Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Jewish and Arabic?

Jack Marshall is (was) a poet of great distinction.  He was born in Brooklyn in 1936.
 
His father Albert was an Arabic speaking Jewish man, who was born in Baghdad (Iraq), moved to Manchester (U.K.) and later migrated to the United States. His family anglicised their last name from its original Arabic to “Marshall”
 
Jack’s mother Grace (in Arabic it is Garaz) was also a migrant.  She was born to a prominent Jewish family in Aleppo (Syria), a family which ended up on these American shores.  She also spoke only Arabic, and refused to learn English when she arrived in the U.S.A.
 
Arabic was the in home-language of this Jewish couple.  Yes indeed - a Jewish couple whose most comfortable language was Arabic.  In fact they always referred to G-d as “Allah”.
 
Albert and Grace Marshall had an arranged marriage. Sadly it was also a very unhappy union. In the tight knit Syrian Jewish community in which they lived, divorce was out of the question.  Loveless marriages were not uncommon in that community
 
I have read all about this in Jack Marshall’s memoir “From Baghdad to Brooklyn- Growing up in a Jewish-Arabic family in Midcentury America”  (Coffee House Press 2005).
 
It’s a haunting tale about the Jewish-Arabic heritage as it was lived out in mid 20th century America.
 
Grace was an un-happy and pessimistic woman. Conscious of the former status of her family in Syria, and now reduced to a hard-scrabble life in Brooklyn, she was unable to love her husband and three children. 
 
Jack (her son, and the author) once asked her why she always expected the worst.  She replied “I don’t expect the worst, I expect the expected”.  (“These were her terms of engagement with a not-to-friendly future” comments her son Jack).
 
(From your blogger: At this point, whilst writing last night I fell sound asleep at the computer. I woke up two hours later!)

Blog resumed on Friday morning.
 
Albert Marshall never made much money.  He held various jobs, and owned a couple of businesses.  But he never became wealthy.  He withdrew into semi-silence, bitterly saddened by the misery of the marriage.
 
Jack remembered that his father often said: “Mind you, make money in due time, but don’t do time for making money”
 
Much of Jack’s time and that of his brother was spent at the shul.  Prayers were, or course in Hebrew, but the sermons were in Arabic.
 
Jack remembers their first English speaking (and preaching) Rabbi.  He was well versed in the Babylonian Talmud, and in the writings of the great Rabbis.
 
Once, when preaching against arrogance he said: “Adam was created last of all creatures on the eve of the Shabbat. Why?  So that if a person becomes too proud, he may be reminded, ‘the mosquito was created before you’”
 
And in another sermon: “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian”.
 
Jack Marshall paints a vivid picture of life in Brooklyn in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a member of a minority within a minority (Jewish-Arabic amongst Jews from eastern Europe).  He spins of good yarn of home life, school, play, Hebrew school, and boyhood friendships. Having been lovingly critical of his parents he mourned them deeply when they passed. He speaks of his love for a sister, Renee, who died of cancer in her fifties, and for his brother Nat.
 
He also recounts his encounters with the big wide world of art, music, science and philosophy -  encounters which would lead him away from Judaism and into atheism.

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