Coming of Age and Being Married in the Syrian Jewish Community

What happens when the values of your community are not in line with your own?
May 4, 2023

What happens when the values of your community are not in line with your own? Can you stay true to yourself while trying to please others around you at the same time? 

Corie Adjmi

These are the central questions posed in the new novel “The Marriage Box” by Corie Adjmi. The book follows Casey Cohen, a 16-year-old Syrian Jewish girl growing up in New Orleans in the 1970s. She is a cheerleader at her school who enjoys partying, hanging out with her best friend (and wild girl) Tracey and exploring the opposite sex. 

But one night, Casey takes things too far and gets into a world of trouble. For her parents, that’s enough: they decide that New Orleans isn’t the right environment for her or their family, and they need to make a dramatic change. They had been living a typical, secular American life, and it obviously wasn’t working out for their family, they thought. So they decide to return to their Syrian Orthodox Jewish roots, taking Casey and her brother to Brooklyn with them. 

Suddenly, Casey’s life is turned upside down. She is pressured to get married and observe Orthodox Jewish customs, which she’s never done. The other girls in her community wear bikinis and sit in “the marriage box,” a pool deck where they can put themselves on display for potential husbands. 

Casey doesn’t find it easy to make friends. She has a dark secret from her past and is worried that if people found out, they wouldn’t accept her. She is lonely and vulnerable. When she meets Michael, a man in her community who seems like her Prince Charming, she falls in love and agrees to marry him … even though she’s only 18 years old. Once married, her two opposing worlds collide: She hopes to go to college, and Michael wants her to have a baby. 

Adjmi, whose previous book was a collection of short stories, “Life and Other Shortcomings,” wrote “The Marriage Box” based on her own life experiences. She is a Syrian Jew who grew up in New Orleans, and, like Casey, moved to Brooklyn when she was a teenager. 

“The transition into this conservative and completely different world was difficult,” she said. “What happens to my protagonist, Casey Cohen, happened to me overnight it seemed.”

“The Marriage Box” offers a fascinating glimpse into what Syrian Jewish life was like in New York during the 1980s. The community emphasized wealth — extravagant parties were held at the Museum of Natural History and in large, luxury-filled mansions. According to Adjmi, this was a particularly lucrative period for the community, which also tried to stay true to its Orthodox Jewish values. 

“Readers will witness diversity within the Orthodox Jewish world, which has not been shown, or at least not shown enough,” she said. “The characters we see on ‘Shtisel’ and ‘Unorthodox’ aren’t like the characters in the book, and I’m delighted to be contributing to this expanding conversation.”

In “The Marriage Box,” Casey is confused when the people around her, including Michael, say one thing and do another. For instance, he talks adamantly about following the Torah, but doesn’t eat exclusively at kosher restaurants. She has to dress a certain modest way at school, but in the summertime, girls sit around in bikinis at the local country club to attract a husband. 

However, Casey also falls in love with Michael because he is traditional. In one heartwrenching scene, in which Casey talks to Tracey about Michael, they discuss why Casey likes him, and how this new love is changing her:

“’Michael’s old-fashioned,’ I say. ‘And kind of religious, which is weird, I know, and totally unexpected. But I like him. He does these really odd but charming things like sending you a plane ticket. He bought me a bike after mine was stolen, hired a limo on my birthday, and I know he has something amazing planned for after graduation because at yeshivah there’s no prom, no party, no mixed dancing. And he wants it to be special for me. He’s really generous.’

‘He’s really rich,’ Tracey says. 

‘I’ve moved on, Tracey. Things change.’

‘You’ve changed.’ 

‘Good,’ I say, not caring she didn’t mean that as a compliment. 

‘Religion. Money. Next you’ll tell me you aren’t going to college.’”

Tracey is right; when Casey gets married, she becomes a housewife and realizes that college is likely not in her future. She also starts to see that Michael might not be who he said he was. She isn’t so fond of making food all day (“no sandwiches for dinner,” Michael tells her), and ensuring that the bed is always made. 

It’s clear that Casey feels trapped, and she starts acting out, like she did when she was a teen, as a way to rebel. The reader wonders: Will Casey be able to push down her feelings and stay in the marriage, or will her true self emerge? Will everything go up in flames? 

In real life, Adjmi is happily married. She’s a wife, mother and grandmother who is proud of her Syrian Jewish roots. At the end of the book, she writes about her complex and meaningful relationship with her community.

“Syrian Jews have been in America for five generations now. Like every community around the globe, we have our beauty and our flaws.” – Corie Adjmi

“This warm, hardworking, charitable community is mine — it is where I chose to live and raise my family,” she writes. “Syrian Jews have been in America for five generations now. Like every community around the globe, we have our beauty and our flaws.”

With “The Marriage Box,” Adjmi hopes to dispel myths about Syrian Jews and the Jewish community in general.

“It’s often misunderstood,” she said. “There are statistics showing that incidences of antisemitism decrease when people actually know a Jewish person. I would imagine this fact is relevant with other groups of people as well. Reading is a way to ‘know’ someone and gain a view into their humanity, highlighting their values and beliefs. Unfamiliarity can fan the flames of hate and reading squashes the foreignness, cultivating empathy and understanding in its place.”

The book is also essential reading for married couples; it’s relatable and shows the effects of a lack of communication. It’s understanding and empathetic, not blaming Michael or Casey for the problems in their relationship.   

“Marriage is hard work,” Adjmi said. “In America, close to half the marriages end in divorce. Many couples start out unprepared for the challenges of marriage, expecting ‘happily ever after.’ It would be beneficial for couples to understand more about themselves and the realities of making a life with someone else before they got married.”

In her decades of being married, Adjmi said she’s learned that, “Collaboration, teamwork and a mutual desire to put energy into the growth of the relationship is essential.” 

Corie Adjmi will be discussing “The Marriage Box” on June 7 at 6 p.m. at Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monica. Learn more: Zibbysbookshop.com/event/cori-adjmi.

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