At age 12, Letty Cottin’s world came crashing down around her. She learned that what she thought she knew about her family was false and was based on lies that her parents had told her and their friends.
She learned that both her parents had been married previously and had divorced. Her sister Betty was actually her half-sister, fathered by her mother’s first husband. Letty learned she had another half-sister, Rena, from the marriage of her father to his first wife. Her parents had married in 1937, not 1923 as they had previously said.
Why all the lies? They would have been ostracized by their community, which saw divorce as disgraceful, as a shanda, Yiddish for shame, her parents explain. Their fake identities saved them from all that.
“Everyone sees the two of us as a normal couple with a normal past, a past like theirs,” her mother says. “Friends, neighbors, my hairdresser, the rabbi, our bridge group, my canasta ladies, your [her husband’s] organizations, they take us at face value. They accept us for what we seem to be.”
They were going to tell Letty the truth, they said, when she was older and more able to understand. “It was our secret,” her father tells her, “we didn’t want to burden you with it.”
These revelations rightly shocked and angered the young girl. But 72 years have passed since then, and Pogrebin, a celebrated journalist – one of the founders of Ms. magazine – and author, presumably would have accumulated enough wisdom to understand that her parents did what they had to do to protect their family. I saw little evidence of such a change of heart in this memoir.
The taboo of divorce among American Jews
In America, for much of the 20th century, divorce was taboo, but for Jews it was even more unacceptable as they strove to show their Christian neighbors that they deserved the appellation “American.” The ostracism that would have been the family’s fate would have hurt Letty more than her parents, because children are more vulnerable to such social slights.
Interestingly, one of Pogrebin’s cousins, Simma, had an eerily similar experience. Her mother died in childbirth and she was an infant when her father remarried. No one told her that the woman, Vera, who she thought was her mother was in reality her stepmother. At age 10, Simma found out the truth when Vera died.
Simma’s reaction was different. “Nobody lied to me,” she tells the author later in life “They just didn’t tell me the truth. … I am sure they did it out of love, not malice.” Perhaps, she says, they were afraid that she might hate herself for being born and causing her mother’s death. “I’m sure they were just being protective,” she says.
IN ANY case, Pogrebin writes, Shanda “is a memoir about shame and secrecy, what we do to cover stuff up and what happens when we can’t.”
It also is very well-written and compelling.
The author provides many examples of such shanda-avoiding behavior.
But it is a memoir, and she lovingly paints some very appealing early-life scenes, like her family around the dinner table.
“Food and talk were the main events; disputes, like bread, were chewed on and savored. Conversation was salted with laughter and peppered with commentary. Arguments were not merely tolerated but relished, especially when they concerned politics, sports or religion. For one Jew to interrupt another in the middle of a sentence… was considered normal interpersonal behavior.”
And the story of how Loretta Jo Cottin became Letty is both strange and sweet.
I also learned from Shanda about US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Jewish connection and that stories about how immigration officials at Ellis Island changed the names of some Jews (and others, like The Godfather’s Vito Corleone) are myths.
Still, the great efforts that people – especially Jews – make to avoid shame is at the heart of the book.
The author wants hers “to be the last generation of Jews who have anything to hide.” To me, that would be a futile attempt to cancel human nature.
From long before the time that King David sent Batsheva’s (Bathsheba’s) husband Uriah to be killed in battle so he could marry her, Jews and other human beings at times have acted reprehensibly or made mistakes. Sometimes, they have decided to confess, other times to keep their misdeeds a secret.
I think that secrets and shame are an integral part of people’s makeup.
I revel in our imperfect humanity.
The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available online and at bookstores.
Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and SecrecyBy Letty Cottin PogrebinPost Hill Press 429 pages; $28