Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy is Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s twelfth book, and perhaps her most personal and intimate. It is not only reflective of her eight decades of life experience and that of her generation, but of all first, second, and third generation American Jews who struggle with secrets and shame, and are deathly afraid of public exposure and embarrassment.
The cover description of the book describes what Letty does in this very satisfying memoir:
“The word Shanda is defined as shame or disgrace in Yiddish. The book, Shanda, tells the story of three generations of complicated, intense 20th century Jews for whom the desire to fit in and the fear of public humiliation either drove their aspirations or crushed their spirit.”
A disclaimer – Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a friend, so the memoir was of particular interest to me. However, it is worth reading for anyone who struggles with the fear of shame and public exposure in any of their manifestations in contemporary American, Jewish, and other-ethnic lives. It is of particular interest to anyone interested in how we American Jews identify with the Jewish religion, tradition, culture, people, and State of Israel.
Letty does not hold back about her own most intimate and, perhaps, most embarrassing experiences. As I was reading, I asked myself where the line is between full-disclosure and remaining private. As a public figure myself, this is an issue with which I struggled throughout my professional life as a congregational rabbi. What was appropriate to share and what wasn’t? I was therefore stunned by many of Letty’s self-disclosures. By the end of the book, however, I understand well why Letty shared so much – she simply had to do so based upon her experiences from childhood on into adulthood.
Letty’s writing is crisp and insightful, as are all of her books and many articles in leading American newspapers and journals. This book is filled with Jewish traditional and cultural references that played themselves out in her life, for better and ill. She presents Judaism with expertise and accuracy, and while she is respectful and learned, her critical voice (especially of the traditional role of women in Judaism) is ever-present.
Letty is a first generation American Jew, a Litvak, meaning that she values the life of the mind. Her greatest fear has always been “losing my mind.”
I will leave it to the reader to discover the secrets with which Letty’s parents lived and the very disturbing truths they denied her as a child that led her eventually to write this memoir that one of her twin daughters encouraged her to write. Those secrets, once revealed, led Letty to often mistrust what others say, to question everything, to probe ideas and assumptions, and to take a public stand on behalf of honesty, truth, justice, and basic human decency.
She is of the founding generation of American feminist thinkers and writers, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a strong and articulate liberal activist in American politics and American-Israeli politics, a born and bred New Yorker, and a voice always worth hearing.
I could not put down this 5½” by 8¼” 416-page volume that includes many photographs of Letty as a child through adulthood. I mention the size of the pages because they add to the intimate feel of the book.
Letty includes a list of discussion questions for book groups and a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms.
I read the book quickly, in three sittings, and regretted when I came to the conclusion. I found myself wanting more. But, alas, Letty needs to write, and likely there will be another work to come down the road.
I loved this book and highly recommend it.
Dennis Cambly said:
Reading is a habit I picked up about age 5. They wrote in my grade 12 yearbook “Dennis can always be seen with his head in a good book”. Letty’s book sounds inspirational and it’s only 416 pages. One of the last remaining independent book stores here always carry or can order books not found in big box stores.
Marsha S Pinson said:
Greatly appreciate your thoughtful and personal review. I, too, grapple with reading about friends and often choose not to, so that they can peel their onion for me and our friendship, just as I get to. She is coming to WHC and I will attend, however virtually!