(Levantine) Aesthetic Judaism (Lucette Lagnado)


Memoir is an unusually interesting genre for the study of modern religion and modern Judaism. Casting about for material that would expand the contours of my mid-level class last semester (spring 2017) on American Judaism I finally got around to reading Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I then proceeded to read its sequel, The Arrogant Years: One’s Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn. The first relates more of old Cairo, the period under King Farouk preceding the military coup that brought Nasser to power and the expulsion of the Jewish community; but it also covers the move through Paris to Brooklyn. The focus is clearly on her father Leon, who is cast in the mythic mold of a grand Egyptian Jewish patriarch, a worldly bon vivant devoted to the synagogue, brought low under reduced circumstances wrought physically by a crippling fall and then exile from home. While much of the material repeats itself from the first book, the second book is more focused on women. At its center are the author’s own growing up and coming of age, the experience of a young Jewish girl born in Egypt and growing up in Bensonhurst in the 1960s and 1970s, then off to college and career, always in relation to her mother, the long suffering Edith who finds her own place in the world.

Critical readers will note that both memoirs are written in a naïve, uncomplicated matter of fact style. Instead of or in addition to that, what I look for in these kinds of books is a more complex sense of time, place, and change. As a scholar of modern Jewish thought and culture, what I’m especially looking for are stories of location, dislocation, and relocation that convey pictures of Judaism, of religious culture relating to tradition, identity, community, and ritual caught up and shaped in shifting social and historical contexts.

Both books and those like them together bring home many of the same points. [1] Not all Jews, even American Jews, descend from East and Central European communities. [2] Before the period of decolonization, significant segments of the Jewish community in North Africa were comfortably ensconced close to power in the upper strata of a cosmopolitan, colonial culture. [3] Jews in Cairo and Alexandria came from all kinds of different places, from Syria and Constantinople. [4] In Egypt, upper middle class and upper class Jews were largely alienated from Arabic language and culture. (I have yet to read a memoir “out of Egypt” written from a working class or lower middle class perspective.). These and other such memoirs describe Jewish lives deeply imbricated in Arab urban milieus while at the same time undermining the notion of some original “Jewish Arab” identity untouched by European colonialism and Zionism.

Lagnado’s is a project of memory as construction and reconstruction, the reconstitution of family and of home, here in America, based on pictures from Egypt over there, which is always kept in mind. Snapshots throughout both volumes intensify that impression of time and its passage through space. Both of Lagnado’s books conclude with an account of the author’s visit back to Cairo to visit the old haunts of her childhood. What remains are strong and warm associations with Egypt as a memory-home. One walks away from these kinds of memoirs about Jewish life in colonial Egypt protected under British rule and Arab patronage with a general image. The picture is of a glittering picture of a now fabled past, some idea of what it means for an upper middle class family to pick up and start life in a faraway and alien place somewhere near the bottom of its social and cultural hierarchy.

Coupled with the sense of exile and dislocation is a complete lack of bitterness or antipathy about the past. Egypt is home, not America. America, not Egypt, is the problem, representing the challenge of cultural adaptation and all the little resistances to it. By the end of The Arrogant Years, it becomes especially clear that that Lagnado, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, is a culturally conservative writer. Most tellingly, the second book begins on a note of a childhood feminist rebellion against gender inequity in the American Sephardic synagogue shadowed by her concern for her mother’s struggle to find a place for herself in the world. The book then proceeds to chart how the author shies away, already in her college years, from what she regards as permissive and individualistic American cultural mores. America turns out to be a cold and individualistic society in which infirm elderly parents are sent by their own children to languish in the isolation of old age homes. By the end of The Arrogant Years, Lagnado makes her peace with gender separation in the traditional synagogue, ascribing feelings of “complete serenity” and “absolute protection” to a “closed-off area” that is remembered as “rich” and “vivid” (Arrogant Years, pp.371-2).

For all that they resemble each other, these are two very different books in ways that are obvious and not so obvious. The Man in the Sharksin Suit is focused on her father. It reflects upon a man’s changing place in the world, in Egypt and then in America. The Man in the Sharkskin Suit ends on a note of peace and reconciliation. Lagnado goes to synagogue to mark her father’s death, and the old men who continue to congregate there decide, against custom, to allow her to join them in reciting psalms, even though she is a woman. As a figure, the synagogue seems to open out capaciously to include her in its rites, at least narrowly here in this particular instance in such a way as to honor the memory of her father. There seems to be the promise of some reconciliation of the Sephardic synagogue with America. In The Arrogant Years, the unhappiness lets out, generated by a mother’s isolation, the mother’s struggle to find satisfaction and the author’s own sense of isolation at Vasser, her own place in the world of work, the trauma of watching both her father and mother in their long decline, fighting the staff and administrations at hospitals and nursing homes. The synagogue represents the antipode to that grief. If the conclusion of the first volume is bittersweet, the conclusion to the second volume is bitter indeed, its sole solace being an idea of the synagogue and nostalgia for old Cairo, and the sense of the author’s life lived well.

I want to be cautious about over-reading these kinds of texts. At the same time, I also want to draw some tentative conclusions from these memoirs for a Jewish philosophy and Religious Studies perspective. The idea of Judaism in modern Jewish philosophy and thought is always in some sense separate from the general society against which it takes either a defensive crouch. My own view is that modern Jewish philosophy and thought in Germany and America has always been characterized in terms of a moral indignation and political distance, an obsession with identity and difference, the compulsion to preserve an identity against the force of assimilation. What generally passes as “modern Judaism” in German and American Jewish philosophy has been, in this sense like so much modern cultural expression, a critical project. (In my own idiosyncratic reading, Hermann Cohen moves from social ethics and the street and sets the religion of reason into the more isolated space of the synagogue.) (Mordecai Kaplan’s Jewish civilization maintains itself against forces of social entropy.) (This more or less critical stance is taken for granted by many if not most of my colleagues today).

