Screen­ing Room: Fam­i­ly Pictures

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Screen­ing Room: Fam­i­ly Pic­tures is a mem­oir of Alan Lightman’s child­hood grow­ing up in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee. It also tells the sto­ry of the author’s grand­fa­ther, M. A. Light­man. The dom­i­neer­ing patri­arch was a cin­e­ma own­er who champi­oned enter­tain­ment. The book is made up of Lightman’s present-day inves­ti­ga­tions in the home­town he left for more aca­d­e­m­ic locales, and his wist­ful mem­o­ries of the fad­ed world of a close-knit fam­i­ly and community.

Describ­ing the world that revolved around the Ridge­way Coun­try Club, Light­man writes, Every­one was Jew­ish, of course. The oth­er social clubs in Mem­phis such as the Hunt and Polo Club, the Mem­phis Coun­try Club, the Uni­ver­si­ty Club, and Chick­a­saw, strict­ly barred Jews from mem­ber­ship. In retal­i­a­tion, the Jew­ish crowd stuck togeth­er and formed their own.” He describes Mem­phis as a place where mar­riage and inter­faith dat­ing were dis­cour­aged and where his core­li­gion­ists would gath­er under the Jew tree” at the local high school because they were more comfort­able among their own. One woman in the com­mu­ni­ty sought out a mezuzah that didn’t look too Jew­ish” because being Jew­ish was not some­thing to flaunt.

Light­man does not shy away from the flaws of the char­ac­ters. Screen­ing Room also takes on the harsh real­i­ties of race rela­tions in Mem­phis, detail­ing the key role and approach that Lightman’s grand­fa­ther took in break­ing racial bar­ri­ers — at least in his cin­e­mas. The mem­oir, com­plete with fam­i­ly and his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs, is full of col­or­ful char­ac­ters full of con­trasts. The author sees him­self as an exile from that life, which he views as provin­cial but at the same time with a warm nos­tal­gia. He jour­neys back to Mem­phis to rev­el in and pick apart those mem­o­ries, often at funer­als of fam­i­ly, and to find out who exact­ly his grand­fa­ther was as a for­mi­da­ble pub­lic fig­ure, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, and dom­i­neer­ing patriarch.

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