I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Set up Letty as an old friend with whom you worked (right word?) during feminism 1.0. Mention Ms. magazine? Her talent has always been bringing people together, getting people to communicate through connecting – which is why you’ve asked her to join you in this episode.
Using Letty’s name again set up your opening question. Can be very brief as your question stands nicely on its own.
Alan Alda: One of the things that you do that really amazes me is you’re able to bring together people who you wouldn’t think would ordinarily be in the same room together to work on their problems, but I think you have an unusual way of doing it.
Letty Pogrebin: Yes. You could call me a group groupie. I love forming groups. I’m an organizer. [00:00:30] When I’m in the middle of an experience, it occurs to me, “Gee whiz, look, we’re all going through this. Why don’t we create a space where we can talk about it further, instead of just … ” The march, for example, on January 21st, 2017, so many women were going down on buses together and trains together and putting together carpools, and there was an urge to continue after that day because we were so energized [00:01:00] by it. That’s what I have tended to do for the last 40 years is pick up on that and create the chemistry, the space, the name for the group. When I do them in an especially organized political way, it has an agenda. For example, Christian-Muslim-Jewish relations.
Alan Alda: There’s a group that you wouldn’t expect to come together naturally. How do you [00:01:30] get them talking together in a constructive way? Do you talk about issues?
Letty Pogrebin: First, you have to try to zero in on the nut, the nut at the center of it all, if you’re gonna do Christian-Jewish-Muslim, is how do we feel about God, how do we feel about our faith in general, and specifically how do we feel about faith and feminism, if it’s a woman group. You can galvanize and mobilize [00:02:00] people by saying, “Let’s find out what we have in common.”
You can’t start with Jesus and you can’t start with Muhammad, because immediately the Jews are out on one of them and the Muslims are out on another. You can start with the concept of God, so that let’s say your first conversation if you’re organizing such a group is how do you see God. Suddenly everybody has something to say. They don’t have to defend Jesus, Muhammad, [00:02:30] Moses, or whoever. They don’t have to immediately dive in and say, “My religion is more patriarchal than your religion,” but they can start with something where they can recognize a little of themselves in each other.
Alan Alda: Do you start right off with that or do you start on a more personal basis?
Letty Pogrebin: You start on a more personal basis, but what you were asking me is how do you get three such disparate groups to really start talking about issues. That’s how you do it on the issues. You find one common [00:03:00] theme and then you riff off of it until you’re comfortable getting to distinguishing one from the other and drilling down and saying, “Where do you see the other stand? What’s the place of the other in your worldview?” That’s again once you’re comfortable enough to get into substance. As you say, the place to start is personal.
Alan Alda: How personal would it get? How much time do you spend on personal?
Letty Pogrebin: [00:03:30] Depends, but I’m thinking of a Jewish Palestinian group that I helped to start back in the ’80s. I remember that a woman came in and she was buzzing with excitement and we all said, “What happened?” She said, “My daughter just called me. It’s her first menstruation.” Suddenly we’re all talking about our first menstruation, what happened to us, how we felt, were we ashamed, were we horrified, were we glad, did we feel like women, [00:04:00] did we feel besmirched, did we feel we had lost our childhoods. Or if our daughters were in that same positions as that woman’s daughter, how did we handle it, did we teach her how to use a sanitary pad, did we warn her of you have to always carry a Tampax with you. In my case, I was slapped across the face the first day that I-
Alan Alda: Why? For what reason?
Letty Pogrebin: Because it was a Jewish tradition [00:04:30] that at least my mother carried with her from the shtetl in Hungary. You slap a woman, a girl, across the face the first day she has her period, and you say a thing in Yiddish that prays to God that that be the worst pain that she ever experiences as a woman. Of course it didn’t work.
Alan Alda: Excuse me.
Letty Pogrebin: It’s such a wonderful concept. The mother is saying, “I’m gonna give you the worst pain, and it’s only gonna be a slap.” Of course [00:05:00] life gives women so many other horrible experiences.
Alan Alda: I can’t believe you’ve come to peace with this idea that you call it a wonderful thing. I just can’t picture it as a wonderful thing.
