Authors David Adj­mi and Jack Haz­an grew up queer in Brooklyn’s Syr­i­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, where life was dic­tat­ed by cer­tain expec­ta­tions: mar­ry­ing anoth­er Syr­i­an Jew in a giant wed­ding, hav­ing sev­er­al chil­dren, observ­ing Shab­bat and oth­er Jew­ish hol­i­days, and even spend­ing every sum­mer in Deal, New Jer­sey. The com­mu­ni­ty began to form in the 1900s, and remained insu­lar. Inhab­i­tants devel­oped their own slang — for instance, refer­ring to them­selves by the short­hand SY.”

Adj­mi and Haz­an both felt out of place in this envi­ron­ment. At yeshi­va, they strug­gled with class­work and strict teach­ers. Both left the com­mu­ni­ty and pur­sued unex­pect­ed careers: Adj­mi as a play­wright and Haz­an as a psy­chother­a­pist and bak­er. Recent­ly, both have writ­ten books that touch on their SY upbring­ing: in Adjmi’’s case, Lot Six: A Mem­oir; and in Hazan’s, Mind Over Bat­ter: 75 Recipes for Bak­ing as Ther­a­py (coau­thored by me).

In speak­ing with Adj­mi and Haz­an, I dis­cov­ered how self-love, intro­spec­tion, and lots of humor (most­ly self-dep­re­cat­ing) led them to write their books.

Michael Harari: Look at us: three gay, Amer­i­can Syr­i­an Jews chat­ting togeth­er about our books. Let’s start with their titles. 

David Adj­mi: The term lot six” was orig­i­nal­ly used in SY retail stores, where stick­ers with lot num­bers were attached to mer­chan­dise as codes for the sales staff. The num­bers were dou­ble the whole­sale price, so lot six was code for three, an odd num­ber. Odd” became equat­ed with queer.” And so lot six” was used as a deroga­to­ry term for a queer per­son. It indi­cat­ed the val­ue of that per­son in SY soci­ety: none.

The title of my mem­oir is derived from that idea of queer­ness. It refers not just to a gay per­son, but also some­one who is gen­er­al­ly odd,” and I want­ed my book to cel­e­brate non­con­for­mi­ty — what I would loose­ly call a cul­tur­al queer­ness. So yeah, it was very much a recla­ma­tion of the phrase that haunt­ed me through­out my childhood. 

Jack Haz­an: Mind Over Bat­ter is a play on words that express­es the idea that bak­ing is a ther­a­peu­tic activ­i­ty — it’s not just about fol­low­ing recipes. The process of mea­sur­ing, mix­ing, and bak­ing can be med­i­ta­tive and pro­vide a much-need­ed break from the stress­es of dai­ly life. I hope the title com­mu­ni­cates to read­ers that bak­ing is a tool for self-care and emo­tion­al well-being. 

MH: Going from the title to the first page … Both of you ded­i­cate your books to your respec­tive moth­ers. What inspired that dedication? 

JH: My moth­er, while not per­fect, was ahead of her time with cook­ing. I was lucky to have a mom who pre­pared exquis­ite meals with a mod­ern, healthy touch. I want­ed to thank and most of all acknowl­edge her. I speak to my mom every Fri­day and see her often.

DA: My moth­er became a cen­tral fig­ure in my book, some­what unex­pect­ed­ly. As I was writ­ing, I real­ized that our sto­ries were braid­ed togeth­er. To write mine, I need­ed to write hers as well. She mar­ried young and nev­er got to devel­op into her own per­son. But for some rea­son, she was ded­i­cat­ed to expos­ing me to art and cul­ture at a young age. And even though she wasn’t ter­ri­bly informed about the art and cul­ture, her efforts did have a giant impact on me and the writer I’ve become. 

I was, and still am, ambiva­lent about expos­ing her in this way. So in some respect the ded­i­ca­tion was a form of penance. Like, I wrote this thing you’re prob­a­bly gonna hate — but look! It’s ded­i­cat­ed to you!” 

