To my mother’s Syrian Jewish family, I was always “half bagel, half baklava,” in other words, half Ashkenazi, half Sephardic. Having a “J-dub” father (a pejorative used to describe an Ashkenazi Jew) was a kind of Scarlet Letter for a community that prides itself on suspicion of outsiders, even other Arab Jews. My mixed background effectively exiled me from their particular diasporan enclave and its nonstop wedding, bar mitzvah, and bris circuit. But the same did not happen to the playwright David Adjmi, who is fully “SY” (an abbreviation for Syrian, and what the community calls itself) and was raised within the confines of the lettered avenues of Midwood, Brooklyn.
His newly published memoir, Lot Six, as well as his 2009 play Stunning, are testament to a rapturous ability to capture the cadence and idiosyncrasies of a group never previously brought to dramatic life in mainstream culture. With Stunning, for instance, Adjmi tells the story of Lily, a teenage Syrian Jewish bride living in the cloistered Midwood neighborhood, who hires Blanche, a Black academic, as her housekeeper. Their relationship, and subsequent romance, unspool her neophyte perceptions of identity and sexuality. It is this innate dexterity with dialogue and storytelling that has garnered him numerous honors, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Steinberg Playwright Award; his plays have by now been produced around the world, by companies as diverse and prestigious as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Steppenwolf Theater group.
As for his memoir’s title, it has dual meaning in the Syrian community. It refers to a lexical convention used by businessmen to negotiate with customers, and also “code for three, an odd number—odd, as in queer,” Adjmi writes in his book. “It wasn’t just an epithet for a gay person—it was a price tag, a declaration of value. And a Lot Six had no value. The identity, if I ever claimed it, would render me worthless.”
Lot Six took Adjmi a decade to write, mostly because he wasn’t sure he had a story to tell. Prodding from an editor to put more of himself in the book spurred a shift in direction, resulting in a crisp and unbridled narration that spans his childhood, his coming out, and a fraught relationship with a teacher at Juilliard, and finally closes with the debut of Stunning at Lincoln Center’s LCT3. “Eventually, this Künstlerroman structure started to emerge, and I realized that was the story,” he told me via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “The book was almost like chiropractic work. It was like adjusting the vertebrae to try to actually make a corpus, make my life make sense to me.”
Adjmi talked to me about the fluidity of his identity, loneliness as a source of artistic attunement and what representation means for a community so repelled by the idea of exposure. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Marisa Mazria Katz: Lot Six tells the story of an extremely superstitious community that is walled off from the outside world. Was it difficult to find a language to express the contours of this culture to outsiders?
David Adjmi: Part of what I’ve been wrestling with over the course of my life is that people, even other Jews, don’t really know what I am, or what this little niche is. I was born into a community that is really insular and tiny and had this very tangled history. I don’t even totally understand it, and no one really spoke about it to me.
What new pressures did you feel as a writer after being offered such a prestigious book deal?
An editor at HarperCollins had seen Stunning and read an article about me—after which he invited me to write this book. [I thought,] Why? I don’t understand. Maybe they thought, Niche identities are hot, that’s going to be a big publishing coup for us? I fought them a little and then I thought, OK, well, I can write a book, but it won’t be about me, and it won’t be about Syrian Jews. It’ll be about culture, and I’ll write about Heidegger. I thought I wanted to prove to theater people I’m smart, I know things; I’m not just some garden-variety playwright, I have this whole other life.
At what point did you shift gears and abandon the academic macro-view of culture?
I started with that and then my conscience wouldn’t let me just do it—it was kind of boring to me in the end to show off that I knew about Heidegger. I thought, There’s no skin in the game, nothing at risk, and nothing for me to learn about myself. I have these gaps and lacunae in my consciousness that I need to fill. I could feel as I was doing it, like, Who am I? What the hell happened to me? I didn’t understand.
So I had to talk about this Syrianness. I didn’t want to because I thought no one will want to hear about this, or read about it, because it’s niche and there’s no syntax for it in the [wider] culture.
The only mainstream representation of it I have ever seen is through the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, also Syrian-Jewish, who discusses it in his memoir, I.M.
