Appreciating ‘Dear Abby’: How Judaism influenced the famous advice columnist

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Click photo to download. Caption: Pauline Phillips, author of "Dear Abby." Credit: 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.”

Click photo to download. Caption: The "Dear Abby" star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.”

Posted on February 24, 2013 and filed under Features, U.S..