Q & A With Author And Activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin
“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” is the latest work by feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Set in 1980s New York City, the novel focuses on Zach Levy, son of Holocaust survivors, who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe. Conflict ensues when he falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African American activist who could be his soul mate. In telling the story, Pogrebin probes weighty issues including self identity, inherited pain and the legacy of trauma. RI’s Lisa Green met up with Pogrebin, a part-time resident of the Berkshires, who will be speaking about the novel and signing copies at the Lenox Library on Friday, July 24 at 6:30 p.m.
RI: You delve into so many profound issues in this book, but the overriding one seems to be the question whether or not Zach — a stand-in for many of us — is obligated to choose guilt over love. Do you think non-Jews feel that to the extent that Jews do?
LCP: I often wonder if there’s any equivalent to the way Jews feel responsible for the diminishing numbers of us. I don’t know if any other people have a sense of how they could disappear. I did want to really describe what that feels like.
RI: Zach makes a promise to his mother, even though he doesn’t practice Judaism in any traditional way — he doesn’t keep kosher, doesn’t attend synagogue except maybe once a year. Yet, as you write, “The essence of his Jewish identity was his obsession with his Jewish identity.”
LCP: We struggle. We have so many gradations along the spectrum. You can be a once-a-year Jew in synagogue terms, yet very Jewish…whether it’s a few rituals that are family oriented or identifying with our heroes, that kind of Jewishness. An Orthodox Jewish person wouldn’t say we’re Jewish, but we are, we feel it.
RI: Zach was so stuck on finding his bashert — his soul mate — he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
LCP: When you have a filter that all the prospective dates in your life have to fall through, you close down so many options, and religion is a big one. The question for me in this book is, do you give up love for a kind of macro responsibility to your faith/tradition? What does continuity mean? What are you going to practice? You start slicing it very thin. It’s a conversation that’s very real and self defining. It forces you to distill meaning, instead of saying, I’ve got to marry a Jew, I’ve got to have Jewish children. What constitutes raising a child Jewish?
RI: How much of the writing was a way to sort out your own feelings?
LCP: All the things we’re talking about are things that obsess me. That’s my Jewish identity: obsessing over my Jewish identity. I feel like I am a transitional generation. My mother was born in Hungary and came here when she was 9. My father was born on the boat over, so his was an immigrant family. One third of each of their families perished in the Holocaust. We were very aware in the war that people weren’t answering their letters; care packages came back. Even though I was a tiny kid, you don’t miss that. My kids have grown up with none of that — the sense that if we lose this war we’ll be dead, too. The Holocaust is a historical event for them, but to me it feels like something I lived through. That’s why I have Zach saying, How can you have a flashback on something you didn’t experience? But you can — you fill in all the blanks.
For me to write about this displaces it onto some other characters but feels exactly what I feel, think about, worry about. The issue of race relations, especially black and Jewish, matters a lot to me. I was in a black-Jewish dialogue group for ten years, which is the only way I could feel entitled to write about Cleo. So black-Jewish relations, Jewish identity, the power of inherited trauma, the question of desire versus obligation — those are big things for me. But I didn’t end the book anywhere dispositive.
RI: A book reviewer said that you posed enormous questions without suggesting answers or even that they exist, that the search is the thing.
LCP: We’re much too focused on 10 tips for your garden, the recipe for happiness…it flattens the complexity of life, sands down all the rough edges. That’s not how life is. Between Zach and Cleo you have worlds in their past and their hearts. To wrap it all up neatly would be a disservice to all those worlds that are whirling around inside of those characters.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Friday, July 24, 6:30 p.m.
The Lenox Library