Zonana, Joyce. “Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey”, (Jewish Women Writers), The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008.
“Dream Homes” is Joyce Zonana’s story of finding a sense of home among people, foods, and places. After Israel’s War on Independence in 1948, Felix and Nellie Zonana decided to flee Egypt with their infant daughter, Joyce. They came to Brooklyn. Joyce soon realized that her Jewish family with their Egyptian culture are neither typically American nor typically American-Jewish (something we all need to be reminded of. There are Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews whose traditions and rituals are very different from the Ashkenazim, Jews from Europe. Zonana struggled feelings of isolation from other Americans and she was frustrated by never getting full access to Egyptian-Jewish culture, so she began a life-long journey to find her place in the world.
She finds and meets her extended family living in Colombia and Brazil and goes to Cairo to see her parents’ past. After she and her mother survive the devastation of Katrina, Zonana realizes that home is a spiritual state of mind. Two of the things we sense in this book seem to hover over the entire length and I imagine over Zonana’s life— family angsty and a sense of restlessness.
She grew up a misfit among the European-dominated New York Jewish community and for much of her life, she was she felt that she had been exiled. Zonana captures the suffering and uncertainty of migration and assimilation, “whether forced or formulated.”
Brooklyn Jews knew nothing about the traditions of Egyptian Jews, a community that was nearly erased from the face of the earth in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Zonana grew up speaking French and English and eating foods found only in Arab-owned stores. Her father prayed daily, but the family neither kept a kosher home nor observed the Sabbath.
Zonana is able to share the suffering and uncertainty of migration and assimilation in elegant prose and vivid, detailed descriptions. She takes us to Egypt, to New Orleans (where she taught me), to Oklahoma and we see what made her life. We read of her senses of universal loneliness, estrangement, need for answers, and desire to find a place that makes he feel complete.
The main theme is Zonana’s quest to uncover family history while breaking away from the strings that attach her to that same history.
She felt that she did not quite belong anywhere. In exploring the exile of the heart that overwhelmed her family and shaped her life, she also looks at the dispossession that haunts the next generation, the generation with no specific memories. Zonana adds a valuable dimension to the literature of Jewish exile from Arab lands.