Pasha: Ruminations of David Aroughetti

Shalach Manot

(Translated from the Ladino by Shalach Manot)

Djoya Hattem Crespi. Wallhanging, Canakkale, Turkey, ca. 1902. Silk embroidered with silk threads. Collection of Jane Mushabac. Courtesy of the author.
I am David Aroughetti, Turkish Jew.

Everyone knows that there are two types of people, those who are seen as the pasha, who are big and have a manner which tells the whole world that they are important, who are strong, who speak with authority, directly, saying what they want and of course expecting to receive it and that everyone will listen to them. It does not matter if they are—what is the word?—stout; it is better because no wind can blow them aside, and there is no one who can change their mind or ideas on something. Don’t be stupid. Yes, they can change their opinions or ideas, but from the beginning, from the first, this kind of person says something with vigor and force. And afterwards, no matter, with the same force, he says the opposite—with the same fierceness, with a clear eye, and he doesn’t have to explain to anyone why he changed his mind. It does not matter why. Now it is what it is and everyone must listen and do what he says.

It is interesting to know that religion is not important to this kind of person because…because? It is not important to speak of such things. Yes, a Jew of this kind is Jewish, what do you think he’s going to be? Christian? Turkish? Don’t be ridiculous. The important thing is to be strong and powerful and not take garbage from anyone.

In the Turkish world it was normal for men to be this way. Well, not everyone but many. The head of the family. And soon the women understand that they should present the same face to the world. The man knows how to speak like a dog, with a short bark so that no one can ask for anything. And soon the woman knows how to do exactly the same thing. It is something to see! It is a marvel! After some years of receiving this kind of speech, the wife like an acrobat high up in the circus tent, with her partner, can take the same steps—her chest high—on the high wire, her muscles strong and perfectly steady.

Religion doesn’t matter because it’s woman’s work, lighting the Shabbat candles, cooking kosher, two hours plucking the feathers from a chicken to make dinner, soaking the chicken in salt. There’s so much women have to know, the dishes for meat and for milk, all these things are the job of women, a lot of work, but it’s okay, it’s for the family.

In New York, of course, things are different. After many years, the woman says the same thing, that religion doesn’t matter, it is too much. Religion isn’t in style, it’s passé. But that is many years later.

Oh, I was going to speak of the other kind of people. You know, it doesn’t matter. We’re not going to speak of the other kind of people, who are small and humble and think they should serve people. When I think about them, my stomach contracts, my…..let’s not speak of them. The world is not interested in this kind of person. Don’t think that life doesn’t mean work. In the new world I worked very hard. From my work I was able to buy a mink coat for my wife. Con el mink coat--With her mink coat—we went to weddings and parties in the catering halls del Bronx. Everyone knew we were important and that I take care of my wife and my family. I want to explain something. I came to New York in 1910 and after two years of selling cigarettes on the street, and working in a skirt factory and doing everything, I wanted to marry. In New York, full of people, millions of people, the streets packed with people running in all directions, there was no wife for me. The coffee houses on Allen Street were full, and smoky, with men desperate for life, for money and hope. It was better to go back to my country, and get a wife there. And I did it, the same as I did everything in my life, with no problems! I liked this novia which my father said was for me because I was strong, strong of body and mind, and even more because I knew to go to America and make my way in the New World. My novia was strong, she wasn’t a skinny little thing, her hair flowed like a river from her head, and her heart was full of the riches of the Jewish Turkish life. Her brothers knew also that the world is big and that America was an open door for everyone who wasn’t afraid of crossing the sea.

First I came back to New York, and she afterwards, by herself. Imagine! she crossed the sea by herself in a big ship. From the first day I saw her, her eyes sparkled like diamonds, diamonds of pleasure in life. Do you know that she had studied embroidery for three years in a convent near her house in our small city in Turkey? And her trousseau was something to behold, the best in the city. Her mother was grand like a queen. My novia had four brothers and a sister. OK! an important family. And her older brother had found a novia in Cairo, the daughter of a rich family with the most famous store in the city, a great emporium of candelabra and carpets, which were the richest in the world. This brother became my business partner many years later.

Well my novia came for our wedding in New York, alone, like an angel on a ship, leaning over the railing over the sea, her eyes brilliant and her dreams expanding as she stood looking at the big sea. How strong she was, this seventeen-year-old girl. All she had was her heart and her courage and the trunk with her trousseau, including embroidered underclothing of the latest French fashion, everything with handmade lace, and then a large embroidery for the wall she had made in the convent that could go in a mansion in Italy. It was silk, a pastoral scene with a rich man under a great tropical tree laden with pomegranates and with a great blue plumed bird with a beautiful eye—the man in brilliant clothing, a red cape and black stockings, with a dog nearby, all beautifully made, each stitch perfect in the smooth meadow of grass and flowers, square after square where the rich Adam stood. I think very few novias could make such things which belong in a museum in a golden frame. Imagine the riches which were coming to my side on this steamship.

I found a place to live in Harlem with her, my queen, my beauty over all, my Jewish Turkish soul of our sefaradit culture, of the glory of Spain, Italy, Venezia, Sicily, all brought together in her.

