“Some of our boys went down the river fishing that afternoon and found him sitting on the bank, some distance from the post; they took him with them a piece and left him. When they came back, they found him walking about like a crazy man. They came up to the post and left him there and that was the last seen or heard of him.”
—from Hervey Johnson’s letter to Sister Abi, May 11, 1866
In May 1886, at Fort Laramie in the Dakota Territory, Sergeant Joseph Isaacs of Company H, in the Sixth United States Volunteer infantry, was drummed out of the service. Isaacs was a Confederate infantryman turned Union soldier after a pledge of loyalty to the United States. Following a dispute with his commanding officers and charges of mutiny, sedition, and encouraging desertion, he was expelled at bayonet-point as the Rogue’s March filled the garrison. It’s not known how he survived in the hostile territory beyond its gates.
But Joseph Isaacs was a work of fiction in which linguistic utterance met survival instinct at a moment of mortal danger. He was, in fact, Emmanuel Saltiel. Saltiel, a British-born Confederate soldier captured by Sherman’s Army in Atlanta, had been installed at Louisville Prison. Housed in what was known as the “retaliation barracks,” he knew the Union was executing officers like him as payback for Confederate atrocities. That night he took advantage of the prison’s lax security. Disguising himself in a Union overcoat and fake mustache, he crossed the prison yard, and, issuing a few brusk orders to the sentinels, exited camp.
It’s said he visited a friend–from whom he obtained a Confederate infantryman’s uniform and papers identifying him as an enlisted man from Georgia. He then returned to camp. At roll call the next morning, when a federal officer got no response to the initials J.I., he asked if Saltiel was this man. “Yes, sir,” said Emmanuel. In this moment, Joseph Isaacs came to be, a name he navigated like a no man’s land till a commanding officer cast him into his final exile.
“The United States is a fast Nation,” Emanuel wrote to his uncle at this time. I like to imagine Saltiel meant “fast” in the sense of near or beside–like a runner who sticks close to what he chases. Chasing his name through night and day, across borders of war and peace, he could only hope to keep it in sight. “By the time he had arrived at Camp Douglas,” one scholar writes, “there was no easy way to identify him with his real Confederate past.” But in assuming this alias, he’d fashioned counterfeit narrative into crooked path.
“They assert that Mr. Saltiel has no character, and that he has an unsavory record, and that he has no standing among the Jewish people here…The fact is now very apparent that the colony venture was a simply a scheme of Saltiel’s to advance his own private and personal interests.”
—Denver Republican, February, 1883
I come across an email exchange between Miles Saltiel, Emmanuel’s descendant, and Nelson Moore, who runs a website devoted to Cotopaxi, the 19th Century Jewish agricultural colony in Colorado founded on Saltiel’s efforts which failed after three years. From May to August 2003, Miles writes seven unanswered letters asking the latter to peruse his own site on the settlement. His work, Miles says, is meant to “supplement [Moore’s] understanding” of history. Nelson replies on June 15th only that he finds Miles’ work interesting and that he’ll create an Emanuel Saltiel page. On July 23rd, Miles writes again. He’s found a note about their recent correspondence on Moore’s site: “On Nelson’s website,” he writes to Nelson, offering a meta-narration on their correspondence, “he teases me that I am “rewriting history”; perhaps I am but not I hope irresponsibly.”
Miles means his “annotations” to Flora Jane Satt’s 1950 Master’s thesis for the University of Denver, a kind of reverse midrash in which commentary dictates text. Satt’s thesis forms the foundation of what I’ll call Cotopaxi studies. Nearly every article written since has borrowed from her account, in which she concludes, for example, that Emanuel Saltiel “expressed no regret or surprise at [the settlers’] inability to sow adequate crops on the stony hillsides, nor did he deem his failure to provide the necessary farm equipment as contributing to their difficulties.” Miles wants to contact Satt, to whom he believes Moore is related, perhaps in order to supplement her understanding. Moore responds that he is not related to Satt. “I do not have the authority to give you permission to reprint her thesis,” he writes. “If I can ever contact her again, I’ll see what she thinks about your revision of her work.”
Miles writes several additional emails in an attempt to justify his use of Satt’s research. Nelson finally responds in a tone of exhausted blame: “So you think the fact that you have used an 80 plus year old woman’s copyrighted material without her permission might be disrespectful? Do you think that changing her material to reflect your opinion and publishing it might be disrespectful?” “It’s apparent that you are related to Emanuel Saltiel,” he ends his message.
Miles believes his revision balances the historical record. “And I just don’t think,” he writes, “that any of us Saltiels has ever had what it takes to engineer a failed colony to promote a pool of sweated labor.” In his next message, Moore throws this statement in Miles’ face: “I believe you really think that this is true. That doesn’t mean it’s true, and your opinion has not altered my view of the Cotopaxi Colony history. Your theft of the Satt thesis does not instill a lot of confidence in the Saltiel name,” he adds.
