I haven't checked the weather, but I know it is a perfect day to chat about adult Jewish literature. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Thanks for joining me here at Nice Jewish books. Hello, today I'm happy to welcome Corie Adjmi, author of the Marriage Box. Welcome, Corie.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here.
That's great. So can you tell me about your book?
Sure. So the marriage box is based on my real life. But it is fiction. But the premise is taken from our real life, which is that my character grows up in New Orleans, in a reform Jewish community, and doesn't really know much about her Sephardic background. And when she's 16, and begins to date, her parents, seemingly from her point of view overnight decided they want her to have this more traditional life, and decide to move back to where they both were raised, which was Brooklyn and the Syrian Jewish community, and which is a much more traditional lifestyle and Orthodox community. So it's obviously jarring for the character to go from living in the south to the north, from not knowing about her Sephardic roots, also not knowing anything about Orthodox Judaism. And then she also had gone to a college preparatory school. And once in Brooklyn, the expectation became that she would get married and by 18. So that's the premise of the book, which also aligns with my real life. Everything else is fiction.
All right. So when people think of Orthodox Jews in New York, they think of the stereotypical Hasidic community. But that certainly doesn't represent all of Orthodoxy, and especially not the Syrian community. So can you tell me what that community looks like?
Sure. So you know, this did not start out being one of my main goals or mission anyway, in representing a different kind of Orthodox Judaism, and showing that it doesn't look like only one thing. But it's become a really important message, at least for me, because I'm seeing how, like you said, Orthodox Jews are represented in pretty much one way, and people have one view of what that looks like. And so by showing this Syrian community, it's become very important to me to show the diversity and there was more the, the world is large, and diversity is all around us. And so I'm thrilled to be contributing to that growing conversation. Syrian Jews, in many ways, tried to assimilate that many communities did when they first came to America. And part of that was they worked hard. And during the 80s, when I came to the community on first sight, they were a very wealthy community. And so they were living a lavish lifestyle, which is not often seen, in Orthodox circles, they went to fancy restaurants, and had an extravagant parties and dressed in designer clothes. And these things were important and valuable for this changing community as they figured out how to adjust to the new world that we're living in.
Right, and as you mentioned, when Casey moves back to Brooklyn, the expectation changes from you'll go to college to, you'll get married. So even though a lot of the external things look very different, the expectation is still very similar that women will follow a more traditional role, get married, have children, support the husband and family.
Even still, like in many Jewish circles, education is a really high value. And at that time in the Syrian community, it wasn't top on the list. I would say hard work was a really important value for the men and for women. It was to get married and have a family. Today. It's a little different. I mean, today, the young people go to college, much more than they did in the 80s.
Weird thing that that was 40 years ago.
Unbelievable. I was applying to a contest at some poin, the guidelines were if this is more than 40 years ago, it can be considered historical fiction. I almost fell off my chair.
Okay. Yeah, that's pretty crazy. Yeah. So in some ways, cases, family seems kind of contradictory that even in New Orleans, when they sent her to this prestigious private school, they weren't really concerned about her grades, they just wanted her to pass. So it wasn't so much about do well, be brilliant.
That's for sure. I mean, in Casey's family, that wasn't the goal. What are the highest value for sure. And I guess, because at the root of these parents value system was marriage. Just Casey was unaware of that.
So when Casey moves back to Brooklyn, she is pretty determined not to follow that pathway, she's very insistent to her parents that she is not going to get married. And yet, she meets someone who seems to love her rebellious spirit, and that independence. And so she ends up falling in love and getting married.
She does end up doing that. She meets somebody who is charismatic and has a lot of qualities that she doesn't have. And she finds that alluring.
But then once they get married, it seems that he doesn't want to see all that independence that he initially fell in love with that he kind of expected her to get in line with the more traditional roles and not pursue the art that she was so passionate about, or getting more of an education herself.
Yes, that was an exploration on my part about marriage, and how sometimes when people meet, they present a certain side of themselves, and then get married, and then their true natures come out and how that can be problematic.
And that really forces Casey into a lot of self examination and growing up, you know, at the book starts with the wedding. And then it goes into a kind of a flashback. And so she mentioned that she didn't know that her brain was still developing and that she was growing inch during her first year of marriage that she, you know, was a young adult but focus on the young she wasn't fully mature yet.
