My hometown operated under the thumb of an all-seeing, all-knowing colossus named Barbara. Before Facebook, she could tell you who was getting divorced. Before Google, she knew where your dad’s sister’s friend’s cousin worked and how they got the job. If you had a secret, she somehow knew that too. Barbara’s methods were a mystery. But so strong were her forces that my mom shopped at a grocery store two towns over to avoid running into Barbara and accidentally getting caught in her crosshairs. I’m not sure which was scarier: accidentally leaking information to Barbara and thus informing the whole town, or being the recipient of salacious information that you weren’t meant to know. But I was raised to fear Barbara. To describe her as gossipy would be to diminish the superpowers fueling this behemoth’s reign.
Barbara was, in a word, a yenta.
Like most catch-all labels foisted onto women, “yenta” is not usually a compliment. Instead, the term conjures the image of a judgmental, meddling busybody. Commonly and erroneously equated with the term “matchmaker” — thanks to the matchmaker character named Yente in “Fiddler on the Roof” — a yenta’s form of currency is information. She receives it, she gives it and she revels in it; the more personal, the better.
The origin of the word “yenta” has fuzzy roots, but we know that it was originally a Yiddish name derived from the word gentile — which, at the time, meant noble or aristocratic. Yiddish theater brought it to light in the 20th century by depicting the “yenta” as a talkative woman.
I was shocked to find out that the word “yenta” was in any way, shape or form tied to the word “gentile.” The yenta archetype represents the polar opposite of what we are socialized to see as the feminine ideal: the gentile woman. The shiksa.
A shiksa, we are taught, is delicate, refined, quiet and polite. The yenta is a big, loud pain in the ass. For many years, I feared becoming a yenta. But I recently realized that a yenta has her reasons. In fact, I love yentas. I want to be a yenta. I think we should all be yentas.
This realization hit me as I watched “The Janes,” an exceptional documentary about the Jane Collective, an underground organization that facilitated abortions in the Chicago area before it was legal to do so. For this high-risk operation to work successfully, the Jane Collective’s Jewish founder Heather Booth relied on discreet word of mouth and a tremendous amount of meddling. In this case, and in so many others, women “talking amongst themselves,” to borrow a phrase from famous fictional yenta Linda Richman, became a means of regaining autonomy. Becoming a yenta was, in this case, a matter of life and death.
According to the Torah, gossip is a sin. It’s written in Leviticus, “You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people” — and there’s no fine print explaining that it’s fine if you’re helping other women. But when I look back at the history of Ashkenazi women in America, I think of the numerous activists who used information as a means of organizing: in labor movements, suffrage, the civil rights movement, anti-war efforts and more. Yes, going off hearsay and talking negatively about an undeserving person behind their back are objectively bad behaviors. But I wonder if we’ve taken the villainization of gossip a bit too far.
The proliferation of whisper networks during the #MeToo movement showed just how much we stand to gain by decentralizing communication. In Hollywood and beyond, exploitative and abusive employers can get away with bad behavior by protecting information and intimidating people who talk. So information-sharing can become an invisible currency. The more we share with one another, the weaker our enemies become.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a positive trickle-down effect of this cultural shift in my daily life. My social media feeds are filled with women declaring that they will no longer “gatekeep” salaries, financial histories and experiences with bad men. In this case, transparent communication is empowering. When it’s helping someone get a raise or protecting her from harm, gossip looks a lot less like a sin.
There’s also a more shallow and persistent application of gossip that has made my life better, and it’s one that I know some readers will judge. Another large part of my social media feed is made up of speculation about celebrities’ plastic surgeries. Yes, what people do with their bodies is categorically none of my business. But unlike the Us Magazine spreads of the 2000s that featured criticism and praise about celebrities’ “transformations” in a crazy-making “weight loss goals” aspirational way, most of the speculation I see these days is intended to help.
When I understand which celebrities’ physical features are likely to be fabricated, filtered or enhanced, I have a better sense of reality. Yes, it’s invasive. Yes, it’s gossip, perhaps in its purest form. But the net effect is that I’ve become more accepting of the way I naturally look and how my face shifts as I age. This kind of gossip — and I understand that it’s not for everyone — has put my physical insecurities into perspective.
So, looking at the full body of yenta work, I would argue that they aren’t all bad. When a yenta’s powers are not properly channeled, like in the case of Barbara, they can cause destruction. But a yenta who harnesses her power for good can change the world.