A week or so before the book was pub­lished, I still hadn’t told my moth­er. I mean, she knew there was a book, but I think she’d for­got­ten about it, and I was very much avoid­ing remind­ing her. My aunt had found out about it and ordered it on Ama­zon, and she told my moth­er, who also ordered a copy. I was hor­ri­fied. So I called my moth­er, and I had this whole speech pre­pared about how she real­ly shouldn’t read the book, and would prob­a­bly despise it, and she was like, You ded­i­cat­ed a book to me!?” She’d already got­ten it in the mail — and she was elat­ed. And I was like, Well, yes, it’s ded­i­cat­ed to you, but it’s not real­ly a book for you. So don’t read it!” 

MH: It’s fas­ci­nat­ing how dif­fer­ent your moth­ers were. Even though you were both raised in the same con­ser­v­a­tive com­mu­ni­ty, your expe­ri­ences of com­ing out seem to have been quite dif­fer­ent because of that. Do you feel the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty has evolved to be more inclu­sive? Are you still con­nect­ed to it? 

DA: I have zero rela­tion­ship to the SY com­mu­ni­ty, and I haven’t for about thir­ty years, so I don’t know how they’ve evolved with the times. The only real engage­ment I had with the com­mu­ni­ty after I left high school was when my first play, Stun­ning, was per­formed at Lin­coln Cen­ter back in 2009. Stun­ning is a harsh satire of the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty, and they were not qui­et about their dis­dain for it — and me. But I’m okay with all that now. The com­mu­ni­ty I was raised in was mate­ri­al­is­tic and sort of big­ot­ed. Like the rest of the world back in the 70s and 80s, it was extreme­ly homo­pho­bic. I think it’s impor­tant for peo­ple to embrace the idea that we can have our own fam­i­ly and tra­di­tions, and still retain respect and curios­i­ty about the world and peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from us. 

JH: For sure the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty has evolved in some ways with the rest of soci­ety. Nobody cares all that much if some­one is gay. 

MH: David seems to have had the oppo­site experience. 

JH: Well, in the past it was def­i­nite­ly a witch hunt! Homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is still declared a sin by rab­bis. And there are oth­er ways in which the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty remains very tra­di­tion­al. Women are finan­cial­ly depen­dent on men, for exam­ple. I love my com­mu­ni­ty and still talk to my girl­friends. But I also formed my own net­work of friends in NYC and in Mia­mi, where I live now.

MH: Do you think it would’ve been dif­fer­ent if you’d known each oth­er — or at least known of each oth­er — when you were younger?

JH: Actu­al­ly, the Adjmis live in my old neigh­bor­hood and we used to be fam­i­ly friends with David’s cousin Corie Adj­mi, who is also a writer. But I wish I had known David, and known that he was gay. I would have ben­e­fit­ed from hav­ing a friend and sup­port with­in the Syr­i­an community. 

DA: Oh my God, yes! I only knew of one gay SY grow­ing up — Isaac Mizrahi — and for years I thought it was just me and him! 

MH: Well, you’re not! There are a lot more of us out there. Both of you describe how dif­fi­cult fit­ting in” was as a child. David, you write that while in yeshi­va, you found your­self per­form­ing” for your best friend — act­ing in ways that would endear you to him, rather than like your­self. Per­form­ing is a recur­ring theme in your book — you per­form for your moth­er, col­lege friends, and room­mates. What brought this on? 

DA: I think we per­form when we don’t like our­selves enough to share who we real­ly are, or we’re afraid we’ll be reject­ed for expos­ing our true feel­ings. All of that was true for me. I was also a clos­et­ed gay kid, and I knew I had to hide that secret from the world. And I didn’t have a sol­id foun­da­tion in my fam­i­ly. My home life was difficult. 

I think I’m still slight­ly per­for­ma­tive — I work in the the­ater, after all! — but not near­ly to the extent I was. I’ve come to accept myself, large­ly. And of course, the world changed dras­ti­cal­ly in terms of how LGBTQ peo­ple are per­ceived and treat­ed, and I’m grate­ful for that. 

