The ProsenPeople

Lost and Found in Brooklyn

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lucette Lagnado wrote about an arrogant revolution and about mourning her Arab Spring. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

This past weekend I was lost — and found — in Brooklyn.

My Sunday began with an appearance on a panel about the Arab Spring at the chic, hipsterish Brooklyn Book Festival. It was an animated discussion, and my fellow panel-members were amiable, but I felt lonely, very much in the minority as I spoke out against the brutal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The attempted storming of the embassy last week was a turning point as far as I was concerned, a time to start asking tough questions about the revolution and whether it had gone seriously off-track, to demand to know what happened to the early goals of democracy and peace on Tahrir Square.

The consensus, though, was that revolutions took time to play out – one member suggested 100 years.

And I thought there was such a desperate need for change – immediate reforms.
One thoughtful panel member from Cairo did suggest that many Egyptians were shocked by the attack, that it was unexpected; I was heartened to hear at least that there was a sense of shame about it in Egypt.

I walked out feeling oddly blue, melancholy. Here I was in Brooklyn, where I grew up, and yet I was struck by that feeling of not belonging that returns to haunt me every once in a while.

As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights with its multi-million dollar mansions and elegant residents, and then of nearby Park Slope which is, if possible, looking even sleeker these days, I realized that this fashionable Brooklyn had nothing to do with the Brooklyn of my childhood, the borough where my family and I had once sought refuge, where we had found a haven among equally impoverished refugees from the Levant.

I also knew the only possible way to cope with my funk was to go immediately tothat Brooklyn.

* * * *

I have always thought it was odd that with this Brooklyn renaissance, the fact that some of the borough’s most God forsaken areas have become de rigueur, my little enclave of Bensonhurst has remained decidedly un-chic.

I return every few months and find it to be pretty much the same as it was in my childhood – staid and lacking in the coolness factor.

Some more immigrant groups have moved in, to be sure, I see a lot of Russians, and even some Hassids – but not a single hipster. Not one.

Nor any of the young professional families that favor organic food co-ops.
No, those quiet somewhat dreary blocks are pretty much the way they were when I was a kid, longing to escape and wishing there was more excitement.

My trips to Bensonhurst always have a ritual quality to them, like a religious pilgrimage. I must go to this block, I tell myself, I must pay my respects to that building.

There are no people left there that I knew, not a single familiar face — my community long moved out — yet I keep returning.

The ritual includes taking my (very obliging) husband to key markers of my childhood and pointing them out all over again.

“This was our first apartment in America,” I’ll say, “This was where Key Food, my first American supermarket was situated.”

The high point of all such trips is a visit to 67th street, the block of the Magen David Synagogue (“The Shield of David” in my book), once the center of Syrian Jewish life in New York, and its frail little neighbor, the building that housed my shul.

Magen David is still there, but it is a mortuary now. I have been told there are occasional services, possibly even for the high holidays, but it is central function is clear, and has been clear for years – it is where the community comes to honor its dead.


Photo by Peter Yang

No matter how many times I hear that, it still shocks me, still makes me sad.
As for the little annex, the one that I refer to as the Shield of Young David in my memoir, it has gone through a thousand incarnations since it was sold in the 1970s. These days, it appears to be a religious school.

On this Sunday afternoon, I make a discovery that actually helps me combat my Brooklyn Heights blues. There in the front of the building of my old shul are children – young Orthodox children scampering about, running around the courtyard.

“They are playing in the courtyard, the way you did as a child,” my husband points out.

It has taken years, decades, yet I realize that against the odds, hope has come back to this small corner of Brooklyn that continues to haunt my imagination as nowhere else on earth.

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book,  The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.

An Arrogant Revolution

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 | Permalink

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

I couldn’t seem to escape Egypt this year – though I never set foot outside New York.

For months, I worked fiendishly to finish The Arrogant Years, my memoir which takes place in Cairo and New York. But whenever I’d put the book aside, I would follow news of the revolt unfolding on Tahrir Square. The revolution was addictive – I couldn’t seem to get enough of it. I found myself constantly clicking on online news of Cairo, or tuning in to CNN. It was all so exciting.

And terrifying. Even as I witnessed the euphoria, I felt a strange sense of alienation – I couldn’t feel much joy or passion, couldn’t quite cheer the protestors as the entire rest of the world seemed to be doing.

