Frank, spirited memoir of identity from a Brooklyn-raised, Egyptian-born Jewish feminist.
“What kind of a Jew are you?” was the question that plagued Zonana (English and Women’s Studies/Borough of Manhattan Community Coll.) as a girl. Her parents were little help. French-speaking Sephardic Jews from Cairo, they appeared, she writes, to suffer from “an involuntary—or is it willed?—failure to recollect.” Even more confusing were the stark differences between the young Zonana and her classmates and neighbors, Jewish families from Eastern Europe who kept kosher homes and ate food completely foreign to an Egyptian-ruled kitchen. Instead of kishke, the Zonanas ate tabbouleh; instead of stuffed cabbage, they devoured stuffed grape leaves and ful medammes (fava beans marinated in lemon juice, garlic and oil). In fact, it was through food that the author began to explore cultural differences, later learning her mother’s recipes (some of which are included in the book). Two journeys helped her uncover her roots. As a girl, she traveled to Brazil, where a large, close-knit brood of relatives had emigrated, and discovered the kind of “tribal life” that she would have experienced had conflict not uprooted her family. Then, 50 years after leaving as a young child, she traveled to Cairo, despite the protests of her family, and was embraced with open arms by both Egyptian Arabs and the few remaining Egyptian Jews. The highlight of this pilgrimage was Zonana’s discovery of the rundown Rambam synagogue. Overcome with emotion, she wept at its broken, locked gates, but her encounter with this place of healing and worship brought her own identity into sharper focus. The story of her cathartic quest is intertwined with family history and the author’s personal voyage through grad school, teaching positions in Oklahoma and New Orleans and finally her flight from Hurricane Katrina.
Earnestly portrays the push and pull between family history and personal growth.