Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a liberal Jew and an outspoken advocate for women, families and intergroup harmony. Pogrebin’s significant impact and appeal in the Jewish community have been as a crossover star; she gained national recognition first in the general women’s movement and after that as a Jewish activist. Primarily a writer, she is also a peace activist, magazine editor, conference organizer, founder of organizations, and spokesperson for numerous causes—women’s workplace rights, advocacy journalism (she is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine and served two terms as president of the Authors Guild), nonsexist child rearing (her book Growing Up Free was for a while the baby boomers’ Dr. Spock), social justice (as a cofounder of the National Women’s Political Caucus), the expansion of women’s rites in Judaism, Jewish inclusion in the women’s movement, black/Jewish rapprochement, and Mideast peace efforts (as a past president of Americans for Peace Now).
Born on June 9, 1939, in Queens, New York, Letty Cottin grew up in a religiously observant Conservative household. Her father, Jacob Cottin, a lawyer, was active in the Jewish community and the synagogue, and her mother, Cyral (Halpern) Cottin, was a designer. She was educated at the Yeshiva of Central Queens, the Jamaica Jewish Center Hebrew High School, and Brandeis University, where she received a B.A. cum laude in 1959. She married Bertrand Pogrebin, a lawyer, in 1963.
Keenly aware of the exclusion of women from the Jewish religious tradition, by age fifteen Letty had turned her back on organized Judaism because she was not allowed to attend the kaddish minyan when her mother died in 1955. Despite her anger at Jewish law and custom that excluded women, she still celebrates Hanukkah with elaborate festivities with her husband and children—twin daughters Robin and Abigail and son David and their families. As she explains it in Deborah, Golda, and Me, “Rebellion was one thing; giving up the Jewish holidays was something else. I wasn’t going to let my alienation from my father’s religious institutions cut me off from the rituals ... associated with my mother and the home-based Judaism in which my heritage seemed ... most real.”
Pogrebin has written honestly about her own life, intensely focused on the stages she has passed and is passing through. Thus she has been able to articulate certain dislocations on behalf of women who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s and whose experiences paralleled her own. And because she has been ahead of the wave on so many issues, she has been able to represent the concerns of younger women as well. She has researched and presented subjects of consequence in all women’s lives: the job market (How to Make It in a Man’s World and Getting Yours: How to Make the System Work for the Working Woman), parenthood (Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the ’80s), friendship (Among Friends), how personal and national politics interact (Family Politics: Love and Power on an Intimate Frontier), and aging (Getting Over Getting Older).
In her early analytical books, Pogrebin tackled subjects that drew on her own experience—sex, motherhood, daughterhood, national politics—to illustrate her positions on various issues. In Deborah, Golda, and Me, the method shifts. No longer are her own experiences cited as anecdotal evidence to buttress her positions; instead, she uses her own life experience as a window onto “being female and Jewish in America.” She fosters a degree of intimacy with her readers and lecture audiences that surely derives from her comfortable self-disclosure. This book put a public face on Jewish feminism, rendering the movement less parochial in the eyes of many who might have been self-conscious about their own identification as Jews. Because of high visibility as an outspoken feminist organizer—and through her longtime identification with Ms. (her name has been on the masthead since 1971)—her narration of her encounters with religious and communal sexism and her determination to remain attached to a more inclusive Judaism have drawn audiences of disaffected Jewish women all across the country who have welcomed her frank critiques.
For Jewish women attempting to incorporate their Judaism into an already strong feminism, Deborah, Golda, and Me was a landmark book, illuminating one Jewish woman’s life as almost no other contemporary nonfiction work had done. Letty Cottin Pogrebin became the voice most clearly identified with secular Jewish women’s concerns. She addressed subjects that have shamed or troubled many thoughtful Jews—patriarchal religious traditions, antisemitism, tensions between blacks and Jews, Israel’s troubled relationship with the Palestinians—and comes out of these struggles hoping to have changed things for the better.
The merger of Pogrebin’s political activism, feminism, and strong Jewish identity is evident in her involvement with organizations such as Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Jewish Fund for Justice, the New Israel Fund, the American Jewish Congress Commission on Women’s Equality, and the civil rights movement of Israel. She has also become an adept of the interface—between Jews and Christians, between feminists and lawmakers, between black feminists and Jewish feminists, between Jewish women and Palestinian women. Her first novel, Three Daughters, deals in literary terms with another interface, that between family dynamics and feminism.
It is in her personal mode, either relating an experience or observation or “confessing” an aspect of her own personal search, that Pogrebin is at her strongest and most original. She is the feminist who wasn’t afraid to say she “adored” her husband, the liberated woman who’d stitched a needlepoint pillow with the addresses of all the houses they’d lived in together, the working mother who voiced the worries of her ideological sisters over raising children (she seems to have given her own offspring tenderness and independence), the feminist who was a friend of heads of state yet who still cared about crisp potato latkes and a well-set table. In Getting Over Getting Older, she is also the terrific-looking woman who is not afraid to talk candidly about aging: the sags in the body, the slips of memory, and the onset of existential angst.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin has a voice that is both strong and sweet. Her place in our Pantheon is guaranteed by the fact that hardly any public Jewish feminist event feels complete without her presence.
Three Daughters (2003); Free to Be… You and Me and Free to Be… A Family, by Marlo Thomas, Christopher Cerf, Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin (1998, reprint of the 1974 edition); Getting Over Getting Older: An Intimate Journey (1996); Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America (1991); Among Friends: Who We Like, Why We Like Them, and What We Do with Them (1986); Family Politics: Love and Power on an Intimate Frontier (1983); Stories for Free Children, editor (1981); Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the ’80s (1980); Getting Yours: How to Make the System Work for the Working Woman (1975); How to Make It in a Man’s World (1970).