That's for sure. She was at minute 18 I think a lot of 18 year olds think they know a lot. If not everything. You can older you find out you really didn't. So yeah, it's Casey definitely grows a lot in the few years after her marriage. She's changing. And she's noticing things in her husband. And she's aware. That's one thing that I think she that's a quality of hers, and introspective and and we follow her along that journey of discovering things in her marriage as they unfold.
So let's take it a step backward back to New Orleans. And what precipitated her parents deciding to up and move her back to New York.
While they're seeing she's making some choices that are getting her into trouble. She gets into trouble in New Orleans, and they want her out of them. They want her in a place that they consider to be safe. That is much more insular, much more traditional, much more protected. And they want that for her because they don't trust the decisions she's making.
It could be that I missed it because I was focusing so much on Casey's story. It doesn't really. It didn't really catch if you said what their reaction to moving back to this more traditional community felt for them.
They the parents in the marriage box are delighted to be back in Brooklyn. The mother never really liked New Orleans. And they feel at home and the community in Brooklyn because that's where they both grew up. So they had friends there. And history. And it was comfortable for them. They felt like they belonged and Casey did not.
But they mentioned how much it had changed in the 20 years or so since they had lived there.
They did. They did. But I guess they were willing to either accept the changes or if they even if they didn't like them. They weren't going to let that change the things they did even if they didn't like the few changes that I mentioned in the book. There was enough good They are for them to appreciate where they were, and what that lifestyle was going to offer them.
So to switch gears a little bit, it seems like one part of the Syrian culture that was present throughout is the food. It sounds like there's so many wonderful things that were part of their life in New Orleans and in Brooklyn. I'm going to talk about your your favorite recipes or dishes.
Yeah, for sure. The food what food and MUSIC I think I had a lot of fun with in this book. Syrian food is delicious to me and love chicken and eggplant. But just Friday night in general, and love all the food, we made chicken and spaghetti, we make something called Hamid, which is like a lemony soup with meatballs in it. Jabra is rolled grape leaves with meat and rice stuffed inside. And I'm a big lover of Friday night. We actually eat all that food again for Saturday lunch, just putting, but it's good.
So no Cholent for you
No!, so that was that was that was a, you know, a definite thought of like this is showing how this world and its community is not only different than other Orthodox communities, it's also different than Ashkenaz communities. But the language might Why have one grandmother who was Ashkenaz and so I think there's a line in the book saying like, the language is different. It's it's not Yiddish, it's Arabic, and the foods are different. And the values are sometimes different. Like I said, about education. That wasn't a top value for the Syrian community where it might have been more it was for the Ashkenaz as community. And so it turned out to be really important for me to show this community again, in a different light, like just to show that not all Jewish communities are the same. We are diverse. Absolutely,
absolutely. So you did kind of sprinkle Arabic through throughout the book. Well, when you got back to to Brooklyn, did you grow up speaking Arabic? Or do Syrian Jews speak Ladino?
No, I didn't. I knew like two words growing up. I didn't understand what they were or why we spent them but other people didn't like I didn't have a clear understanding about our background. And no, really, we knew like two words that generations before us did that when people first came, obviously from other countries. But little by little that went away. I think during the 60s, there was a big push to assimilate it maybe by the 80s or 90s, things started to swing back again. Were not the 80s I'd say more like the 90s maybe people started to embrace things about our culture again. When I first came, there was a lot of assimilating going on. Rejecting the old ways.
Yeah, there's always kind of that push and pull of how much to be like everyone else, and how much to celebrate your own heritage.
So you mentioned that this is loosely based on your life. Did you have to do any research for this?
You know, small things here and there, nothing too much. Really not a lot at all. Maybe just a little bit about New Orleans history. And very little of that ended up in the book. Anyway, some religious questions that I had, but a lot of it came from my own experiences.
So would you like to talk about where your in Casey's life were similar and where they diverged?
Sure. So um, I did not really do anything terrible as a teenager that, hey, we got to get out of here. Casey, Casey is a bit reckless. Casey is spontaneous. I'm not either of those things. I'm very measured. I'm very careful. And Casey's also a bit revengeful I'm also not that I think Casey is observant of other people and situations. And I think I'm not you she's a bit of a people pleaser. And that was
so you mentioned that one of the most fun parts of writing was the food and the MUSIC. Was there anything that was the most difficult to write?
