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Tell Us About ... A Memoir
By Morris Beja
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Morris Beja
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Chapter OneThe Family
We were a family of five: my father, Joseph Beja; my mother, Eleanor Cohen Beja; my older sisters, Rachel—the oldest child—and Rebecca; and me. To Rae and Bette (those were the names they chose to go by; I was just Morris) and to me, our parents were always Papa and Mama.
Papa was born in 1897 on the island of Chios, then part of Turkey, although he was Greek. Mama, Greek as well, was also born in Turkey, in 1900 in Smyrna, now Izmir. (I've long gotten a kick out of the fact that the two most traditional sites for the birthplace of Homer have been Chios—"rocky Chios" in the Odyssey—and Smyrna.) My parents were Sephardic Jews: that is, descendants of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century.
Papa came to the United States in 1916, at the age of nineteen, on his own, on the ship the Vacilefs Constantino. He was one of eight surviving children (five boys and three girls) of Morris Beja and Miriam Issachar. In the order of their birth the children were Ralph, Esther, Julia, Joseph, Isaac, Jack, Matilda, and Seymour. I was told that Ralph and Jack left Chios to avoid military service, but I never heard that about Papa. I do have a digital copy of his draft card during World War I (and one for World War II as well).
Apparently Morris was not a very good or conscientious father or husband, and after a time Miriam followed her children, all of whom immigrated to the United States: I remember being told that he "sent" her to America. Like the vast majority of Jews who came through New York City in those years, my family all stayed there. In the early decades of the twentieth century, one quarter of the population of the city were Jews, although relatively few of them were Sephardim.
Miriam died in New York in the early 1930s, before I was born. I'm not sure if the youngest child, Seymour (born in 1908), had come with her to America or later. Her husband never left Chios, and Uncle Seymour later recalled realizing, when he left home in his early teens, that he would never see his father again. Many emigrants from various lands did not abandon the notion that they would some day return, after becoming well-to-do in America. For Jews, that attitude was rarer, for they often fled oppression as well as poverty. My parents didn't speak much of oppression, but neither were they of a generation when it was easy or common to go back to their origins. My father did not return to Greece and Turkey for a visit until he was in his late sixties; my mother never did.
The history of the Sephardic Jews is fascinating. One of the most intriguing aspects of their culture is the way they kept the language of their ancestors for hundreds of years. Or a form of it: what is variously known as Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino (a term sometimes referring to the liturgical language of the Sephardim, influenced by Hebrew), or Judezmo. So while my parents were born in Greece and Turkey, and they knew Greek and Turkish, what they always spoke in our home was a form of Spanish—a form that sounded old-fashioned, the way I suppose Elizabethan English would sound to a contemporary American. Once as a child I was in a butcher shop with my mother while she was conversing with another customer, a woman from Puerto Rico. The woman said in genuine admiration that Mama's Spanish sounded "aristocrático."
Down through the generations and centuries Spanish took over even for the descendants of the expelled Portuguese. There is a town in Portugal named Beja, and Beja is a fairly common name in that country, or at least not uncommon. Mama and Papa never spoke or, I believe, thought of themselves as Portuguese, but as Spanish. They would talk, often proudly, about Spain—for example about Christopher Columbus (in our world, everyone knew he was Jewish)—but I can't recall their ever mentioning the town of Beja. Still, I assume my father's ancestors came from there, subsequently wandering in exile over the Mediterranean, often welcomed by the Ottoman Empire, so that—four hundred years after the expulsion—Bejas lived in Chios. The earliest record I have found of someone named Beja on the island dates from 1821, during the Greek War of Independence. In that year the Turkish authorities rewarded one Moses Beja—Moses, Moshe, Morris: in other words, my name—for, I'm afraid, his cooperation with the Turks. They did so by presenting him with three Greeks as slaves. He promptly freed them. I interpret that latter fact as evidence of two things: my ancestor was after all a nice guy, and he was also not stupid, and realized that he had to continue living on the island.
I'm sure actually that there is no connection, but anyway Beja is also the name of a north African multi-tribal group of people that included the Hadendoa of Sudan. The Hadendoa warrior was made famous by Rudyard Kipling as the "Fuzzy Wuzzy," in his poem by that name, narrated by a British "Tommy":
We've fought with many men acrost the seas,
An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not:
The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot....
So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man....
That's me all right.
For my father's mother's surname, Issachar, I can only point to the existence of that name in the Bible: in Genesis 30:18 Jacob's son by Leah is called Issachar, and in Joshua 19:23, for example, we hear of "the tribe of the children of Issachar."
