Monday, April 12, 2010

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007

Winner of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Awarded under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, “The Prize honors an emerging author in the field of Jewish literature who has written a book of exceptional literary merit that stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.”

Lucette Lagnado (born in 1956), an award-winning investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, has divided this engrossing memoir into two parts. The first is the story of her large extended family, members of the thriving Cairo Jewish community before the military coup toppled King Farouk in 1952 and foreigners were harrassed, including Egyptian Jews who had lived in substantial numbers in Cairo for centuries and had contributed to its prosperity.

The second half of the memoir is the story of her immediate family’s difficult life in exile. They stayed on in Cairo until 1963 after most Jews had left, primarily because her father refused to leave. After leaving became the only option, they first moved to Paris where they received aid from COJASOR and then to the United States where they settled in Brooklyn, aided by resettlement agencies HIAS and NYANA. Following the trajectory of many immigrants forced to leave the country they considered their homeland, Lagnado’s family left prosperity and became mired in poverty.

The man in the white sharkskin suit of the title is Lagnado’s father, Leon, who had been born in Aleppo, Syria and who had migrated when we was a baby to Cairo. The author is her parents’ youngest child, her father’s pet, and she responded in kind - by adoring him. But that does not seem to cloud her vision, and she gives us a complex portrait of a man who felt honor-bound to support and protect his family, but who also lived the life of a man of the Levant – a mid-Eastern patriarch who called the shots, who lived by rules and rituals the author attributes to Halabi (Aleppo) Jews from a bygone era. How poorly those ways served him, how ill-equipped he was to flourish in NY, Lagnado reveals in her vivid descriptions of both his inability and unwillingness to adapt to living in America.

With some preliminaries about their backgrounds, the memoir starts in earnest with the courtship between her parents in Cairo in 1943 and ends with their deaths in the 1990’s in New York City. The author takes us through their early married life, the birth of their children, her father’s life outside the home, their various reactions to decisions about immigration, the scattering of the extended family, and the ways various family members coped in America. She describes the transplanted Sephardic community in Brooklyn, including the synagogue Heaven and Love whose rabbi and many congregants they knew in Egypt and rejoined in Brooklyn.

Because of the wonderful reception this memoir got when it was released, Lagnado has decided to work on a memoir that focuses more on her mother, Edith, which she expects to finish in 2011. The Man in the Sharkskin Suit has been optioned for a film.

The memoir includes family photos and a bibliography for further reading.

To read an interview with the author published in the Forward conducted by her niece, Caroline Lagnado, click here.

Author’s father’s family
Ezra Lagnado – author’s father’s father
Zarifa Lagnado – author’s father’s mother; from Aleppo; had ten children:
    Raphael – married to Henriette; had two daughters & a son
    Solomone (Pere Jean-Marie- became Catholic priest)  
        Siahou – her son
    Rebekah Ades
    Bahia- husband Lelio Silvera
        Salomone – her son; author’s first cousin; married to Sally
        Violetta – her daughter
    Leon –author’s father; born in Aleppo
    Marie – had six children

Author’s mother’s family
Isaac Matalon – author’s grandfather
    Edouard  - Isaac’s son from a previous marriage
    Rosee Hakim– Isaac’s daughter from a previous marriage
        Victor – her son; married to Rachel
        Son (unnamed) – married to Josette
Alexandra – author’s grandmother; Alexandra and Isaac’s children:
    Edith – author’s mother
    Felix – married to Aimee
Dana family- Alexandra’s wealthy Cairo cousins
Author’s immediate family
Leon Lagnado and Edith – author’s parents
    Zarifa  - (Suzette); married Alex; had son Alexander
    Cesar – married to Monica
    Lucette (author)

Rabbi Halfon – spiritual leader of Ahavah ve Ahaba
Simcha Allegra – midwife in Cairo
Elie Mosseri – neighbor in Egypt and Brooklyn
Baruch Ben Haim –  teacher in Brooklyn

Aleppo – Halab in Arabic
Synagogues in Cairo
   Ahavah ve Ahabah – synagogue in Cairo moved to Brooklyn
   Gates of Heaven – largest synagogue in Cairo
   Ganeh Tikvah
   Temple Hanan
   The Temple of the Great Miracles
   Shield of Young David

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