I am going to tell you something. That I am not a musician like my father. My father played the violin. It was a thing of the heart, the Turkish music that came from this box of wood, a box in the form of the body of a woman, with curves and openings that no one should think about, and which sang the glory of the New Century with an Ancient Heart from old centuries in Spain. Let me tell you a story of what happened in my house when I was a boy in Turkey. I wanted to play this violin. But I wasn’t the oldest son of the family. My father said every day that I couldn’t touch his violin, not even with my little finger. It is for the first son, your older brother, and you must never forget that. Every day with my eyes full I saw that the violin was not for me. The first son was going to inherit the violin, and with it the life and work of a musician.

One day my father and my brother were not home. No one was home, just me. There was the room where usually my father taught my brother to play the violin and put his name on the art of Turkish music, hour after hour, day after day, leaving me outside the room listening and thinking about the life of the second son, a life with nothing. On this day the door of the room was closed, but nobody was home. I opened the door and there it was, the violin was there on the table like a golden bird, looking at me timidly with interest. Of course I took it right away in my hand. I wanted to play, but I knew nothing, only the sound that I wanted to hear, the way of standing with the violin in my hand. The bow in my fingers, the violin under my chin, like a religious priest I put the bow on the strings, first calmly and then with a great wild vigor even though I did not know what I was doing and the sounds that I made were nothing like the sweet melody in my head.

Suddenly the door opened and there was my father, furious. Put it down, he barked at me, and of course I did. With fear and care I put the violin on the table just as my father said. Of course I was his son and when my father told me something no questions asked I did what he told me, without thinking of anything else. The violin looked at us from the table while my father came over to me and smacked me in the head. Never! Never! Never! The musician is going to be your older brother. My violin is for my first son. Actually my father didn’t say a word to me. But his hand on my head one two three times said it all and I never played violin again in Turkey.

Why this story? Don’t think it was sad. It made me strong. This is life. To be a pasha you have to know the rules and be strong. Well I knew that it was not for me to become a musician. Good. I had to do something else to live. What was it going to be? I thought very hard like the three kings of the world. And don’t worry, I am smart with my eyes open and I can see everything. Selling cigarettes on the streets of New York was just a beginning.

What you have to know is that my novia arrived in New York. The ship came exactly when and how the papers said. And there was my beauty with a scarf covering her dark hair cascading over her shoulders.

I have to tell you what happened after the wedding, and I am going to tell you right away without leaving out anything. The truth was that there was no blood. Do you know what that means? Everyone understands that. After the wedding, there should be blood, the blood of the new wife in the bed. And there wasn’t. I kept my silence, saying nothing in the bed. Am I the man or a chicken? I didn’t say anything for an hour. I felt like a man who had been robbed in the night. I had to think. Get out! I said to her. No longer my wife! Get out of my bed, my house, my family. Go back to Turkey. You are not for me. I barked like a dog in a rage. It was simple, direct and incontrovertible. She yelled out from bed as if I had struck her with my hand, but my words were much worse. She was wearing her nightgown, the one from the trousseau rich and white like the stars in a dark night. But of what value is white clothing without the most important thing in the family, the whiteness of her purity.

I am the pasha. They tricked me. Never! Never! Never! will I forgive you, I said. Three hours you may remain here while I go to the house of your aunt on 117th Street. They will take you away. But never let me hear a word from your mouth, I yelled at her, shutting off all discussion.

The novia who had studied in a convent making beautiful things had insulted my honor and my manhood. She had to go back to her family—and fast—with her trousseau, the big trunk with her trousseau of lace and thick cotton, neatly folded on the table, the white clothing—sheets—and also the sheet on the bed, cruelly without a stain.

I ripped the sheet with lace from the bed while she was crying in the corner of the room. Her cries sounded through the apartment house. All the lace I threw on the floor in my shame and horror of this violation of my manhood.

And in three hours she was gone—to the apartment of her aunt who lived nearby.

But in two weeks I received from Turkey an angry letter from her brothers, denouncing me. They said that when she was a girl she fell and the little thing broke. Nothing More!! They had in the house a letter from the ḥakham of that time that said there was an accident when she was a girl. They threatened me if I didn’t take her back. And the shame of my accusations had made her mother sick; the mother took to her bed in anguish.

She was my wife.

I went to the house where she was. I said Come with me. You are my wife. Come now. I want a good meal today. Take your things and come quickly, exactly as I say. If it is true what your brothers said, you may be my wife. I did the talking and she did the listening.

And thus began our life together for forty years. She did the house. I made the money, working eight hours every day seven days a week. My partner worked the other eight hours each day. The brother of my wife was the third partner, the one with the money for buying the business. My wife took care of the religion and the children—two of them. After the two, it was enough, because one was a son. She didn’t want more. It’s okay. When she learned a third one was coming, she removed it. It’s okay. Alone, alone, she cleaned the floors on her hands and knees. How was she going to have another baby?

I bought a parrot with red and green feathers. Soon I found a place near my work where I could buy myself a violin, and a book to learn how to play it. When I played the violin, the parrot began to sing. I played and he sang. But soon I could play well. Saturday nights everyone came to my house to sing Turkish songs, the little house in the Bronx where I had planted my fig tree in front. My head was full of pleasure when my violin sang in my arms. There was never a smile on my mouth because a pasha does not smile, but inside, in my breast there was a contented man.

