Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature: Reflections on The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

One of the reasons I have been lax in blogging is that I was in Israel for the awarding of the Sami Rohr Prize in nonfiction. This prize has been established by the Rohr family to honor their father, who incidently escaped from German shortly after Kristalnacht, on his 80th birthday.

The amazing generosity of this family and their desire to further Jewish literature and culture through this generous award [$100,000 to the winner] speaks to their willingness to think "way outside the box."

The award is given to an emerging writer in the field of Jewish literature. I am one of the judges in the non-fiction category. This year's winner was Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. I was asked to write something about the book for the program. These are my thoughts on this book:
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a stunningly beautiful book. It addresses epic and age old themes: exile, loss, and rootlessness. It is both a tragic family saga and the story of a compelling man, a bon vivant, who managed to mesh his love of sensual pleasures with his deep commitment to Jewish tradition. Above all it is the story of a world and a community that did not die a natural death. It was uprooted and destroyed by those who rejected its love and fealty.

Lucette Lagnado traces the story the twentieth century Cairo Jewish community by telling the story of her father who was the ultimate man about Cairo. He moved as easily in the synagogue as he did in Cairo’s most elaborate and elegant night spots. She is the child born in his later years and the one who becomes the apple of his eye. It is through her eyes that we watch him make his way through the city and establish bonds with both Muslim and expatriates of every variety.

The Rohr prize judges were swept away by the beauty of the book. It was not, however, only the graceful and luscious prose of Lagnado’s “stunning” [New York Times] memoir which caught our attention.

Starting in the late 1940s and continuing until the 1960s Jewish communities which had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors were decimated. It was a wholesale destruction, one that was designed to humiliate Jews who had loved their homelands with a deep seated passion. The Egyptians stripped Lagnado’s family of virtually all their possessions prior to their departure. In a final act of degradation, they forcibly removed her mother’s wedding band from her finger as the family boarded the boat. Despite this humiliation as the ship sailed away her father cried out: “Ragaouna Masr,” Take us back to Cairo.

What was this love affair? Who were these Jewish communities? What was the culture they so adored? Jewish tradition and culture is rooted in its history. Lagnado has a painted a brilliant portrait of a world that will never be again. In describing a small piece of that history she has given a great gift to those who were part of that world and to their descendants. She has also given a gift – possibly even greater -- to those who never knew that world.

Ultimately, however, this book transcends ethnic, national, and religious divides. Any reader whose family has ever known exile and immigration will be touched by this book. It will help them understand the sacrifices that have been made on their behalf. And those readers whose families have not been forcibly uprooted will understand how blessed they are.

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