April 11, 2010, 10:02pm
By her own admission, Merissa Nathan Gerson’s qualification as an advice columnist is mainly “10 years of talk therapy.” “Add a few rabbis, a Buddhist-inspired education, monks, stupas, shrine rooms and the like, stir, and you get a 28-year-old Yenta,” writes the former farmer, waitress, teacher, lamp-maker, and creative writing teacher at a juvenile detention facility. But bona fides aren’t the point of her burgeoning site AskYourYenta.com. The site riffs on traditional advice columns to provide distinctly feminist perspectives on local, global and personal issues. Gerson answered the Forward’s questions via email from Johnson, Vt., where she is at a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center.
Michael Kaminer: The site says AskYourYenta.com is a “self-help resource hub masquerading as an advice column.” Can you explain?
Merissa Nathan Gerson: Yes. I don’t just give advice. For a lot of questions I supply resources, from books to magazine articles, Web sites, stores and hotlines. Sometimes I need to do research for a question, but more often than not I know a book title or a support group that could help my readers. My life experience somehow tacked resources on to my repertoire daily. … It is as if I have been soaking it in for years and this site is a collection of all I learned, for everything from how to find a BDSM support group to locating a meditation center in your community.
A recent question for the Yenta comes from a woman who apparently upset a friend by going out with a guy the friend had her eye on. What other kinds of questions are you getting? What was the weirdest?
I get all sorts of questions, everything from “Help, my boyfriend wears a sock on his penis when we have sex” to “My roommate washes his hair in the kitchen sink with MY shampoo.” I do know what “weird” means and what it looks like in theory, but I don’t think there is a “weirdest” only because if I judged people as weird, I would not, honestly, be able to answer the questions to begin with. At this point in my life, nothing fazes me.
Your site cites “wise people” from Joan Nathan to Martin Buber. How do they figure into the Yenta’s advice?
From the long list of Jewish wise people, everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, it is funny (and perhaps a veiled endeavor) that you happen to pick these two from the list. Ms. Joan Nathan figures in quite heavily, since she clothed, fed and bore me into this world. I quote her every now and then, and learned a lot of social codes from watching her.
People like Martin Buber shaped me in my understanding of my own self, the world, and my view of other human beings. He also molded my pride in being Jewish, unfolding a whole beautiful side to the religion for me. He, along with a yeshiva student, helped answer one question from someone asking what they would be when they grow up. If I am not quoting him, you can bet, in my purer advice-giving moments, that if I am being nice he may have something to do with that “I-Thou” relationship.
It was a little disturbing to see some of the definitions of “Yenta” on UrbanDictionary.com — “Meddler, gossiper, meddlesome, busybody, nuisance. Mostly Judaic and female”, was one. Another: “1) Yiddish word which describes an old woman who is a matchmaker. In modern use the meaning has become that of an annoying old hag.” How are you reclaiming the word?
I am reclaiming the word with humor. Think Heeb magazine and Bitch magazine. Neither hates Jews or women, instead they are imploding a word saying, “See, this is what we are. Is this really something to hate?” It is tongue and cheek, but also making a point. I am taking the Yenta veneer and imploding it.
One woman recently defined a Yenta as someone “who minds other people’s business.” Isn’t that exactly what is happening here? Me minding their business? There seems to be a generational gap in the understanding of this term. Jewish women in their fifties and sixties are generally repulsed when I mention the title, whereas Jews in their twenties and thirties always chuckle knowingly. People have called me a Yenta for years, based on my ability to see through people’s masks, straight to what is ailing or moving or exciting them. At times I was a nuisance, a gossip, completely meddlesome. And now I have made a life out of it, only in a purer form without hurting others (I hope). The key to my post-nuisance Yenta-ing is that people invite me to meddle in their business.
In the age of Oprah and reality shows, what makes a Yenta’s advice different?
