From Baghdad to Brooklyn
Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family
In Midcentury America

Jack Marshall
(Coffee House Press)
Marshall's mother was from Aleppo, his father a Sephardic Jew from Iraq, and they came together in New York by arranged marriage. Marshall's story is one of this cultural, religious mix in 1940s and 1950s urban America, with schuls, the smells of gasoline and sweat and the dust from the service station beneath their perpetually frozen apartment, overshadowed by the dozen failing businesses of his father.

There is a picture of this ever-hopeful man standing at the window of their cheap apartment, looking out over Brooklyn, turning teary and half-ashamed over the music of Egyptian singer Om Kalthoom coming from the radio.

There's mother, with her refusal to learn English, her bitterness (he asks the date of her birthday, she says, "Doomsday") and most compellingly, the darkness of growing up in a family where the father and mother don't much care for each other, where due to the Jewish strictures, divorce is no option ... and we learn through letters sent by the old man late in life that not only did he live through old-age in a welter of insults from a preternaturally angry woman, this was a man who, for so long, was denied the pleasures of the bridal bed. Oy.

Do we really want to know? Well, maybe. When Marshall tells of living on the streets of Brooklyn as an anemic boy, being suffocated by a suffocating family life, there is the touch of drama of agony, a misery that has its own attraction. But, From Baghdad suffers from our wondering at the exact nature of the author's pain. He lays it squarely on the fact that his parents had an "arranged marriage." That may not be the case. For in the first half of Marshall's life, pain turns out to be a treasured possession (he is his mother's son, after all; she owned him for the first decade and a half).

The family was poor, but they weren't starving. He lists "the usual Arabic dinners" served by the industrious mother: kibbeh, mih'shee, koosah jibahn, shrob 'il' loz, maah-muul, ruh-buh, lacham 'ahjeen, the latter being "round flat baked dough topped with ground lamb, chopped onion and spices." We'll have three to go.

And how did Marshall react to this rich panoply? At first, he claims his anemia didn't allow him any appetite. He was one of those whiney kids who would say, "I don' wan' enny." Later, his appetite mysterious reappears when he sneaks out for a forbidden food:

    I would go to the truckers' diner on the corner of 66th Street and treat myself to what was a truly exotic meal: real bacon and eggs. My first taste of that fatty, burnt flavor swallowed me into the belly of the unkosher beast.

He's at the top of his form when he is telling us what it is like to have all his pleasures poleaxed: his mother suspicious of his youthful habit of reading, her sullenness, the always exasperated, impatient landlords ... and when comes one moment of pleasure, when he squeezes up a penny to buy butterscotch candy, what happens?

    The butterscotch drop I'd been absently sucking had been dissolving into a slick paste thicker than I could swallow, and just as I sensed not to let it near my throat, it was pulled there by a suction that landed it like a plug in a drain. I gasped for air, shocked by a dread that gripped me in a series of shocks gulping my breath away. I jumped in place, trying to dislodge the plug in my throat, but it was stuck.

This is a man for whom pleasure always has to be tempered by disappointment. When he stumbles on the local library, where he can, at last, assuage his hunger for free reading, it is dark and tiny. When he lands a job in Manhattan, high-end retail clothing and trinkets, his Syrian bosses are sullen. When, finally, at age eighteen, he makes his big escape on a tramp steamer to Africa, as he boards the SS Ferngrove,

    my heart sank when I saw its small size against the wide harbor water and the sky, and the peeling paint along its rusted hull. It looked like a twisted tin can that could hardly withstand the weather, much less the steady beating of an ocean voyage.

This is a guy who not only habitually spits in the soup, he wants it to be ham and bacon soup so he can piss off his militant orthodox family, along with his complete heritage.

--- G. G. Lowenstein

Goodbye Columbus and
Five Short Stories

Philip Roth
(Library of America)
LOA has reissued many of Philip Roth's works on massed and bound cigarette papers. Thus, Goodbye Columbus and five other, earlier short stories.

The novel is filled with Hogarthian characters. Neil's love is Brenda. Her father manufactures and sells bathroom equipment in Newark and lives with a cigar in his mouth; her straight-backed mother narrows her eyes whenever she sees Neil, quizzes him endlessly whether he is Conservative or Reformed. Brenda's uncle sells light bulbs up and down the East Coast (light bulbs!) and at a family wedding reception, spends much of the time slurping champagne and telling Neil the secrets of fluorescent vs. incandescent light bulbs and the plight of having to be a Willy Loman.

It is the first novel that we've read about a summertime romance that features (1) a young man (2) a young woman (3) a summertime in Newark and (4) a distinctive eminence gris --- a diaphragm.

The latter becomes the pièce de résistance to the plot line. Goodbye Columbus starts out as an ideal romance: Neil (a librarian) sees Brenda (a Ivy League college girl), calls her, meets her on the tennis-court, and, boom, while swimming, she falls into his arms:

    I went to pull her towards me just as she started fluttering up; my hand hooked on to the front of her suit and the cloth pulled away from her. Her breasts swam towards me like two pink-nosed fish and she let me hold them. Then, in a moment, it was the sun who kissed us both, and we were out of the water, too pleased with each other to smile.

They spend the summer groping about like groupers in the country club pool and sneaking into her bedroom in her parents' house to grope some more. Suddenly he orders her to get a diaphragm.

And all of a sudden this diaphraghm falls off the wall and into the narrative and like some smarmy villain won't go away until the whole summertime romance gets blown away.

Strange word "Diaphraghm," with its choked collision of letters. Try pronouncing it as it is spelled, no? Dee-uh-frag-hum? My dictionary says it's from the Greek, "to barricade." Then, it advises, "see FARCE."

Goodbye, Columbus ends poorly --- for the characters, not especially so for the reader (Roth was good, even in his early writings). A tale of Lung Yove brought down by this miserable plastic doo-dad which Brenda doesn't want, maybe didn't even use, a lugubrious deux ex machina found in her dresser-drawer by a very disapproving mother. For God's sakes, we think, why didn't this schlemiehl Neil buy himself a condom? What's with him? And why does he want to turn a summer of light and tennis and country clubs and fun into a farce of plastic, artificial barricades?

--- Ginny Thomas
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