‘In the Jewish world, what we win we keep’

‘In the Jewish world, what we win we keep’

Questions for Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin said she grew up in a “very left-wing family” in Jamaica, Queens, and “it was not blacks that bothered anybody; it was non-Jews.” That biographical fact creates the backdrop for her latest novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate

“It starts with the premise that the son of Holocaust survivors promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry a Jew and raise Jewish children, then falls in love with a black militant Baptist,” she told NJ Jewish News on April 13.

As a leading feminist who began her activism in the 1960s, Pogrebin was a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the National Women’s Political Caucus; she is also a member of Hadassah

In a program sponsored by National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section, she will speak on “A Feminist Icon’s Journey” on Tuesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. Her talk will explore Jewish continuity and the conflict between love and the obligation to maintain Jewish continuity.

NJJN: Why are the issues you will discuss at the temple important to you?

Pogrebin: We know that more than seven of 10 non-Orthodox Jews are marrying out. We need to look at the children coming out of those unions rather than stopping those unions, which we are unable to do because people choose love over perpetuation of Jewish peoplehood.

NJJN: Did your left-wing upbringing mean being non-religious?

Pogrebin: No. We were high Conservative, one step out of Orthodoxy. We had a kosher home. We went to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday. My father was president of the shul and I was one of the first girls to be bat mitzva’d in Conservative Judaism. I went to Hebrew school and Hebrew high school.

Each of my parents was one of seven siblings, and in every family there was a different iteration of Judaism. There was Yiddishkeit, there was Marxism, there was a lot of ‘Let me be like an all-American’ behavior. My interest is in probing the many ways there are to be Jewish in America and what really matters to the people who listen to me. What is worth protecting?

NJJN: Is the situation of the Jewish man with a black militant woman an unusual one?

Pogrebin: This is a story that is a product of my imagination, but I have worked on black-Jewish relations for the last 30 years, and I feel very comfortable writing about a black female protagonist. I will be talking about black-Jewish relations in my speech.

NJJN: Can you make a comparison between black-Jewish relations and black-white relations in general?

Pogrebin: Black-Jewish relations have a history of alliance. There is the image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, and the memory of Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner (two Jews) dying with a black man, James Chaney, in a Mississippi swamp in the summer of 1964. We don’t have a whole lot of white Americans with the same history that we Jews have.

NJJN: As you look back on the days of your feminist activism when, as you said, “We were willing to put our bodies on the line,” how successful has your movement been?

Pogrebin: In a Jewish context we have made better progress because we haven’t had the degree of backlash that the secular world has seen against the secular women’s movement, specifically the right-wing backlash against reproductive freedom, against women’s role in the workplace. Anything to do with women’s advancement is now seen as anti-male and against men. You can’t ask for equality without being accused of discriminating against men. That is a problem in the secular world. 

But in the Jewish world, what we win we keep. Nobody is going to throw us off the bima. Even the Orthodox women have made tremendous strides thanks to organizations such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

NJJN: As a former chair of Americans for Peace Now, do you believe most American Jews are sympathetic to opposing the settlements and the occupation of the West Bank?

Pogrebin: All surveys show Americans favor the positions of Americans for Peace Now more than they favor the positions of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Most Americans favor a two-state solution. They are opposed to settlement expansion and the mistreatment of Palestinians and the erosions of democracy in Israel under the Benjamin Netanyahu government. AIPAC is the monied position, not the majority position.

NJJN: Will you discuss your views on the presidential race?

Pogrebin: I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton. That is as much as I will say.

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