Monday, November 21, 2011

The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn By Lucette Lagnado 2011

"'The Arrogant Years' . . .  [is] a paragon of memoir writing, a story about the complex swirl of people and events and forces out of which individual lives are made — some, like Ms. Lagnado’s, more painfully, but also more fully, than others." from a review by Alana Newhouse  in the New York Times 9/8/2011

This sequel to Lagnado’s first memoir, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” follows the same trajectory as the first – the memoir starts in Cairo where the Legnados lived as members of a large, prosperous Jewish community before they immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. But this second memoir shines the spotlight on different family members. This time around Lagnado spends very little time on her father who was the subject of her first memoir. Instead, she focuses on both her mother’s life and her own. 

She starts by recounting what she has learned about her mother’s childhood, describing in detail her mother’s mother and the life and culture of Jewish women in the Levant. She relates how her mother, highly educated with a satisfying career, felt obligated to give it up when she married. The marriage was problematic from the start. The author’s father felt free to do what he wanted whenever he wanted to; her mother became a passive, depressed housewife and mother.

Once Nasser came into power most members of the Jewish community fled, many going to Israel and the United States.  Lagnado’s father resisted leaving until conditions were just about impossible and they  immigrated in 1963 when the author was 7,  settling in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, New York amongst other Jewish immigrants from the Levant.

In subsequent chapters the author elaborates on growing up in Brooklyn in the midst of a socially conservative, insular, transplanted immigrant Jewish community from the Levant where the cultural ties to their home countries were strong. Like in many immigrant groups, parents tried to keep the old ways, replicating customs they grew up with, including founding both religious and educational institutions that were designed to mirror those they left behind. Lagnado notes that some children stayed close to their parents, happy to abide by their wishes, choosing mates from within the community and settling close by. But in some families, like in her own, there was an ongoing tension between conducting their lives the way they had in the past versus embracing American customs and values.

Her father, partly because of a fall and botched surgery in Cairo, never attained the stature he had in Cairo, and sat by, a tired old man, while his family defied him. His children went to American schools and colleges, and his wife decided to go back to work. But although the author’s mother enjoyed her work at the Brooklyn Public Library, it was clear that the cultural shift was difficult and wearing on her. Especially upsetting was that Suzette, their oldest daughter, although still unmarried, moved away shortly after they arrived in America never to live with them again.

The author was very close to her mother who allowed her some freedom, but not enough. She would not let her mother's and the community’s old-world values stand in the way of what she wanted - the chance to embrace America, and to take advantage of what it had to offer. She succeeds in this struggle, becoming a well-established journalist and writer, but toward the end of the memoir she looks back. She revisited old friends from the community now dispersed, some living in Israel. She found many of them living lives very similar to the lives they led when they were growing up in Bensonhurst. While she cannot imagine living the lives they lead, she envies their feeling rooted in their traditions and clear-headed about the choices they made. She feels especially sorry about the tragedy of her mother's life: being caught between two worlds, not comfortable in either one.

To read the post in this blog reviewing Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, click here.

To read an article about the displacement of Jews from Arab countries, click here.

Descendants of father’s side of Laniado rabbinic dynasty of Aleppo, Syria
    Shlomo Laniado – rabbi in 17th century

Leon Lagnado - married Edith Lagnado
    Suzette Lagnado – daughter of Leon and Edith
        Sasha – son of Suzette
    Cesar Lagnado – son of Leon and Edith; married Monica
        Carolyn and Evelyn Lagnado – daughters of Caesar and Monica
    Isaac Lagnado – son of Leon and Edith
    Lucette Lagnado – daughter of  and Edith; married Douglas Feiden

Maternal family
Selim Dana – married Rachel Dana (his niece)
    Alexandra Dana – daughter of Selim and Rachel married Isaac Matalon
        Edith Matalon – daughter of Alexandra and Isaac; married Leon Lagnado (see above)
        Felix Matalon – son of Alexandra and Isaac
Edgar Dana – Alexandra’s brother; married Marie
    Rachel Dana – daughter of Edgar and Marie
Farida – half-sister of Alexandria
Rosee – half-sister of Alexandra
    Lily – daughter of Rosee
Edouard  – half-brother of Alexandra
Lily Halawani – cousin of mother (daughter of Rosee, above?) exact relationship not clear

Salomone Silvera – relative, relationship to side of family unclear; married Sally
    Davide Silvera – son of Salomone and Sally
Rachel and Pico Hakim – relatives, relationship to side of family unclear
    Rosette Hakim – daughter of Rachel and Pico

Friends, Acquaintances and Members of the Jewish Community Past and Present
In U.S.A.
Rabbi Harry Rubin
    Miriam, Deborah, Rebecca, Rochelle and David Rubin – children of Harry
Abraham and Adele Cohen
    Leah, Gracie, Esther, Margarita Cohen - daughters of Abraham and Adele
    Rebecca Cohen Choueka – daughter of Abraham and Adele; married Eric Choueka
Rita Douek
Karen Alter
Marlene and Avi Ben Dayan
Celia Garzon Weinstein - Moshe Garzon's sister
Moshe Garzon – Celia Garzon Weinstein's brother
Joseph Hannon
Sarah Menachem
Rabbi Baruch Ben Haim
Rabbi Saul Kassin
Lillian Mosseri
Carin Roth
Eugene Gold
    Wendy – daughter of Eugene
Henry Finkelstein
Cyrus Wolf
    Laurie Wolf Bryk– daughter of Cyrus; married to Eli Bryk
        Lanie and Jackie – daughters of Laurie
    Trudy Wolf – daughter of Cyrus
Dr. Sydney Diamond
Rabbi Sam Horowitz
Fortune Cohen
Gladys – sister of Fortune; married Saul
Rabbi Rafael Benchimol
Kim Amzallag
Leah Iny
Stella Issever

