Jew, Turk, Frenchman, American:
Sephardic Identities in Alfred Ascher's Judeo-Spanish Diario
by Gloria J. Ascher1
Alfred Ascher chose the following long but revealing title for the memoir he wrote in Ladino in Latin letters in 1920: Diario de Mi Viajé en 2 Partes. Smyrna to New York, August 10th, 1915 – December 25th, 1915: Inolvidalves I Esmovientes Passajes – in English, Diary of My Journey in 2 Parts. Smyrna to New York, August 10th, 1915 – December 25th, 1915: Unforgettable and Moving Passages. As you probably noticed, part of the title, Smyrna to New York, August 10th, 1915 – December 25th, 1915, is already in English in the original! Indeed, American English words and expressions abound in the text of the Diario, often appearing at pivotal points. The title also reflects the influence of French: "Viajé" has an unexpected accent aigu over the "e." Like American English, French is also used throughout the Diario, highlighting dramatic episodes.
Elements of yet other languages--Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, and Turkish--also enrich the language of the Diario. The Ladino of this unique work is, moreover, characterized by the use of multiple forms: different spellings of the same word; different forms of a word, like both the more frequently used Spanish "Dios" and the more usual Ladino "Dio" for God; and even different names for the same place, like "Anglo Nissi," "English Adassi," "Inglis adasi," and "Ingless adassi," all meaning English Island, with "island" rendered in Greek ("nissi") and Turkish ("adassi") – all referring to the island called Ingliz Adasi in modern Turkish. The different names for this same island occur close to each other, even juxtaposed, so they are by no means careless or haphazard, but conscious and deliberate. Alfred Ascher's striking use of multiple linguistic forms in his Diario suggests his recognition of each of these forms as valid and connected to the others.
Like aspects of his language, the Alfred Ascher of the Diario appears in different forms, assuming various identities. Author of the Diario addressed to his family in Smyrna (modern Izmir), Turkey, Alfred is the narrator and the main character of the narrative – already three aspects of this one personage! Alfred's multiple identities may be related to his background and education, to a specific situation or experience, to future plans – or to a combination of these, and the various identities may coexist. And like his language, Alfred's multiple identities help reveal the meaning, the significance of his Diario.
In the Preface that opens the Diario, Alfred addresses his family, expressing his regret that he could not take proper leave of them before embarking on such a "dangerous journey." He mentions first "mama, papa," then individual sisters and brothers and a brother-in-law by name, repeatedly calling them "queridos," loved ones. The Preface underscores Alfred's basic identity as son and brother, as part of his Turkish Sephardic family, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire and enjoyed a happy, prosperous life there for centuries. Yet Alfred, then 23 years old, together with an older brother, Albert, are leaving their home in Smyrna, albeit temporarily, as they intend, to escape conscription in the Turkish army--in the closing words of the Preface, "to escape once and for all from the hand of this ‘Barbarous Turk'." Alfred is already beginning to distance himself from his Turkish Sephardic identity, which implies a predominantly positive view of things Turkish and of Turks, a view which has persisted in his – our – family (Alfred Ascher was my uncle). His largely negative view of Turks notwithstanding, Alfred's identity as a member of his Turkish Sephardic family continues throughout the Diario, which is addressed to his "dear ones." At the first opportunity, from Mytilene, Alfred and Albert send their family a telegram saying they have arrived. Alfred is ever aware of this special audience, as shown by expressions like "You [pl.] should have seen …" and "As you [pl.] can imagine .. . ," which punctuate the narrative.
The first identity that Alfred assumes in the course of his journey is, interestingly, that of a Turk. To get by the string of sentinels that are posted as they approach Urla, the brothers' first destination, via carriage, Alfred, with fez cocked over his eyes, starts singing as many rowdy drinking songs as he can of the Hürriyet, a popular political party. To the first sentinel, who stops them, Alfred says, "in crude Turkish" and with appropriate Turkish greetings, that they're going to their father's estate, and he gives him a cigarette to shut him up. This Turkish identity that Alfred assumes is, of course, tied to the specific situation – they must get by the sentinels! He plays the role so well that the Turkish soldier who joins them for the carriage ride also adopts Alfred's line – now they're all brothers going to their father's estate – and the sentinels let them pass. Interesting in relation to this passing, practically motivated Turkish identity is Alfred's self-characterization as "el tchilibi de Efraim," which combines the Turkish designation for a well-bred, educated gentleman – "tchilibi" -with Alfred's Hebrew name – Efraim – and the Ladino definite article – "el" -- a Turkish Sephardic identity after all, even if humorously viewed.
