‘The Marriage Box’ Explores A Complex Jewish Path

When Corie Adjmi was 16 years old, her parents upended her freewheeling existence as a growler-drinking, cheeseburger-eating, cheerleader at a New Orleans high school. Despite having spent a lifetime among progressive or secular Jews and having a middling understanding of Jewish law, Adjmi’s parents decided they couldn’t see their daughter date gentiles. As it turned out, they took this so seriously they moved the whole family to Brooklyn, where they’d both been raised among their Syrian-Jewish community of origin. 

Suddenly, young Corie found herself attending a gender-segregated yeshiva and wearing long skirts. Cheerleading and cheeseburgers were extremely out of the question. Her parents made it clear she was expected to marry a Syrian Jewish young man by the time she was 18. And, despite her protestations, she did marry within the community before her 18th birthday. Forty years and five kids later, the couple is still married and very happy. 

The protagonist of Adjmi’s debut novel, The Marriage Box, is very clearly based on her own young self. Casey Cohen is also 16 when we meet her, also a cheerleader at a New Orleans high school, also uprooted when her parents decide she needs to return to her roots and find a husband. But this is not a faux autobiography; the novel takes us on a captivating journey through Casey’s complex path, a road that differs from Corie’s in several key ways. 

The Marriage Box is about telling Casey’s story, but it’s also about chronicling a key moment in the trajectory of the Syrian-Jewish community in New York City. In an interview with Tom Teicholz at Zibby’s Bookshop in early 2023, Adjmi says the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a critical shift in the societal norms of this community. “In the ‘80s [we] were going through some changes [due to] assimilating and also because [we were] becoming wealthy. [Syrians] came to this country in the 1900s, but they were not a wealthy community, so there was some growing that was happening in the ‘80s,” says Adjmi, “What happened in the ‘90s was a split. Now, the community has some members that behave and observe the way the people in the book do, but a lot of people have changed and become more orthodox, more observant.”

Casey Cohen finds herself at the center of this divide. She wants to fulfill her secular dreams of an art degree from NYU, of self-realization and individuality. Still, she feels drawn to the togetherness and culture of the community. She wants badly to belong, but isn’t sure how – after all, her upbringing has led her to encompass so many conflicting ideals. She’s torn and confused by it all, vacillating between being envious of the girls who know exactly how to follow the rules and an urge to defy convention.

Throughout The Marriage Box, Adjmi’s writing is compelling. I found it hard to put this book down; I was worried about Casey and her family, I wanted to know more about the community, I was angry at her husband (but also kind of wanted to hug him and tell him it would be ok). Adjmi clearly spent time understanding the motives and emotional worlds of her characters. No one here is superficially written. Every single character, from the key players like Casey’s best friend (Tracey) and her husband (Michael), to passing folks like fairweather friend (Bee) everyone is complicated. Just like real people. 

In interviews, Adjmi has said that she made Casey “do things I’d never do,” a choice that makes clear the author’s insistence on differentiating herself from her protagonist. One way in which Casey diverges from her creator is in her penchant for danger. Twice, she steals her father’s gun. In the opening scene, she plays a disastrous game of Truth or Dare, ending up with a scar on her belly. During her parents’ New Years Eve party, she swipes a bottle of champagne and gets drunk alone in her bedroom. Her husband, the successful and charming Michael, has a hot temper – only matched by his wife’s strong will and independent spirit. 

Indeed, although Casey struggles in many ways to feel at home in her Syrian Jewish community, it’s through her relationship with Michael that push really comes to shove. Despite being attracted to her fiery spirit, he is at home in the communal life. She wants to feel that way, and sometimes does. She feels drawn to the flavors and cultural elements that make up his world. “I’m the only one at the table who didn’t grow up between Avenue S and Avenue T in Brooklyn, where they all met up at Oscar’s candy store after school,” Casey says during a fraught outing with Michael’s friends, “Whenever I’m around them, I feel like a schoolgirl left out at recess.”

How will she navigate this divide in a way that leaves her whole? This is the driving question of Adjmi’s book. It’s a question that, ultimately, she and Casey answered in fundamentally different ways. This novel is a gorgeous debut for an author who is sure to continue writing fascinating tales that captivate readers everywhere. I can’t wait to read what Adjmi writes next.