Remembering Lucette Lagnado, Chronicler of the Lost World of Egyptian Jewry

August 7, 2019 | Yvette Alt Miller
About the author:

The late Lucette Lagnado was born to a Jewish family in Egypt in the late 1950s, a childhood that she recounted in her best-selling memoir The Man in the Shark-Skin Suit. Life there was good, writes Yvette Alt Miller in an obituary for Lagnado, who died in July, until anti-Semitism rose in the wake of the founding of Israel.

By the late 1950s, Lucette Lagnado recalled, Jews were being attacked and were panicking. The “grand synagogue on Adly Street” in Cairo had become, she wrote, “a hub of frenetic activity, the scene every day of hurried weddings. As families prepared to flee to any country that would have them, as they plotted their escape literally to the ends of the earth—Australia, Venezuela, Canada, South Africa, Brazil—young lovers chose to tie the knot lest they be separated forever. Engagements that would have lasted months were now barely a couple of days, while weddings that usually took a whole evening were performed in an hour.”

Jewish couples would sometimes go directly from their weddings in the synagogues to the piers to catch boats out of Egypt. “There wasn’t even time to cry,” Lagnado described. “There was only a feeling that one had to get out at any cost.”

With her family, Lagnado fled to America, where she found success as a reporter and writer. But she spent much of her life mourning the lost community of her youth, though later she managed to find something close to it.

In her book The Arrogant Years, Lagnado describes how she left the Orthodox Jewish traditions she grew up in, and the loss and sadness she felt at their absence. She also beautifully describes rediscovering the warm Jewish lifestyle she craved years later, after she tracked down a beloved childhood friend who still lived in the heart of the Sephardi Orthodox Jewish community on Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. Now a grandmother, Lagnado’s friend welcomed her back with open arms.

“In my absence,” Lagnado writes, “the community . . . had grown and flourished. . . . Families stuck together here, and children lived near their loved ones even when they were grown.” It was all so much like the close-knit community Lagnado’s parents described in Egypt, and for which she herself longed all her life.

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