Dream Homes: From Cairo to Kat­ri­na, an Exile’s Journey

  • Review
By – December 6, 2011

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. 

Deb­bie Pess­es is the Jew­ish enrich­ment direc­tor and book­fair coor­di­na­tor for the New Orleans Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Center.

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