Free women

Egyptian-born Lucette Lagnado’s engaging account of her family’s experiences in America focuses on her mother.

Lucette Lagnado (photo credit: Kathryn Szoka)
Lucette Lagnado
(photo credit: Kathryn Szoka)
Living in peace and prosperity in Cairo, Leon and Edith Lagnado remained wary of “the evil eye,” the malevolent force that comes out of nowhere to smite people who seem to have too much. Although the family had already suffered more than three strokes of bad luck – rabies, typhoid fever and the death of an infant – Edith sensed that the worst was yet to come.
She was right. In 1956, the year Lucette, the Lagnados’ youngest child, was born, the Egyptian army took over Cairo’s only Jewish hospital, ordering the doctors to leave the premises immediately. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, it became clear, Egypt no longer welcomed Jews. The Lagnados hung on until 1963, when they departed for Paris. In a dingy refugee hotel, they debated whether to emigrate to Israel or to America – and resolved, without much enthusiasm, to purchase five and a half third-class tickets on the Queen Mary bound for New York City.
In her first book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Lucette Lagnado, a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal, featured her father, a gambler and playboy forced to eke out a living as a necktie salesman.
The Arrogant Years puts Edith at center stage. In loving detail, Lucette traces the struggle of her mother to raise four kids in a working class Jewish enclave in Brooklyn and reclaim her own identity. (Edith had been a beloved teacher at École Cattaui, a prestigious Jewish school in Cairo, until Leon forced her to quit her job.) Along with “girlish bursts of enthusiasm” at a Shirley MacLaine film, a tablecloth from John’s Bargain Store, a novel by Proust or Stendhal and (eventually) satisfying work at the Brooklyn Public Library, Lucette reveals, Edith often exhibited a “profound melancholy and perhaps a touch of the martyr.” Visiting Leon at a nursing home, she took note of her husband’s horrible life, adding “et bientôt ce sera la mienne” – and one day it will be mine.
An elegy to Edith, The Arrogant Years is also a coming-of-age memoir, set in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s. A stranger in a strange land, lamenting the loss of a time and a place in which she could feel on top of the world, Lucette anoints Mrs.
Emma Peel, the strong, sleek and stylish secret agent on the British television series The Avengers, as her model. At age 10, eager to lead prayers and carry Torah scrolls around the Shield of Young David Synagogue, she chafes at the separate section segregating women from men.
Although she wants to demolish the mehitza (partition), smashing it to pieces with karate chops à la Mrs. Peel, she conceives of a more stealthy scheme to “infiltrate” the main sanctuary. Crushed and mortified when the men, “waving their prayer books like weapons,” yell “haram, haram” (the Arabic word for sin) and shoo Lucette and her co-conspirators back where they belong, she leaves the Shield of Young David. The Arrogant Years is the story of her return, literally and figuratively, to the faith of her fathers.
Lagnado is especially adept at capturing the drama and melodrama of her childhood experiences. Cast as Haman in a school play, Lucette reveals, she reveled in the line “Who is that dog of a dog who dares not bow down to me?” Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at 16, she lay in a hospital bed, feeling sorry for herself as Edith stroked her hair and whispered “Loulou, my pretty one.” Lusting after Pappagallo shoes but forced to live in a B. Altman sweater at Vassar College, she dreaded her kosher TV dinner, interactions with wealthy, well-dressed classmates and her dorm room, which lacked curtains and a rug, “feeling more like an outsider with every passing month.”
Lagnado is less adept, it seems to me, when she steps back to understand her odyssey. She is a bit too nostalgic about Cairo. Her account of her family’s dire financial straits seems at odds with the 26 suitcases the Lagnados brought from France and the “vast” apartment they inhabited in Brooklyn. And she doesn’t elaborate on her observation that in America, “ostensibly the land of upward mobility, life seemed more rigid and castelike.”
Most importantly, Lagnado does not adequately explain her retreat from “women’s lib.” Still a teenager, she realizes, “suddenly,” that the more freedoms feminists embraced, the more she “wanted to retreat.” A few years later she concludes that the mehitza at the Shield of Young David, once a visible, jarring reminder of a way of life filled with structures and strictures, had actually kept her safe, secure and serene, fostering “feelings of kinship and intimacy.” And she stops wondering why the Messiah can’t be a woman.
It’s not surprising, of course, that Lagnado shed the sense of invincibility she had, albeit briefly, as a kid. And who can blame her for yearning for “absolute protection” from an evil eye that had deprived her, among many other things, of the ability to have children? Nonetheless, virtually nothing in The Arrogant Years lays the foundation for her proclamation that the world beyond the partition is “deeply wanting” in comparison to the world she left behind and that as long as she does not wander outside the women’s section, she will remain “miraculously safe.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.