Author interview

Shaped by ‘shanda’: Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s memoir on a life of shame and secrets

Now in her 80s, the second-wave feminist leader, writer, and Israel activist looks back on how her family’s drive to avoid stigma molded her view of self and others

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Letty Cottin Progrebin at her desk at home in New York (Mike Lovett)
    Letty Cottin Progrebin at her desk at home in New York (Mike Lovett)
  • Letty Cottin Pogrebin's parents Jack Cottin and Ceil Halpern on their honeymoon, Atlantic City boardwalk, 1937. (Courtesy)
    Letty Cottin Pogrebin's parents Jack Cottin and Ceil Halpern on their honeymoon, Atlantic City boardwalk, 1937. (Courtesy)
  • Letty Cottin Pogrebin's uncle Lou Halpern and grandfather Nathan Halpern in the family store, date unknown. (Courtesy)
    Letty Cottin Pogrebin's uncle Lou Halpern and grandfather Nathan Halpern in the family store, date unknown. (Courtesy)
  • Letty Cottin Pogrebin with her husband Burt Pogrebin (Morton I. Hamburg from his book, 'Couples: A Celebration of Commitment,' 2000)
    Letty Cottin Pogrebin with her husband Burt Pogrebin (Morton I. Hamburg from his book, 'Couples: A Celebration of Commitment,' 2000)

All families have their secrets, but from reading Letty Cottin Pogrebin‘s new memoir, “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” it would seem that hers harbored real doozies. She tells how their revelations rocked Pogrebin to the core and changed how she behaved in her life, including as a mother.

“We all feel that our families have more secrets than most. But it is true that I did the excavation. Every place I turned there was somebody hiding something huge. They weren’t little things. It was deep-seated shame based on a sense of inadequacy and failure, or fear that it would reflect badly on the family or the Jewish people, or be a hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]. It was deep,” Pogrebin told The Times of Israel.

As Pogrebin headed into her 80s, she felt it was time to ponder her life and make sense of what most shaped her into the person she is. A leading second-wave feminist and cofounder of Ms. Magazine, Pogrebin is a nationally recognized journalist, a social and political activist, and the author or editor of 14 books.

These many accomplishments undoubtedly reflect a facet of Pogrebin, but upon deep introspection, she decided that for better or worse it was the shanda — Yiddish for public humiliation — that best defines her essence. More precisely, it was generations of her Jewish immigrant family’s fear of the shanda that caused shame, resulting in secrets that have reverberated for Pogrebin since childhood.

In the book, published last September, Pogrebin, 83, writes that for decades, it was difficult to grapple with her relatives’ furtiveness, the shame that motivated them, as well as the guilt that inevitably arose.

“My mania around secrecy and shame was sparked in 1951 by the discovery that my parents had concealed from me the truth about their personal histories, and every member of my large extended family, on both sides, was in on it. Years later, as tongues loosened, I learned that the original dissemblers in my family were none other than my maternal grandparents… who until they died hid a seismic event that occurred in 1898, before they came to America,” Pogrebin writes.

It was not until Pogrebin’s granddaughter recently unearthed a stash of old letters that the author gained valuable insight into why her parents hid so much from her, especially the fact that they each had previous marriages, that her older sister Betty was her half-sister from her mother’s first marriage and not her full sister as she had been led to believe, and that her father had a daughter named Rena from his first marriage.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s maternal grandparents Jenny and Nathan Halpern with their children c. 1919. Pogrebin’s mother Ceil is standing at far left. (Courtesy)

As readers of “Shanda” will learn, it wasn’t just Pogrebin’s parents who maintained secrets to avoid early- and mid-20th century social stigmas and scandals. Just about every member of her extended family suppressed the truth.

