‘The Marriage Box’: Coming of Age in the Syrian Community
The Marriage Box
By Corie Adjmi (She Writes Press)
A foray into the world of Syrian Jews in America, The Marriage Box is a welcome change from the Ashkenazi context in many books written about the American Jewish experience. Author Corie Adjmi has mined her own Syrian Jewish upbringing for this debut novel; her previous book was the award-winning collection of short stories, Life and Other Shortcomings.
Readers first meet Cassandra “Casey” Cohen as a secular Jewish 16-year-old living in 1970s New Orleans. When the rebellious teen starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, her parents decide to move back to the Northeast and the Orthodox Syrian Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where they had grown up, hoping that being closer to her roots will be good for Casey.
At first, she is uneasy with the unfamiliar, opulent world in which she finds herself, filled with extravagant parties and expensive fashion—her peers receive furs from Bergdorf Goodman, Judith Leiber handbags and Tiffany jewelry—as well as unfamiliar religious observances and circumscribed roles for women. Many of her new female yeshiva schoolmates expect to get married before they turn 20. But Casey wants college and a career in the arts and bristles at her new community’s expectations.
And then there is the Getaway Beach Club on the Jersey Shore, “where members of the Syrian community come to mingle” during the summer months. Casey is appalled by the titular Marriage Box, an apt tongue-in-cheek term for an area at the club where teenage girls display themselves in the hopes of attracting a husband.
“The Marriage Box is a roped-off section behind the pool where young girls lounge on display in animal-print bikinis adorned with fringe or spotted with sequins,” Adjmi writes. “They pose in flattering positions, lying on their backs to keep their stomachs flat, flaunting their freshly waxed, tan legs, hoping to attract their naseeb, their God-given intended.”
Casey’s attitude toward her new community changes after she meets brash, overconfident Michael, who single-mindedly pursues her. She must determine if the devotion and sense of belonging he provides are sufficient to lure her away from her previous aspirations for her future.
While there’s a lot of telling rather than showing in the book, Adjmi brings 1970s and 1980s Orthodox Syrian Jewish culture to life. Readers will enjoy being swept up in a somewhat unfamiliar culture—as well as the question the book poses of just how much one should sacrifice for love and community.
Jaime Herndon is a writer and avid reader. Her work can be found at Book Riot, Undark, Kveller, Motherly and other places.