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.”