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HomeLands: ‘A Shtetl in Manhattan’

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, 75, and her husband, Bert Pogrebin, 81, have been living in their co-op apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side since 1970. They moved in when their twin daughters, Abigail and Robin, were 5 years old, and their son, David, was 2. Bert is a labor and employment lawyer at Littler Mendelson P.C. ; , activist, the author of eleven 11 books and a founding editor of Ms. magazine. Letty’s upcoming novel, “Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate,” will be published this month.

Forward: How did you meet and come to live together?

LETTY: We met in June 1963 (on Fire Island), became engaged in October and married in December and have been living together amicably ever since.

How did you find your home?

LETTY: It was advertised in The New York Times.

Who takes out the garbage?

LETTY: The doorman.

How are other household chores divided among you?

LETTY: I cook, Bert cleans up. I take care of the bills. Bert does the taxes. I organize our social life (with Bert’s veto power). Bert has primary responsibility for the car.

Who makes breakfast?

LETTY: Most mornings, we each make our own breakfast because we wake up at different times. I usually write until well after midnight and get up later than Bert, who frequently must get to the office early.

Describe your typical workweek.

LETTY: Bert goes to his law firm’s midtown office on most weekdays, unless he has to see a client or attend a hearing. I work at home, have breakfast meetings with friends and colleagues, and evening meetings with the various groups to which I’m deeply committed — for instance, a Rosh Hodesh group that’s been meeting for about 30 years; a Palestinian-Jewish dialogue that’s been meeting for six years, and a relatively new women writers group. I try to keep the middle of the day free for my writing and activist projects.

What’s the most unusual thing we’d see on your household budget?

LETTY: Lots of bills for theater and concert tickets.

What do you love most about the space you live in?

LETTY: The double-height ceiling in the living room. The wood paneling. The leaded glass windows. Being surrounded by many books and the quirky art we love.

What’s the one anecdote that gets told again and again at family gatherings?

LETTY: Bert’s mother, Esther Rosenberg, was born in America in 1911. In 1914 her mother took her back to Hungary with the intention of fetching the older siblings, who’d been left behind. However, when the First World War broke out they were stuck in Europe, and by the time they returned to America, Esther spoke only Yiddish and behaved like any other immigrant child. Nonetheless, she always referred to herself as “Esther from America.” and those are the words that Bert, his sister and his brother put on his mother’s gravestone.

The Pogrebin family in 1970

Where do you trace your family back?

LETTY: Both Bert and I are half Hungarian, half Russian. Each of us had one parent who was born in Europe.

Were you named after anyone? If so, tell us about him or her.

LETTY: My real name is Loretta, in honor of my father’s mother, Yetta, who died in Palestine before I was born, and my mother’s favorite actress, Loretta Young. My middle name is Jo, for an unknown relative named Yosef, but more tellingly for the character Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Bert is short for Bertrand. He was named for the left-wing philosopher Bertrand Russell and for an unknown relative named Binyamin. Bert has a middle initial B that stands for nothing. It’s there for no reason other than that his parents liked the sound of it.

Who was the first to get up when one of your children started crying?

LETTY: Whichever parent heard the cries. I was a heavier sleeper, so it was often Bert who got up.

What would you serve at your ideal Sunday brunch?

LETTY: Lox, pumpernickel bagels, scallion cream cheese, eggs and onions, fresh-squeezed orange juice, decaf cappuccino.

Do you have an ideal Sabbath dinner?

LETTY: Matzo ball soup, roast beef, sautéed spinach and crispy potatoes.

Who’s your favorite Jewish comedian?

LETTY: Jon Stewart.

BERT: Sid Caesar.

Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism in your life?

BERT: I experienced anti-Semitism in my rural high school, where all the students from my largely Jewish hometown faced hostility from the kids who weren’t Jewish. Mysteriously, this treatment abruptly ceased in my senior year, and I suddenly became an acceptable teammate for the boys and a prospective date for the girls.

LETTY: I wrote a cover story called “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement” for the June 1982 issue of Ms. magazine.

Which room in your home is your favorite?

LETTY: The living room, which is unique even by Manhattan standards.

What is your favorite piece of art or photograph in your home?

BERT: A 3-by-5-foot Progressive Party campaign poster drawn by Ben Shahn for the 1948 presidential election. The drawing depicts Thomas Dewey and Harry S. Truman at the piano singing the same tune. (The party’s candidate, of course, was Henry Wallace.)

LETTY: Mimi Vang Olsen’s charming portrait of our family, painted in 1976 in a quasi-primitive style that allowed her to capture many elements of our lives and interests at that moment in time.

What is your happiest and/or saddest memory in your home?

LETTY: Too many happy memories to isolate one. No really sad memories, thankfully.

Describe your family life in three words.

BERT: Close. Principled. Generous.

LETTY: Intimate. Loving. Fun.

If you could change one thing about where you live, what would it be?

LETTY: It would be nice to have a view of Central Park, but because we love our apartment, neither Bert nor I miss it. (The park, which is a half a block away, was our children’s backyard.)

If you could change one thing about your Jewish practice, what would it be?

LETTY: I wish I could speak Hebrew.

BERT: I wish I could read Hebrew.

Is there an active Jewish community near you?

LETTY: Yes, there’s a vibrant Jewish community at our synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, and a palpable Jewish presence all over our neighborhood. Both Bert and I feel entirely at home on the Upper West Side. It’s like a shtetl in Manhattan.

What’s one thing you do that defines your Jewish identity?

BERT: My Jewish identity has been deepened by my participation in the monthly Torah group Letty and I founded more than 25 years ago.

LETTY: I think The Feminist Seder that I co-founded 40 years ago embodies my Jewish identity. After two family Seders, The Feminist Seder is the third Seder I attend every year. I cherish it because much as I love and maintain several Jewish rituals, many of them still feel patriarchal to me. I need a balance of traditional Judaism and Jewish feminism in order to feel whole.

Does being Jewish distinguish you from others around you? If so, how?

BERT: Being Jewish in New York is, thankfully, not a distinguishing factor.

LETTY: I always look at life through two prisms —feminist and Jewish — which probably distinguishes me from most women and from most Jews, both those who are more observant than I and those who feel less connected from Judaism and the Jewish world.

What one moment stands out in your mind of when you felt your Jewishness the most?

BERT: When I was experiencing anti-Semitism in high school, I really felt my Jewishness.

LETTY: I feel most Jewish at B’nai Jeshurun during those last moments of Yom Kippur — just before Havdalah, when the lights go out and our huge congregation hums a nigun [Hasidic melody] in the dark while a seemingly endless procession of little children streams into the sanctuary, each holding a tiny battery-operated candle. Witnessing that tableau makes me acutely and poignantly aware of the miracle of Jewish survival and rekindles my hope in the future of our people.

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