Letty Pogrebin: Maybe you don’t know how many other bad things happened to me since then. The idea is in a minute I told that story, this was a room, this happened to be a pretty large group, the Palestinian Jewish dialog group. This was a room of maybe [00:05:30] 24 women, 12 and 12. The whole first night was about our first menstruations, our embarrassments with menstruation, how it played out on our wedding nights or didn’t. There was so much to say. By the end of that first discussion, I knew those women at a level that probably people in their family don’t know them.
Alan Alda: The interesting thing about that is it sounds [00:06:00] like once you’ve had that powerful, personal conversation, when you talk about issues that ordinarily divide people and help people think of one another in terms of stereotypes, or you’re the person who believes that kind of thing, you can’t do that anymore, because you know them as individual people.
Letty Pogrebin: Precisely. When you’re ready on let’s say the fifth session to talk about borders, Jerusalem, terrorism, [00:06:30] the security wall that Israel built, the Gaza War, whatever it is that is contentious and a flashpoint in dialog, you have to see the person who’s speaking as the one whose daughter was never able to have children, who just told you, “I remember the day she had her first period, and then of course she never was able to have children, so [00:07:00] it didn’t pan out. She wasn’t a woman.” You see that pain, and you’re not gonna scream at her about Gaza. You’re not gonna say, “You took the land away,” to an Israeli. You’re gonna remember this woman through something that you understand viscerally and emotionally, and you’re gonna just try to talk. You’re not gonna wound.
Alan Alda: This reminds me so much of what George Mitchell is reported to have done in Ireland-
Letty Pogrebin: Exactly.
Alan Alda: … when he was working out the deal between the Protestants [00:07:30] and the Catholics and ended that long civil war. As I remember the story, it was so similar to this, and it was day after day. During the day, they sat at tables and discussed issues, and at night they had dinner together and issues were forbidden as topics of conversation. They could only talk about their childhood experiences or anything personal.
Letty Pogrebin: Exactly.
Alan Alda: The same thing was I understand in the Oslo [00:08:00] Accords. In the evening, they got to know each other as people. I think a Palestinian and an Israeli became such good friends that one of them named his daughter after the other one’s daughter.
Letty Pogrebin: That’s true. I did, I know somebody who was very involved [inaudible 00:08:20] and I heard a little of that after the fact. They humanized each other and they remained friends, and they’ve shared the sorrow of [00:08:30] the unraveling of the Oslo process.
Alan Alda: That’s the downside of making contact across the border. It’s like in World War I when the Allied troops or the British troops made contact at Christmastime with the German troops and they put down the guns and they even played soccer together.
Letty Pogrebin: That’s right. Do you remember that wonderful movie where the two sides were embodied in these two tank [00:09:00] commanders, and so the Israeli tank, this is in the Sinai Desert, and the Israeli tank comes up over a hill, and up an Egyptian tank comes up over the hill. And the two soldiers, instead of shooting at each other from their little tank and capsule little spot in the tank, they get out and they hatch this plan, “I’ll take your tank and say I captured it. You take my tank and say we captured it. We’ll [00:09:30] be done here. We won’t have to kill each other.”
Alan Alda: That’s so good.
Letty Pogrebin: It’s so good. That’s a kind of paradigm is I take your reality away and it helps your reality, or I give you my reality to help your reality, and neither of us will get hurt.
I remember a very transgressive thing that my Palestinian Jewish group, one of them did back in the ’80s. [00:10:00] We planned, after many, many, many hours, retreats in which we went through all the issues and all the personal stuff. We decided to plan a trip to the region. The Palestinians would plan what the Jews would see, and the Jews would plan the itinerary for what the Palestinians would see. We Jews planned to take the Palestinians to Yad Vashem, which is a Holocaust museum [00:10:30] in Jerusalem, and into the Knesset, so they could see democracy in action and not just think of us all as just colonizers. The Palestinians planned to take us into a refugee camp and to take us into a daycare center.
