Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lineage of a Cab Driver

As you may know, I always look at the cab driver's name (and photo) on their license and guess where they're from. If I get it right in one guess, I get a point. Otherwise - no point. This is only possible in New York - no other city I know of has a visible license with a name and picture on it - I have to ask where they're from, and where's the fun in that?

(My friend Suzanne, from Milwaukee, asks New York cabbies where they were on 9/11; that always gets her a good story.)

This guy's name was "Luis Seixas," pronounced "Seyshas." The "x" puzzled me. I thought, it might be Basque - someone with a Basque surname might be from anywhere in the New World. However, "X" also exists in Brazilian Portuguese, and "Luis" is the same in Portuguese as in Spanish (as I knew because Portugal had a king named Luis in the 19th century - 1855-1889, or something like that).

So my guess was "Brazil," and I was wrong. (No point.)

But the guy's story was very interesting. He was born here, father from Ecuador, mother from Puerto Rico, but the family name fascinated him, so he researched it - very few cab drivers (or anyone else) do that! He was especially intrigued because Sephardic Jews kept telling him the name was Sephardic. It is!

His father had gone to Ecuador from the Dominican Republic. His father's father had gone to the DR from St. Thomas. And at some point an ancestor had come to St. Thomas from Curacao. Turns out (I didn't know this) both islands have very old Sephardic communities, going back to when Portugal re-took northern Brazil (Bahia, Recife, etc. 1647-54) from the Dutch, who had possessed it for some decades. (That's when Jan Mauritz of Orange-Nassau, who was the Dutch governor, made enough money from sugar planting and export to build the Mauritshuis in Den Haag and fill it full of gorgeous paintings.) The Jews had lived quite happily in Bahia when the Dutch ruled it (Recife was called "the Jerusalem of the New World"), but when the Portuguese got it back as part of the peace settlement, they imposed the Inquisition (having acquired that bad habit during Spain's 60-year rule of Portugal), and the Jews mostly fled - though some converted, and Seixas continues to be a popular surname in Brazil, where those who hold it are mostly unaware their families were once Jewish.

The Jews of Recife scattered widely, especially to former Dutch colonies (where they were safer), among them New Amsterdam (the first Jewish presence on future U.S. soil), Curacao and (I didn't know this before) the then-Danish colony of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. And there was lots of communication and business and marriage between the different Sephardic settlements, as there always was. One of the Seixas became an important leader of the New York Sephardic colony in the 18th century - "Abraham Seixas," said Luis. "You know the little Sephardic cemetery below Chinatown?" "Sure." "Well, the big stone in that one is him. And his brother went to St. Thomas, and I'm descended from the brother.... My father sort of knew about it, it had been handed down in the family that we were Sephardic once, but no one knew any details, and we've been Catholic for centuries. You have to go look it up, and I did. But I did because when I came to New York and began driving a cab, all these Sephardic guys asked me if I was Jewish, and if I was related to Abraham Seixas - of course I'd never heard of him then."

So I didn't get the point, but it was one of my most interesting cabdriver ancestry stories.

Current reading includes a biography of Proust's mother, née Jeanne Weil, daughter of a very well-to-do Jewish family that had come to Paris from Alsace two generations earlier (after the National Assembly liberated religious minorities) and were in the process of assimilating/not assimilating - terribly involved in French culture and ever more distant from religious Judaism, culminating in a great deal of intermarriage, such as Jeanne's to Adrien Proust. But questions, every step of the way, of what neighborhood to live in, of what professions to pursue, of whom to associate with, of whom to think of marrying. And then Dreyfus hit, and everyone had to rethink things. Which is excellent background for reading Proust, hein? Who was passionately devoted to his mother and grandmother, and thought about all these matters a great deal.

Proust's grandmother and Karl Marx were fourth cousins! And his greatuncle, Adolphe Crémieux, was a lawyer who led the fight to persuade the various French governments to discard the remaining disabilities placed on Jewish citizenship and full participation in the life of the nation.

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