A co-founder of Ms. Magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin has a 40-plus year reputation as an advocate for women. This year, she took a page from the feminist movement’s playbook to crusade on behalf of another marginalized group: the sick.
Pogrebin’s 10th book, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” is, in her words, a “consciousness raising” effort. In it, Pogrebin once again proves herself an astute observer of social dynamics that are so woven into our culture they seem impossible to change. Pogrebin explains how the awkwardness so many of us feel when friends and family fall ill can jeopardize relationships. Instead of fumbling in the dark, friends of the sick should do something and ask whether it helped, or ask how they can help and then do it — “act and ask” or “ask and act.”
Pogrebin finds her prescription deeply rooted in Jewish thought — and Jewish debate. In an interview with the Forward, she discussed the potential seeming conflict between Judaism’s mitzvah of bikur cholim — visiting the sick — and Hillel’s advice to “do unto others.” “What if you don’t want to be visited because you are in a funk and the idea of seeing anyone is anathema?” she asked. The remedy is “absolute, sincere communication.”
The backdrop of Pogrebin’s book is her own experience with breast cancer, during which she realized that some friends were more skilled than others at providing both the help and the space she needed. At 74 and in remission, Pogrebin has yet again provided the kindling of a social movement for “illness etiquette.”