Letty Cottin Pogrebin Triumphs at Fiction

Letty Cottin Pogrebin Triumphs at Fiction

Leah R. Harrison

Leah Harrison is a reporter and copy editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Author. Editor. Feminist. Lecturer. Activist. Writer. Trailblazer. Grandmother. Emmy winner. Hadassah life member. Co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. Brandeis graduate. Board member. Honorary fellow.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is all of the above and more. An ardent activist and never one to be silent on a subject that compels her, Cottin Pogrebin is a prolific and gifted writer. She has written 11 books and countless articles in publications ranging from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The Nation and Good Housekeeping. She is a lecturer and advocate for causes including a two-state solution and black-Jewish dialogue.

After the 1970 release of her groundbreaking novel “How to Make It in a Man’s World,” she, with five other editors and with feminist activists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, co-founded Ms. magazine. First published as a sample insert in New York magazine in December 1971, Ms. has stood the test of time as relevant and resonant for women today, even in a contracting magazine market.

Cottin Pogrebin is appearing at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10. In a phone interview about her body of work and the themes she takes on in her latest novel, “Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate,” Cottin Pogrebin listed Ms. as one of her proudest achievements.

AJT: Looking back at all of your accomplishments, excluding your grandchildren, of which are you most proud?

LCP: If you’re talking about book by book, “Growing Up Free,” which was about nonsexist childrearing, that took me eight years, so it was daunting, and I’m proud of that accomplishment. And I suppose, writing about breast cancer, having had breast cancer, and transforming life … into a book that I think is helpful to a lot of people, called “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” I really feel good about that because it was a way not to maybe heal, but to be useful.

AJT: Do you feel like your subject matter chooses you, or do you choose it?

LCP: I guess it’s a little of both. I will say the only book I ever wrote because someone asked me to was the first one. … A publisher at Bantam Books who knew about my career — I was in charge of four departments at a book publishing company and I ended up vice president, all of which happened before I was 30 — he knew about my career through the ’60s, and he said, “Write a book, here’s the title, ‘How to Make It in a Man’s World,’ ” and gave me a check, so that book found me.

The others I guess I chose to write, although the subjects grabbed me by the throat, so it’s hard to say (chuckling). It’s really hard to say. It’s such a combination of impulses. … I definitely feel compelled to write my books. … It comes out of me, but I’m sopping up the world at the same time. That’s the thing about being both a writer and an activist, you know. You’re not in an ivory tower. I’m in the midst of it. I have been in the midst of it pretty much all along.

And I have to say that I’m very proud to be one of the founders of a magazine that I think really did change lives. You know Ms. has been important for 40 years. It’s published out of Los Angeles now, and it’s not as readily seen as it once was. But it’s in colleges, it’s in libraries, it’s meaningful to thousands of women, and it keeps women informed about their rights and about what’s happening in the world.

AJT: How did it come to be? It was a collaboration?

LCP: Oh, yes. It started in our living rooms with people meeting and saying that we should both reflect what’s happening already at the grass roots and also lead the way. A combination of both informing and reflecting what’s happening. … We were meeting in the summer of 1971. I met Gloria (Steinem) at the founding conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and she invited me to join what was going to be the next meeting of a group, an ad hoc group, and I just sort of stayed with it. … So I was just there for the long haul.

AJT: You did a lot of things that were pivotal as far as women’s history.

LCP: It really does feel that way. It’s been a long time. A very long time. I have to confess to you, Leah, that in about 1976 I said, “You know, by 1980 we’ll have this done.” (Laughs.) And then in 1980 we got Reagan. But we were making such wonderful progress!

AJT: “Single Jewish Male” appears to be a departure for you because it’s a foray into fiction. (She informs me that her other work of fiction is “Three Daughters.”) The others seem to be commentary on or reaction to things of the day, things that were happening, things that needed to be fixed, right?

LCP: Exactly. Well put!

AJT: What compelled you to tackle fiction?

LCP: I wanted to write novels since I was a little girl because I was a reader and I was an English American lit major. I always felt I could never match, you know, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Who was I to write fiction? … I just felt, “Who am I? … I can’t.” And then when I was 60, I said to myself, “How can I keep saying someday I’m going to write fiction? I have to do it.” And at that point Grace Paley said something that really broke it open for me. … She said writing teachers are wrong when they tell you to write about what you know. You should write about what you don’t know about what you know.

I feel this is contemporary fiction about something that’s in the memory of many of us alive today, the ’80s, and really covers the successes and flashpoints in Judaism at the moment and where they sort of began and what their content is. And also the black-Jewish relationship, the evolution of it and the very sorry condition it’s in today.

AJT: Is that part of what prompted you to write? There are so many themes in the novel. … Which was your initial driving force?

LCP: I think it all was, but I think very much the experience I had in a black-Jewish dialogue group for 10 years, which is one of the things I’m going to talk about, and the experience I had when one of my daughters fell in love with a Catholic, which I’m going to talk about when I’m there.

AJT: The survivor guilt and tie-in with the Holocaust … that wasn’t part of the original impetus?

LCP: Oh, yes. … That’s so woven into my consciousness. Not being a child of survivors but being a child of people who lost so many. My parents lost one-third of their families, so it was very present in my household. … Everybody talked about “it” very little, but the awareness that it was happening — I was alive, don’t forget. I was a child of the Second World War. So though nobody talked about it, it was one of the many family secrets. I grew up in the shadow of it. It was this great horrible possibility that Hitler was going to win and take over the world, and that would be the end of us. … As I say in the book, “an inherited trauma.” …

I happen to have been extremely well educated Jewishly, so for me to, for example, write the scenes with the professor, or the scenes with the rabbi, or the scenes with the chaplain, those three perspectives are really well known to me. My father was what I call high Conservative. He was raised Orthodox except for mixed prayer in my synagogue. … I was interested, I guess, enough to listen and learn Talmudic stories, and I did well in Hebrew school, and I went to the yeshiva, and I went to Hebrew high school, so writing about that is just writing about things I already know. I didn’t have to do very much research. And the tension between, the pull between the wisdom and wonder of our heritage and the reality of our space in America now, where we’re accepted to the point where, as Rivka says, “They love us too much. They love us enough to marry us.”

AJT: Did you know the ending before you began the book?

LCP: No. And I still don’t know the ending. Do you?

AJT: That’s true! It ended on a “maybe.” Good point!

Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Feminist Press, 360 pages, $27.95

At the festival Nov. 10

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