Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth From Cairo to Brooklyn by Lucette Lagnado

Lucette Lagnado wrote an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the current push in certain academic circles to boycott Israel for all its crimes against humanity, specifically its treatment of  Muslims.  Her article was well-written and deftly addressed this latest trend among the "intellectuals" of our time to vilify one group of people while blithely ignoring the the atrocities committed by another.  There's a verse in the Bible that speaks of "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel."  It's not used exactly in this context, but it fits.

At any rate, this article sparked an interest as to who the writer was.  I looked her up and found she had written a couple of memoirs.  Her first book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, focuses on the life of her father.  This second one, The Arrogant Years, centers around Lagnado's relationship with her mother and her own coming of age in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.

I love to read about cultures and communities other than my own and Lagnado's book provides the reader with a rich, colorful account of life in an Old World household.

The book starts in the first half of the twentieth century in Egypt with her grandmother.  A small, nervous woman who had known wealth and status until her husband deserted her, spent her days sitting on the balcony of her small apartment drinking Turkish cafe and reading innumurable books.  She endowed this habit to her daughter Edith, Lucette's mother.  When Edith wasn't going to school she stayed by her mother's side on the balcony watching the busy streets below while drinking coffee and reading.

The book at this point digresses to fill in the background of the contemporary political climate of Egypt when Lagnado's mother and grandmother were young.  Jews played a prominent role in Egypt's government affairs.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived peaceably together.  Her mother eventually got a job teaching at a prestigious school and received the special patronage of the wife of the Pasha -an important government consulate.  As a result, she gained access to the Pasha's library, a treasure trove of thousands of books.  This was Edith's paradise. 

Eventually, Edith gave up her work, her friendship with the Pasha's wife, and her beloved library and, at her mother's insistence, got married.   In Egyptian-as well as Orthodox- culture this meant quitting work and staying home to raise a family.  Ms. Lagnado presents this as a sad development because now, instead of receiving daily intellectual stimulus and the reward of exercising her own teaching gifts, Edith became confined to a household, married to a man who spent his time carousing and socializing.

Edith now had the financial security her mother desperately wanted for her, but at the price of personal fulfillment.  At least this is how Lucette Lagnado describes it.  She was a baby when they left Egypt.  I wonder if this is how Ms. Lagnado's mother described her life (anybody who's stuck home raising children has to be miserable, right? ) or the conclusion she forms based on what her mother or others told her.

It didn't matter because by the 1950's, life changed for everyone  in Egypt with the rise to power of Gamal Abder Nassar and militant Islam.  Jews were ejected from every  walk of public life.  Finally, as with most of the other Egyptian Jews it was necessary for the Lagnado family to move. 

Many Jews moved to Europe and Israel.  The Lagnados moved to the United States and settled in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York.

This is where Lucette's own memories serve as the basis for her memoir.  She describes her growing up in a Orthodox neighborhood, the different personalities that made up the membership of her synagogue and her defiance at religious traditions that separated men and women and assigned them to rigid roles.

Her family lost the wealth and status they enjoyed in Egypt. They now struggled to make ends meet.  Her dad spent his days trying to sell men's ties in subways, but finally gave up in the end, a defeated man.  He does not enter much into the story.  Perhaps because he detached himself from his family.  Maybe because her previous book centers around him.

This did not, however, dampen her mother's spirit.  She was determined to make sure her daughter got the right type of education.  Lucette describes her mother in loving terms as a resourceful, energetic and unrelenting person who was determined to make Lucette the person she had failed at becoming.  Lucette's older sister had already abandoned ship, shed her Jewish identity, and had moved beyond the borders of the narrow boundaries of their Orthodox community.  Edith's entire hopes and dreams were planted firmly on Lucette's shoulders.  Edith depended on her "Lou Lou" to reconstruire le foyer (rebuild the hearth), an expression Edith often repeated to her daughter.

I wished that Ms. Lagnado had spent more time writing about her brothers and sister but they are mentioned only peripherally in her book.  I wondered if her sister ever returned to her roots or did she stay away.  I don't know if the brothers left.  They don't seem to have stayed Orthodox.  Perhaps they chose to be culturally Jewish but no more.

Lucette, even though she rebelled at her mother's ambitions, did receive a private education and ended up going to Vassar.  This chapter of her life details her culture shock as for the first time she leaves her community and is exposed to people of other religious and economic backgrounds.  She was surprised to discover that Vassar didn't serve Kosher food.  When she asked, they tried to accomodate her, but it made her feel even more different than the other students.