It was so marvelous, because as we walked, and we had to walk in pairs, we walked one Palestinian, one Jew, through Yad Vashem. I had never done [00:11:00] that before in all my life, and I’m a child who remembers the Holocaust and lost one third of my family there.
Here I am explaining the exhibits to my Palestinian sister, and she’s crying. She’s in a place that has been used against her people, like, “How can you Jews who lived through the Holocaust do this, what you’re doing to us Palestinians?” She’s used to being combative. She’s used to being pushed back and [00:11:30] militant, and suddenly she sees the world through my eyes. In the refugee camp, the same thing happened to me. I’m watching her people be pushed by … What are those things on the end of rifles?
Alan Alda: Bayonets.
Letty Pogrebin: Bayonets. Thank you. Thank you, MASH. Being pushed by IDF bayonets, being mistreated in the refugee camp. This was way back, again, when Israel controlled everything [00:12:00] inside, before the Oslo Accords. I’m saying, “How would I feel if my old uncle was being treated this way? How could these 18-year-old Israeli kids be treating somebody this way?” I see the world through her eyes. You can’t do that first. What if we had tried to do that trip before we had a dialog?
Alan Alda: Before you knew who they were as people.
Letty Pogrebin: Exactly.
Alan Alda: That seems to be [00:12:30] at the heart of the problem of solving these international and multicultural issues. It’s hard to get a whole culture to understand a whole other culture on a personal basis.
Letty Pogrebin: I will say one added thing that’s obvious, but the additional component that’s almost incomprehensible to people who aren’t women is that women are not invested [00:13:00] in this macho, “I gotta win. My people are the big shots, king of the hill.” We have no Trump-ism in us, most of us, where we have to be the best, the greatest, the winner. I say this after 45 years of doing Galad. We’re more invested in really coming to a together place than in reifying and [00:13:30] solidifying our separate greatness. We would consider it in most of our groups a triumph if we could be three steps closer to understanding and peacemaking, rather than, “My narrative wins.”
Set up consciousness raising in historical context. Might be fun to preview that only her butcher calls her Mrs Pogrebin. Stay tuned.
Alan Alda: Tell me more about the groups you’ve been part of and initiated. You wrote an article about consciousness- [00:14:00] raising that was pretty much at the beginning of the whole thing.
Letty Pogrebin: Very, very much.
Alan Alda: There are probably even women today who are not that familiar with the term consciousness-raising. Maybe just explain what you meant by it.
Letty Pogrebin: Consciousness-raising groups met very much at the grassroots. They were neighborhood groups. They were a group of people who worked in an office and created a consciousness-raising group where they met at [00:14:30] lunch in the boardroom. They took over the boardroom. Women were, quote, “revolting,” in both senses of the word. That was the headline.
Alan Alda: Revolting.
Letty Pogrebin: That was the headline on Newsweek, “Women are revolting.” Part of it was we created these little pods of unity and solidarity in our workplace, churches, synagogues, schools, campuses. All it meant was eight, [00:15:00] 10, 12 of us would get together, we’d put up a index card on the library bulletin board or the supermarket bulletin board or the school bulletin board and say, “I’m organizing a consciousness-raising group. We’re meeting at 7:00. Bring one dish.”
Alan Alda: When it first came out, people wondered what it meant, consciousness-raising, as some people may wonder today. What did you mean by consciousness-raising?
Letty Pogrebin: The fact that in the 1960s and [00:15:30] ’70s, women took for granted a certain degree of patriarchy and sexism and needed their consciousness to be raised about the fact that this is not fair. Sometimes the slave is complicitous in his or her own slavery because you don’t notice. It’s your everyday life.
It’s like sexual harassment. Gloria Steinem always says, “We had no name for it. It was just called life.” We are seeing now, [00:16:00] as man after man after man is exposed in this habit of power-mongering over the weaker, less, powerless, we have seen that that was life for so many. Millions of women simply said, “You gotta put up with … ” What’s the latest? Richard Meier.