At the same time, I still don’t fit in! I have a com­mu­ni­ty of artists and writ­ers I real­ly love, but in gen­er­al I am a bit of a splin­ter in the thumb of the world. I have to be okay with that, because it’s just who I am. Also, I don’t think artists should ever be too com­fort­able. It’s part of the gig.

My moth­er became a cen­tral fig­ure in my book, some­what unex­pect­ed­ly. In some respect the ded­i­ca­tion was a form of penance. Like, I wrote this thing you’re prob­a­bly gonna hate — but look! It’s ded­i­cat­ed to you!” 

MH: Speak­ing of art, one thing that seems to have helped you both is find­ing ways to express your­selves cre­ative­ly. David, you write about throw­ing your­self into cul­ture.” You left yeshi­va and went to York Prep and became a play­wright. Jack, you spent Thurs­day after­noons bak­ing chal­lah with your Grand­ma Peg­gy in prepa­ra­tion for Shab­bat. You even start­ed your baked goods com­pa­ny, Jack­Bakes, with that recipe. Why did these out­lets matter? 

DA: Had I not had access to art or to more cos­mopoli­tan groups of peo­ple, I prob­a­bly would have died. I mean lit­er­al­ly, I would have prob­a­bly done some harm to myself, because I felt that dis­placed and unhappy.

JH: Yes, every­one needs an out­let. Some­thing to be part of.

MH: I noticed that your favorite recipes — or at least those that bring you the most com­fort — are the ones that have a con­nec­tion to the women in your fam­i­ly. Your mom’s sum­mer fruit crum­ble. Grand­ma Peggy’s kanafeh, made with rose water. 

JH: Women were the sav­iors in my life. I trust­ed them; they led me to my poten­tial through praise and affir­ma­tion. I was inspired, too, from watch­ing them cook and bake. It was a form of art, like paint­ing. They start­ed with noth­ing and fin­ished with a masterpiece. 

I bake these foods to trans­port me back to when I was in the kitchen with them — it’s a pow­er­ful action. I would say specif­i­cal­ly to my grand­moth­ers’ recipes that yes, it is pre­serv­ing a lega­cy and car­ry­ing on a tra­di­tion by bak­ing Syr­i­an pas­tries using those authen­tic ingre­di­ents. When­ev­er peo­ple tell me how deli­cious they are, I tell them my grand­ma Peg­gy used to make them, and now I do. This keeps her mem­o­ry alive.

MH: I know you also gained a lot from ther­a­py, both as a psy­chother­a­pist and as a patient. David, you describe dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences with ther­a­py in Lot Six, not all of them pos­i­tive. In your opin­ions, what makes a good therapist? 

JH: I think a good ther­a­pist is one you trust and bond with. And, of course, some­one who lis­tens with com­pas­sion. Ther­a­py gave me per­spec­tive and, most of all, hope — to keep going through the dif­fi­cul­ty and chaos — the edu­ca­tion sys­tem with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, sib­ling rival­ry at home, and I’ll add hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty” (which puts the H” in my ADHD!) — I was going through.

I think we per­form when we don’t like our­selves enough to share who we real­ly are, or we’re afraid we’ll be reject­ed for expos­ing our true feelings. 

DA: My first ther­a­pist was extreme­ly impor­tant, even though he was a homo­phobe, because at least he gave me a lit­tle bit of con­fi­dence. He made me feel I could accom­plish some­thing with my life, which up to then I hadn’t believed. He gave me the courage to strike out and try to ful­fill my dreams — or at least some of them. I think a good ther­a­pist knows when to speak and when to be qui­et, under­stands the human psy­che, is wise and inquis­i­tive, and does not judge their patients. They are hard to come by. 

MH: I know ther­a­py had this for­bid­den aura to it when we were grow­ing up. Men­tion­ing it felt akin to whis­per­ing Volde­mort” in the Har­ry Pot­ter series. The com­mu­ni­ty acknowl­edged it but didn’t real­ly speak about it; it felt taboo. Nowa­days, if you’re not talk­ing about ther­a­py, there’s some­thing wrong! 

