Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a legendary figure in the women’s rights movement, has embarked on a new crusade on behalf of sick individuals and the people who care about them.
Her new book, “How To Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” (PublicAffairs) pinpoints the awkwardness and inadequacy that many people feel when trying to comfort their sick and bereaved loved ones. “Illness is friendship’s proving ground,” she writes. Yet why do so many of us fail that basic test?
Pogrebin, 73, came up with the idea for a book about “illness etiquette” while she was being treated for breast cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. In the waiting room, she conducted dozens of interviews with her fellow patients about the ways their friends and family both supported and failed them during their illnesses. These interviews, plus Pogrebin’s reflections on her friends’ responses to her own diagnosis, make up the backbone of the book, a “dos and don’ts” of comforting the sick that includes her mantras: “act and ask” and “ask and act.”
Pogrebin talked with the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff about her policy of total transparency, her relationship with her mother and Judaism’s conflicting messages on caring for others.
NAOMI ZEVELOFF: Why are people inadvertently insensitive to their sick friends?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: We don’t really get beyond a kind of basic illness etiquette in this culture. We say things like, “I’m sure you’ll be okay” or, “God only gives you as much as you can handle,” or all the clichés that you and I have probably said and have certainly heard that aren’t helpful. You say them because you are at a loss for words; you are afraid of being too positive because that is fake. But you are afraid of being too honest; how dare you ask questions about their test results or symptoms?
My bottom line in this book is to hope that there is a new illness etiquette that simply goes straight for the candor and says from the minute someone is diagnosed and they tell you about it, that you ask that you can establish a policy of absolute honesty. You say to your sick friend, “Tell me what you want and what you don’t want, because if I am going to have to guess I am going to get it wrong and it may become burdensome to you.”
For example, Jewish people are taught to visit the sick, bikur cholim. But what if bikur cholim is in conflict with Hillel, who says do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you? What if you don’t want to be visited because you are in a funk and the idea of seeing anyone is anathema or you are feeling hideous or you are oozing and strung up and in bandages and you don’t want to be seen? If you have established this honesty policy you won’t visit inappropriately. The person won’t feel they have to receive you because otherwise it looks unfriendly. You will be on a plane of absolute sincere communication from the start.
One of the biggest questions asked of Pogrebin was about Ms.’s role in shaping the coverage of other women’s magazines, inspiring the glossies’ inclusion of issue-oriented, reported features that stand out amongst the makeup and style pieces. Another question addressed? Whether Ms., which began as an offshoot of New York magazine, after all, has had an influence in today’s online media culture. She says:
That cutting edge role is now largely filled by thousands, if not millions, of bloggers and online publications. As a result, no single source functions as a “clearinghouse” or authoritative voice in the way that Ms. did in the 70s and 80s. Today’s alternative media have drastically changed the landscape both for good and for ill. For good, because it’s healthy to have many different points of view in the mix. For ill, because most of us are suffering from information overload and the impact of an important story can get lost in the online noise. These days, it’s rare for an event affecting women to enter the collective consciousness and to engage millions in a shared, simultaneous national conversation. But when it does happen, it makes a difference — witness how the rape remarks of two Republican candidates’ comments outraged women all over the country and lost the men their election.
Indeed in many ways, Ms., a fine magazine to which I’ve been proud to contribute, is a godmother of sorts for the thriving “ladyblog” universe to which the Sisterhood belongs.
Leave it to feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin to spice things up. On the new episode of The Jewish Channel series “The Salon,” a conversation about the so-called “war on women” leads Pogrebin to discuss the power of the female orgasm:
And in another show highlight, fellow panelist Deborah Feldman, the author of the best-selling memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” asks Pogrebin if she thinks her controversial book would have been taken more seriously in Orthodox circles if she were a man. Here’s her answer:
By fourth grade, I was already a troublemaker — taking on any boy who dared to challenge, in the classroom or on the playground, girls’ equality or worth. I learned from the best of the troublemakers, women who refused to take no for an answer when going after what they want: my mother and my grandmother. And from iconic feminists like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
The Jewish Women’s Archive annual luncheon, held March 18 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, was a place where making trouble — and, in the process, making history — was cause for celebration. Steinem, who has Jewish roots, presented awards to the renowned Jewish feminist (and Sisterhood contributor) Cottin Pogrebin, to Elizabeth A. Sackler, the founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Rebecca Traister, the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” about women’s role in the 2008 presidential election.
“Judaism…has informed who I am,” Pogrebin told The Sisterhood, to the extent that I think it contributed to what I have done. I was raised with a very, very clear and pressing sense of justice. If things are wrong, we’ve got to fix it. It’s up to the Jews.”
New York Magazine’s cover story this week is an oral history of Ms. Magazine in honor of the 40th anniversary of its first issue. The article is written by journalist Abigail Pogrebin, the 46-year-old daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of the magazine, which was the first exclusively written and published by women for women. Through her extensive research and interviews of both supporters and critics of the magazine, Pogrebin brings the momentous early days, months and years of the history-changing publication to life. One of the people she was unable to interview was Miriam Wosk, the artist who designed the inaugural issue’s cover, and died last year from breast cancer.