My daughter Robin works for the New York Times and is now monitoring high culture, like James Levine at the opera, Peter [00:16:30] Martins at the ballet, Richard Meier in architecture, these giants, intellectuals, representatives of the culture, who kept women in a subservient position, who bullied, and who abused, and in some cases were violent, and made it a quid pro quo for keep the job or lose the job.
If you’re not in a state of consciousness about, “This is reprehensible, [00:17:00] this is unacceptable, this is dehumanizing. I’m not going to accept it,” you need a consciousness-raising group.
Alan Alda: I think it’s interesting that you used language to call attention to these things. For instance, what you just mentioned, sexual harassment, didn’t Gloria come up with that term?
Letty Pogrebin: No. A woman who recently died came up with that term. The Times gave her a really great obit. [00:17:30] You can be sure that before the Me Too Movement began, that woman would never have had an obit. Now the Times is doing reparational obits. They’re running obits for the past 150 years of women they ignored in the Times pages.
Alan Alda: Was that same woman the one who came up with the term consciousness-raising?
Letty Pogrebin: No, that was somebody else, I think Jo Freeman. I’m not positive.
Alan Alda: I just saw that in an obit too. Also, the most widely [00:18:00] used term is probably Ms., which you were one of the founders of Ms. Magazine. That term, before it caught on, there was a lot of joking about it, a lot of rejecting the idea that you didn’t need to identify a woman as whether or not she was married. In other words, what you call her would [00:18:30] include the idea of whether or not she was married.
Letty Pogrebin: Yeah. Why? When I’m introduced to Mr. Alan Alda, I don’t know if you’re married or not. Why should you be introduced to Mrs. Letty Cottin Pogrebin and know I’m married? That doesn’t matter. We’re having a professional relationship here. We’re talking about issues. My marital status is immaterial. That’s true in so many contexts. The place where I ever use my married name [00:19:00] and Mrs. is at the butchers.
Alan Alda: What? What?
Letty Pogrebin: “Is Mrs. Pogrebin’s veal chop ready?” that kind of thing, because a butcher’s not gonna figure out Ms. is the more respectful term. Talk about communication.
Alan Alda: You’ve gotta have a consciousness-raising group with butchers and women, of women butchers and male butchers.
Letty Pogrebin: Think about how illustrative that is of your issue here around communication. I’m not gonna be doctrinaire. Ms. [00:19:30] was evolved as a way to raise the consciousness about how marital status is being used to put women in boxes. “Can’t hire Mrs. So-and-so, because she’s childbearing age and she might get pregnant and leave. I can hire Miss Plotkin because she just told me she never wants to have children and she’s not married, so she’s probably not gonna, within reasonable time, get married to a guy and say, ‘I want to have children,’ and leave.”
Alan Alda: ” [00:20:00] Here I got Ms. Plotkin. I better not hire her.” Here you had Ms. Plotkin, “I better not hire her, because she’s gonna start an action and take me to human resources.”
Letty Pogrebin: Yes, except if we’re all Ms.
Alan Alda: That spread. Once it spread, it’s universal now, at least in our [00:20:30] society.
Letty Pogrebin: Yes. We didn’t make it up at Ms. We adopted it from a secretarial manual that dated back to the 1920s.
Alan Alda: That’s interesting. That’s news to me. Tell me more about that.
Letty Pogrebin: There was a secretarial manual that answered the question, “What if you don’t know if a woman you are writing to is married or not married? What should I use, Mrs. or Miss?” The answer was, “Neither. Just use M-S the way we use M-R,” [00:21:00] and boom!
Alan Alda: Was that a contraction of mistress or what?
Letty Pogrebin: It was a contraction of the M-S from Miss and the M-R-S from Mrs. Both had an S in it. It was made Ms. That was in effect in secretarial manuals for 30 years by the time second-wave feminism came around and said, “Let’s deal with this.” We had to petition the New York Times for many years. I think it finally happened in 1985 where Abe Rosenthal, [00:21:30] who was at that time the executive editor, finally said, “Okay, style book, Ms from now on.” The only time you’ll see Mrs or Miss in there is if the subject requests it. That’s what’s in the style book now.
