice-y. I like her attitude and I think that’s the most advice-y thing I listen to or consume these days.

What are your favorite podcasts generally? (Besides Bintel, of course!)

Lynn: “Hysteria” on Crooked Media. I like all the Crooked Media podcasts. I love all the hosts. The whole tone of, “I know, right?” while also informing you — it’s not just an echo chamber where you hear people who are mad about the same things you are. They validate your rage, but they also give you stuff to do and think about and learn.

Ginna: I’m really enjoying “The Fader Uncovered” podcast. It’s with Mark Ronson, and he talks to up-and-coming and legendary musicians, and I just feel like I’ve had a really good time on every single episode of that show. He asks great questions and has great people. 

You’re both writers and activists, and you’ve appeared on podcasts before, but this is your first time making one. Why audio?

Ginna: Even before the podcast era, radio was really one of my favorite mediums to engage with people because I felt it’s multi-dimensional. Frankly, without the distraction of the visual. I think when you have just the sound and the ideas, there’s something that makes the experience different and richer and better. I also think it allows us to have a live conversation and back and forth about the advice — when someone comes to you, that’s what it is.

Lynn: The listeners are not getting a finished, polished product where we decided what we were going to tell them and then we wrote a script and recorded it. They’re actually getting us chewing on it in real time. And I think that’s probably better for the advice.

What makes “Bintel” a Jewish advice podcast?

Ginna: First, we’re Jews. There is a Jewish way of being and there is a rhythm to Jewish life, there is something that is unique and special about being Jewish and Jewishness, and that comes through. There is also a well-deserved reputation and reality that we do read between the lines, we do do textual analysis — Talmudically, historically, traditionally, and then also I think it just shows up in how we interact with each other. It’s not just in the faith or in the religion, it’s in the culture, it’s in the people. We bring that to giving advice in an intentional way.

Lynn: Because Jewish life is in life, and not just in synagogue, it applies to the choices we make every second about how we interact with people, how we treat ourselves. The questions people are asking and the suggestions we make for how people might think or comport themselves are by definition Jewish because that’s how Judaism is, it’s in every step we take.

Ginna: Not every question has a Jewish element to it that’s visible from the question; it could have been anybody asking the question. But our answer is infused with that and has that lens.

Both of you have Jewishness as a through-line in your lives, but in different ways. How would you define yourself as a Jew — on one foot?

Ginna: On one foot, I’m an observant social-justice Jewish woman of color, and that feels like the three elements of my Jewish identity that I really stand on, and that I feel every part of every day.

Lynn: I’m a Reform Jew descended very closely from immigrants from Eastern Europe, from Poland, and very closely related to one Holocaust survivor and mostly Holocaust not-survivors.  The combination of horror and loss and gratitude, affirmation, for who the Jews — and I mean all the Jews — are now drives me every day, honestly.

Okay, so what’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Ginna: Sukkot. It’s eight days and you’re out with your friends, with your family, really appreciating blessings. That feels like the perfect time to bring people in to celebrate with you. I make the best food for Sukkot, and we’re out, and it’s the perfect time of year. I make a Hawaiian chicken that’s something I remember my mom making; it’s an old family recipe. I make stuffed bell peppers with lamb and couscous and mint. And I also make a really fun salad with spinach, caramelized onions, apples, and beef bacon. 

Lynn: My reasoning is very superficial. I love Sukkot because I love to decorate things and eat outdoors. Tied, though, with Yom Kippur, because I’m a sucker for the music and the majesty.

We’ve saved the decorations we made when the kids were little. Goofy ones you get from the Internet. Like when you cut off the bottom of a seltzer bottle and make it into an apple, you know, the four bumps, you put the top on, you cut out the middle and fill it with crepe paper and you get an apple. We also have Styrofoam balls that we covered with red felt and made into pomegranates. Bess is 14 now, so we’ve had them in the box for 14 years and we just always put up the same ones.

Favorite Jewish movie?

Lynn: “The Godfather.” No, hold on… Also not Jewish, because it’s about pig farming, but “Babe.” Favorite movie. That, tied with “His Girl Friday,” which, if you think about it, could be a Shabbat reference.

What are you reading right now? And what are you watching on TV?

Ginna: I’m reading “Four Hundred Souls,” edited by Keisha Blaine and Ibram Kendi, and “White Fright” by Jane Dailey, about how the fear of interracial sex really undergirds all of our civil rights policy and activity and really sits under a lot of white supremacy.

Lynn: I’m reading “Mediocre” by Ijeoma Oluo. The subtitle is — wait, let me get it. The subtitle is, “The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.” So, also light. It’s really, really good. It’s actually very conversational and also scholarly.

What am I watching? What am I not watching! I love, “Pen 15” on Hulu, and “Everything’s Going to be OK” on Freeform and Hulu — just great, brilliant, funny, real stories with girls at the center, just hilarious and warm, the kind of show you want to hug when you’re done. 

What makes Shabbat Shabbat for you?

Lynn: Always dinner at home — nice dinner at home — always, always, always. It sounds like, duh, but in the modern world, that’s a thing. It’s set in stone — it’s not even a rule that we don’t break, there’s just nothing else to do.

Ginna: There’s always soup. We don’t have soup for any other meal except for Shabbos and Chag. So, like, soup is amazing. Soup is a big thing, actually. And then there’s nap time. There’s kiddush, there’s lunch, there’s nap time, there’s reading time, there’s game time. There’s Scrabble and Banangrams. And that’s a big deal, too.

Let me just be clear that my game-playing, my word games, are part of my duty, I feel, as a parent. To give the world people that you want to be around. Part of that is Scrabble. Making them really good players is a big deal for me on Shabbat, too.

So you’re both middle-aged mamas, trying something new with this podcast. Life is lived in chapters. What do you want to be when you grow up?

Lynn: Executive assistant to Dolly Parton. Uh huh. That’s what popped into my head. I love her so much. I would do anything. I would like to just stand in a room near her at all times. That would be — you don’t even have to pay me.

Ginna: Honestly, I feel like I’ve been doing, basically, the same thing with my life since the third grade, and only can hope to get better at it. I get to talk to people and help move them from one place to another, and move them to action, and inspire them, and learn with them. That’s what all the roles  I’ve ever done — that includes writing-talking-speaking-podcasting, all of these things — that’s just the mode I’m supposed to be in. 

What do you hope to accomplish with the Bintel podcast?

Ginna: Lynn said at the very beginning that giving good advice was not about being right, it’s about a set of values. I think she nailed it with that. We hope that we can brings values conversations to everyday people. Everyday Jews. Bring that Jewish wit and Jewish wisdom to thinking about a whole range of things.

The person who wrote the letter is only one person. Hopefully we’ll have many, many, many times that number listening to the podcast, and for them it needs to be a gift as well. And also make them laugh.

Lynn: Co-sign. Nothing to add. Co-sign. I told you: always listen to Ginna.  

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