From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up
In a Jewish-Arabic Family in Midcentury America
By Jack Marshall
Coffee House Press, 256 pages, $16.
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To have an identity strung together with hyphens is to live in several worlds at once. “From Baghdad to Brooklyn,” Jack Marshall’s beautifully crafted memoir, evokes an entire galaxy. Author of 10 poetry books and recipient of numerous literary awards, including the PEN Center USA Award, Marshall declares his intent in the book’s opening salvo: “This narrative will not attempt to extricate and unravel my ancestral roots, to pry loose and preen them, or choose sides between cultural and religious differences, but by a process of re- and dis-membering, to run them together, mix and match the mongrel strains, mingle and merge partitions and genealogical division,” he writes. “This in order to feed the twin streams into one twined flowing river; not in order to have it both ways, because of the fact of being both ways.”
Being both ways is the ebb and flow of Marshall’s narrative. Marshall was born in Brooklyn in 1936. His mother, Grace, was from Aleppo, Syria, and his father, Albert, was an immigrant from Baghdad by way of Manchester, England. Theirs was an arranged marriage marked by a lifetime of tension and incompatibility. Albert was 45 when he rescued the much younger Grace from spinsterhood. His clothing business failed during the depression in England. In America, he toiled in businesses owned by the nepotistic Syrian Jewish community until he had saved enough money to buy a dry goods store and own his own home.
By virtue of being the oldest of the three Marshall children, Jack was his mother’s translator of everything American. Grace never learned English, staying insistently Arab Jewish in mid-century Brooklyn. His mother’s retreat into Arabic made Marshall exquisitely sensitive to language and its nuances. He recalls listening, as a child, “to the flow of throat, slurring, coughing tones and consonants of Arabic hawked up viscerally from far back in the throat, coughed up from the lungs and viscera. Praise often sounded as vehement as curses. Often, it was difficult to tell the difference between the fervor of a rebuke and the ardor of a compliment, unlike spoken English, whose clipped words are formed more politely, civilly, with the tip of the tongue playing close behind the lips.”
Hebrew was later thrown into the mix of Arabic and English. Indeed, words and language are precious commodities for Marshall, who is drawn to the kabbalistic notion that “the Creator of the universe allots to each person before they are born a certain number of words to speak in their lifetime; when we exceed our allotment, we must pay a tax on the extra words in the world to come.” The idea became particularly intriguing to a man who constantly interpreted the words of his ancestors, taking his mother’s emotional temperature by listening intently to her Arabic and divining Sephardic tradition through Hebrew and even Ladino.
Marshall beautifully evokes the claustrophobic Sephardic community of Syrian Jews, in which businesses, synagogues, social life and Hebrew school revolve around community and family, and marrying an Ashkenazic Jew was akin to leaving the faith. Relatives were the only acceptable business partners, as well as one’s closest companions. Among the literary merits of Marshall’s memoir is the communal ambiance it conveys: the amber glow in the synagogue; the smell of gasoline in the flat that the Marshalls rented above a garage; the cooking smells, thick as fog, in Grace’s kitchen. In the end those memories gel into “tradition’s thick shield,” a protective device that engulfed and almost suffocated Marshall.
Language initially transported Marshall out of the crowded Syrian Jewish community. He read voraciously. The public library was his unending source of books on history, science and literature. He left behind traditional Judaism for the intriguing worlds that these books introduced to him. Marshall’s parents placed little value on a college education; they encouraged their son to work toward owning a business to make his way in the world. But Marshall defied them by enrolling in night school at Brooklyn College. During his time in college, he was on the editorial board of the school’s literary magazine. The editor of the magazine, an older student, became his mentor. He led Marshall to the realization that writing poetry was not a choice, but a calling.
Just as poetry beckoned to Marshall, so did adventure on the high seas. Through a series of serendipitous events, he enlisted to work as a deck hand on a freighter headed for the African coast, spending five years — from 1955 to 1960 — traveling the world as a seaman. For that first trip, Marshall packed a few clothes and a copy of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a travel guide. So his memoir, which began in the constricted spaces of his mid-century boyhood in Brooklyn, leaves a reader looking toward the horizon.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about her family and the year she said the Kaddish. She is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.