I read a lot of Jewish lit and most of it revolves around Ashkenazi Jews (those who immigrated from Eastern Europe). I haven’t read many stories or even know many Sephardic Jews – those from Spain and the Middle East. The Man in the Sharkskin Suit is the story of a prestigious, Jewish family in Cairo in the 1940′s and 50′s who eventually flees to Brooklyn under the Nasser regime.
Lucette Lagnado, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal retells her father’s (Leon aka “Le Capitain”) life which is the opposite of the American dream. Throughout most of his life, he is a dashing, cosmopolitan entrepeneur who lives life to the fullest. He begins his day in synagogue, then goes on to wheel and deal (Lagnado never really knew how her father earned a living – just that he seemed to be some kind of high-end peddler) and then socializes with Cairo’s glitterati late into the evening. Leon is portrayed as a dashing figure, the title of the book stems from the fact that he always wore white sharkskin suits, and he is idolized by the author who becomes her father’s companion throughout most of his life.
Lagnado is the youngest of four and her father dotes on her and gives her all of the affection that he does not give towards his wife and other children. While Lagnado sees her father through rose colored glasses, she does a good job of also showing the dark side of Leon. Her parent’s had a very unhappy marriage and her other siblings had a much more strained relationship with their father. Lagnado’s mother is the least likable character in the memoir. She is a weak woman who realizes that her marriage was a mistake in the first few months and spends the next 50 years as the miserable, underdog.
With the rising tide of anti-semitism after the formation of Israel and Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt, life becomes more and more difficult for the Jews of Cairo. Finally in 1963, Leon realizes that he has no choice but to leave Cairo. The rules were very stringent about emigration and families were not allowed to leave with any money – only clothing and personal items. Jewish Services agencies around the world took responsibility for emigration of these Egyptian Jews and most settled in either Israel or America. Lagnado’s family ends up in Brooklyn via Paris penniless and with no prospects for a viable future. The remainder of the book details the hardships that they encountered including the author’s serious illness and the eventual estrangement between the other siblings and their parents.
This book is a heart-felt, personal account of a family’s tumultous life which started in the Old World and ends in the New World. What does not change throughout the memoir is Leon’s unwavering adherence to Judaism and his deep love for his daughter. I really enjoyed this book and was most fascinated by the description of Cairo in the 1940′s. I had no idea that it rivaled Paris with its nightlife and was a booming melting pot of Christian’s, Muslims, Jews, Egyptians and British who were stationed there during the war. Leon represented a time and place in history that his daughter beautifully recreated with this memoir.