In the course of excavating her family history, Letty Cottin Pogrebin examines shame — or shanda, in Yiddish — as a Jewish inheritance, “not because other people or groups don’t feel it,” she writes, “but because it’s coded into the DNA of my family and ABC’s of my faith.” A frank and often amusing tabulation of well-kept family secrets, SHANDA: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy (429 pp., Post Hill Press, $28) tells a story of high-stakes melodrama and surreptitious relations, in which runaway brides, false marriages, lost children and other moral crises abound.
But there is more here than mishegas. Pogrebin, an activist and speaker who started Ms. magazine with Gloria Steinem in the early 1970s, seeks to understand the role of shame and secrecy in a family of devout Jewish immigrants whose social status — in America and even among one another — required the calculated concealment of a number of uncomfortable truths.
First, Pogrebin discloses her own:She was diagnosed several years ago with a benign brain tumor and didn’t tell anyone. Contemplating her motivations for doing so — she did, after all, write a whole book about surviving breast cancer — Pogrebin divulges her fears that the tumor might compromise her intellectually. “The brain,” she writes, “is not just the body’s neurological control panel but also the beating heart of the Jewish soul.” From here, secrets accrue in number and severity.
To escape an arranged marriage, Pogrebin’s grandmother jumped out of a window on her wedding day and into the arms of another man, whom she eventually married.