A word that appears frequently in Saltiel’s critique of Satt is demolish. His work “demolishes” her arguments, he says, an attack not just on her thesis but on a woman in whom he identifies “a selective pattern of conduct which impairs her standing.” I can’t help but hear the architectural subplot of demolish. It’s as if Satt’s built her home on Saltiel’s ancestral ground, which he must now reclaim: “I want to set the record straight for Emanuel Saltiel,” Miles writes to Moore, “his descendants.” This means destroying the work of a Master’s student who, after completing her thesis, migrated to southern California where she became a high school teacher.
Please do not be upset with Saltiel.
He was a fairly sharp operator.
Crook, shyster, con man ? Absolutely.
This language is from Emmanuel Saltiel’s page on Moore’s site. I cringe at the implications of “shyster” and “sharp operator.” Who was Saltiel in Moore’s Cotopaxi narrative? A real life Fagin, the villain in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, who both protected the settlers and used them to his advantage. No less desperate than Dickens’ street urchins, the settlers were social outcasts, orphans, and refugees for whom home was a constant dream of home leading them to the mountains of Colorado.
I’m troubled, too, by Moore’s absolutely, its root meaning separate or detached and therefore pure, absolved. This is the opposite of what he means to suggest, I think. There’s an of course in his absolutely that implies guilt by ancestry. His behavior was in his blood, I read. Absolutely. As much as Fagin’s heritage is at the root of his thievery and child abuse.
In November, I find an article about an item sold in the nation’s largest retail chain, the “Sheik/Fagin Nose,” a prosthetic appliance collapsing physical stereotypes of two ethnicities: Here I am with my Arab brothers and sisters, it makes me want to say, appearing on the same face! The item is pulled from the store’s shelves following a public outcry. After reading the article, I watch the trailer for the David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist in which the narrator describes Alec Guinness, who plays Fagin, as “unbelievably transformed” in the role. He is shadowy and menacing but physically weak, his voice landing somewhere between tubercular rasp and crow’s croak. He’s somehow both subhuman and supernaturally evil, a different species altogether from Oliver, who exudes lily-white innocence.
On a recent date, a woman asks my “heritage.” I’ve received this question many times since moving to Denver. “Are Jewish people their own ethnicity” she says when I answer, probably meaning, “Are Jews really white?” Later, when I ask her to consider how her question has othered me, she reacts with defensiveness, calling me rude, mean, and angry. She says she is blocking my number, which I assume she does.
How many people, I wonder, have entered the first two words of this query in order for the search engine to suggest the last? “Questions are Remarks,” as Wallace Stevens titled his poem. Predictive search is cultural gaze manifesting in questions that answer themselves as the multiplying final word, the one we haven’t entered but which serves as virtual eye in this technological staring contest:
At the time the retain chain pulls the Sheik/Fagin Nose, there’s a similar story about an Israeli soldier costume for kids, the copy for which sounds like it was written by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee:
Defend your Jewish heritage proudly by wearing the Israeli Soldier Boy’s Costume! The Israeli Defense Forces have a mission to protect the land and the people of Israel from outside threats with low casualties, and to avoid waging war if at all possible. One of the I.D.F.’s core values is human life, and they see every person as a being of value, despite his or her nationality, origin or religion.
I wonder what defense defense can offer for itself it attempts to justify an endless cycle of violence. What does the word erase? What’s really being protected, and, if it can be defined this way, is there an appreciable difference between defense and offense? “[E]very person…a being of value.” But a person means anyone. Democracy, also, in a sense, means anyone. When everyone is not equally defended under the law, the personhood of defenseless and defender is at stake. This also applies to the democracy that does not mean everyone.
And if everyone means only a certain population, it’s “democracy” in name only: a farce about the difference between who we are and say we are. We move into the sense of person coming from persona: an assumed role, a false face, a mask.
It can be hard to tell whether you’re staring out from that mask or looking in. Whether you’re the alias or the one who assumes it.
Whose gaze is more historical?
Even as a kid, I could identify names with an ethnic resemblance to mine. This exercise extended to movie and TV credits. When I see one of them now, I still feel relief. In each, a homecoming. But to what do I return? Underlying this relief is an ancestral doubt rooted in a feeling of otherness. Maybe this doubt is the source of shame and disgust that follows, a submission to and argument with a history of which I have no specific knowledge but which towards which my thoughts and body flow in mute cultural surrender. Can history be the feeling of history, I wonder, an inability to forget that which I have no memory of? My ancestors experiences in the Pale of Settlement are surely part of this equation. If I encounter belonging in these names, I also experience an impassable cultural distance, my innate foreignness. This is name as route and exile. The moment in which I meet myself as other in the unmendable fracture of personal and public time.