Renee Ghert-Zand: How many people did you interview for the oral history and who were they?
Abigail Pogrebin: I interviewed 35 to 40 people. It was anyone who was involved with Ms. over the 40 years, primarily in the first decade and really focusing on the first five years…I pretty much interviewed every living major participant in Ms., save a very few. Every interview was done individually by phone or in person, or both, and some by email. These are the major players, the people whose names come up over and over again. Since I grew up around Ms., I remember many of them.
I met Esther Broner close to 20 years ago, when I was a newbie religion writer, and was awed by the power of the Jewish feminist rituals like the feminist Seder, which was then starting to become mainstream (though is most popular now in its neutered form as “women’s seders,” lest anyone be offended by the term “feminist”).
Esther, along with writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who remembers her dear friend in this Forward appreciation, was kind to me at a time when I was inexperienced and insecure. Often it’s the small kindnesses extended by the most accomplished people that are the most memorable.
Esther wrote 11 books, including “Bringing Home the Light: A Jewish Woman’s Handbook of Rituals,” (Council Oak Books, 1999) a distillation of her approach to new rituals.
The blogosphere and my inbox, have been buzzing with response to former Portfolio editor Joanne Lipman’s rather bizarre piece on modern womanhood in The New York Times, “The Mismeasure of Woman,” which has spent several days floating around on the paper’s most e-mailed list. I’m going to have to echo Jezebel’s Anna N. by saying that I was actually with Lipman throughout much of her critique — until the end when she started listing a rather motley group of prescriptions for the Woman Problem.
Lipman, who climbed the ranks at The Wall Street Journal before becoming the founding editor the now-defunct Portfolio, begins her argument with the assertion that many women of her generation dismissed feminism as a big, old, shrill stereotype, and simply plowed forward in the workplace as individuals. And to a certain extent, they succeeded: Women have made strides on paper in terms of standing in major organizations and numbers in prestigious professions. But, she wrote, what’s keeping us from taking those final steps towards genuine equality is a fundamental lack of respect, a non-quantifiable sense that we still face obstacles like sexual harassment, higher expectations and the impediments of sexist critique.
Here’s where I got excited.
It hasn’t been long — just the last dozen years in human time, but a blink of an eye in the long arc of Torah interpretation — that women have published scholarly commentaries on the Jewish Bible.
Rabbi Salkin has put together a book of Torah interpretations, one weekly Torah portion at a time, by rabbis from Modern Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist, but also by singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and PresenTense’s founder Ariel Beery.
The Atlanta-based Rabbi Salkin gives a nod toward Jewish feminist scholarship, and writes in the introduction that feminism has pointed out that we see the world through a gendered lens. He also writes, “The great, often unspoken crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is the disengagement of its men.”
There is, to be sure, a serious problem of disengagement among young men in liberal synagogues, but Rabbi Salkin overstates it. Thoughtful analysts are more likely to say that the great crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is overall illiteracy and indifference.
The very idea of a book of men’s Torah commentary rankles some leading Jewish feminists.
“Obviously every Torah commentary until the present day has been a men’s Torah commentary,” says Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who developed and edited the book on which Rabbi Salkin’s is modeled, “The Women’s Torah Commentary.”
It was published in 2000. Since both books share a publisher, Goldstein declined to speak specifically about the new book, but did address larger issues.
“Until women’s commentaries were being written, nobody noticed that they were all from men’s perspectives. My whole Jewish education was spent reading and hearing men’s commentaries,” says Goldstein, who is on sabbatical from her current role as director of Kolel, a center for adult Jewish learning in Toronto. “It’s an interesting reaction. I find it slightly amusing that nobody understands that Rashi’s is a men’s commentary.”
Feminist path-breaker Letty Cottin Pogrebin put a finer point on it. “That this new book is being published with such a title is not just a transparent marketing ploy but, unfortunately, conforms to previous responses to women’s advancement or visibility in other fields,” said Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine:
I call this response ‘The Stolen Spotlight Syndrome’ and it works like this: As soon as massive public attention is directed to women’s problems, efforts, opinions, condition, status, or suffering, men yank the spotlight back to themselves with a kind of ‘us too!’ response.
It happened when feminists managed to raise public consciousness about the struggles of single mothers. What was the first major cultural expression of this issue? ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ — the story of a single father’s struggles! Likewise, when feminists succeeded in surfacing the issue of sexual harassment, the first major cultural expression of that problem was David Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” the story of a male professor being harassed by a female student.
Now that we finally have women’s voices weighing in on Torah with powerful, fresh interpretations, men are yanking the spotlight back in this modern guise of tit-for-tat — a men’s commentary. To me, it’s a cynical effort to neutralize the emergence of women as rightful interpreters of text.
The idea of breaking out scholarship from a male point of view in an overtly gendered way is so new that even Google hasn’t caught up. When you Google the new book, the search engine asks “Did you mean “The Modern Women’s Torah Commentary?”