The Sephardic population of Greece, and of the world, was delivered a horrible blow by the Holocaust. The center of that population, Thessaloniki (or Salonica), with 50,000 Jews, was almost entirely deported to Auschwitz, and murdered. There were Bejas on Chios at least into the 1930s; I have seen varying reports about whether there were any left to be victims of the Nazis, but apparently one family with that name was removed from Chios in 1943—presumably to a concentration camp. Every once in a while during my childhood someone would visit our home who had numbers tattooed on his or her arm.
Long after I left the Bronx, and after both my parents were dead, Ellen and I traveled to Chios, and then to Izmir. I had never been to either place before our visits in the early 1990s. Being there brought home to me all the more forcefully what I have long realized, above all while making notes for this memoir: that I regret not having asked many more questions about my parents' childhood world than I did, and not having listened so much more carefully when they talked about their memories. In Chios, I didn't even have an address. By then, Uncle Seymour was quite elderly, and he couldn't remember much either. He did say that in Chios their neighborhood was called "Francomahala"—a term I subsequently learned would mean the quarter of the Francos, or of the Jews or Sephardim. But I couldn't find such an area on any maps. There were no Jews on the island anymore and no existing Jewish neighborhood. We decided to rent a car, and as the agent handling the transaction and we were talking, I asked if he had ever heard of Francomahala, and he perked up: he grew up there. He pronounced it Frángo Mahalá, and he showed us the area on a city map.
We wasted no time seeking out the neighborhood, just a bit northwest of the municipal garden. We wandered around, unable to pin down any particular address, but paying special attention to all the houses that looked as if they might date from the end of the nineteenth century or the early twentieth. Seymour had told us about trailing after his older sisters to "the French school" but not being allowed to go in. That would be, I learned, one of the many schools in the Ottoman world created in the nineteenth century by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which also revolutionized Sephardic education by teaching girls as well as boys.
When we met an elderly man in the neighborhood, I asked in my limited but sufficient Greek if he knew of a French school, and he walked us to it, still there. We found, as well, the site of the school my father must have attended; although there was a new building, in the playground area we could see what were clearly the foundations of the original school.
When we visited Smyrna—Izmir—for my mother's sites, again we had no addresses of any kind. My mother had spoken of being able to see the sea from her home, and the largest synagogue in the city—Bet Israel—was and is close to the shore, and to an elevator, which still runs, that went to the upper part of that area of the town, the old Jewish quarter, from which one can see the water.
I knew too that there had been several synagogues in the Kemeralti Bazaar, in the central part of the city, but when we went there, no one seemed to know where they were. But everyone was helpful, so when they couldn't answer us themselves, they took us to someone who might be able to. When that person couldn't help, he or she took us somewhere else, and all the while we lost no one along the way; everyone wanted to see where such a synagogue might be. My Turkish was non-existent except for what you can say with a phrase book, but soon enough we were taken to a young woman whose English was very fluent, and eventually to a hidden, out-of-the-way door, with no sign on it, but next to a small craftsman's shop where the proprietor had a key. We were allowed in, and we were all awed by the synagogue we then saw: the building is small but still beautiful and still clearly used, if not very publicly. Before we left we were taken to two other synagogues as well. So I like to think, and do think, that I've seen where Mama would have gone to shul.
My mother's name, Cohen, is so widespread that it is much harder to trace than the name Beja: it and its variants (Cohn, Cahn, Kohen, Kohn, Cowan, Cohan, Cohanne, and so on) are derived from the Hebrew for "priest" (kohein) and are the most common of all European Jewish names. The Cohens are said to be descendants of Aaron, the older brother of Moses.
My mother's father—Nissim Cohen—married a woman named Rebecca (I don't know her maiden name), who gave birth to Eleanor and her younger brother, Ralph. When Rebecca died, Nissim married her sister, Sarah, who, in family lore, did not treat Rebecca's two children well or want them around. Eventually, Nissim and Sarah emigrated to Argentina, where they had five children: Sam, Rebecca, Anna, Rachel, and Albert. In later years Mama would visit her siblings there, and at least Sam visited the States.
In adulthood, Bette would remember how Mama's stories about her treatment had made her, Bette, cry, and she still teared up over them. Yet Mama also remembered her childhood in Smyrna fondly, and often spoke of having been educated well, as distinct from Papa, who had very little schooling. He too could speak a smattering of various languages, but Mama knew several quite well: Greek, Turkish, Judeo-Spanish, French, and English. She went to a French school run and taught by nuns—not to one of the Jewish French Alliance schools. As a child I was struck by all that multilingualism, and once I asked her, "Ma, what do you think in?" She honestly replied that she couldn't tell me. That frustrated my young and literal mind, and I persisted, until she finally said that she wasn't sure, but she knew she still counted in French, because that was how she had learned arithmetic in school.