Alan Alda: I don’t know if you’re aware of it in these terms, but it seems to me that everything that I know about you in your active life, and you have a really active life, [00:22:00] all the things you write about, all the things you do, you organize for, all seem to include this element, a special notion of communication of getting to the person before you get to the issues.
Letty Pogrebin: That’s true. That’s true. In my writing I try very hard to integrate the personal into the political, sometimes to concertedly lead with the personal [00:22:30] to suck you into the political. I also feel that in my lecturing, I can’t just get up there and talk about patriarchy and male supremacy and dehumanization and intersectionality and all these fancy-
Alan Alda: Intersectionality, that would put the audience right to sleep.
Letty Pogrebin: Right to sleep. I can start out by saying I really grew up wanting to be a lawyer. I thought I was a lawyer. [00:23:00] My father said to me, “Don’t be a lawyer. You’ll never be respected, even if you wear a hat.” That’s what women lawyers did.
Alan Alda: Even if you wear a hat?
Letty Pogrebin: Women lawyers wore a hat in the courtroom to gain respect. Bella Abzug started wearing her famous hat because she was a lawyer and she understood that if you go in a courtroom with a hat, you’re not gonna look like other women. You have to have a commanding hat.
Alan Alda: That’s the most amazing phrase, a commanding hat.
Letty Pogrebin: [00:23:30] It’s almost like a uniform for those lawyers at that time.
Set up next section, how Letty used her own experience of severe illness to help us communicate better with someone who is sick. Introduce a note of levity by noting the importance in her case of lamb chops?
Probably needs a brief prompt post-ad to lead in to your question…
Alan Alda: Is this same attention to the personal and to the other person apply when you write your book How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick?
Letty Pogrebin: Yes. In fact, there were optics, there’s a visual that tells you that. I asked my publisher to give me a slightly grayed page when I spoke specifically personally about having had breast cancer. [00:24:00] If you look at my book, it’s not discernible unless you actually open it up and see, squish it and put one page next to the other. You will see that there are white pages in which I talk about how to be a friend to a friend who’s sick, an effective way to visit, the kinds of gifts people want and don’t want, the things you shouldn’t say. All the practical things are on white pages. When I confessed what it felt like to get my diagnosis, [00:24:30] it’s on a grayish page. When I confessed what it felt like to have people give me stupid gifts, it’s on a grayish page.
Alan Alda: I’ll ask two questions. I want to know what the stupid gifts were, but first, what’s the value of the gray page?
Letty Pogrebin: To mark it as my personal story that pops into the book at different points. You get out of this almost guidebook feel into a-
Alan Alda: Into-
Letty Pogrebin: … memoir feel.
Alan Alda: … a memoir. Yeah, that’s great. [00:25:00] Memoirishly, what kind of stupid gifts did you get? First of all, you were diagnosed with cancer.
Letty Pogrebin: With breast cancer, right. I’m a person who’s placed my living room, as you know … The listeners should know that you and I have been friends for over 40 years, so you know my house is full of plants. I have a big huge window and it’s full of plants. You would think someone to bring me a plant [00:25:30] is a nice thing, but that plant just goes on the windowsill, and it’s not about me having cancer, it’s not about me needing a sign of life. I’m surrounded by signs of life. I have three children and six grandchildren. I needed somebody to say to me, “You’ve just come back from this diagnosis. You’re facing six weeks of radiation. What can I get you? What do you want?”
Alan Alda: That’s the perfect example [00:26:00] of the personal-
Letty Pogrebin: The total.
Alan Alda: … finding out what the other person needs, wants, where they are, who they are, what they-
Letty Pogrebin: Who they are, who am I right now. If someone had said, “What do you want?” I would’ve said, “Lamb chops.” No, I truly would’ve said, “Please bring me long-rib lamb chops and brownies, it’s my favorite food, and maybe pesto,” [00:26:30] because-
Alan Alda: You eat them all at the same time?
Letty Pogrebin: That would be my perfect meal.
Alan Alda: [crosstalk 00:26:34].
Letty Pogrebin: If someone asked me what I wanted when I-
Alan Alda: Lamb chops with pesto and brownies.