A Yenta, I don’t know. This Yenta is like a Jewish Oprah with a feminist, Buddhist, pop-culture, youthful spin. The point is 40% entertainment and 60% begging my generation to raise their personal standards. I want people to be happy and healthy, to dream way bigger and to have the tools to do so.
Can you tell me a little about your Jewish background?
Yes. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. We had Shabbat dinner at my father’s parents’ house every week. After they passed away, we continued the tradition at home. Jewish food was an integral part of our existence, to say the very least.
Post-college I was a farmer for a summer and read a lot of Martin Buber on the beach and spent a lot of time in silence picking beans. That was when I started going to synagogue regularly and began taking pride in my Jewish identity. I think that was the first time I connected to the religion without obligation, wherein I discovered a softer more readily accessible side. Mystical thought explained my understanding of the world far better than the angry wrathful god and religious shame so often interlaced with synagogue in D.C.
No matter where I go now, I always find a Shabbat. I have been to Chabad in Salvador, Brazil, Eugene, Oregon, Venice, Italy and Santa Fe, N.M. I made challah in a township in South Africa, did Rosh Hashanah with ex Umkhonto weSizwe [resistance fighters], and found a tiny chapel full of middle-aged Jews in the middle of Eastham, Mass. Once I had Shabbat in Panama City. and was amazed by how much everything sounded smelled and tasted like my grandmother’s Friday nights when I was little. That was priceless, finding those memories so far away.
The more I learned to love Judaism for the religion, not the warped politics, the more important it was to tag myself as Jewish, and in this case, a Jewish Yenta.
(Read the original article at AskYourYenta.com.)
My husband’s best friend’s wife causes a lot of problems. We have a child, and they do not. They, in turn, do not understand what life is like with a child. They expect us to be able to drop everything and go out drinking, partying, etc. at the drop of a hat. Not only do we not want to do this, but we can’t. Recently, they didn’t show up at my husband’s birthday party. He shrugged it off, even though I knew he was very hurt by it.
A week later, she sent me numerous messages about how I took her husband’s best friend away, and they didn’t even know who my husband was anymore. This caused major issues. It has now been a month, and we just saw them this past weekend. Today was her husband’s surprise birthday party, and we did not attend. I have been under the weather, and my husband just didn’t want to go. She immediately attacked him via text message, claiming that I was not ill and telling him that he needed to be there. After he told her I was indeed ill, she proceeded to tell him that she understood that he needed to take care of his son, but he needed to also be there for his friend.
I want to protect my husband and go off on this woman. I have plenty of things to say, and I am at the point where I would really like to scream them at her. My husband is hurt. His friend never says anything to him, but his wife has plenty to say, only when she wants to start trouble.
The key to this question is in the first sentence, “My husband’s best friend.” While this situation affects you, hurts you, irritates you, riles you, cranks on your nerves, it is ultimately your husband’s business.
Where are the men in this? Aren’t there key voices missing from the scenario? This guy’s wife is a pill, and that is a shame, but you certainly a) don’t have to entertain her antics and b) are only involved by extension. This woman’s fears of your husband’s evolution and change, and her lack of boundaries altogether, are really her problem, not yours.
I would encourage your husband to face his friend and man up on both of your behalf. All the angry text messages and sideswiping might just be a vile reaction to poor communication. If this was your husband’s best friend before he found you, it is his job to smooth the transition from wild boozehound to solid husband and father, not yours.
And it is your job to protect yourself and your family. Tell your husband how much this is upsetting you. I think he needs to speak to his friend one on one, spend some quality time showing who he has become and how much he still cares. That is, if he still does.
Sometimes people grow apart as they make smart and mature choices. A friend from the old “bar days” may not translate, at least not immediately, into adulthood. With time relationships change, and even through giant life shifts, the relationships that count evolve.
