You Can't Go Home Again: A Strange Offer of Spanish Citizenship Brings the Past into the Present

Perched on a far western scrap of this far western city, it's easy to forget about the vast continent sprawling behind. This is where the journey ends. You've gone as far as you can go.

Ours is a city nourished by reveling in its own mystique, but this much is true: San Franciscans, by and large, do possess a unique attribute. At some point, you — or one of your relatives — likely took part in a historic migration. It's a recent development in recorded human history to relocate thousands of miles away from your family not because of war or famine or rampaging Visigoths but because you wanted to.

That's something to think about as you hunker down with that family for Thanksgiving. Your mother will, once again, testify that "your father thinks his ability to use duct tape makes him a licensed contractor." An argument breaks out about that movie. You know the one — with the guy! You know the guy! He was in that movie — you know the one! Well, what else was he in? Oh, a million things!

The Eskenazi family in Çanakkale, Turkey, circa 1914.
The Eskenazi family in Çanakkale, Turkey, circa 1914.

You'll quietly collect your winnings for being the first to induce a mass Baby Boomer sing-along to the bygone jingles of Rheingold Beer or Ipana toothpaste. Just like last year.

So, you've come a long way. But are you sure it was long enough?

In a strange turn of events, Thanksgiving this year overlaps with Chanukah. This feat, an apparent divine rebuke of the American Heart Association, won't come about again for another 70,000 years. In that time, every last trace of those Bucky Beaver Ipana ads of yore may well be scrubbed from the face of the earth, along with the Baby Boomers, and the progeny that invoked the sing-alongs of memory.

And yet, at the Thanksgivukkah celebrations of families like your humble narrator's, an intriguing possibility may come to mind, quickly and repeatedly: Get back. Get back to where you once belonged.

A year ago, Spain's foreign minister made an announcement that, considering its ramifications, received startlingly little attention. At first, it seemed to be an Internet hoax. But, no, this was real: A plan was in the works to offer citizenship to descendents of the Jews driven from Spain in that fateful year of 1492 — which future songwriters would conveniently rhyme with "the ocean blue."

Sadly, librettists through the ages had less luck rhyming "Edict of Expulsion." But now, after five centuries, said the foreign minister, the Sephardim would be welcomed back to Spain — or, in the original Ladino, Sefarad. My ancestors likely fled with all the rest before following the typical path of wandering Sephardim: Italy, Turkey, Bensonhurst. There are no details. We don't even know who all the people are in that photograph.

So, it's not every day that an Iberian monarchy in decline since the sinking of its Armada and currently suffering through crippling unemployment, a real-estate collapse, and an ongoing debt crisis makes a play to bring you back into the fold. Even among San Franciscans ostensibly affected by this development, the potential to trade a city with a Spanish name for a country with a Spanish name came as a shock: The chancellor of Spain's San Francisco consulate says he's only getting an e-mail perhaps every other week with tepid questions. Officials at both the city's Sephardic synagogues professed ignorance — and no one seemed thrilled upon hearing the offer. "If they want me to come back and help their economy, well, I don't know how I can do that," says Solomon Isaac, the president of Congregation Anshey Sfard. "I'm not so well-off, you know."

Isaac shifts the subject of conversation: He was born in Burma and his family lost everything in the war; they eluded the invading Japanese in a small boat before landing in Calcutta. Nineteen of them slept in one room separated only by a pair of curtains. Four children would split a daily egg.

He sighs. If the Japanese were to make amends by offering him citizenship, perhaps he'd consider that.

San Franciscans hoping to jettison this city's bureaucracy and sloth will not find solace in Spain.

One of the Spanish government's tentative requirements for proving Sephardic roots is a certificate obtained from Spain's Federation of Jewish Communities. But Federation spokeswoman Maria Royo says the government hasn't yet codified any requirements to earn that certificate.

This is what the Spanish might call un catch-22 situación. Royo asks, with evident seriousness, if our family possesses wedding agreements — ketubot — tracing back to ancestral days in 15th-century Spain. She could just as well have asked, "Do you have your W-2 forms from 2008?"

"Oh ayyyyy!" she wails. "That is deeeeeficult. Do you speak Ladino?"

Mois Eskenazi spoke Ladino, back in Çanakkale on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula. You can't see him in that 99-year-old picture. He's the bulge in the stomach of Zimboul, the woman on the right. Within two years, his father Avram — the one with the mustache and the oversize tan topcoat — would be dead, cut down at the eponymous Battle of Gallipoli. Within seven years, his surviving family would pile on a boat to New York, steaming past the partially submerged husks of rusting warships protruding from the Dardanelles. His son would travel as far west as he could go. But his grandson would be born here: On trips past UC Hospital in an N-Judah, he can truly say he never went anywhere in life. Your humble narrator didn't have very far to go to go as far as he could.

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mblaircheney topcommenter

As a 3rd generation San Franciscan, this article hit home.

Without a doubt... the backstory as to how we came to the City, is in most cases more interesting than what we are doing with the privilege.

My great Grandfather Pasquale and his brothers left Sicily to set up as fisherman on the bay, when men were made of steel and their boats were made of wood. All alone, singing opera, with just a compass to guide him, he would fish as far away as the Oregon border, raising a family with the money earned from the catch.

Now, many generations later, I have sailed the bay for pleasure, listening to a cd, working a steady 8 hour a day land lubber job to earn my daily bread.

Would liked to have a chance to meet and talk to him, my love of the bay surely stems from our shared genes.

Good stories play in your head long after you read them.

Thanks Joe.


Thanks, Joe.  Too often, people forget  --or ignore.

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