Letty Cottin Pogrebin — author, feminist, activist, founder of Ms. Magazine, and proud Hadassah life member — can pinpoint the moment she lost faith in Judaism and the moment she regained it.
Raised in a Zionist household by an educated father and an immigrant mother with old world superstitions, she believes she inherited her father’s “Jewish head” and her mother’s “Jewish heart.”
On Oct. 27, Pogrebin received the annual Myrtle Wreath Award from Hadassah’s Southern New Jersey Region at a luncheon at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe. The event drew a record crowd of more than 400, in a region where life memberships have gone up from 9,500 seven years ago to 13,500. Awards were given to members from each chapter for their programmatic or fund-raising efforts.
Region president Sherryl Kaufman, in making the presentation to Pogrebin, called her “one of the most well-known feminists of the past five decades,” adding “many of our daughters and granddaughters are the beneficiaries of your fight for equality.”
Declaring “I am one of you,” Pogrebin, 74, recalled that her father, a college-educated Talmud scholar, saw to it his daughter was Jewishly educated; she was one of the first girls ever to celebrate a bat mitzva, in 1952.
That week’s Torah portion, about the prophetess Deborah, who led men in battle and dispensed wisdom to both genders for 40 years, may have been prophetic for the woman who would go on to write 10 books, including Deborah, Golda and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America, in 1991.
Pogrebin was 15 when her mother died, and one day during the shiva they were one man short for the minyan. “My father picked up the phone to call the shul, and I tugged on his sleeve and said, ‘Dad, I am a learned daughter of the Torah. Let me do it,’” she recalled. “My father said, asur; it is forbidden.’”
Feeling “devalued,” Pogrebin said, she turned her back on Judaism.
That changed during in 1970 while vacationing on Fire Island with her husband. A member of their group, none of whom was particularly religious, suggested they hold High Holy Day services on the island to prolong their time there. Pogrebin volunteered to lead services. Although she knew she could do it, Pogrebin said, she got cold feet.
So, always “a believer,” she went for a walk on the beach at sunset and asked God for a sign she should chant Kol Nidrei.
“Up came the most dazzling sunset, all pink, purple and shimmering,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
That “seismic moment” brought Pogrebin back to Judaism “on my own terms.” Her family joined the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, where the first ordained woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, became religious leader in 1972.
For 10 years Pogrebin wrote “The Working Woman” column in the Ladies Home Journal and penned the classic feminist book, How To Make It in a Man’s World.
That brought a phone call from feminist leader Betty Friedan and together they founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. Through that association she met Gloria Steinem, with whom she cofounded Ms. Magazine in 1972.
Her latest book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, stemmed from her own bout with breast cancer. Pogrebin said often well-meaning people don’t know how to interact with someone facing chronic illness. “Some of the things people said were astounding,” she recalled. “Someone actually said, ‘Well, if you have to have a mastectomy at least you’re married.’”
She advised asking the sick person what they wanted, a policy that could also be applied to people sitting shiva. “Don’t bring a coffeecake or rugelach unless you know there happens to be a great shortage of coffeecake or rugelach,” said Pogrebin. “Call and you may be told, ‘I’m running out of toilet paper or half and half.’ They might not be glamorous but it’s what your friend needs.”