In ten years this couple may be a non-entity, or friends in a different capacity. Sometimes when alcohol is involved in a friendship, it takes time and trust to find a new way to interact, sans social lubricant. This requires investment and reconnection, and that job, as I said, falls on your husband’s shoulders, not yours.
Helpful Tips On Sober Friendships:
While your situation is different, take the lead from alcoholics who remake their lives, liquor free.
-Ask your friends to meet you in a place that doesn’t serve alcohol, a movie, a coffeehouse, a hike, a show. Redefine the relationship with new physical perameters.
-Assess your friendship. Was it contingent upon drinking and wild behavior? The real friends remain, after sobriety. Figure out the nature of your connection.
-Make new friends, based on your new lifestyle. These may be the real lasting friendships.
-Be brave enough to let go of old friends who do not support the new, healthier you.
(Read the original article at JewishJournal.com)
To Ms. Yenta,
I have a sexual question and it has taken me time to even consider asking this question but here it goes. I have had a long term sexual problem (Premature Ejaculation) which I have not been able to cure. I have tried the silly Kegel exercises and they cause me pain and frustration. I recently have heard about sexual surrogates. Surrogates being sex therapists who actually engage in sex with the patient in order to help their patients with their problems. I’m wondering if you know anything about surrogates and if they are a good choice or just new age hookers?
-from Stephen J
Thank you for your brave honesty! For you, I learned about sex surrogates. I am now a HUGE fan of this concept. For those of you not aware of sexual surrogacy, it is a medical route to sexual assistance. Ie, you go see a doctor who then helps you with your sexual self in a “triad” with a third person, the sexual surrogate. This person actually assists you manually in learning how to be more intimate and sexually adept.
Prostitutes far and near often speak of their job as a sex worker as one of a sex therapist. Depending on the hooker and depending on the John, this is a place for acting things out emotionally via sex, off the grid. This work, for the happy hooker, can be really transformative.
The difference, however, between a prostitute and a sexual surrogate is the medicalization and legalization of the practice. One woman touching you and teaching you is usually illegal, whereas the other is sanctioned by a doctor with whom she works in conjunction. For more on legit sexual surrogates, see IPSA, The International Professional Surrogates Association.
In his pulp novel, Counsel For The Damned, author Neil Montefiore Fleishman writes about how the first five hours of marriage make or break every union. He has a theory stating that men are either born lovers, or aren’t, and that this shows in those few hours past the threshold. Sexual surrogacy is a fabulous challenge to the notion that a man can’t learn to be a phenomenal lover. Think about Footloose. If Kevin Bacon can teach that chump to dance, then anyone can learn to make love like a pro.
Sexual assistance is a practice we have often lost in our sexually repressed society. We too easily forget how much is tied into a sexual release, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and so on. More often than not, men are left without education surrounding the complexity of their own sexuality. (For a granola take on healing male sexuality, click here.) Free porn and abundant Victoria’s Secret catalogs have nothing to do with teaching people how to connect with other bodies subjectively. Sex can be transcendent, uniting, complex, incredible, and so on and so forth, and many other cultures recognize this fact and train their young.
The brilliant Zora Neale Hurston wrote about this in Tell My Horse, how young women in one town were schooled by an elder on the art and importance of love making. Shamanic healers have often been summoned for this work, to manually teach about how to sexually express oneself. I don’t think there is anything shameful about sexual surrogates. If anything, I think using them is a wise choice.
Once at a classic Naropa party in Boulder, a man told me that the best way to overcome issues with sex is to masturbate in front of a close friend while they watch. He also told me about doctors and schools where spiritual leaders manually bring people to orgasm to help release the energy, as well as to teach its redirection. There are retreats all over (like this one), and gurus across the globe (like this guy) who can help teach you about sex from new angles, ie, tantra, kundalini, etc. YouTube alone has tons of teaching videos on sex and healing.