Isaac sort of wanted to do what I wanted to do, which was, Ugh, I want to leave this all behind. But of course, it’s like a Möbius strip, the past and the present, the bands have to meet up at some point. I had to write about it, because I had to understand myself, and I had to find a way to talk about my invisibility within this community that [itself] feels invisible, and these multiple kinds of exile that I experienced growing up, and try to find a way to make myself visible.
But what does that mean? Visible to whom? And under what circumstances? There were moral questions bound up with that. And there were aesthetic questions bound up with it.
The book starts with you as an eight-year-old driving into Manhattan with your mother to see the musical Sweeney Todd. The city—its art and culture, in particular—takes on an almost mythical persona in the book.
When my mother took me on these trips into the city, I just knew that there was something in that environment I wanted to internalize in some way. Maybe it was just very cursory. I mean, I know it was because it’s so overwhelming; there’re all these whirring instruments, people dancing, and restaurants. And it looked so much better than Midwood.
What do you think your mother was trying to impart on these trips?
My mother wanted two things for me, and they were both opposed. She wanted me to become part of this community and marry a Syrian girl. And then she wanted me to be civilized—to achieve some kind of promise that she felt I had—which meant going against her to sort of violate, or transcend, her. So the city was this mediating ombudsman influence. It was almost like a tutor she was sort of hiring for me.
You also talk about experiencing a subsequent “period of neglect” from your mother and your father, who was traveling a lot for work. What kind of impact do you think that had?
I think loneliness and alienation are really—I hate to say this—a kind of sustenance for artists and writers. I think most writers I know had very lonely childhoods and that is where they develop their acuity and facility with observation and thinking things through in a very complicated way, in a way that a lot of other kids just don’t have time to do.
It’s heartbreaking to think about that, but I actually think my time alone as a child encouraged a certain kind of independence and self-reliance. Even though I wasn’t really capable of those things, I had to be, and I’m certain I parlayed that into my writing.
How did this correspond with your own personal identity?
I didn’t go to a school that taught me Syrian history or Arabic. It was an Ashkenazi school. They were, like, Fine, we’ll let you win because we need you to subsidize other people’s tuition, because [in their eyes] Syrian Jews have a lot of money. (Not my family, but a lot of others did.) It seemed to be this strange Devil’s bargain that this yeshiva had entered into, and we all kind of knew it. We were sort of elided there.
I was very light-skinned. My mother’s very light-skinned, everyone in my family has very light skin, we look white. And it wasn’t until later in my life when I was like, Wait a minute, who am I? I don’t think I’m white. Where am I from? Because they’re ahistorical in the micro and the macro, no one sat around saying, This was my story, this happened to me, and this is where you come from.
It was all kind of a wash. I was like, Wait, I’m sort of Spanish, sort of Jewish, but I’m also an Arab. I think all of these diasporic elements just kind of canceled each other out. I just said, I don’t know and I’m going to start from scratch.
What would it have meant to you if you claimed the Syrian Sephardic Jewish identity?
I could only do two things: I could have had a jeans company or an electronics company or store. Those are the two things that were offered to me by my dad. I knew I couldn’t do those things.
There are also many unwritten rules you have to abide by in order to be a full-fledged member of the community.
It wasn’t a cult, but it felt cult-like to me because I had these inborn feelings that were rejecting everything they were trying to instill in me. It was as if I was Teflon—that is, the Lot Six part of me. It’s not just about being gay, and this thing that I’m born with that’s part of me that I cannot exorcise, but it’s a whole aesthetic sensibility and a moral and aesthetic calculus resistant to being tampered with.
The chapter about your time at Juilliard is hard to read. Your teacher, whom you call “Gloria,” openly criticizes you in a way that feels unnecessarily painful.
I was so broken down after that program, but I think I was broken down by it because of me. I think that that professor was mirroring something that already existed in me: an insecurity, a self-loathing, and a terror that I had of myself. And, in some ways, I needed to have that exposed and challenged, and it was sort of sink or swim.
Have you had any reactions from your family about the memoir?
My sister read the book and loves it. My brothers haven’t read it yet. And I told my mother not to read it. She said she’s not going to, but I don’t know if she will or she won’t. She just likes that it is dedicated to her. So I said, It’s good. You have a book that’s dedicated to you. Put it on your shelf and just look at it.