David, you’ve men­tioned that writ­ing this book in and of itself had a ther­a­peu­tic effect. That’s the theme of Mind Over Bat­ter, too. Which brings me back to your books. How did you go about cre­at­ing the narratives?

DA: It was a byzan­tine, crazy process, writ­ing this book. It took nine years! I’d nev­er writ­ten a book before, and long-form prose is so hard com­pared to writ­ing a play. When I crashed and burned, which I did a few times, I end­ed up read­ing a book on how to edit non­fic­tion. (I was des­per­ate! And the book, Devel­op­men­tal Edit­ing by Scott Nor­ton, real­ly helped.)

Titling each chap­ter felt impor­tant to me. At one point, I thought maybe it was too pre­cious. But the titles were like lit­tle tal­is­mans for me. I had them ear­ly on, as I was devis­ing the archi­tec­ture of the book, and lat­er they gave me a sense of direc­tion or con­fi­dence when I was feel­ing a lit­tle lost. Like, maybe the chap­ter was going off the rails, but I knew there was a rea­son it should be includ­ed because I had this the­mat­i­cal­ly rich chap­ter heading. 

JH: I mean, same. As a ther­a­pist, I see all kinds of patients. Bak­ing ther­a­py came about because I had one client who had such a hard time open­ing up. Start­ing ther­a­py can be scary! I had to do some­thing — oth­er­wise our very first ses­sion would end in silence. After bring­ing him into the kitchen at my prac­tice, we talked while fol­low­ing a sim­ple recipe. Sud­den­ly he felt more at ease. Bak­ing forces you to communicate.

The chap­ters are bro­ken down into com­mon themes pre­sent­ed dur­ing ses­sions: self-care, deal­ing with stress and anx­i­ety, let­ting go of frus­tra­tion, find­ing com­fort, even find­ing joy. 

It is pre­serv­ing a lega­cy and car­ry­ing on a tra­di­tion by bak­ing Syr­i­an pas­tries using those authen­tic ingre­di­ents. When­ev­er peo­ple tell me how deli­cious they are, I tell them my grand­ma Peg­gy used to make them, and now I do.

MH: David, I’m curi­ous if you learned any­thing in par­tic­u­lar from Mind Over Bat­ter? (Not that I’m fishing … ) 

DA: Yes. I love to bake, and I found it mov­ing that Jack found a bridge between bak­ing and self-care and healing. 

MH: You like to bake? What recipe are you look­ing for­ward to mak­ing the most?

DA: The I Crum­ble For You Cof­fee Cake.” I am obsessed with crumb cake. Jack, in your book, you say that you were raised on Entenmann’s crumb cake. I was, too! 

JH: Ah, I love crumb top­ping! Just ask Michael. As we wrote our cook­book, he heard me say that no less than a dozen times. 

MH: Haha, true! After almost ten years of friend­ship, it took cowrit­ing a book to find that out.

David, there’s a pas­sage in Lot Six that par­tic­u­lar­ly struck me. You write that you were final­ly able to see clear­ly how this queer­ness, this strange­ness — which was­n’t just about being gay, because my alter­i­ty was deep­er and weird­er than that — had actu­al­ly saved me.” Jack, do you feel your queer­ness saved you as well? 

JH: I do. Being gay made life dif­fi­cult but through those dif­fi­cul­ties I grew. Being gay was my vehi­cle for change. I wish I could tell my younger self that. 

MH: David, if you could give some advice to your younger self, what would you say? 

DA: To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve: Fas­ten your seat­belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Michael Harari is a Cre­ative Direc­tor by day and cook­book author by night. Grow­ing up, Harari always pic­tured him­self becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al ath­lete because he did­n’t want to wear a suit every day for work. So he guess­es part of that actu­al­ly man­i­fest­ed. But the truth of the mat­ter is that Michael has always been cre­ative. Art. Copy. And now baked goods.