Letty Pogrebin: Pesto pasta. Pesto.
Alan Alda: Pesto pasta.
Letty Pogrebin: That’s my side dish.
Alan Alda: You get so serious when you talk about this.
Letty Pogrebin: I know, because I wished for somebody to ask me that, because I wasn’t going out to buy myself my comfort food. I’m sitting at home weeping and imagining myself dead in six months. If someone had just said, ” [00:27:00] What can I … ” The key to this is to always start with, “You know I’m gonna bring you something. I’m gonna bring you something. Instead of me bringing you that horrible basket from Zabars, covered with orange cellophane, full of waxy pears and old dates and figs, if you just tell me what you want,” I would say, “Easy, lamb chops, some kind of long, thin spaghetti with pesto, [00:27:30] and a brownie with walnuts.”
Alan Alda: Look, if you just came across those items in your cupboard or refrigerator. Or If you send out for them, all you get is those items, which you want, but if a friend says, “What would you like?” and you name it and the friend brings it, it doubles or triples the goodness of [00:28:00] the interaction.
Letty Pogrebin: To the friend, as well as to me. That friend feels, “I have given Letty exactly what she wants. I’m a real friend. I’m not somebody who went out and bought a bunch of flowers like everyone else or bought a plant that’s gonna sit there amongst all her other plants.”
Alan Alda: Here’s the thing. If you feel better when you do this, the person giving and the person getting, if that feels so much better than buying the stock item, [00:28:30] why don’t we do it more? Why do we shy away from getting into the personal in this way, before we do anything else?
Letty Pogrebin: Because of Emily Post, who says, “Don’t ask, just do.” I completely flip that on its head. Ask, but don’t ask in an offhand way, like, “When can I come over? I’d like to see you.” You have to ask in a way that communicates your intent. Like, when I go to visit somebody at a shiva, which is the first seven days after someone dies in the Jewish faith, you always bring something to eat. You don’t bring a bottle of wine. That’s it. You don’t bring flowers. Maybe another faith does that, but for Jews you bring food. When I go to a shiva in somebody else’s house, the table is groaning with apple strudel, bagels, lox, and rugelach, which is this little rolled-up [00:29:30] crescent thing. I don’t bring apple strudel, bagels, lox, and rugelach. I call and say, “I know everybody’s bringing bagels, lox, rugelach. What do you need that nobody’s bringing?” Guess what answer I get?
Alan Alda: Pesto pasta.
Letty Pogrebin: No.
Alan Alda: No?
Letty Pogrebin: Very far from that. Toilet paper, because the house is full of visitors, and the people go through [00:30:00] their toilet paper and no one has time to go to the supermarket.
Alan Alda: You’re killing me.
Letty Pogrebin: No one has time. They are so grateful to get a question about what they actually need. I’ve been asked to bring mostly paper products, honestly, now that I think about it, because I always say, “You know I’m gonna bring something. Do you really want more rugelach? Do you really need another apple strudel, or can I bring what you really want?” They will either say a paper product, like paper plates, [00:30:30] napkins, toilet paper, or they will say Pellegrino and Coke. That’s what they go through the fastest. If you want to be a friend and communicate your needs in a authentic way, you’ve gotta start honestly.
Alan Alda: You’re reminding me, I wonder if anybody else listening to this is reminded of the same thing, you’re talking about what do you like, what do you want, and it [00:31:00] reminds me of Ruth Westheimer encouraging people to communicate about what-
Letty Pogrebin: In sex.
Alan Alda: … in sex and what they need in lovemaking, whereas Emily Post would say, “Don’t ask, just do.” You can come across a lot of misunderstandings that’s way.
Letty Pogrebin: Exactly.
Alan Alda: Resentments.
Letty Pogrebin: Then women resent the fact that men didn’t figure out, “I don’t like that. Why do you keep doing it? Don’t you know I don’t like it?”