Well, this book took me 20 years.
Oh, wow. really long time.
So it was difficult because I had young children at home. So that was part of why it was difficult. But the hardest part of this book was because it was so tied to my real life. I think it took me a really long time to, I needed distance from the material. But I wanted to also be able to, to have this be an entertaining story, good storytelling, maintaining the utmost respect for the community I live in and love. So it was a really fine line between making fun of, and also shining a light on certain things. Maintaining respect throughout. And I feel like, I had to learn to do that with each one of the characters, because as I wrote, you know, there's that thought in your head, oh, I don't want people to think this is my mother, or people are gonna think this is my husband, and so on. So in all those cases, I had to begin to learn, I had to learn how not to protect everybody and everything, and just have a little bit more fun on the page. And let the story take me where it wanted to take me without worrying about what people were going to think in terms of what's true, what's not true. And like I said, maintaining respect. So that was the hardest part for sure. All right.
So do you have any other works in the project? Any other started again? Do you have any other projects in the works that you would like to talk about?
I do, I'm working on another novel, I pretty much have a first draft. Actually, I'm not sure if you call it a first draft and a half or a second draft, I'm not sure where I am in it. But I've had to rework it extensively since our since I put down the first draft. So I guess it's a second draft. And my goal with that book was to keep it as far away from my real life as possible. That was fun. After doing the marriage box, which like I said, took a lot of years, I really wanted to do something that wasn't connected to my life, that would just be easier to get down on paper. And it was, um, now I just have to go back and edit and edit and edit some more. But it was inspired by a newspaper article that upset me. And so I just started writing about the character from the newspaper article, the person from the newspaper article as a character, and led to the next. And this novel, as of now is told from six points of view, which is also
Yeah, it's also been fun.
All right. So do you want to talk about that article? Or do we have to wait for the book to come out?
I can, I can talk about it. It was about a teacher in New York City at a private school who had been abusing his students.
it was just heartbreaking. So I just started to like, imagine who this teacher was and what his life was like. And he became a character. And then the people around him became characters and the story started to unfold.
Alright, well, I look forward to seeing that further down the line. Yes. So one thing I forgot to ask you about their title, the Marriage Box. Would you talk about that?
Oh, sure. Sure. So the marriage box is a real place. So when I first got to the community in 1980, during the summer, everyone would go to this beach club, where there was a pool. And behind the pool, there was a roped off section. And they used to call it the marriage box because the young girls 16, 17, 18 year old girls would go hang out in that section and boys would go there to ask them on dates, but really, the ultimate goal was to get married. And I was like, I'm not going into marriage back there is no way. So that's where the title came from it a little bit of a double meaning there too, but
that that's what I was thinking about. Yeah. And it's also very far from again, I don't know who came up with the term but the Ashkanormative sense of arranged dates and modesty. You know, they would not be hanging out at the pool in bathing suits.
Absolutely. Absolutely. It's a different world. Yep.
I love that. For me, I think empathy. I think kindness, empathy, caring, are really top of the list for me on important values that I try to oppose for myself and what I wish for the world. And so again, I didn't set out for this, but it feels to me like writing connects people to one another, and helps to have people understand people who are different than they are, which creates empathy. And so that's my contribution. And I, whether it's through writing, or other means, I think having empathy and being kind and caring about others is really important.
Wonderful, thank you for sharing that. So if people would like to connect with you, what is the best way?
Well, there's my website, Corieadjmi.com. I put out a monthly newsletter if you sign up, we love that we keep in touch and also on Instagram at CorieAdjmi.
Okay, wonderful. So Cory CLR, i e, Edge me A D. J. M, not an obvious spelling. Thank you so much for HP for speaking with me about the marriage box.
It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much for this conversation.
If you are interested in any of the books we discussed today, you can find them at your favorite board and brick or online bookstore, or at your local library. Thanks to Die Yan Kee for use of his fraleigh which definitely makes me happy. This podcast is a project of the Association of Jewish libraries. And you can find more about it at WWW dot Jewish Library's dot org slash nice Jewish books. I would like to thank ajl and my podcast mentor Heidi Rabinowitz. Keep listening for the promo for her latest episode.