November’s Book of the Month at the Jewish Book Festival: author Letty Cottin Pogrebin on generational shame

October 27, 2022

What’s Happening

Thursday, November 17, 7:30 pm, Sandler Family Campus

Shanda:
A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Post Hill Press

432 pages, 2022

The 2022–23 Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival continues with author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who will discuss her book at the Sandler Family Campus.

Pogrebin, the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and author of several other books on feminism, aging, illness, and other topics, was inspired to write her new book after considering family secrets and the question of shame: What is it, why do we feel it, and how do we—maybe more importantly at first, how did our family members—handle it? The latter is a critical point because the way we are taught, purposely or by example, how to deal with shame is conveyed to us at a very early age and greatly determines our attitudes into adulthood.

With openness and clarity, Pogrebin discusses family revelations that she came to find out as an adult, like having not one, but two half-sisters, and recalls topics that were quashed or diverted, such as those about a family member’s homosexuality and the traumatic experiences of family Holocaust survivors. The book includes a useful Yiddish glossary.

Jewish News: Of your journey away from and then back into Judaism, how would you say those experiences formed the person you are today in relation to your faith?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin: In 1955, when I was 15, my mother died and my father refused to count me in the minyan (quorum for public prayer) at the shiva. This, despite the fact that I had been Jewishly well-educated “for a girl,” was a graduate of Hebrew high school, attended yeshiva for two years, and had become a bat mitzvah—and despite the fact that the person for whom kaddish was being said was my own mother. He said only men could count for a minyan. That painful exclusion when it mattered, made me count myself out of Judaism. I rebelled against all the male gatekeepers of institutions, secular and Jewish, that barred or discriminated against women regardless of their abilities, training, or passions. Eventually, feminism became my faith.

JN: What inspired you to write Shanda, and more specifically, how did you reconcile keeping this very personal story private along with the ultimate decision to put it out into the world?

LCP: When I began writing the memoir, I realized that the recurrent theme in my parents’ and relatives’ lives was their fear of the shanda—of shame, disgrace, scandal. In their fervent desire to fit in and become “real Americans,” dozens of my family members (and most of the Ashkenazi immigrant generation) covered up what they perceived to be their imperfections. Maybe it was a mentally challenged cousin, a homosexual nephew, secret divorces, miserable marriages, a hidden illness, religious transgression, or political radicalism. I saw the weight of their deceptions, and I wanted to let in the light.

JN: Is the concept of shame useful to us?

LCP: The antidote to bad, soul-corrosive shame is not shamelessness. There’s still a place for useful shame, the kind that preemptively stops us from doing bad things. The kind we call our conscience.

JN: Despite how different the world is today than at the time of the Ellis Island influx, what similar issues are subsequent generations of Americans experiencing today?

LCP: Thanks to social media, we live in an era of hyper-sharing, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to be ashamed of certain aspects of our lives or to be shamed by others. Instead of fearing the shanda, today we fear cancel culture. It boils down to the same thing. We still care about what others think of us. We don’t want our flaws to be exposed. We don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or stigmatized.

JN: Your statement “guilt by association is our cross to bear” in discussing Bernie Madoff brings up a natural human response to learning about a disgraceful act by a fellow Jew. How do we allow for our reaction to it and yet not take on or accept collective responsibility for it?

LCP: It’s not surprising that when individual Jews are shamed—be it in the eyes of gentiles or the rest of the Jewish community—we feel their ignominy reflects on the rest of us. Disgust and shame are appropriate. Whether it’s Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, or Bernie Madoff, we cringe. We can’t help asking how could a Jew do such terrible things? As the Talmud says, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Jews of Israel are responsible for each other.

JN: As a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a person who writes about women’s roles and perspectives, how does this book honor the qualities like female pride, empowerment, confidence, and strength?

LCP: Shanda unmasks all the charades the females in my family had to perform in order to be considered “nice Jewish girls” or respectable Jewish women. It recalls the many ways the shanda factor affected my mother, who tried to hide so many things about herself that she thought were inferior or was made to feel ashamed of. It exposes the lies women were forced to tell to survive and many ways they suffered from their own deceptions. To my mind, truth-telling about the past is a feminist corrective for the future.

JN: Alan Alda, a longtime family friend of yours, is quoted as saying here, “It takes a lot of work to hold a secret.” What toll does that take on us?

LCP: As the founder of AA famously said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Our secrets weigh us down. They’re heavy. They’re toxic.

JN: What are your hopes for those who read your book? Is there a single message you can point to that you wish to convey?

LCP: I hope the stories in this book will help readers feel compassion for previous generations’ fear of the shanda, while also motivating readers to lead secret-free lives.

For information about the festival or to sponsor or volunteer, contact Hunter Thomas, director of Arts + Ideas, at hthomas@UJFT.org or 757-965-6137.