Alfred assumes, actually, earns another passing identity as a result of a specific situation. On the island Agrio Nissi (meaning Wild Island), Alfred and Albert are joined in their flight from Turkish authorities by six Greek bandits that Alfred characterizes as "of the lowest class," "one more stupid than the other." These bandits want to throw flame signals, as agreed, to attract the boat they are awaiting, but on the wrong side of the island, on the side that faces Urla, which would alert the Turks! Alfred finally makes them realize their mistake, upon which they nominate him their captain! Captain of a troop of Greek bandits! This is a testament to Alfred's ingenuity, his ability to explain and persuade other people, thus helping them to survive.
The most pervasive and, from a practical point of view, the most effective identity that Alfred not only assumes, but proclaims, for Albert as well as himself, is that of Frenchman. They are, indeed, French subjects, by agreement – the official term is "capitulation"– with the Turkish authorities. Many, if not most Jews in Smyrna at that time held foreign nationality. When Alfred tells the armed Greek bandit who interrogates the brothers upon their arrival at the island Yatro Nissi that they are Frenchmen, the bandit says that he himself is working for French and English authorities and will take the brothers to another island, Anglo Nissi, where there are always Allied torpedo boats. Soon after, when a group of 106 Greek refugees from the Turkish army, who are to join the brothers in their flight, greet them with Greek curse words for Jews, Alfred declares that they are Frenchmen, and that they will tell the French commandant of the other island they are headed for if they are not treated well. Instantly, the Greeks become their friends, giving them all their provisions – as Alfred wanted. Likewise, an officer from an English torpedo boat is so impressed with their identity as Frenchmen that he lavishes welcome, plentiful provisions on the now famished brothers.
In the most dramatic example of the power of French identity in the Diario, Alfred is able to save not only himself and Albert, but his shipmates, all stranded together in a rotted boat, through his brilliant idea: Alfred and Albert and the 106 Greeks join all together in greeting an approaching French ship with enthusiastic shouts of "Vive la France!" With a little persuasion from Alfred, the French captain agrees to let not only the two Frenchmen, but all 108 men on board. The French captain also instructs the captain of the English torpedo boat that is to transport all to Mytilene to give them "Special Attention" (Alfred's words – in English) because they are Frenchmen. So even the Greeks become privileged Frenchmen by association! Later, the brothers are allowed to disembark at Mytilene, where there is "no room for refugees," after showing their "papers identifying" them "as Frenchmen."
In their dealings with French authorities the brothers encounter the typical bureaucracy and do not always get what they want. Their appeal for help from the French consul in Piraeus, however, not only yields some money to tide them over, but leads to an interview with the secretary of the French ambassador in Athens, before whom Alfred pleads for assistance – financial support or work, exaggerating and crying when necessary. Eventually, the French Ambassador grants the brothers 200 francs a month during their stay in Greece. To economize, Alfred and Albert leave their hotel and rent a room with a Greek family. Again, they present themselves as French brothers. The Greek lady of the house, assuming they are Catholic, hangs a crucifix in their room, reminds them to pray, and recounts her dreams of them and of Jesus and Mary – all to the great amusement of the Sephardic, Jewish brothers.
By the last time Alfred and Albert present themselves as Frenchmen they have decided to leave for the United States but lack enough money. They ask the French consul in Piraeus to send them to the United States at the expense of the French government! The French consul denies this request, but presents a counter-offer: free passage to France, to "help our homeland." Not wanting to insult the consul, who still has to sign their passports for them to leave for America, Alfred says they do not want to go France "because of the prejudice" reported by friends "against French subjects, especially those born in Turkey." Though this is a fabrication, Alfred assumes the identity of a Frenchman convincingly, even in such a delicate situation. This is because his French identity is not merely a question of official papers. Having attended the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which promote all things French as "civilized," Alfred reflects the great influence French language and culture had on Turkish Sephardim of that time. Alfred's identity as a Frenchman thus intersects with his identity as a Turkish Sephardic Jew.
