Life & Culture

No secrets, no shanda - the feminist pioneer who’s not scared to uncover family scandals

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the founder of America’s flagship feminist Ms magazine, has written a wonderfully uncompromising book


I’m struggling to find a British Jewish equivalent of Letty Cottin Pogrebin — and failing. For those who are not familiar with Pogrebin, she is, along with Gloria Steinem, one of the co-founders of America’s flagship feminist Ms magazine, for once a title properly deemed “iconic”.

She is also the author of 12 books, mainly non-fiction — and closely aligned with Jewish and Israeli causes.

So no shrinking violet, she. Pogrebin is “say it loud, say it proud” made flesh, associated with multifarious progressive causes for more than 50 years, from the National Women’s Political Caucus to a variety of hands-across-the-divide initiatives with black and minority women. At the same time, she is a life member of Hadassah, the US-based women’s Zionist movement, and an energetic voice on Israel.

And now — in line with previous ventures in which she has mined episodes in her own life — Pogrebin, a rather splendid 83 years old, has written a book called, uncompromisingly, Shanda.

That, if you didn’t know already, is an almost untranslatable Yiddish word for “shame” or “disgrace”. A “shanda”, she explains, is something most people would prefer not to be known by the wider public. It’s more than a skeleton in the cupboard. It’s closer to the discovery of behaviour or family secrets likely to be deemed scandalous.

Pogrebin doesn’t just lift the lid on her own family’s secrets. Out come tumbling every manner of “shaa, don’t tell” stories, some hidden for decades, from almost forgotten and abandoned siblings to furtive first marriages, from her own (fortunately benign) brain tumour, to her long undiscussed two abortions, or the time a famous writer tried to rape her (but refrained because she was a Nice Jewish Girl).

“I was going to write a book on shame,” Pogrebin says. “But then I was creeping up to my 80th birthday and I was trying to make sense of my life, the way people do. I started to write a memoir, but then I realised that what I really wanted to write about were the lies I grew up with. That relinquishing of trust certainly helped me to become a writer and journalist, not to take everything at face value”.

But about two years into the writing, her granddaughter, Molly, was seeking biographical material about Pogrebin for a college project. Pestered for information, Pogrebin opened a long-closed cupboard.

“Out came this shopping bag that I’d forgotten my sister gave me, containing an avalanche of secrets. It all seemed to come together as an explanation of how I became me, but also what I had always wanted to know about my family. [It showed me] how they had altered their own biographies, and how urgently they wanted to fit in — to stop being a greenhorn”. That’s a generic term for someone new or inexperienced, but usually applied — negatively — to turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants, desperate to ditch the language and customs that tied them to the Old Country.

Having begun writing against a society background where lying — in public spaces — no longer seems to matter, Pogrebin says she is “achingly, painfully aware of the debasement of truth. I think many of us in the United States are marvelling at the fact that you can get away with anything now.

“On the other hand you have this backlash in the form of cancel culture, which complicates things and can punish you for the truth”.

She is grateful both for the contents of the shopping bag and for the fact that she comes from a generation where letters were the main form of communication, mourning the opacity of emails and their “assumed intimacy”.

Pogrebin is also fortunate in that she started asking questions long enough ago for there to be older relatives, still around to provide some answers.

But Shanda still reads in some places like a hard-fought piece of detective work, as Pogrebin pieces together the lies and falsehoods she was fed — first about her grandparents, then about her parents, and later about her older siblings from her parents’ previously undiscussed first marriage.

She begins her dive into family history with an extraordinary escape undertaken by her grandmother, Jenny Halpern. Pogrebin discovered Jenny’s secret from her own Aunt Tillie.

She writes: “It was as I was sitting at her kitchen table smoking a cigarette, that the words ‘Grandma’s first marriage’ dropped from her lips like babka crumbs and the look on her face said, ‘Uh oh!’ and I realised that she knew something about my grandparents that no one was supposed to tell me. And it was radioactive.

“Born in 1879 in Pylypets, the shtetl with the ever-changing national borders, Jenny was a teenager (think Tzeitel in Fiddler) when she was forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man (think Lazar Wolf, the village butcher in the same play).

“After the wedding but before their union was consummated, she fashioned a rope of twisted bed sheets, jumped out the window of the bridal chamber, and raced to her true love, Nathan (think Motel, the tailor), the man who would become my grandfather.