And she, my wife, became a pasha also. She didn’t talk to me, I talked to her. She only prepared each day the specialties of the Turkish Sephardics. But to the children, the two of them, she spoke with a sharp tongue about everything she wanted to say. Go here, go there, go to school! Well, she had to teach them to be pashas—of course, especially my son. At three years old, my son already knew what he was. You can see the photo of the little pasha in velvet knickers, his eyes clear as little diamonds, satisfaction playing on his mouth; and of course, growing up in the Bronx, he had a bicycle, a sled, a canoe, he could do it all. On the sled he went on his stomach on the side of the bus down the hill, and after went to the university to become a doctor and everything. But the girl we kept in the house, her mother speaking to her sternly and harshly and she was allowed no bicycle, no sled, no canoe, and wasn’t allowed either to sleep at a friend’s house the way the girls at her school all did. (You know they weren’t Jewish, because in our neighborhood in the Bronx, there were few Jews). But in this way it happened that the daughter became a pasha also.

The daughter little by little learned to speak with a fierceness and had strong ideas.

And when she married she knew how to forget religion.

The candles, the kasher. They weren’t in style.

And my son, of course, was a pasha.

He was American in everything.

A doctor.

A doctor pasha.

Religion didn’t mean a thing to him.

The two of them married Jews. What do you think, that they were going to marry Catholics, white people, Christians?

My daughter wanted a Catholic, but my sister who lived near us saw them and told me.

Afterwards she married a Jew, a good man.

The blessings, the rabbis were left behind in the mist, except for weddings and funerals, with whisky for both.

And they had families, sons and daughters who married and their children lived with their families in houses so big that thirty people could live inside without a problem. The refrigerator was so big that it was like a house in the kitchen, the two doors opening like the front gate of a palace.

And two of the daughters became lawyers.

And one of the daughters wanted to marry a Catholic woman.

All pashas.

It is the American style.

The big house, the big automobile, two three four automobiles, big careers.

I see that everyone here in this country has to be a pasha with a mansion big enough for the whole world to live inside.

I want to tell you something about my older brother. Remember that he was going to be a musician. He didn’t do anything. He had neither money nor a family. Yes, he was a musician, but there was no money to pay musicians. Even my father never made money. He played the violin at weddings. They gave him raki during the wedding, and after sent him packing with a chicken, and nothing more. My brother the musician returned to Turkey with nothing. And the family was gone—to Salonika.

But I, I became somebody. Our Saturday nights became the talk of the town.

We had records of the Turkish songs, and every day we played them, and every night I played my violin.

And when I died, my wife gave money to the synagogue. She put up a plaque—you know what that is?—on the wall of the synagogue.

And when she died, her granddaughter found Shabbat candles in her apartment in Long Beach. The candles were in a cardboard box stuck together.

You know it is not possible to live without being a pasha. Everyone will step on you. My granddaughter has found the candles and what is she going to do with these little pieces of wax?

She is studying to be a lawyer, to be rich perhaps, she knows a lot about real estate.

But she likes to sing, sing in Hebrew! Who knows. Is this a Pasha? Her husband too? Perhaps religion quietly comes back, because, because, I don’t know why. Life is rich with many surprises. Everyone wants to sing the joy of being alive. Every Jew feels in his heart the desire for love, to live in the world as a Jew.

How is it possible that I am saying this? I don’t know. Because I am dead now and it is not necessary to be a pasha any more.

I am tired of being a pasha.

I am tired of barking like a dog.

I want to be simply a man.

Is it too late?

I don’t know.

It is not possible to be a pasha and be dead, because the earth only knows one pasha.

I didn’t know that before.

Why didn’t I ever smile all those years at my wife? My face did not know how to smile, nor hers. Content yes, in my breast. Work, eat, play music. The parrot didn’t know how to smile—nor the pasha. Only to shout, say the rules. And later when I was sick, I couldn’t smile. I couldn’t thank my wife who took care of me for five years of terrible sickness. I stepped out of the house, walked like in a dream, lost. They had forgotten to lock the door and soon the whole family was in the streets looking for me, shouting, where is he, where did he go? Neither she nor I smiled. Two pashas in two beds.

Now in one big bed of the universe, I think for the first time. Everyone knows that there are two kinds of people. Everyone, except me. I thought there was only one kind of person, one way to live, and now I have questions. That everyone in the world must be a pasha is worthless, it seems to me deep in the earth.

I want to be part of the earth, in the thoughts of, yes, I am going to say it, in the reflections of god. But I didn’t know this or think about it in all my life.

And now, as a dead man, I cannot breathe.

My chest hurts me, and I cannot remember how to breathe.

Only on the eve of Shabbat, when my great great grand-daughter (it was her idea, she is only twelve years old and told her mother that she wanted to do it every Friday night) sings over the candles praying in Hebrew, then I can breathe. Even though I am dead, I breathe, and laugh, thanks to this little girl who is not a pasha.