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A Gay, Syrian Jew Finds His Voice, and His Identity, in the Theater
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A Gay, Syrian Jew Finds His Voice, and His Identity, in the Theater

David Adjmi grew up artistic in Brooklyn’s tight-knit Sephardic community. The stage changed his life.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Courtesy David Adjmi
Courtesy David Adjmi

When David Adjmi was a small child, his mother would drive him from their Brooklyn home to Manhattan to see Broadway shows, sit in the lobbies of grand hotels or walk through museums. She had dropped out of school at 16 to marry his father, as was traditional in their Syrian Jewish community, and even if she wasn’t quite sure what “culture” was, she knew that she wanted to imbue her youngest son with it. He wasn’t sure what culture was either, but he preferred it to going fishing with his father and brothers in Sheepshead Bay.

Raw, blunt, gripping and funny, Adjmi’s “Lot Six” (Harper) is a memoir of self-invention, the story of a man who grew up always feeling the outsider — an artist, a non-believer in their tight-knit Jewish community, a gay man. His childhood was lonely, often full of self-loathing, and he felt trapped in Orthodox yeshivas where he didn’t fit in. But he managed to hold onto his instinctive feeling that he could be a citizen of the world. The pain ultimately fuels his big talents as a writer.

“I wrote the book for people who were like me, who felt lost in the world, or hopeless, or didn’t know if their voice mattered,” he says in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I wanted to write the book to say to them: Your voice matters.”

Adjmi, 47, has won many awards and fellowships for his plays, including “Marie Antoinette,” “Elective Affinities,” “3C” and “Stunning.” The latter is set in the Syrian Jewish community and had an extended run at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. “Lot Six” is his first book.

He explains the thread that connects all of his work, “I often think that my writing is about people trying to understand how to live, searching for a moral or spiritual compass for how to be in the world. That runs through everything.”

“I wrote the book for people who were like me, who didn’t know if their voice mattered,” Adjmi says.
Kitty Suen

Mixing humor and tragedy is the way he sees life and truth, he says. “Different optics, but they’re showing you the same thing.” 

The memoir’s title is Syrian slang for homosexual. When he first heard the term as a child, he didn’t know what it meant, but did know that it was something freakish, a person who had no place in the world. He promised himself then that he wouldn’t be a Lot Six. The expression comes from Syrian business practices: Lot numbers were affixed to all of the items, doubling the wholesale price. So, Lot Six was code for three, an odd number, as he writes, “odd, as in queer. 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.”

Adjmi grew up with a family name that is well-known in the community — but his own family — both sides had immigrated from Aleppo generations earlier — was on the fringes. It had lost its wealth, lived in an undesirable part of the neighborhood and didn’t have the sports cars and vacation homes that his classmates’ families did. His mother, who was his “ambassador” to things cultural, still wanted him to fit into the community and marry a nice young Syrian woman. His father wanted him to work in an electronics store. His sister and two brothers were considerably older and mostly out of the house when he was growing up, and when their parents split up.

“In some way, exile was my native state,” he writes, explaining that the word “adjmi” derives from the Arabic “ajam,” which loosely translates to outsider, or more specifically, exile from Persia.” 

In well-crafted prose, he describes his friendship with Howie — most names are changed — for whom the distinctions between falsehoods and truths are a blur, and Adjmi is his underling in acts of mischief. With Howie and then others, it’s as though Adjmi’s self-identity is a blank canvas, painted by those around him.

For his bar mitzvah at the Ahi Ezer synagogue on Avenue S, he wears a suit bought in a discount outlet on Long Island by his father. At the party in the basement with a DJ, he has a rare moment of losing the feeling of being watched, as he danced with his sister-in-law, getting lost in the music and feeling “light as air” and later “one with the gold chains, the slithering bodies and the swarms of Armani.”

Then follow arguments with teachers where he finds contradictions in Jewish philosophy classes, suspensions and demotion to “the Dumb Class.” There, he feels free to question, less pressure to do well and more acceptance by his peers. When he is asked to leave the school, his mother fights back against school officials, but he won’t return, and finds that his “exile was transmuted into freedom.” His father won’t let him attend public school, so he finds a private school in Manhattan and feels ownership over his life — and works at losing his Brooklyn accent.

At film school at USC and then Sarah Lawrence College, he still casts about for an identity, finding thrills in intellectual and artistic pursuits, but he is also filled with deep sadness. During his senior year, he goes to see the play “Six Degrees of Separation,” and soon after is determined to become a playwright.

“I left the theater with my eyes blurred with tears — I couldn’t see straight. That play changed my life. It kind of broke me into pieces in a certain way. I had to put myself back together again. Great theater does that — it shatters you.”

Studying playwriting at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and then at Juilliard — neither are smooth paths — he begins to find his voice and the stories he needs to tell. “The thing that made me separate in the world was the thing that gave me my life. It made me who I am. I’m so grateful,” he says.

Adjmi explains that all of his plays have elements of autobiography, even if he’s not aware while writing them.

“If you have no skin in the game, if you’re not exposing yourself in some profound way as an artist, I don’t know if there is a point to it.”

About the differences between writing plays and writing prose, he says that over the course of writing his memoir the two forms “started to narrow and converge. In the beginning I was just trying to draw up memories from my lived experience and trying to figure out if there was a narrative in that, a story that is true.”

“Memoirs have to be fictionalized to some degree so the reader can ascertain the meaning and feeling, the truth of what happened. I’m not saying you make stuff up, but events have to be shaped and distilled, there needs to be narrative build. That’s what I do in my plays,” he says. When he started adding dialogue to scenes in the book, he realized that, in the absence of literal recorded transcriptions, he had to invent things to give readers a sense of the texture of his life.

His early studies of Jewish texts still percolate in his works. “I can’t see how they wouldn’t or couldn’t,” he says. “I really like Rashi. I liked the marginalia and the commentaries; I loved the recycling of questions. Maybe it’s just an innate part of being Jewish. I am incredibly rigorous and that tradition of endless questioning is very much embedded in my process as a writer and who I am as a person.”

He wrote “Stunning,” he says, thinking it would never be produced, as he was portraying a community that no one had heard of, while clashing genres and tones. It’s the story of a 16-year-old in Brooklyn pressured by her family to marry an older man, who turns out to be a con artist. The play became a scandal in the Syrian community, although many came to see it.

He says that writing it was cathartic, and he got to see it performed in the same theater where he saw John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” — and where he would later be presented with the Steinberg Playwright Award, with Guare in the audience, applauding him and later embracing him.

Adjmi went back to Brooklyn for the first time in a long while last Thanksgiving. “I had a nostalgia for the old neighborhood. I had felt oppressed by it, but I missed it. The book awakened a desire to go back to the past.”

He misses the food, the particular sensibility of the community, some of which is in “Stunning,” and the looseness of Syrian slang. He also misses “the gaudiness and the materialism — I find it repelling and delicious at the same time.” And he admits that he wishes now that he might have been part of that tight-knit world.

He adds, “I don’t have to define myself against it anymore.”

He’s now working on a play with music by Will Butler/Arcade Fire, “Stereophonic,” that is scheduled to open on Broadway next spring, and “The Stumble,” commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, about the composer Oscar Levant and his obsessive relationship with George Gershwin.

“My most Jewish play yet,” Adjmi says. 

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