A daughter’s journey to the other side of the mechitzah

The Jewish Journal
Jonathan Kirsch
Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Investigative journalists do not tend to make good storytellers. After all, they are trained to write in the taut prose of a daily newspaper, and they are constrained by the discipline of fact-checking. As a result, sometimes they cannot see the forest for the trees when it comes to a charming and cherished fiction that fixes itself in a family’s collective memory.

Lucette Lagnado, however, is a notable exception.

Like many of her admiring readers, I first encountered her work in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where she has long served as an investigative reporter. But her remarkable gifts as a family chronicler were richly displayed in her best-selling book, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” an endearing and unforgettable account of her family’s journey from Cairo to the mean streets of New York in the mid-20th century. A winner of the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2008, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” established Lagnado as an accomplished memoirist.

She continues the saga of the Lagnado family in “The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn” (Ecco: $25.99), yet another luminous account of her colorful and compelling family and, in the most intimate sense, the author herself.

The story opens in the women’s section of the Shield of Young David synagogue in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, when young Lucette experienced the first stirrings of the ambition that would set her apart from the traditions of her Jewish family, which was rooted in the Levant and was struggling to adjust to the new-fangled American ways. As she watched the men on the other side of the mechitzah, she began to glimpse a very different destiny.

“I was anxious to trade places with them, to be the one to lead prayers and lift torah scrolls high in the air,” she recalls. “In my mind, there were two worlds — the gossipy, trivial, inconsequential world of the women’s section and the solemn, purposeful world beyond it, the world where men sat in vast and airy quarters communing with God. The world that I longed to join and where I felt I belonged. The world beyond the divider.”

The willful little girl was a source of anxiety for Lagnado’s mother, Edith, who figures as vividly and as crucially in “The Arrogant Years” as her father did in “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.” Edith cherished the memories of her life in Cairo, “where a daughter knew exactly what was expected of her and her parents also knew, and life made so much more sense than here in New York.” She was convinced that the family was under the influence of what she called the mauvais oeil — the French phrase for the evil eye. And she was distressed by her young daughter’s aspiration to enter a world beset with even greater dangers: “I am worried sick about Loulou,” Edith confided to her friends.

At the heart of “The Arrogant Years” is the relationship between Lagnado and “my tender false messiah of a mother, who always seemed to be pinning her hopes — and mine —on the unattainable, who was always dreaming the impossible dream.” Edith, we see, always contrasted her formative years in Cairo as a teacher, a librarian and a favorite of the pasha’s wife with her struggle to adjust to the expatriate life in an outer borough of New York City after the upheavals following the Sinai Campaign in 1956 prompted the family to leave Egypt.

“Mom, who had always bitterly resented the endless dreary household duties brought on by motherhood, found that she could pawn me off to my father or sister and go on about her business,” recalls Lagnado, “though I was never exactly sure what that business was.” 

It is a measure of Lagnado’s glory as a teller of tales that she allows us to see the exotic underpinnings of an otherwise familiar urban landscape. “We were all Arab Jews, a culture most Americans found puzzling and that even other Jews viewed with suspicion,” she explains. “We had no choice but to band together, and seek comfort and protection among one another, shunning the outside world.” So it was that the hard realities of America reminded them of the lost pleasures of the Levant, as when Edith organized the occasional family outing “to the poor man’s Alexandria — Brighton Beach in Brooklyn,” as Lagnado puts it, and the reference is to the storied city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

Above all, “The Arrogant Years” is a coming of age story that Lagnado tells about herself. We watch her engage in a battle of wits with her rabbis: “How would Baby Alexandra return,” she demanded when they spoke of the glories that would attend the coming of the Messiah, referring to the sibling who had died in infancy, “as an eight-day-old infant, or as a child a couple of years older than me, the sage she would have been had she lived, or as a grown woman?” We witness the “rich fantasy life” that focused on an older boy who sat on the other side of the mechitzah. And we follow Lagnado through the dire health crisis that beset her in her 20s and amounted to yet more evidence that her mother had been right about the Evil Eye.

“ ‘Loulou, ya helwa,’ she kept saying, ‘Loulou, my pretty one.’ But her words made me even sadder. I felt a thousand miles away from pretty; I felt a thousand miles away from helwa.”

Lagnado seems to credit her mother not only for the defeat of a life-threatening illness but also for what she went on to accomplish in her life and work. “[My mother] had sacrificed herself for my father, had abandoned her dreams to marry him, had given up the key the pasha’s wife had handed her and all the doors it would have opened,” explains Lagnado. “But as far as she was concerned, my illness was enough of a sacrifice, and she was telling me not to be like her, not to give up my hopes and my ambitions. I had to become tough and even ruthless. …”

Each of Lagnado’s twin memoirs can be approached as a tribute, one to her father and one to her mother. Yet neither one of these books is merely a eulogy to a beloved parent. Precisely because Lagnado is a truth-teller as well as a story-teller, both Edith and Leon — and the author herself — loom up as fully human and utterly unforgettable.  

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