November’s Book of the Month at the Jewish Book Festival:
author Letty Cottin Pogrebin on generational shame

Thursday, November 17, 7:30 pm, Sandler Family Campus

Debbie Burke

Shanda:
A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Post Hill Press

432 pages, 2022

T

he 2022–23 Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival continues with author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who will discuss her book at the Sandler Family Campus.

Pogrebin, the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and author of several other books on feminism, aging, illness, and other topics, was inspired to write her new book after considering family secrets and the question of shame: What is it, why do we feel it, and how do we—maybe more importantly at first, how did our family members—handle it? The latter is a critical point because the way we are taught, purposely or by example, how to deal with shame is conveyed to us at a very early age and greatly determines our attitudes into adulthood.

With openness and clarity, Pogrebin discusses family revelations that she came to find out as an adult, like having not one, but two half-sisters, and recalls topics that were quashed or diverted, such as those about a family member’s homosexuality and the traumatic experiences of family Holocaust survivors. The book includes a useful Yiddish glossary.

Jewish News: Of your journey away from and then back into Judaism, how would you say those experiences formed the person you are today in relation to your faith?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin: In 1955, when I was 15, my mother died and my father refused to count me in the minyan (quorum for public prayer) at the shiva. This, despite the fact that I had been Jewishly well-educated “for a girl,” was a graduate of Hebrew high school, attended yeshiva for two years, and had become a bat mitzvah—and despite the fact that the person for whom kaddish was being said was my own mother. He said only men could count for a minyan. That painful exclusion when it mattered, made me count myself out of Judaism. I rebelled against all the male gatekeepers of institutions, secular and Jewish, that barred or discriminated against women regardless of their abilities, training, or passions. Eventually, feminism became my faith.

JN: What inspired you to write Shanda, and more specifically, how did you reconcile keeping this very personal story private along with the ultimate decision to put it out into the world?

LCP: When I began writing the memoir, I realized that the recurrent theme in my parents’ and relatives’ lives was their fear of the shanda—of shame, disgrace, scandal. In their fervent desire to fit in and become “real Americans,” dozens of my family members (and most of the Ashkenazi immigrant generation) covered up what they perceived to be their imperfections. Maybe it was a mentally challenged cousin, a homosexual nephew, secret divorces, miserable marriages, a hidden illness, religious transgression, or political radicalism. I saw the weight of their deceptions, and I wanted to let in the light.

JN: Is the concept of shame useful to us?

LCP: The antidote to bad, soul-corrosive shame is not shamelessness. There’s still a place for useful shame, the kind that preemptively stops us from doing bad things. The kind we call our conscience.

JN: Despite how different the world is today than at the time of the Ellis Island influx, what similar issues are subsequent generations of Americans experiencing today?

LCP: Thanks to social media, we live in an era of hyper-sharing, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to be ashamed of certain aspects of our lives or to be shamed by others. Instead of fearing the shanda, today we fear cancel culture. It boils down to the same thing. We still care about what others think of us. We don’t want our flaws to be exposed. We don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or stigmatized.

JN: Your statement “guilt by association is our cross to bear” in discussing Bernie Madoff brings up a natural human response to learning about a disgraceful act by a fellow Jew. How do we allow for our reaction to it and yet not take on or accept collective responsibility for it?

LCP: It’s not surprising that when individual Jews are shamed—be it in the eyes of gentiles or the rest of the Jewish community—we feel their ignominy reflects on the rest of us. Disgust and shame are appropriate. Whether it’s Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, or Bernie Madoff, we cringe. We can’t help asking how could a Jew do such terrible things? As the Talmud says, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Jews of Israel are responsible for each other.

JN: As a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a person who writes about women’s roles and perspectives, how does this book honor the qualities like female pride, empowerment, confidence, and strength?

LCP: Shanda unmasks all the charades the females in my family had to perform in order to be considered “nice Jewish girls” or respectable Jewish women. It recalls the many ways the shanda factor affected my mother, who tried to hide so many things about herself that she thought were inferior or was made to feel ashamed of. It exposes the lies women were forced to tell to survive and many ways they suffered from their own deceptions. To my mind, truth-telling about the past is a feminist corrective for the future.

JN: Alan Alda, a longtime family friend of yours, is quoted as saying here, “It takes a lot of work to hold a secret.” What toll does that take on us?

LCP: As the founder of AA famously said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Our secrets weigh us down. They’re heavy. They’re toxic.

JN: What are your hopes for those who read your book? Is there a single message you can point to that you wish to convey?

LCP: I hope the stories in this book will help readers feel compassion for previous generations’ fear of the shanda, while also motivating readers to lead secret-free lives.

For information about the festival or to sponsor or volunteer, contact Hunter Thomas, director of Arts + Ideas, at hthomas@UJFT.org or 757-965-6137.

-Debbie Burke


Letter to the Editor