Mother, daughter have good fodder for talk in Oakland

When Letty Cottin was just 15 years old, her mother died.

Even though the teenager was one of the first girls bat mitzvahed in the Conservative movement, even though she had a strong Jewish education and was well versed in Hebrew prayers, the men would not count Letty in a minyan after her mother’s death.

“I told myself, ‘If I can’t count for my own mother’s Kaddish, I’m outta here,’ ” she said of her departure from Jewish life.

So began the long road away from — and eventually back to — Judaism for Letty Cottin Pogrebin, 69, an author, activist and founding editor of Ms. Magazine.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, Letty’s intense disappointment of being left out of the minyan also ended up dictating her own daughter Abigail’s lack of connection to Judaism — until Abigail found her own way.

The mother-daughter pair will speak, unscripted, of their relationship to each other and to Jewish life at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay’s annual Choices fundraiser, set for Jan. 26 in Oakland.

“In a sense I was the beneficiary of that rejection,” said Abigail Pogrebin, 43, also an acclaimed author and journalist. “It was the ultimate sexist wakeup call [for my mom], that no matter how much you study or know, you don’t count. When she reacted to that patriarchal exclusion, she made a decision in a second that impacted me.”

While Letty’s decision set her on a path of fighting for equality and social justice, being left out of the minyan so strongly turned her away from Judaism that she raised her three children with only minimal Jewish education.

“Seeing my mother rediscover Judaism after having left it behind for a while, she suddenly had all this regret about what she didn’t give us,” Abigail said during a phone interview from her home in New York. “And that regret comes with certain burdens on us because we can’t make up for all the things we missed.”

The women will discuss this and more during their talk, billed as dor l’dor, from generation to generation.

In the ’70s, “I came back to Judaism through feminism,” Letty said during a phone interview from her home in New York. “Suddenly there were women rabbis, women taking aliyot and counting in a minyan, and I felt like I could count too.”

Letty and Abigail have given their unscripted mother-daughter talk five times, including a 2008 appearance at a big fundraiser for the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. These appearances, they said, have profoundly affected their relationship.

“It’s really allowed us to talk about a lot of things we might not otherwise,” Letty said. “The first time we did it, it just blew us away, and people were in tears. They were so grateful we gave them language to talk to their mothers or daughters.”

They continue to appear together not only because it’s brought them closer, but because they believe their story is one many parents can relate to.

“People link up with us because it mirrors their own experience,” Letty said. “It goes on in every family — the next generation has to define itself. They won’t necessarily willingly inherit the legacy their parents want to pass along.”

The mother-daughter pair said their talk is different every time. Nonetheless, certain elements are staples, Letty said.

They will talk about Letty’s upbringing, how it affected the choices she made as an adult and how those choices affected the way she raised her children. Also to be addressed: how her children sought out their own Jewish identity and education, and how that search influenced how they’re raising their own children.

“I want to give my daughter what I didn’t have,” Abigail said. “I want her, and my son, Benjamin, to know that this story of theirs [in the Torah] is not untouchable and it’s not perfect. It’s there to engage and unpack and pull apart and question and doubt — and that is Judaism.”

Choices 2009 is scheduled for Jan. 26 at the Oakland Marriott City Center, 1001 Broadway, Oakland. A reception will begin at 5:30 p.m., with dinner and the program set to begin at 6:30 p.m.

The ticket price is $80, along with a suggested minimum donation of $365 to attend the event, or $180 for first-time attendees and women under 30 (each payable through Dec. 31, 2009). Raffle tickets are also available.

Register by Wednesday, Jan. 14 by going to For more information contact Talya Gates-Monasch at (510) 318-6449 or via e-mail at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.