In Egypt (or roots in Egypt)
Alice Suarez – married Yussef Cattaui
    Indjii, Aslan, and Rene,  – children of Alice and Yussef
        Nimet Cattaui – granddaughter of Alice and Yussef
            Michel Alexane – son of Nimet
        Stephane Cattaui – grandson of Alice and Yussef; married Maria Livanos
        Indjy Cattaui-Dumon – granddaughter of Alice and Yussef
    George Cattaui – nephew of Yussef
                Florence Sutter – gggranddaughter of Alice and Yussef (exact relationship unclear)
Moise Cattaui
Odette Harari
    David Harari – son of Odette
Yussef “Sousou” Makar
Sarah Naggar Halawani
Desi Sakkal
Ninette Toussoun
Rabbi Haim Nahum
Dr. Baroukh Kodsi
Maggie Wahba
Carmen Weinstein
Victor, George, and Haim Haboucha

        neighborhoods: Garden City, Sakakini, Haret-el-Yahood, Heliopolis, Zamelek, Maadi, Fustat
        L’Ecole Cattui – Sakakini
        Le Sebil Jewish school
        Cicurel Department store
        Orozdi-Back Department store
        Shepheard Hotel
        L’Hopital Israelite
        Temple Hanan
        Ben Ezra Synagogue
        Gazira Sporting Club
        Villa Cattaui
        Neighborhoods: Sporting, San Sefano, Sidi Bishr
    Ras el-Bar, Egypt
        Aslan Hotel

    Brooklyn, New York
        Neighborhoods: Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, Park Slope, Ocean Parkway
        Shield of Young David Synagogue (David Magen)
        Ahaba ve Ahava synagogue
        House of Jacob Academy (Beis Ya’akov)
        Berkeley Institute
    Five Towns, Long Island, NY –areas: North Woodmere, Hewlett Harbor
    Gates of Prayer Synagogue, Manhattan
    Fifth Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan
    Deal, New Jersey

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster 1982

"'What really struck me was the purity of his tone. As a publisher, you're always looking for tone and he had that in blinding amounts, a faintly detached, very cerebral tone,' [Robert] McCrum says." Quoted in an interview with Hadley Freeman published in The Guardian on 10/25/2002

The writer Paul Auster’s two-part memoir deals in the first half with his relationship with his father. The second part is more a philosophical meditation and intellectual inquiry into the author’s role as both father and as grandson.  It also deals with the interplay between memory, the role of language in apprehending memories and the nature of solitude. 

The first section of Auster’s memoir, called “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” is about his father’s absence when he was growing up. Samuel Auster, who was born in around 1911, worked long hours, leaving the house before his two children awoke and returning home after they were asleep. But more to the point, even when the author spent time with him on the weekends and holidays, he was remote and emotionally unavailable. Auster recounts vivid examples of how his father failed him, puzzling over his father’s behavior, longing for a way to reach him.

When he was adult, the frustration of having such an unsatisfactory relationship with his father drove him to learn more about him. Eventually the author was able to piece together a narrative from several sources that revealed his father’s very difficult childhood, which included a rather nomadic existence. His grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Austria, started a business in Lawrence, Kansas that failed. Eventually they settled for a while in Kanosha, Wisconsin where his father, the youngest of five, was raised during his early years. When the author was already an adult an old man from Kanosha who happened to sit next to his cousin on a plane, told a horrifying story about the Austers and  directed her to newspaper articles from 1919  in the Kenosha Evening News for details.

What he learns about his father’s upbringing may help him intellectually to better understand his father’s remoteness, but does not wipe away the longing he had for a meaningful relationship. The poetic intensity of Auster’s prose heightens the effect, leaving the reader with a powerful image of a relationship that was never whole.

Although family relationships have a place in the second half of the memoir, “The Book of Memory” is a more extended meditation on life, on life cut short, on presence and absence, on the function of memory. The author writes about his own absence in his son’s life once he and his wife divorced, and also about his caring for his dying maternal grandfather which of course triggers vivid memories of their life together. Auster’s style of writing in this section is not typical of a memoir. It is both intimate and ruminative. He probes and poses difficult questions.

To watch an interview with Paul Auster discussing his writing, click here

Samuel Auster – brother of Harry Auster; author’s great-uncle
Harry Auster – brother of Samuel Auster; married Anna; author’s paternal grandparents
    Samuel Auster – son of Harry and Anna; married Queenie
        Paul Auster – son of Samuel and Queenie; author
            Daniel Auster - son of Paul Auster
Elizabeth Grossman - Anna Auster's sister

Friends and Acquaintances
Fanny Koplan
Rabbi M. Hartman
Gregory Altschuller

Lawrence, Kansas
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Chicago, Illinois
Weequahic section of  Newark, New Jersey
New York City, New York