STOCKBRIDGE – Letty learned the family secret on a blustery spring day at a family bar mitzvah celebration in Winthrop. She was 12 at the time.
An obnoxious older cousin blurted it out. Now, more than 70 years later, this secret – no spoilers here – is at the heart of “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” a new memoir by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the writer, activist, and co-founder of Ms. Magazine. Her life was permanently altered that day.
Suffice it to say that her parents had lied to her about their personal histories, and in no small way. Moreover, every member of her large extended family, on both sides, was in on it. Letty was so dismayed by her cousin’s pronouncement that she fainted.
Then it got worse. Her chagrined parents took her for a walk along the beach in Winthrop and filled her in on the details, which included more omissions, distortions, and lies.
“The shocks kept coming and coming, a dozen Winthrops banging across the rocks,” wrote Pogrebin, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., in an immigrant family “torn between loyalty to their own kind and longing for American acceptance.” Learning the truth about her family “reordered my world.” Whom could she trust? How could she be so gullible? What else didn’t she know? Over the years, she has uncovered an impressive list of further falsehoods.
Now 83, Pogrebin has spent decades trying to understand what lay at the root of these deceptions. The hidden lives of her extended family included miserable marriages, abandoned and dead children, religious transgressions, illness, sexual identity, radical politics, and more. Her relatives went to such lengths to cover up the truth they even altered family photos.
Pogrebin’s revelations in “Shanda” are both specific to her own family history and intrinsic to the wider Jewish immigrant experience. “The elephant in my family of origin is a crippling fear of the shanda,” she writes, using the Yiddish word for shame or disgrace.
“Besides figuring out how to thrive in the New World, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins learned through bitter experience that nothing could overcome the ruinous impact of public disgrace, and any act, fact, person, or circumstance with the potential to humiliate them had to be circumvented at all costs or converted into a secret. Their need to avoid scandal was so compelling that, once identified, it provided the lens through which I could see my family with fresh eyes, spotlight their fears, and in doing so, illuminate my own.”
She absorbed from an early age how important it was to live a shanda-free life.
“Intelligence, reliability, and ethical probity were the qualities I was sworn to uphold and model in the world,” she writes, “and if I did not measure up, or do a good job of concealing my imperfections, I knew they would reflect badly on my family and The Jewish People, an entity so exalted in the world of my childhood that all three words still demand initial capital letters.”
In short, it would be a shanda far di goyim, which is to say “a shameful act witnessed by a non-Jew and therefore even more scandalous than one committed inside the fold.” (Think Harvey Weinstein, Bernie Madoff, and Jeffrey Epstein.)
“Whenever news broke that someone had done something terrible,” she writes, “my mother would say, “Please God, don’t let him be a Jew,” and she would search the story to see if the police had a suspect with a Jewish name.”
Pogrebin is the author of nine previous nonfiction books as well as two novels, one of which mines the Winthrop revelation. “This is, I think, the third time I wrote that scene … on the beach,” she said. “It strikes me how people have a seismic moment they keep refashioning and reframing, in order to integrate it.”
“Shanda” seamlessly blends the genres of memoir, social history, anthropology, feminism, and theology, with novelistic elements to it. (Warning: minor spoiler alert ahead).
But it wasn’t until many years later, when she was peeling potatoes at her cracked tile countertop and I was sitting at her kitchen table smoking a cigarette, that the words “Grandma’s first marriage” dropped from her lips like babka crumbs and the look on her face said, “Uh oh!” and I realized that she knew something about my grandparents that no one was supposed to tell me. And it was radioactive.
Pogrebin acknowledges that some of what she discloses in the book would barely raise an eyebrow nowadays, in a world accustomed to intimate memoirs and hyper-sharing on social media. “[It] makes it hard for millennials and Gen Xers to understand how sacrosanct privacy once was,” she writes.
“What’s so interesting is that young people have to extrapolate from what is shameful now to what was shameful then,” she said in an interview, curled up in a chair – her hair in pigtails – on the spacious porch of her home overlooking picturesque Stockbridge Bowl.
“The power of shame has changed. The threats have changed,” she said. In her day, all it took to spoil a good name was a small- to medium-grade shanda, like infertility or a daughter who never got married. But while the bar is higher nowadays, the penalty is scarier.
“Cancel culture,” she said, “is like shanda squared.”
She grants that the concept of shame is not unique to Jews. But shame feels Jewish to her “because it’s coded into the DNA of my family and ABC’s of my faith,” she writes in “Shanda.”
“I was primed every time I read the Torah and sat in the synagogue,” she said. “I know there are things to hide, I know shame is a punishment – that God shamed people, didn’t just have people killed,” she elaborated in the interview. “Shame is a zap … shame is a grenade that God or God’s emissaries toss to people who are bad.”
Secrecy, too, is a familiar concept in Jewish theology.
“Biblical heroes conceal themselves behind veils or disguises,” Pogrebin writes. “They plot, they cheat, they pretend to be what they aren’t, yet end up as exemplars of morality and piety. With their stories, the Torah establishes that human duplicity may sometimes be necessary for the fulfillment of God’s plan.”
Does this mean people should never keep secrets?
“I’m sure there are some that need to be kept,” she said. “Children are not necessarily able to process them at every age. You don’t want to give them nightmares Before they have the tools to see the context.”
But having witnessed personally the “corrosion” that results from deception, she writes, “I’m convinced that happiness lies in a secret-free life.”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin will speak at a virtual event on Marblehead on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. Information at jccns.org/jewish-book-month/