Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of the feminist Ms. Magazine, has a new novel out that deals with learning to love differently.
“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” follows Zachariah Isaac Levy as he tries to keep a promise to his mother, a Holocaust survivor. He tells her he will marry a Jewish woman and raise Jewish children. But that promise becomes complicated when he meets Cleo Scott, an African American activist whose father was a Baptist preacher.
The book delves into sometimes competing reasons for marriage: love and raising children.
Along the way, Zach’s first wife, Bonnie, leaves him when she falls in love with a woman. He seeks counsel through his ups and downs from his neighbor M.J., a gay man from Texas who works as a chef in New York City.
Pogrebin will speak at a brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 15 at Congregation Kol Emet, 1360 Oxford Valley Road, Lower Makefield Township.
For more information, visit www.lettycottinpogrebin.com.
PGN got a chance to speak with Pogrebin in advance of her visit to the region. The interview has been edited.
PGN: Did you feel an imperative to balance Zach’s quest for a heterosexual relationship with representations of other sexualities?
LCP: It wasn’t an architecture. It was an inevitability, somehow. I knew that I wanted [Zach’s] first marriage to fail because I felt that it was important to show that everything can be right on paper: the person can look like a perfect match for you and you can check the boxes. In [Zach’s] case, he got to fulfill the promise and check the Jewish box. But that doesn’t mean that the relationship is right for the person. In doing some research, I found more than 80 percent of Americans believe in a soul mate. We do get blindsided when we fall in love. You don’t choose and choreograph; you fall. The failure of this first marriage could’ve happened in many different ways. I felt that falling, literally, in love, for a woman like Bonnie — who was so determined, driven and sure of herself, but just didn’t account for anything like this happening — it was a very real way of embodying the wildness of love. [Bonnie] became a lesbian because she fell in love with this person. This person engaged her and brought out things in her that she never knew she felt. It seemed to me a very reasonable way to illustrate the wildness of what love is. It came out of left field for somebody who, otherwise, was pretty well in control of herself. Also, I have come of age in the women’s movement, so I’ve seen virtually every kind of combination of love. The issue of M.J. was the same thing. I had a neighbor who I loved a lot who was like M.J. I wanted to honor that friendship by creating this character. I wanted Zach to have a very close neighbor he could turn to.
PGN: Would Bonnie consider herself a lesbian or would she consider herself someone who fell in love with a woman?
LCP: I think she would probably consider herself a woman who fell in love with a woman, until she got to Melbourne and she became more of the organizer that she is. She’s a person of passion and commitment and I have the feeling she’d be committed to the gay rights movement and become more sexually identified.
PGN: Did you feel like you had to do any research to make sure you made M.J. ring true as a gay man in New York in the 1980s?
LCP: Because I had this friend way back, he’s kind of been in my heart all these years. He died early in the AIDS epidemic. Nobody was figuring out what AIDS was at the time. But he’s very vivid. I didn’t need to research him. [My friend] was from Texas. I didn’t stray too far from the truth on M.J. I didn’t want to make him sort of the big swish. I didn’t want him to be a caricature. In this era, chefs were just starting to become masculine idols. In the ‘80s, that was just when chefs in New York were first becoming stars. They didn’t have to be French in Le Cordon Bleu anymore. I wanted to fully flesh out M.J. as a person who was surprisingly secure in his identity, but also to counter yet another stereotype by making him a chef, which was seen in New York as a very macho role at the time. Gay men were more seen as set designers and fashion people.
PGN: The book deals with the question of what motivates people to get married. What was interesting to you about dissecting that question?
LCP: I move in the New York Jewish community where the issue of Jewish continuity is inevitably the subject of a conference, a weekend retreat, a paper or a study. It’s sometimes a beat-your-breast, what-are-we-going-to-do undertaking. I believe that it’s hard enough to find someone to love in this crazy world. To have to check off a box as big and determinative as faith and legacy, it does add a tremendous burden. The conflict is, also, I’m very committed to Jewish survival. I don’t want us to disappear. I’m very conscious of our slim numbers. I’m very conscious that our birthrate doesn’t reproduce itself. More than anything else, I’m very conscious that most Jews are ignorant of their heritage. We lasted 3,500 years and yet people don’t know what they come from. I wanted to get to the essence of that contradiction of how hard it is to find love. You fall in love with the whole person, and if one aspect of the whole person doesn’t share your very deep commitments to family, to history and to legacy, that becomes very problematic for some. I felt it was very important for readers who are anywhere on the spectrum of that struggle. Or this could be from the perspective of the parents of both people. There are so many people involved in this decision, so many commitments. I thought it was very rich terrain to cultivate. As I go around the country speaking about this book, I discover that this is not just a Jewish issue. In Albuquerque, I was talking to an Irish woman who fell in love with an Italian and her family opposed it. Though they were both Catholics, Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics can still be very different. As much as we idolize cross-boundary love affairs — or at least I do, and I would like to see people marry whoever and nobody have a problem with it — but that isn’t how we come. We come out of families of origin. We come out of cultures. Experiences have molded us. When we hook up with somebody, especially if you have any ideal of making it permanent, all this stuff suddenly is in play. These conversations take place with people before they make commitments all the time. Certainly with the legalization of gay marriage, the spectrum of people who are having these conversations has broadened and deepened. People have to sit down and say, “Okay, what’s going to happen in our household? How are we going to raise the children, if there are children?” All of that is more real now for more people.
PGN: What was interesting to you about examining people’s identities when they have multiple factors contributing to them?
LCP: I was in a black-Jewish dialogue group for 10 years. The African American women and Jewish women were overtly dealing with identity every time we met. We met once a month in each other’s homes for 10 years. We were all activists and involved in the women’s movement. It was so basic to us to deal with identity formation, what matters and what doesn’t. We were the first generation to come out of the melting pot ideology of America and into the patchwork quilt ideology, where identity politics supplanted the rather romantic notion that everybody was going to mix together and that would be fine. There were people all over the place that were starting to say, “You can’t take this identity away from me. I’m not going to be just an American. The Polish American side of me matters and I’m not going to give it up.” That happens all across the political landscape. For Cleo, and her role as an African American spokesperson and a talk show host who represents her people as well as interrogating all kinds of people, her identity is right up at the top of her consciousness of who she is and who she wants to be. The same goes for Zach. Growing up in his household, there was no way to avoid the obligation and commandment to honor his past after what his parents had been through. These are two people with oscillating identities. Of course they’re going to talk about it.
PGN: There’s a moment when Zach, an ACLU lawyer, is defending a client and says, “We grant each other the dignity of difference.” That idea comes up a lot in the book. Why was it important to you?
LCP: The dignity of difference is phrase from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the grand rabbi of Great Britain. I read a book of his by that title and it stayed with me. He goes into all the theological byways of his argument, but he basically makes the point that if you really want to honor God, you have to honor God’s creations. God made us with this many differences. He populated this planet with so many human differences and gave all of them dignity. Dignity comes with creation or God would not have created it. It was a way for people who are believers to force the issue. You dare not be a racist. You dare not be a homophobe. It would become ungodly to not respect the dignity of difference. It was a way of triggering that recognition. I just want to say that I didn’t want any suffering gay men or women [in the book]. In some books, if you were working with gay men or lesbians, you had to somehow show that they suffered for it. I wanted happy, fulfilled people. Bonnie and M.J. are probably the two happiest people in the book with very little angst. That part was conscious.