Lagnado bounces back and forth between her struggle to fit into a society that makes her feel foreign and out of place and the tenacity of her mother.  After her children are raised and living with a husband who has checked out on life, Edith gets a job at the Brooklyn Public Library.  Once again she is surrounded by her favorite friends, books.  Unlike Lucette, Edith seems to have no difficulty merging with the ethnic diversity in her work environment.  She spends her days working hard and developing friendships with men and women from various cultural backgrounds.

The overall tone of the book is sad.  Lucette never seems to gain a sense of belonging.  The Orthodox upbringing that she fought against- or at least its chauvinism-turns out to be her refuge against an alien world.

At university Ms. Lagnado resents her fellow students whom she refers to as "WASPs"(White Anglo Saxon Protestants) because of their dominate culture and wealth.  A sullen tone pervades the chapters of her college life.   It gives the reader the impression that she somehow feels that an apology is owed to her by the WASPs.  As though they are responsible for making her feel different or for the fact that her family didn't have as much money.

Yet as she tracks the lives of the people in her childhood neighborhood, she shows that none of them stayed. They all moved on.  Most acquiring their own wealth and education.  Her brothers and sister, as well as herself, all prospered materially. She follows her friends, members of her synagogue, to wealthy Bronx neighborhoods, upscale estates or to Israel.  Her neighborhood is a good example of the typical upwardly mobile families that dominated our country before the welfare system caused economic stagnation and generational poverty.

 Even though I enjoyed this book, the tone is a melancholy one.  Ms. Lagnado doesn't end the book with any feeling of resolution.  She doesn't impart an attitude that she has finally made sense of her life.

 Lucette is devoted to her Orthodox upbringing and even though she challenged some of the beliefs, she finally chooses to return to Orthodoxy. Orthodox Judaism colors and shapes her identity.  But one thing stood out to me. Lucette is devoted to the Orthodox traditions and liturgy, yet still remains a stranger to God.  God is not mentioned much, except as Someone far away and uninvolved.

She ruminates on the Messiah.  She once had great hopes for His coming.  But as she looks back at history and around at the present, she decides there really is no Messiah.

This is especially interesting to me since, as a Christian, our whole religion is centered around Messiah.  I believe her conclusion is based on a misunderstanding as to who Messiah is.  Her idea of a Messiah is someone who is going to exclusively save the Jews from physical persecution.  In her mind this Messiah never came when the Jews needed Him and now there really is no need for one.

She discounts that everyone still dies and that the Bible makes it clear that death is caused by sin.  Therefore, Messiah is necessary because sin exists as a barrier between God and man and causes eternal death. This is still a problem which needs to be resolved. What mankind still needs to be saved from. Christians see this accomplished when Jesus Christ sacrificed himself and replaced the animal sacrifices that the ancient Jews practiced as a covering for their sins.  And it's not an exclusive salvation.  It's offered to everyone under the sun. Hence, if we accept this offering, we are saved from eternal death and into eternal life, even if we die physically.

There is another reason I found Ms. Lagnado's memoir so interesting.  Her self- identity rooted in her Orthodox culture is in sharp contrast to my own.  As a Christian I don't worry about cultural identity or preserving my traditions.  Someone from China or Nigeria or anywhere in the world, who shares my faith is every bit my brother or sister as anyone who grew up a "WASP" like me.

The other reason I enjoyed this book is because Lagnado successfully paints a beautiful, if sad, picture of the history of, not only her own family's story, but of many people: Jews, Coptic Christians and Muslims.  I recommend this book to people like me, who love try to gain an understanding of someone else's perspective on the world and who enjoys learning about the life stories of others, regardless if-or especially because- their ethnicity and beliefs differ from their own.

Further links:
Washington DC Jewish Community
NY Times Lagnado review
Jewish Book Council


  1. I read her article as well, these high-browed intellectual articles with no basis in reality always make laugh (or cry).

    1. Zohar: Frankly these (pseudo) intellectuals make me angry. Take care!

  2. Great commentary on this book Sharon.As i think that you know, I too really strive to understand or at listen to those who have had different experience as me. Lagnado certainly has come from a different background then I do too.

    I also like the fact that it sounds as if she thinks deeply about her beliefs. I also like the way that it sounds like history is integrated into it all.

    1. Brian: Yes, I find that you are open and respectful and honestly explore other viewpoints and belief systems. Even though our beliefs differ, we have that in common. I suppose it's our philosophical bent. :)


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.