Alan Alda: (Laughs)
Set up how Letty herself has learned to see the world through others’ eyes through an event that became one of the most notorious examples of racial stereotyping
Letty Pogrebin: I was in a black-Jewish dialog group that I helped to found, that met for 10 years. 10 years, every Tuesday night-
Alan Alda: Wow.
Letty Pogrebin: … [00:32:00] except in the summer. We happened to meet on the day after the Central Park wilding crime. Do you remember that?
Alan Alda: Yes.
Letty Pogrebin: A jogger was brutalized, raped, and left for dead, and I believe five African American boys were arrested. The Jewish members of this black Jewish group came in that night to the meeting. We always had a potluck dinner [00:32:30] and sat down and talked about anything until we had our subject on the table. Of course the thing we talked about was that wilding that had just happened.
The Jewish women said, “Can you believe it, those animals, how anybody can do that to a human being?” They were so outraged, “They should be thrown in prison, throw away the key.” The black women in the group were silent. Finally one of us Jews said, ” [00:33:00] Why aren’t you outraged?” The black women in the group said, “We don’t believe it.”
Now today we understand why they didn’t believe it, because they don’t believe cops, because cops have always lied about what black kids do. Their initial reaction was not horror at the crime, but were these boys arrested because [00:33:30] they were black. Did they really do it or are the cops framing them because it’s such an outrageous crime that they need to pin it on someone?
Alan Alda: What did you learn about groups you were …
Letty Pogrebin: What I learned is, I looked at the same situation, a wilding incident, so-called in the New York Times, wilding immediately suggests animals, and we had animalized five black children, they were really young, because of the way this story was [00:34:00] reported, because of the bias against black boys, because of assumptions about the criminality of blacks, and specifically black males, and they, seeing in the world through completely different eyes, had lived through so many times when cops pulled in blacks for things they didn’t do, lied about blacks in court. They immediately characterized blacks as animalistic, [00:34:30] savages. All those words were used. You know what happened in that case. All five were exonerated. They were right.
My first instinct was not at all to question authority, because I’m white and Jewish. The cops are my friends. I call the cops, they come and get a cat down from the tree. That’s the classic example of the friendly cop. To the women in our group, the cop is somebody who roughs up her [00:35:00] husband, roughs up her kid, pulls her kid aside, bangs him against the car hood, accuses him of things he never did, of being in places he never was. Coming with that bias, I can’t say I have adopted it completely, but I now see the world that way at the same time as I see the world my way. I introduced into my thinking the other’s perspective.
Alan Alda: The other’s perspective, [00:35:30] that’s the key I guess.
Letty Pogrebin: I bring empathy to it, because I’m like, “If I were these women and my son David was black and happened to be in Central Park with his friends, which could’ve been, because we lived half a block from there, and they got pulled in and they got called savages, what would I feel? I know my kid. He didn’t do this, and here the cops are characterizing him.” I then become that black mother.
[00:36:00] Every time since, right until last week when that cop shot that kid through the back, remember, this last week, and then the week before, when somebody was shot in their grandmother’s backyard, and the week before, when cops are just shooting blacks left and right, I think of that night, and I say, “This is what those mothers knew and I didn’t.”
Alan Alda: The idea that you can see something [00:36:30] through another person’s eyes, something that you up until now just never considered because you hadn’t seen it the way they see it, how hard is that? Is it possible to get better at doing that do you think?
Letty Pogrebin: That’s a really good question. That happened in 1982 or ’83, so how long has it been? Over 30-something years. I walk [00:37:00] through the world now, seeing the world through the eyes of those black women. I carry them in my head and heart. When anything happens, they click right in and they say, “Wait a minute.” I react as a white Jew who sees cops as friendly and then I have these voices that I remember.
Now I’ll give you another example that I think is less melodramatic perhaps but equally [00:37:30] dispositive. That is the night after the convention at which Geraldine Ferraro was named vice president to Walter Mondale. We happened to have a meeting, our group, our black – Jewish group. We’re sitting down to dinner, and Jewish women are jumping out of their seats and saying, “We have a woman on the ticket.”
