The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado

Discussion Guide

About the Book

Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Lucette Lagnado chronicles the story of her family from the early decades of the twentieth century in Cairo, Egypt, to their traumatic emigration to New York in the early 1960s. Along the way, the family must contend with the death of a child, womanizing habits of the patriarch, illness, and a revolution.

About the Author

Lucette Lagnado was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1956, the daughter of Leon Lagnado, a Jew originally from Aleppo, Syria, and Edith Matalon, a Jew whose family migrated from Alexandria, Egypt. When Lagnado was a six year old, her family fled Egypt. After a year-long sojourn in Paris, the family settled in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Vassar College and a former editor for The Forward. She is the author of Children of the Flames: Dr. Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz (1991). In late 1995 Lagnado married journalist Douglas Michael Feiden. They live in New York City and Sag Harbor, Long Island.

Questions For Discussion

  1. The marriage of Lagnado’s parents, Leon and Edith, is plagued by misunderstanding, old habits, and cultural differences. How did Edith’s Alexandrian background put her at odds with Leo’s (and Zarifa’s) Syrian background? Discuss how cultural backgrounds can lead to discord between partners. What cultural differences have you encountered in your own family?
  2. Lagnado’s grandmother Zarifa believed in the magical and healing power of certain foods (pg. 37, 44). Similarly, at the Maimonides synagogue of Rav Moshe, folk medicine operates side-by-side with scholarship (138). Discuss the role of folk traditions in Jewish culture.
  3. Discuss the importance Leon placed on having male offspring. What cultural reasons were there for such an attitude? How did that attitude affect his relationship with his daughter Suzette?
  4. Discuss the attitudes of members of Leo’s extended family toward the apostasy of Leo’s brother, Salomon (Père Jean-Marie).
  5. What factors led to anti-colonial and nationalistic revolution in Egypt? How did this revolution affect Jews living in Egypt?
  6. How was the exodus of the Lagnado family similar to the biblical Exodus led by Moses? Did members of the Lagnado family, like the ancient Israelites, complain about the comforts they left behind? In what ways did they differ?
  7. Discuss your own family’s immigration to the New World. How was it similar to that of the Lagnado’s? How was it different?
  8. What makes their experience distinctly Jewish?
  9. How did each member of the Lagnado family – in particular, Leon, Edith, Suzette, and César – variously experience life in Cairo, Paris, and New York?
  10. Discuss HIAS, NYANA, and other immigrant aid organizations. In what ways do these agencies assist immigrants? What were the conflicts as well as positive experiences that members of the Lagnado family had with these organizations?
  11. Compared to life in Cairo, Lagnado describes America as a land of contradictions. Discuss the experience of Lagnado and her mother visiting Tante Roseé in New York (210-11). How did Tante Roseé’s reception of them differ from that of the neighbors on Malaka Nazli when Lagnado revisits Cairo?
  12. Despite some of the difficulties of being a Jewish family living in Cairo, Lagnado stresses that American life was also problematic. What are some of the negative aspects of American society and culture as related in the book? How does Lagnado use images such as electric menorahs and plastic flowers to illustrate these differences?
  13. For the Lagnados rice is a staple of the Passover diet. (pg. 249-254). Among Ashkenazim rice is considered hametz, but for many Sephardim and Mizrachi Jews rice is permissible. What are some of the other cultural and religious differences among Jewish communities?
  14. The Lagnado family experiences various forms of discrimination while settling in New York. How is the anti-Semitic treatment they receive from the Valerios (pg. 265-274) different from their treatment by the Cagno family (pg. 275-276)? How do these experiences compare with the discrimination they experienced in Cairo? Was the response of Sylvia Kirschner toward Leon another form of discrimination?
  15. Discuss the author’s theological response to her illness and recovery (pg. 302-306).
  16. Toward the end of the book, we are told that Leon “had survived exiles from three different countries, but it would take the fourth, America, and its quintessentially American institutions to defeat him” (pg. 312). In what ways did life in America finally break Leon down?