Appreciating ‘Dear Abby’: How Judaism Influenced the Famous Advice Columnist

February 27, 2013 1:58 am 0 comments

Pauline Phillips, author of "Dear Abby." Photo: Easter Seals/Wikimedia Commons.

When we think of “Dear Abby,” we think of a columnist with a sense of humor giving out sage advice. But not all readers know that the Jewish background of Pauline Phillips, the recently deceased woman behind the words, played a large role in what became the most widely syndicated newspaper column in the world.

“Dear Abby” began in January 1956 and was eventually syndicated in 1,400 newspapers globally, with 110 million readers, and was serialized by the New York Times Syndicate, The National Enquirer and Reader’s Digest.

Phillips, who died Jan. 16 at 94, was born Pauline Esther Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Rebecca and Abraham Friedman, who owned of a chain of movie theaters.

“The Friedmans belonged to a synagogue, were observant and felt that Jewish culture was extremely important,” Jan Pottker, author of Dear Ann, Dear Abby: An Unauthorized Biography of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, told JNS.org. “They took their religion seriously. Because their parents were immigrants, their first language was Yiddish.”

Growing up, Pottker said, the only people Phillips and her identical twin sister Esther saw were Jewish blue-collar workers like their father who started off selling chickens from a cart (Esther would become, with Phillips’s help, columnist Ann Landers). The Friedmans’ experience “wasn’t very sophisticated,” according to Pottker.

“Their father eventually ran a movie theatre with vaudeville,” she said. “Some of the Jewish chorus girls favored the twins. This was their view of Judaism. It wasn’t until Ann met Robert Stoller, a physician, that this view changed. She was amazed to find out that dignified physicians, who didn’t overtly show their religion on their arm, could be Jewish. Before meeting Stoller they associated being Jewish with being an immigrant, working class, and someone who was not wealthy or educated.”

When Phillips died last month in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Universal Uclick, her syndicate, said in a press release that she championed equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged. The column promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, and organ donation, and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan.

“I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend,” said Jeanne Phillips, Pauline’s daughter and the author of the “Dear Abby” column for the past decade. “My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change. I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy.”

An honorary member of the National Council of Jewish Women, Phillips authored six books: Dear Abby, Dear Teenager, Dear Abby on Marriage, Where Were You When President Kennedy was Shot?, The Dear Abby Wedding Planner, and The Best of Dear Abby. “The Dear Abby Show” aired on CBS Radio for 12 years.

The "Dear Abby" star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Phillips wrote under the pen name of Abigail Van Buren. The name “Abigail” was taken from the Book of Samuel (one of King David’s wives, know for her beauty and wisdom), and “Van Buren” was adopted in honor of one of her favorite presidents, Martin Van Buren.

Pottker noted that Phillips’s Judaism significantly shaped her column.

“Abby was very curious about life and reproduction,” Pottker told JNS.org. “She talked to the Jewish chorus girls about sex. That advice giving began the influence of Jewish thought on Abby. Also in the [Jewish] Daily Forward, which was printed in Yiddish, there was an advice column that she read when she was young. She continued in that spirit.”

Phillips strove to be direct and say more with less in her writing. She always enjoyed quoting a favorite Swedish toast: “Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more. Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more.”

“Abby was always social,” Pottker said. “People liked her. Ann was more sarcastic. Abby was able to relate to many people and have them feel she cared about them. She was extremely clever and she helped her sister write the Ann Landers column at the very beginning. They were not typical twins and there was some resentment. Abby didn’t mind being a twin but Ann pushed against it and went in the 1930’s to have plastic surgery so she would not look like Abby.”

Phillips launched “Dear Abby” when she was 37 and new to the San Francisco area. Sometime during this period, she phoned the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and said that she could write a better advice column than the one she had been reading in the newspaper. After hearing her modest credentials, editor Stanleigh Arnold gave her some letters in need of answers and said to bring back her replies in a week. Phillips got her replies back to the Chronicle in an hour and half.

Despite their silent feuds and professional rivalry, Phillips and her sister—Abby and Ann—rose to fame in the world of journalism. Through it all, Phillips never forgot her Jewish upbringing.

“Compassion and wit is her legacy,” Pottker said. “She was one of the country’s most admired women and she was Jewish. Her Judaism came out in a practical manner. She would say ‘I’m a Jewish girl from Sioux City.’ Abby saw the big picture of life and she was sharp. She cut to the chase and was always kind.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Sports Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Three years ago, kayaking coach Roei Lev found aspiring Olympian Ilya Podpolnyy crying on the steps of the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Podpolnyy, then 17 years old, had just been disqualified from the Israeli kayaking championship. He couldn’t survive the heats. He didn’t make the start line. He was devastated—and he had no one with whom to share his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointment. His divorced parents still live in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.