The black women are not so thrilled. Finally I said to one of them, I think it was Harriet Michelle, she was the head of the Urban League in New York at the time, I said, “Why aren’t you excited? A woman, a woman!” They said, “I’m excited.” All of [00:38:30] them said, “We’re excited, but we won’t be really excited until it’s a black man,” because a woman, you put a woman on a ticket, it’s decorative or it’s politically correct or it’s to bring in the women’s vote, but when a black man is on the ticket, that means that race will be transmogrified into something acceptable to the vast American [00:39:00] electorate, because it’s the black male who’s always been suspected, who’s always been vilified.
They said, “There will be a seismic moment of transformation when we have a black man,” and they were right, because what happened in terms of the excitement around Barack Obama was a cultural shift, that we could elect a black man twice. We thought we had reached nirvana in terms of race relations, in terms of personifying [00:40:00] power and wisdom and ability and intellect in a black male, much more so than when Gerry was second banana to Mondale. It just didn’t register, because yeah yeah, vice president, women are always assistants to … That was thrilling, but it wasn’t seismic. The Obama thing proved them right to me, because I felt it in my bones. [00:40:30] Of course we were wrong about it being permanent cultural change, but for eight years it felt like it.
Alan Alda: It’s been great talking with you.
Letty Pogrebin: You too, Alan.
Alan Alda: Thank you. I love it. It was just great.
Letty Pogrebin: Thank you.
But wait, we’re not done yet… seven questions still to come.
Probably need a set-up line: Question number 1…
Alan Alda: What do you wish you really understood?
Letty Pogrebin: Physics.
Alan Alda: Physics? What do you wish other people understood about you?
Letty Pogrebin: That even though I sound like Minnie Mouse, I’m a serious person.
Alan Alda: What’s the strangest question [00:41:30] someone ever asked you?
Letty Pogrebin: “May I feel your head?” I said, “Why?” “Because don’t Jews have horns?”
Alan Alda: Somebody said that to you?
Letty Pogrebin: In Kansas.
Alan Alda: Here’s the next question. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Letty Pogrebin: By turning your back on them and walking away, or else by saying, “You know you have spinach in your teeth?”
Alan Alda: [00:42:00] Does that work?
Letty Pogrebin: They seem to want to go to the bathroom right away.
Alan Alda: Here’s one. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Letty Pogrebin: Agent Orange in the Oval Office.
Alan Alda: You call him Agent Orange?
Letty Pogrebin: I do. I don’t mention his name. No empathy. None.
Alan Alda: How do you like to deliver bad news, in person, [00:42:30] on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Letty Pogrebin: Not at all.
Alan Alda: Not at all. The final question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Letty Pogrebin: I have ended a friendship. Betrayal.
Alan Alda: Betraying you?
Letty Pogrebin: Yeah, betraying me, lying to me and me discovering later that I was lied to about something big.
Alan Alda: I don’t think I ever will, and I hope I never do.
Letty Pogrebin: You never will. [00:43:00] You never can. You’re incapable of it. You’re too good a person.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.
The credit for this episode all goes to Letty, who was a delight to be with in studio. You can find out all about Letty at: www.lettycottinprogrebin.com.
Her latest book is called, “Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.” She is also the author of a wonderful book called, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.” And … if that title sounds interesting, check out my interview with Kate Bowler, who talks openly about dealing with stage 4 cancer and all of the weird things people say when they don’t know what to a say when someone’s sick.
Letty also talked about her experiences in the Middle East. In an upcoming episode, I’ll be speaking with Senator George Mitchell about his time as a diplomat and negotiator in Northern Ireland. You won’t want to miss that interview as we recorded it on the same day as the Summit in Korea and communication was very much on everyone’s mind that day.
This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.
I’d also like to thank Harry Nelson and Jared O’Connell for coordinating and engineering our studio sessions. John DeLore for additional sound and editing and my Executive Assistant, Jean Chemay, for her continued help with juggling, arranging, and re-arranging everyone’s busy schedules.
You can subscribe to my podcast for free at Apple Podcasts.
For more details about Clear + Vivid, and to sign up for my newsletter, please visit alanalada.com.
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Thanks for listening.