It is 1951. Nellie and Felix Zonana have fled their native Egypt with their eighteen month old daughter, Joyce, for a new start in America. Life for Jews in Egypt has become eerily similar to how it was in Germany when Hitler came to power. Despite the recent establishment of the State of Israel, things are tenuous at best. In this memoir Joyce Zonana takes us on her sometimes painful journey to discover herself and come to terms with the strangeness and mystery of her background.
Her quest, suffused with French and Arabic inflections and flavored with the succulent Sephardic foods her mother used to prepare, takes her from Cairo to New York, from Oklahoma to New Orleans. She learns new things about herself in each strange land, and makes a home for herself each time. All the while she declares that she is Jewish from Egypt, yet she doesn’t quite know what that means. We are delighted when she finally travels to Egypt to retrace her family’s steps and learn about her parents’ and grandparents’ lives there. Her lyrical descriptions are beautiful, invigorating. When she moves to New Orleans she finally has the home and relationship she thinks she is meant to have. And then along comes Katrina and with it the decision to move back to New York. She finally understands that the meaning of home can change, and does, that home is not a place, but who you are. I knew Joyce Zonana well, or so I thought, when she lived in New Orleans; I helped move her mother into her retirement community in New Orleans. However, after reading this beautifully written ode to her mother’s life, I now know and admire them both even more.