For you, Stephen, I think sexual surrogacy is a medically sound way to treat your problem because it addresses both the physical and the emotional components of premature ejaculation. With the “triad” of a doctor and a surrogate, you should, at the very least, learn a lot about your own body, which is great. At best, you will learn to control your timing and attain new skills to better give and receive pleasure in the bedroom. Not a bad bargain.
For a better idea of what it’s like, read this great article from Nerve.com. Follow the dude’s cue, and perhaps use the International Professional Surrogates Association to be sure your helper isn’t scamming you for cash. Good Luck!
The Illustrated Manual Of Sex Therapy Second Edition by Helen Singer Kaplan
Sacred Sexual Healing: The Shaman Method of Sex Magic by Baba Dez Nichols and Kamala Devi, or these manuals from SpiritedSenses.com.
I work in an office with about 10-15 other people. The problem is this particular woman. She’s a 55 year-old reject, who gets off on not doing her job correctly, cussing people out after she gets off the phone with them and stealing. All of this upsets us, but the real thing that is the worst, is the fact that she’s such a pig. I do not say pig loosely. For example, her first day of work, it was a girl’s birthday and she brought a bunch of cupcakes in. Well, she took one to eat and then she took two and hid them under her desk to take home with her. Another coworker thought it would be funny to hide them from her. This lady went around to every person in the office asking, “Where are my f-g cupcakes?”
I had a party for my wedding at the office, we ordered pizza and she ate 5 large pieces. Whenever we have any sort of food or candy here, she immediately stuffs her face and half of the people here don’t even get a taste. If there’s something in the kitchen, for everyone, she will take the entire plate to her desk and leave it there until it’s gone. She only works on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays, so on Tuesday & Thursdays we will bring in goodies to share. Well, apparently she started coming in on Tuesday and Thursday specifically to steal our candy. We had an entire bag of snickers bars and we look this morning and they’re ALL gone. We have a service where we provide candy and snacks to clients who use our offices. She constantly steals all those snacks blatantly.
How can we stop this? She makes it unbearable!
You say traif, I say troubled. Photo courtesy of Victor Jeffreys II, phiary.com/diary/victor.
In the paradigm of meditation and religiosity, it is asked of the individual to look at every feeling, every emotion, and every reaction as stemming from within their own troubles. Not only that, but taking it to the next level, it is up to the individual to see those around them, and their irritations with the world, as mirrors of their own irritations and impatience with themselves.
This being said, perhaps you see yourself as “A reject who doesn’t do their job correctly, a pig.” These are rough and strong words, fully judgmental, and they act as a distancing device between you and your co-worker. It sounds to me like she is not “a pig” but a woman with food issues. This is an opportunity for compassion, for patience, and for extending your heart to another. For help with this, try DharmaSeed. You can download hundreds of live talks to your ipod that will help make you a better person. It is not her who makes your workday unbearable, as you said, but it is your reaction to her that makes your day so awful. That reaction, unlike her, is something you can control and change.
You have a tall order ahead of you. If I were your boss I would take you aside and ask that you cultivate a more open relationship with your community. A banding together against this woman for her ways reminds me of the rough edge of a middle school playground. Your first task is to look at yourself. Why you are so judgmental, and why you don’t find a place for this woman in your heart? What is a “reject” but the person we are afraid of accepting? What about her mirrors your own fears, dilemmas or troubles?
And second, why not seek to understand, or at the very least, remedy the situation rather than balking and repelling. Be honest, “I know you love candy, so we brought you extras.” If she is ashamed of the breadth of her desire for food, showing her that you accept it without shaming her might prevent her from feeling the need to hoard and hide. Bring her extra cupcakes. Don’t scorn, pander.
This woman might need help. (See Overeaters Anonymous, http://www.oa.org.) She may, in fact, feel like “a reject,” explaining why you see her as one. Even troubled women who hoard food and seem like losers in an office setting are human and in need of a little love. Find her story, take her to lunch, and humanize the person you have marked as the enemy. You will be surprised, I promise, by what you find.