The Times of Israel interviewed Pogrebin about her book, with an emphasis on how its themes still apply in today’s world and American  Jewish society. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

What family secret has affected you the most?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s cousin Judy, sister Rena, and sister Betty, c. 1939. (Courtesy)

Absolutely — the scene on the beach in winter Massachusetts when I discovered my parents were liars [about their previous marriages]. It shook my world. My parents were paragons to me. They were exemplars of morality. They articulated morality, and here they had at the core of our family history a complete cover-up. As I said in that chapter, I’ve written about this so many times and in so many ways that I hope to God that I am finally done with it.

So much of my behavior as an adult is a result of this. It’s not that I don’t trust, but I always verify. I always need to be sure that people mean what they say, that they are who they are. It’s the foundation of my journalism. Dig, dig, dig — because what you see is not what you’re getting. I don’t think I’ve healed enough from it, even having written about it in this book and a novel. That scene — not just that it happened — but the way that it happened… was just scarring on a very deep emotional level.

Have you been able to forgive your parents?

I have definitely forgiven them because I now understand what drove them. I now understand how urgent it was for them to present a perfect face in the community and how shame motivated all those lies. You have to feel for somebody who couldn’t live with the factual truth that they were married before because it would be such a disgrace in the Jewish world. I have compassion for them.

You make a point of distinguishing between shame and guilt. Can you explain the difference?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin as a bat mitzvah in, February 1952. (Courtesy)

I distinguish between shame and guilt by looking at the language. In English, we say I am ashamed, but I feel guilty. When you are ashamed it is something intrinsic in you that you are covering up. When you feel guilty, you can fix or undo that by getting rid of the guilt and what caused it. It’s more within your capacity to undo guilt. That’s what we do on Yom Kippur. We ask for forgiveness and we get rid of our guilt for what we said or did to our friends or in our marriage or to our kids. You confess and do teshuva. If you feel ashamed, you probably need a therapist. If I am ashamed of myself I need to do work on how I view myself as a person.

You write about a shanda far di goyim (Yiddish for a shameful act witnessed by non-Jews and reflecting badly on all Jews). It seems that today this kind of shanda is not as much of a deterrent against wrongdoing as it was in the past when Jews were not as integrated and accepted into American society.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin with her family. (Courtesy)

Witness #MeToo and how many Jewish men were outed. We were shocked by it. It was disproportional to our population. It was Jewish music conductors and professors, heads of Jewish agencies, Jewish sociologists and authors. And Harvey Weinstein. I don’t know any Jew — and I know a lot of Jews — who wasn’t talking about how ashamed we were by that exposure. When the Madoff stuff was happening, everyone was saying thank heavens his victims were Jews because otherwise, we would look even worse for the goyim.

‘Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy’ by Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Post Hill Press)

It cast a spotlight on us that was uncomfortable for Jews of all ages who have a Jewish identity… It struck us with a depth of horror as name after name was coming out.

You have long been a leftist activist when it comes to Israel. How does shame play into your feelings about the Jewish state?

I have never been and will never be ashamed of the State of Israel. To me, the State of Israel is its people and its representative democracy. Israel is embodied in its Declaration of Independence. It was embodied by the Supreme Court, which until recently was not politicized. My shame of Israel relates to its right-wing government.

We are living in an age of public shaming and cancel culture. What are your thoughts on this?

I think we are going to have to live on the horns of this dilemma for a really long time, and I hope to God that it settles out with a refinement to the power that cancel culture seems to have to destroy people’s lives and careers … I think it is worth being able to say when something is racist, but I think that canceling a poet because you don’t like one line, or telling people they can’t write about a culture they are not part of is insane.

You wrote in the book, “I just want mine to be the last generation of Jews who have anything to hide.” But when you look at today’s social media-obsessed young people, one would think that they don’t keep anything private anyway.

Secrets will never completely go away, and some things are probably worth keeping secret. I am really glad to have sloughed off whatever ones I grew up with. I had to keep so many things secret that I knew about my family, and it was burdensome… I am sure that it is still a burden and a hazard for young people. It is going to be their work to get rid of it, to make room for truth without overexposing and hyper-sharing.

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