“You’ve got to be kidding! Grandma was a runaway bride!?” “Shaa! It’s a shanda!””

And for any readers wondering, no, Pogrebin discovered after consultation with a rabbi, Jenny did not require a get in order to marry Nathan.

But that was the least of the deceptions on both sides of her family. Both her parents, it emerges, had previously married and did not tell her, despite the fact that she knew her older sister Betty (she of the shopping bag) was not Pogrebin’s father’s daughter. Her father — Jack Cottin — had meanwhile made a previous marriage and also had a daughter, from whom he distanced himself for years.

From deep in the shopping bag, the secrets unfolded: the certificates of citizenship, showing that Ceil Cottin, Pogrebin’s mother, had finally achieved this years later than she had claimed and the lies she told about her age; the fraught letters between Pogrebin’s parents when Jack Cottin, unaccountably, took himself off to pre-state Palestine for an extensive trip — alone, because his wife was six months pregnant with Letty; the shocking possibility that Letty who became the mother of identical twins, was in fact a twin herself, but whose twin did not make it home from hospital.

This is not so much a warts-and-all memoir as a rip-the-plaster-off narrative. I ask Pogrebin if she had hesitated about including anything in the book, if there had ever been a moment where she thought “that’s one secret too far”. But she says Shanda was written as part of her attempt to lead a secret-free life.

“I checked with the living children of everyone I was writing about,” she says, and evidently everyone gave her their blessing — though quite what she would have done if someone had said no is anyone’s guess.

In fact, she says, “people were just as curious as I was, because this was all about the attempt to be a perfect Jewish American, about trying to fit in. It’s so liberating, not to have to pretend, not to be ashamed of who you are”.

Jack Cottin comes over as particularly selfish from the evidence in the shopping-bag letters. Today, judging her parents as an adult rather than through a child’s-perspective, Pogrebin believes her father, a lawyer, loved her mother “as much as he could”; while Ceil was probably loathe to call time on a second unsuccessful marriage. One failure, perhaps. Two? That would indeed have been a shanda.

Ceil died in 1955 when Letty was 15. The family were conservative Jews, with Jack Cottin heavily invested as a local community macher, though Pogrebin relates with some relish the Sunday night family expeditions to an astonishingly non-kosher restaurant where lobster and mega-treif were the order of the day.

She dates her awakening as a feminist to the shiva for her mother, when Jack Cottin refused to allow her to become the 10th person in the minyan.

She writes: “In 1955, I knew as well as anyone that no branch of Judaism would count a woman to make the quorum for a minyan, or anything else of ceremonial importance. Nevertheless, I asked him to count me in. I felt entitled to be counted.

“By 15, I was a batmitzvah, a daughter of the Commandments, I’d been confirmed, attended the Yeshiva of Central Queens for two years, graduated from our synagogue’s Hebrew school and Hebrew high school. Above all, the woman we were memorialising was my mother. ‘I want to say Kaddish for my mommy. I need to say it, Daddy. Count me in. Please.’
“On that night, my father, the man who had always made special rulings for himself, who smoked cigarettes and drove his car on Shabbos, and ate treif on Sunday nights, refused to cross the line.”

Instead he called the Jewish community centre and asked them to send a minyan man.
“When the stranger arrived, we had to give him a yarmulke; he hadn’t thought to bring his own. He couldn’t locate the mourner’s kaddish in the siddur; Jack had to find it for him. I heard the tenth man recite the Hebrew prayer haltingly and mispronounce several words.

None of that mattered. Biology decided the issue: he could pass the physical. I couldn’t.”
You can probably draw a direct line from that experience to 1972, when Pogrebin and five other women founded Ms magazine and leapt to the forefront of America’s consciousness about recognising the female condition on an equal level.

Mindful of the recent depressing American Supreme Court ruling relating to abortion, the reversal of the landmark Roe v Wade precedent, I remind Pogrebin of a rueful recent interview she gave, in which she admitted that she and the Ms founders had fondly imagined that the feminist struggle would be resolved after five or six years.

Instead, she mourns the necessity for the next generation of feminists to take up the battle again, revisiting the historical arc.
And if they do not? Well, that indeed would be a shanda.

Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Pogrebin was published in September by Post Hill Press

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