‘I never forgot my sense of powerlessness’

‘I never forgot my sense of powerlessness’

Questions for Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin has come out with her 11th book, a love story that delves into questions of Jewish identity and continuity.    
Author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin has come out with her 11th book, a love story that delves into questions of Jewish identity and continuity.    

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book might sound like a light-hearted romance: Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate (Feminist Press at CUNY). But that doesn’t mean the 75-year-old author and activist is laying down her cudgels. The story is about love, but it also tackles the issues that have engaged Pogrebin for much of her life: gender inequality, racial injustice, Jewish identity, and Israel’s struggle for peace.

“The truth is that progress is rarely permanent because it is always challenged by forces hell-bent on defending the status quo and beating back change,” she told NJ Jewish News. “Which is why it’s important to stay involved and keep up the struggle.”

Aside from writing 11 books and hundreds of articles, Pogrebin cofounded the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the UJA-Federation Task Force on Women, and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. She currently serves on the board of Americans for Peace Now, the Ms. Foundation for Education & Communication, The Free to Be Foundation, the Harvard Divinity School Women Studies in Religion Program, and the Brandeis University Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

In an e-mail exchange with NJ Jewish News, Pogrebin talked about her writing and her ongoing activism.

NJJN: Where did the inspiration for Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate come from?

Pogrebin: Like many novelists, I was inspired by a personal experience: In the early 1990s, one of my daughters fell in love with a Catholic who had a deep connection to his roots and the teachings of his faith. I’m Jewishly well-educated, but not strongly observant and I always thought of myself as a liberal, tolerant person, so I was blindsided by the distress I felt at the possibility that my daughter might build a family with this man and possibly not raise Jewish children. Ultimately, she married a Shapiro from Skokie, but I never forgot my sense of powerlessness and panic.”

NJJN: What do you bring to a love story now that would have been missing when you first started writing?

Pogrebin: I was an English and American literature major at Brandeis, which may explain why, as a young writer, I was too intimidated by the giants of fiction to consider entering their purview. Only after I was in my early 60s and had published seven books of non-fiction and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles was I able to write my first novel, Three Daughters. It was as if I needed to accumulate decades of life experience in the real world before I could give myself permission to explore the world of the imagination.

NJJN: You have been involved in so many efforts to bridge divisions and build understanding; what takes priority for you these days?

Pogrebin: Jewish-Palestinian dialogue.

NJJN: How do you keep motivated?

Pogrebin: For me, there is no alternative to engagement. The dialogue process is self-motivating once each side affirms the other’s personal dignity and the right of both peoples to their national aspirations.

I believe Jews and Palestinians must know one another on a human level, acknowledge their divergent historical narratives, and surrender their unachievable triumphalist dreams before both sides can move forward together in search of a permanent peace, one that ensures security for all. While officials and leaders must negotiate a final status agreement, the rest of us must learn to live in harmony if there is ever to be an end to this 100-year conflict.

NJJN: Do you see a shift in the way we view differences — of gender and race and religion — for the better or worse?

Pogrebin: After more than 40 years of political activism, I’ve learned not to make definitive pronouncements about shifts in attitude or the impact of social movements. I wish I could believe that bigotry has receded on all dimensions of difference, and that laws prohibiting discrimination by race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation have borne fruit at the grass roots. But when I look at what’s actually happening — for instance, the conservative backlash against reproductive rights (even the right to contraception), or the brutal mistreatment of blacks by the police, or the spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France — it’s hard to maintain that belief.

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