As I noted in an essay for The Wall Street Journal this weekend, I have been feeling uneasy since the start of the uprisings. Yes, I supported calls for democracy and believed that strongman Hosni Mubarak had far outstayed his welcome. I simply thought that viewing him as the cause of all of Egypt’s woes – even as the military that had ruled the country with an iron hand for 60 years was being embraced as saviors – was bizarre and misguided.

Nine months after the protests began, Mubarak is gone, on trial, and possibly on his way to being executed — but Egypt seems no closer to democracy. Worse still, it has descended into a kind of lawlessness, marked by occasional really scary incidents – attacks on Coptic Christians, the brutal sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan, and, most recently, the storming of the Israel Embassy in Cairo, which forced the departure of the Ambassador and his staff.

All of this has made me terribly sad – and brought back some awful memories to boot. Somehow I have found myself transported to an Egypt I didn’t really know, when I wasn’t even born — the Egypt of that first revolution of 1952, when King Farouk was overthrown, the military took over, and the world as my Egyptian-Jewish parents knew it turned mean and fierce. There was a certain wildness, terror to the period, I was always told. Egypt’s Jewish community, once comprised of 80,000 Jews or more, left in droves until there were only a few Jewish families, including mine, trying to hang on.

We left in 1963 and settled in New York. My parents spoke lovingly of the Egyptians they had left behind, with one exception – the dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser who was charismatic, arrogant and bombastic, and galvanized the public with a rhetoric of hate. The experience taught my family – taught all of Egyptian Jewry, I think – to be watchful and wary of revolutions and all they promise.

Hence my lack of excitement at a time everyone – even my mother-in-law – seemed to be cheering Mubarak’s ouster and the events in Tahrir Square and the promise of it all.

It is rather stunning to me how ineffectual the Egyptians have proven to be at nation-building. They were terrific protesters, the world was riveted by the daily protests and everyone raved about the “Google guy” and the “Facebook revolutionaries.” Yet none of these original leaders with their lofty promises of democracy and their slick use of the Internet has emerged to date to take the country to the next phase. Instead, the ones to watch have been the Muslim Brotherhood, who seem determined – despite their moderate patina – to take Egypt in a different and frightening direction.

This past year I could always find comfort in my book, and the very different Cairo I was conjuring up – my mother’s Cairo, the Cairo of the 1920s and 1930s, when there was genuine political debate and a tolerant society. Egypt was ruled by a monarch, yes, and yet to my mind, looking back, King Fouad seems so much more benign somehow than those military guys who came to power in 1952. The Cairo of my book is particularly striking because of the lovely status Jews enjoyed – in the same period that they faced persecution in Europe, they were rising to the top of this Arab society.

There were even Jewish Pashas, the most prestigious social title that an Egyptian could enjoy.

It seems to have been such a promising society, truly multicultural, where Jews and Moslems and Christians seemed to co-exist with a considerable degree of harmony. What I find myself wondering is why the Egyptians, as they cast about for a model of nation-building – Turkey, Iran, Hamas – don’t simply look back to this halcyon period of their own history?

Lucette Lagnado will be blogging here all week.

Mourning My Arab Spring

Monday, September 19, 2011 | Permalink

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s author blogging series.

What is going to happen to the Arab Spring – no no, not that Arab Spring but my own recent awakening and love affair with the Middle East, Egypt in particular?

I have been gripped by fear since January, watching the uprisings, not knowing how these movements would all shake out, unable to get my arms around them. Lately, fear has been replaced by sadness and melancholy. I feel as if a chapter is ending for me – the chapter of my personal Arab Spring – my sense that there were possibilities for me in Egypt after years of thinking there were no possibilities.

In the last couple of years since my memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, came out, I have savored the opportunity to reach distant audiences, but looking back, nothing stirred me as much as my book’s popularity in Egypt.

When I first heard my book was selling briskly in Cairo, I was amazed. Why would a memoir by an Egyptian-Jew about her exiled family resonate in Egypt? Why would Egyptian Moslems or Christians even care about my story?

On a visit to Cairo and the popular Diwan bookshop, a sparkling modern oasis of Arabic and foreign language books complete with a coffee bar, I spoke to the owner and learned that Sharkskin was in effect a bestseller.