In contrast to Alfred's French identity, his Turkish Sephardic, Sephardic, or Jewish identity seems neither advantageous in a practical sense nor even very pronounced. Yet some examples have already been noted: the Turkish Sephardic connection with his French identity; the brothers' amusement at the crucifix and Christian dreams of the Greek lady; the experience of the Greek bandits' anti-Jewish greeting; and Alfred's self-characterization as "el tchilibi de Efraim." Alfred also refers to himself as Efraim in recounting his successful performance as a Turk on the carriage ride to Urla: "You should have seen Efraim, with fez cocked over his eyes ...," again juxtaposing and contrasting Turkish and Jewish elements humorously. About his fall on the trip from Chios to Piraeus Alfred comments: "One more sore on Efraimiko's mangy scalp, as if he didn't have enough!" The diminutive form of his Hebrew name, Efraimiko, enhances the humor. Alfred thus uses his Hebrew name, most often in conjunction with a more superficial, passing Turkish identity or connection, with humorous effect. His essential, enduring self-identification is with the Jewish identity that name embodies.
Alfred expresses his Jewish, specifically Sephardic identity when he, together with Albert, seeks out other Sephardim from Smyrna, in Piraeus. The man they befriend, the importer and exporter Moise Alalouf (40), is one of only two people besides family members who are mentioned by name in the Diario. The other is Leon Magriso, a Sephardic Jew from Salonika, who first suggests they emigrate to the U.S., as he himself intends. It is also through their Sephardic connections that they earn enough money for the trip: Albert gets a commission for selling a shipload of onions that his friend from Rhodes could not.
But the most significant example of Alfred's Jewish, specifically Sephardic identity occurs on the stormy voyage from Gibraltar to New York: "To see men women children [no punctuation] crying, screaming, some with a cross, others with tallit and tefillin – it pained me so much that I also started to cry." By virtue of his compassion for the suffering of other human beings, regardless of religious differences, and his recognition of their essential unity, Alfred exemplifies the best in the Sephardic tradition. He is a worthy heir to the Golden Age Sephardic Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, who wrote: "You are God. Your divinity and unity are inseparable. …It is all the same mystery. Though the names may be different, the address is the same." (Keter Malkhut 8:86-89, translation by Rabbi David J. Jacobs of blessed memory) The "faith in God" that Alfred expresses throughout his Diario resonates more deeply in this context.
God remains a constant presence, but towards the end of the Diario this presence is coupled with another: Alfred gives, in his words, "a thousand thanks to God and the United States – I can say that they saved my life." This marks yet another, the most recently assumed, identity of Alfred Ascher – he becomes an American. Alfred's American identity is already evident through his use of American English words and expressions throughout the Diario, even infiltrating its title – remarkable for someone who did not know English when he arrived at Ellis Island five years earlier. Becoming an American means not only linguistic transformation, but also familial development: Albert is already married, and Alfred is looking forward to getting married soon: "my bride was waiting here for me for 24 years."
But Alfred Ascher's Diario belongs above all to the family he left behind in Smyrna. Now carrying within him the multiple identities that he assumed during his journey – and beyond, Alfred concludes his Diario like a long, heartfelt letter, reaffirming his basic, essential, enduring identity as a member of a loving and beloved Turkish Sephardic family: "As long as I live I will always be your dear son and brother, and I will never forget you. With the hope of seeing all of you soon, I remain, as I always was, your dear, devoted and unforgettable son and brother, Alfred"
Indeed, he never did forget them, and he remains, to all who get to know his Diario, "inulvidavlé" - unforgettable!
1. Gloria J. Ascher obtained her Ph.D. from Yale University and is an associate professor of German, Scandinavian and Judaic Studies and co-director of Judaic Studies at Tufts University, Medford, MA. Born in the Bronx, New York to Ladino-speaking immigrants from Izmir, since 2000 she has been teaching several levels of Ladino language classes at Tufts, the longest continuous program in the United States. This paper was presented at the annual Modern Language Association convention in Boston, January 2013, as part of a session of the Sephardic Studies Discussion Group entitled "Bridges between Past, Present and Future Sephardic Cultures, Literatures and Identities."