In contrast, the picture of Judaism out of Egypt is loose and worldly, integrated intact into a larger social world. Intentionally obscuring social tension and contradiction, there is nothing complicated about this image. Close to royal and colonial power, Lagnado’s father strikes an elegant figure, moving seamlessly back and forth between [1] the synagogue, to which he was perhaps unusually devoted day in and week out, [2] the profane world of work and money, and [3] the boozy nighttime pleasures of women, dancing, and gambling in clubs, bars, and casinos. The father’s devotion to religion, work, and pleasure is not unlike that of the character Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad, the family patriarch in Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy. These are complex lives lived between discrete, overlapping spheres as if without effort or even a moment’s critical thought. For her part, confined to home and children, Lagnado’s mother is introduced as a worldly woman from an impoverished background, devoted to French literature (of this there is much more in the second volume). Desperate, she takes her daughter, the author, for an overnight stay in the dark alcoves in the cold basement of Rav Moshe the Temple of the Great Miracles, an institution associated with Maimonides and miracle healing in the old Jewish ghetto, hoping to cure her daughter of a mysterious ailment, finally diagnosed in New York as Hodgkins disease (Sharkskin, pp.138-40). (The ritual and its setting in the basement of Rav Moshe is called “incubation” by Paul Fenton in his introduction to the translation of The Treatise of the Pool, a medieval Egyptian pietist text by Obadiah Maimonides.)

I do not want to generalize. In other accounts of Egyptian Jewish life from this same time period, there are accounts of a more secular form of culture, more assimilated, more disinterested in religion, even skeptical and cynical about it (cf. Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt: A Memoir). It could be that religious devotion was more particular of Jews descended from Syria, from where Lagnado’s paternal grandmother hailed. But one finds a similar set of impressions in writing about Mizrachi Jewish identity in Israel, particularly Moroccan and Yemenite, the notion of a Sephardic model of Jewish tradition that is less given over to the starker binaries in modern Ashkenazi religion and anti-religion. Clearly from the particular Egyptian Jewish family perspective in these two books by Lagnado, Judaism is marked by the idea of a full commitment and without contradiction to two distinct but inseparably interlocking and supporting worlds. Particularly at play The Man in the Sharkskin Suit, the more charming of the two volumes, is much more than the complementary relationship between religious tradition and some abstract thing form “society.” Far more intriguing is how, at the core of her father’s life while in his prime still in Egypt before the Revolution, the religion of the synagogue is part and parcel of a larger and unadulterated hedonism.

The memory of Egypt stands out as more complex than the reality America, as perceived by Lagnado. With tremendous warmth, she describes in The Arrogant Years the efforts made by Jewish immigrants to recreate in New York a semblance of the life and culture left behind in Egypt and Syria. This includes the establishment of neighborhood enclaves, synagogues, encouraging children to marry only Sephardic Jews, foodways, and the like. But it requires work, and remains, in some respect, out of synch with the larger society and culture. Leaving the family confines of Brooklyn and then New York City as soon as possible, Lagnado’s older sister rejected these attempts as small and not a little pathetic; her view as presented in these books is that a “Cairo-on-the-Hudson” could only pale in comparison to the original. Lagnado herself is more ambivalent. Attached to expressions of pride regarding the non-assimilation of Sephardic Jewishness and Judaism is Lagnado’s claim that, while being religious and worldly in Egypt was easy, in America the combination is an “impossibility” (pp.226-7).

Given to caricature and cliché, these are large social claims that are impossible to verify one way or the other. But as a theoretical model, they make for interesting contrasts. For students of Jewish philosophy and Religious Studies, the picture out of Egypt offers a model of Judaism in which religious culture is fully integrated into the larger social world. Nothing “deep” is offered nor given. There is no theoretical twaddle, no appeals to encounter, to the experience of God, world, and Torah, to love and suffering, to ethics and messianism.  The religion is aesthetic, conveyed by the look, touch and scent of cotton and white shirts, a tie clip adorned with a simple pearl, stuffed eggplant, apricots, myrtle, and so on. Judaism is defined by pleasure, and as such easily of a piece with the pleasures enjoyed by men outside in the world. The easy and seamless converse between inside and outside is naïvely self-possessed, even flat as a picture of social form rendered as aesthetic taste. As easy converse and without an inkling of alienation, the model of Judaism is one without contradiction, not because the (public) outside world is organized as “religious,” but because the inner (domestic) world of religion is itself a place of elegant hedonism (cf. Sharkskin pp.28-30).

While critical of western cultural norms, indeed, in what turns out to be a fierce opposition to them, especially in The Arrogant Years, Lagnado’s first book, The Man in the Sharkskin Suit, suggests a different model of Judaism, a post-critical one, moving comfortably, even seamlessly  between worlds. Idealized in memory, there is an attempt to paper over these religious and social contradictions that may not reflect the truth and true contours of lived life, especially the lives lived by women. That may or not represent a contradiction. To recreate this particular idea of a Jewish cultural form lived in perfect synch with the mores of the larger surrounding world, one has to create a walled off enclave. Or is it really an “impossibility” to develop a worldly form of American Judaism, liberal religion as a contemporary cosmopolitan form? The devotion it requires would have to build off pleasure at the core of its basic structure, starting with secular pleasure and understanding religion as pleasant and pleasure, starting not with the deathly seriousness of Yom Kippur, for which there is always time, but with oneg Shabbat. As religious hedonism, the model would be distinctly un-Protestant, at least in its ethos.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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