Its owner invited me to do a reading. I still recall the joyous, loving crowd circling around me – elegant women not in veils, debonair gentlemen who seemed to have stepped out of my father’s 1940s Cairo.

Looking out at the crowd I had my own Sally Fields-at-the-Oscars moment: They like me, they really like me, I thought.

After my lecture, young woman, a reporter, came over and said, “You are as Egyptian as I am.”

When my book was published in Arabic, I returned for another reading. This time I stood side by side with my Egyptian publisher at Diwan. I would read a passage, he would read the same passage in Arabic. I have never felt so proud – I was being read in the language of my father.

I continued to hear from Egyptians when I returned to the U.S. They managed to find me through email or Facebook, and they seemed very anxious to tell me how they felt about my book – how much they’d loved it. Many addressed me by my childhood nickname, “Loulou.” I corresponded with several of them, moved by how eager they were to befriend me. I thought of moving back to Egypt – perhaps renting an apartment for several months. That is what I mean by experiencing my own Arab Spring – a time when I felt reconciled with my own past.

I had stumbled quite by accident into an Egypt that was terribly nostalgic, that was turning to the past as one way to escape the tribulations of life. There was a longing to learn about the monarchy, and there was also a hunger to learn about Jews.

Once upon a time, Jews were all around, fully integrated members of Egyptian society. They went to school with Muslim children and later as adults they worked side by side with them, and often they socialized together. Then, suddenly they were gone – a community of 80,000 began leaving in droves, until there were only a handful of Jews left. An entire generation of Egyptians grew up without knowing Jews – only hearing about them through their parents or relatives.

Then Sharkskin came along, and Egyptians began to rediscover Jews. Some were too young to have known any – they actually wrote to tell me that – and yet had heard stories from relatives who still remembered the days when Egypt was a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic society.

Those first months of the revolution, the emails and letters stopped. I felt badly – I’d always been so excited to receive them. But they’ve resumed of late, and in my Facebook page, many of the people who reach out to me are Egyptian.

Yet it is not the same. Egypt suddenly seems like a forbidding society. There have been too many disturbing incidents, chaos reigns, as does hostility toward Jews.

And that is what I mean by the end of my Arab Spring – a sense that I really can’t go home again.

Lucette Lagnado will be blogging here all week.

Book Cover of the Week: The Arrogant Years

Friday, April 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

As promised, a book to look forward to this summer: 2008 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Lucette Lagnado’s The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn:


Your 2011 Reading List

Tuesday, December 09, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Have you started your reading list for 2011 yet? If not, we have the first one for your list! 2008 Sami Rohr Prize winner Lucette Lagnado’s new memoir has just been announced: The Arrogant Years: A Young Girl’s Quest for Her Lost Youth. Her new title will juxtapose her own coming of age in New York with that of her mother in Cairo, revealing how the choices she made meant both a liberation from old world traditions and the loss of a comforting and familiar community. If you wanted to know more about her mother in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, now is your chance! We’ll provide more information once the book is published…be patient..only 2 years to go…

Fiction and Non-Fiction and the Sami Rohr Prize Winners

Monday, November 24, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Dan Friedman’s musings on the first two Sami Rohr Prize Winners, Tamar Yellin (The Genizah at the House of Shepher) and Lucette Lagnado (The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit) can be found at Jewcy.

Move Over Europe

Friday, November 21, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the past several years, the Jewish Book Council has received an influx of titles concerning the plight of Jews outside the boundaries of Europe. No longer are our shelves dominated by the European Jewish experience, as we see an increasing number of books that convey stories of the Jewish experience in Iran, Iraq, India, and Egypt, among other places. As the Jewish communities of these regions shrink, it’s important that we encourage the publication of these gems of history that capture the vibrancy and unique qualities these cultures hold. With Winter at our door, what better time to stay inside and expand your understanding of the Jewish experience.

A few suggestions to you get you going…

My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, Ariel Sabar

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, Lucette Lagnado

The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer

The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community, Edna Fernandes

Dropped From Heaven, Sophie Judah

The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home, Sadia Shepard

Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad, Naim Kattan

Have another recommendation? Please comment and let us know!