I mentioned that Mama was born in 1900. That's the official date, but it's not certain. My cousin Claude believes she was born the same year as his mother, 1906. And Mama used to talk about having lied, I'm embarrassed to report, on some documents in later years, so that she could get Social Security benefits earlier than she otherwise would have (earlier, in other words, than she would have been legally entitled to). That also goes with stories my Aunt Julia (actually my parents' cousin) told me after Mama's death. They came to America together on the Madonna, arriving on November 13, 1922, as teenagers. Julia would rock with laughter as she told me about how she and Mama used to flirt with the guards on Ellis Island. (My mother was very pretty.)
Papa's stories about Ellis Island were not as pleasant, and in fact they both talked about the fear the whole process of immigration could instill. Especially traumatic was the examination of the immigrants' eyes. The medical authorities used a button hook to lift the eyelids of the immigrants, obviously a frightening experience in itself, looking for signs of trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease. If such signs were found, the immigrant's clothing was chalk-marked with an E for eye, and the person was put aside and forbidden entry into the country— and would be shipped back across the ocean.
Papa had sent for Mama: they had never met before she arrived in New York. They were first cousins, but they planned to marry, and I suppose in some ways it was an "arranged" marriage. Apparently Papa fell in love with her right away, but it took her a while to feel that sort of affection, although he too, according to all the testimony I've heard, was quite good-looking: not so tall, but dark and handsome. (Dark enough to be called, for his nickname, "El Preto," the black—a Portuguese word, interestingly.) In any case they married a year after her arrival, on November 10, 1923.
It's hard for a child to know for sure, no doubt, but I'm confident they loved each other. I know with absolute certainty that Papa loved Mama, if only from—but not only from—his agony as a widower in later years. I must have seen too many romantic movies, but once as a kid I mentioned to my mother that she and Papa never seemed outwardly to show much affection for one another. (Outward affection for me was never in scarce supply.) One evening, I was supposedly asleep on the folding bed in our living room, although they knew I was still awake. They were at the front door next to the kitchen; Papa was about to leave the apartment to go somewhere. Mama whispered to him about the conversation she and I had had. They then made a point of saying some affectionate words, and they kissed each other goodbye. I knew it was a show for my benefit, and I felt a little bad about that, but I felt good about it too.
Their first child, Rachel, was born the year after they married, on September 6, 1924. Rae was a sickly child in some ways. Early on she developed an ear infection—mastoiditis—that plagued her all her life. She was also what we used to call "nervous" and high-strung. Rae grew up to be one of the most generous people I have ever known, and certainly one of the most loving, yet according to her own testimony as an adult, she was spoiled and irritable as a child, indulged in because of her illnesses. But I don't think she was a happy child.
I've mentioned that my folks spoke Spanish (or, strictly, Judeo- Spanish) at home. Rae didn't know English as an infant and didn't learn it until she went to school—like many Hispanic children today, of course. When she came home from school her first day, she ran crying to our mother, bawling in Spanish, "Ma, they don't talk like me." Bette in contrast learned English all along; to a degree she was for a while bi-lingual. By the time I came along, I could understand Spanish, but I hardly ever spoke it. So often we would have a scenario in which my parents or other relatives would say something to me in Spanish, and I'd quite naturally reply in English, and we'd all be happy with that. Unfortunately, after a while I lost much of even that level of skill in Spanish. We never learned Greek as children. When I did, it was because Nancy, three-year-old Andrew, and I spent a year in Greece in the mid-1960s, where I was a visiting professor under the Fulbright program at the University of Thessaloniki.
Once, when she was in her seventies, Rae told me with remaining resentment how, the week I was born—she would have been ten—and while Mama was still in the hospital, Bette and she were in the care of their aunts and uncles. A bunch of cousins, including Bette, were being taken to the movies by Uncle Seymour. Movie tickets were then maybe ten cents, if that, but when Seymour asked if she was coming, she said no, because her mother hadn't given her any money, and he said all right, and everyone else went. She cried and cried over that, and when she recounted the story almost seventy years later, she said that she came to love Seymour dearly in later years—and I know for a fact that that's true; but because of that incident she hadn't loved him as a child. She told me it had been years since she'd been able to tell that story without crying—but in fact she was on the verge of tears while speaking.
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