David Adjmi grew up in Brooklyn’s tight-knit Jewish Syrian community, where his behavior was constantly monitored, lest he (inevitably) fail to live up to communal expectations. Home was no better: his manipulative mother battered his self-esteem, while his “controlling and monomaniacal” father offered only sporadic affection and support.
Despite this, Adjmi eventually became a success, albeit in a field of which his family and community disapproved: theater. As a playwright, he mined his suffocating upbringing in his work — to great acclaim from everyone but the people he wrote about.
In his intimate and witty memoir Lot Six, Adjmi begins with his childhood in Syrian (or “SY”) Brooklyn. For someone like Adjmi, who bucks against the socially restrictive boundaries of the SY community, disapproval comes from all quarters. He doesn’t portray his parents and siblings as cruel; they are sometimes unexpectedly supportive. (For instance, it’s his mother who introduces him to theater, taking him into Manhattan to see Broadway musicals.) But these moments are rare, and the love always seems conditional.
A deftly honest memoirist, Adjmi doesn’t paint himself as an angel, either. When his family berates him for being self-involved, those accusations are true. When the friendships he has such difficulty building start to crumble, Adjmi isn’t always the innocent victim. And when his mentors criticize him for being unproductive, they’re not wrong.
Adjmi’s awkward youth in a Brooklyn yeshiva is expertly outlined with often painful detail. The pace becomes sluggish during his college years, which are weighed down with navel-gazing (including countless references to Nietzsche). But his story picks up again as it transitions, halfway through, into a coming-out tale.
The book’s title refers to an anti-gay slur used in the SY community, based on business terminology that Adjmi explains: “It wasn’t just an epithet for a gay person — it was a price tag, a declaration of value. And a Lot Six had no value.” Adjmi’s teenage wrestling with his sexuality in an unsupportive environment is wrenching to read. Even after escaping the SY community, it is some time before Adjmi accepts himself as a gay man, and his years fumbling with self-acceptance are the rawest part of the story.
In the last part of the book, Adjmi recounts his trials as a promising but creatively blocked playwright. In his thirties, he’s back at his mother’s, struggling to make a living. But the community that nearly crushed him as a child ultimately saves him — by inspiring his breakthrough play, Stunning, which played to sold-out crowds at Lincoln Center. Its subject: the SY community. He calls the play “a suicide note,” because it makes him persona non grata among Brooklyn’s Syrian Jews — including most of his family — even as it opens doors to him as an artist.
Despite obvious resentments and emotional scars, Adjmi doesn’t seem bitter. The final scene, a conversation with his mother in the wake of his belated success, is pitch-perfect, proof that Adjmi knows how to make characters’ emotions ring true, even if those characters aren’t always likeable. Even if one of those characters is himself.
Wayne Hoffman is a veteran journalist, published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Hadassah Magazine, The Forward, Out, The Advocate, and elsewhere; he is executive editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet. He has published three novels, including Sweet Like Sugar, which won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.