Ladino Yiddish

Jewish Languages as a Bridge: The Case of Avram Davidson

?ווי גייט עס יעצט אין יפו (How are things now in Jaffa?) These were the first words spoken in Yiddish that Avram Davidson (1923-1993), a young Jewish American writer at the beginning of a brilliant literary career, heard in Nicosia when he visited Cyprus in the early 1950s. This island in the southeastern Mediterranean is not necessarily a setting where you expect to conduct conversations in the language of Sholem Aleichem. Even more surprising was the fact that Davidson’s interlocutor was a Turkish banana peddler who previously had lived for some time in the ancient Israeli port city of Jaffa. 

Having served as a medical corpsman during Israel’s War of Independence when he made ample use of the experiences he had gathered while serving in the US army in the Pacific during World War II, Davidson was travelling by boat via Cyprus and Izmir, the large Turkish city on the Aegean Sea, to Europe before returning to the United States. He returned to Israel in the summer of 1951 to pursue a career in shepherding which, thankfully for the history of American genre fiction, failed. He then went back to the US in 1952 and became one of the great masters of speculative and crime fiction. (1)

Fig. 1. A. A. Davidson, ‘Caphtor & Other Places’, 
Orthodox Jewish Life, vol. IX, no. 6 (July-August 1952), p. 24.

Davidson, at the time signing under the name A. A. Davidson, published a short travelogue about his journey to Cyprus and Turkey in Orthodox Jewish Life, a periodical magazine for laymen brought out by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Published in July 1952, the article was titled ‘Caphtor and Other Places’, (2) Cyprus being in Davidson’s eyes ‘the Capthor of the Bible’. Most scholars would disagree, but Davidson’s Caphtor, too, comes with a twist revealing his love of alternative history that would mark some of his most popular books in later years:

First impression of Cyprus: Imagine—or shall we say, now con­jecture a vision of a time—when by a twist of unoccurred history, the Arab conquerors had been early repulsed from Eretz Israel and the Jews had not returned. The Greeks had stayed on, the Turks had con­quered and remained, and the Brit­ish had come and stayed: This is Cyprus, the ‘Caphtor’ of the Bible.’ (3)

A striking feature of his travelogue is the role Jewish languages seem to play in enabling communication between people, Jews and non-Jews alike, during his journey. There is the case of the Turkish costermonger in Nicosia mentioned above who seemed to have known at least some Yiddish, but there are other such instances as well. Having arrived in Izmir, Davidson went in search of the cousin of a friend from Haifa. According to the traveller, the cousin was a resident of the ‘Yemnis Tcheshar’, which Davidson translated as the ‘fig market’. It is more than probable that this place must have been the Yemişçi Çarşısı. With the help of an Englishman, the second mate of the S. S. Campodoglio that had taken Davidson from Cyprus to Izmir, he was able to locate the place: 

I approached a passing Turk and said ‘Yemnis Tcheshar?’ (fig market). He very kindly went blocks out of his way to show me the district. Once there, the second mate and I reconnoitred and, over a shop with an open front, saw ‘in red letters’ the good Turkish name of Avram Kohn. Mr. Kohn was a young iron-monger and spoke French. The sec­ond mate knew some Spanish, and—the Jews of western Turkey being of Spanish stock—with his bad Spanish and my poor French, we made our wants known.’ (4)

So, it is ultimately Mr Kohn’s knowledge of Ladino that allowed the traveller to find the person he was looking for and explain his needs—namely, kosher food, as the ship did not have a kosher kitchen. Avram Davidson’s short, humorous travel report shows that Jewish languages had significance beyond the communities in which they were spoken at home. Those languages could indeed build bridges between members of different ethno-religious communities, as they did in the case of Davidson in Nicosia and Izmir. It is true that they were not the only languages that were used. In Turkey, the lingua franca was often French—in Cyprus, mostly a hybrid mixture of languages that often miraculously ended up being intelligible to all people involved. Nevertheless, that Davidson should have mentioned the role of Yiddish and Ladino is significant. 

Language and translation as a means of transmission of knowledge mattered greatly to the American writer. In a rather critical piece entitled ‘A “Modern” Bible Translation’, written in 1957 about the ongoing Tanakh translation project of the Jewish Publication Society, (5) he reflected on the significance of translation as a creative process and noted that:

‘[E]very translation is in a sense an original creation. It is not the mechanical replacement of one word by another. It is marked evidently and strongly by the nature and opinions and background of the translator. Pope’s Homer is not Chapman’s Homer’. (6)

Davidson’s love of Yiddish could also be felt in this article where, when mentioning historical translations of the Hebrew Bible including the translation into Yiddish that he calls ‘teitsh-chumosh’, he regretted that ‘so many grandmothers, including [his] had never been taught to read their mother-tongue’. (7)

In later years, Davidson would go on an intricate spiritual journey. Ultimately, he embraced the tenets of Tenrikyo, a Japanese new religion teaching that mutual help leads to the ‘joyous life’ desired by God for humankind. In an interview he gave the Tenri Jiho (Tenri Times) newspaper on 16 August 1981 about his religious conversion, Davidson’s love of language and translation remained at the forefront of his mind. Noting that he very much hoped to be able to pursue his career as a writer while making use of his literary skills to promote his new faith, he noted his desire contribute to the translation of Tenrikyo literature into English. (8) He would indeed contribute to the translation of Tenrikyo literature, but this is a story that has little to do with Jewish languages. 

(1) For Avram Davidson’s biography, see Eileen Gunn, ‘A Biography of Avram Davidson: Water From a Deep Well’ in Avram Davidson, Everybody Has Someone in Heaven: Essential Jewish Tales of the Spirit, edited by Jack Dann and Grania Davidson Davis (New York: Devora Publishing, 2001), 271-285.

(2) A. A. Davidson, ‘Caphtor & Other Places’, Orthodox Jewish Life, vol. IX, no. 6 (July-August 1952), 24-31. The article is included in Avram Davidson, Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven: Essential Jewish Tales of the Spirit, edited by Jack Dann and Grania Davidson Davis (New York: Devora Publishing, 2001), 77-85. Quotations in this blog refer to the original article in the magazine.

(3) Davidson, ‘Caphtor & Other Places’, 24.

(4) Davidson, ‘Caphtor & Other Places’, 28-29. 

(5) A. A. Davidson, ‘A “Modern” Bible Translation’, Orthodox Jewish Life, vol. XXIV, no. 5 (May-June 1957), 7-10.

(6) Davidson, ‘A “Modern” Bible Translation’, 8.

(7) Davidson, ‘A “Modern” Bible Translation’, 7.

(8) ‘Amerika no SF sakka Jeimisu A, Debiddoson-san’ [The American Science Fiction Writer Mr James A. Davidson], Tenri Jiho (16 August 1981), 6. When involved in Tenrikyo matters, he used the name James A. Davidson. See, Henry Wessells, ‘A Preliminary Annotated Checklist of the Writings of Avram Davidson (Part I)’, Bulletin of Bibliography 53.1 (March 1996), 23-37, here 24.

Prof Laurent Mignon
OSRJL Judeo-Turkish Teacher;
Professor of Turkish Literature; Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
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