When I scan Jennifer Lowe’s genealogical charts of the Cotopaxi settlers, I’m therefore unnerved. Not due to what I find but because of my lack of response. Lowe’s sifted ship manifest and public record, constructing family trees brimming with names like Milstein, Schames, and Cohn. For me, these names are historical silences. Why has Lowe, a born-again Christian or Messianic Jew, depending who I talk to, chosen Cotopaxi for her genealogical rescue mission? With every name, I feel history displaced by a present populated with thriving descendants. The themes are persistence and survival in this cheap resurrection fantasy. When I visit the old Cotopaxi cemetery in October, I find the graves of three settlers, all children, who’ve failed to come back from the dead. They died in the colony’s first year, and for over a century, were surrounded by Christian graves. At some point, the Jewish subplot was enclosed in an austere black fence. As I approach this fence, I wonder whose memory it is meant to protect–and from what? A Confederate flag is planted in the pale, gold grass.
In this photo, it’s hard to tell whether the flag attends grave or fence. Maybe it’s just a trick of perspective, but this ambiguous placement enables two interpretive possibilities: support for the Confederacy and its white-supremacist ideology. Or wry commentary on Saltiel’s Confederate past as it relates to the death of these children. Which possibility is more ironic? Either way, this spatially dislocated symbol of racism is, for me, punctum, waving-in-the-wind ellipse in the ongoing narrative of the Cotopaxi settlers. “[T]heir stories will be told,” Lowe promises purposefully, “should Jehovah allow me the honor of living to do so.” But I want to account for the story, which, in its telling, can’t be told. How can I memorialize as historical process my unlocatable, unnameable present, the long march from identity to self and back.
In an another blog post, Lowe discovers the death records for a family killed one morning in Brest Litovsk, October 15, 1942: “A brother and his wife, their children and all of their grandchildren. Another brother, all 6 of his children, and their children…. and the list just went on.” This is the Brest Ghetto liquidation, which took 50,000 lives. “Now, while this may be hard for you to read,” Lowe says, “and you may be one who has been led to believe that this didn’t really happen…. when you do genealogy and see that an entire family of 3 generations ALL died on the very same day…..you know that it is real.” I wonder how many Holocaust deniers Lowe imagines in her audience. Following Lowe’s reality check, she turns the subject to butterflies she’s made from wire and colorful swaths of fabric. These butterflies, she writes with somber self-congratulation, will memorialize the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.
What’s the ratio of butterflies to murdered children? 1 to 1,000? Or 100,000? How many butterflies are sufficient to memorialize historical atrocity? These words are masks for memory’s future sweet as children’s dreams.
Lowe’s butterflies dream away from mass death with retrospective grace. Maybe she believes she’s engaged past horrors, but she’s turned away with sickening warmth in her heart. I am descended, I think, hovering above the negative space her words open inside me. This is my historical condition. Like when I tell my grandfather that some people say Jews aren’t white. “Those people are anti-Semites,” he responds. In his voice, I hear conviction masking anger masking fear. Most of all, I notice his defensiveness.
Memorialize that! I want to tell Jennifer Lowe.
In his writings on the colony, Miles defends Emanuel’s “fierce sense of right and wrong.” This is shown, he says, from to his army days to his time in Cotopaxi. In Emanuel’s letter in the Jewish Messenger, December 27, 1882, the settlers’ wives approach him on their husbands’ behalf. “Their wretched condition… touched me deeply,” he writes with somber self-congratulation, deciding, despite the refugees’ recent public complaints against him, to employ the men in his mine. In Emanuel’s telling, as in Miles’, Saltiel is victim and hero. But this dual role carries a fundamental contradiction. Victimhood implies helplessness while heroism requires a defense successfully deployed on another’s behalf. In Emanuel’s letter, he calls the colony “a lamentable failure” months after the settlers arrive. When I read his words of two months earlier to the American Hebrew about the conspiracy “to destroy the good name that I have earned,” I wonder if he counts his time as Joseph Isaacs in this equation.
Joseph: from the Hebrew meaning, May god increase.
Isaac: from the Hebrew name, Yitzchaq, meaning “he laughs.”
Did Saltiel know the story told in this etymological juxtaposition? Of divine hope and laughter clashing in pseudonymous discord. Two Abrahams are the father of this false name: US President and Hebrew patriarch who would destroy his son according to god’s will. But Joseph Isaacs was flame and altar, sacrifice and survival. If there’s narrative in a name, if history exists, each utterance carries with it alias, the “I” left behind on the border of word and speech. I love the associations available in the Latin origin, aliās: another time, elsewhere, otherwise, positing name as temporal-spatial geography through which the named travels toward, within, away. If Emmanuel Saltiel inhabited as self a series of daring escapes and calculated returns, it lead him inexorably back to a present in which he was both and neither. Consider as evidence his near-simultaneous wardrobe changes. In 1866, facing execution, he slips past his prison gates. In the span of 24 hours, he is:
- Emanuel Saltiel, British native and Confederate officer
- One nameless Union soldier
- One nameless Confederate infantryman returning camp
- The absent J.I. at role call
- Joseph Isaacs, Confederate Infantryman
Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation allows his last transformation: Joseph Isaacs, Union soldier. This is name as destination and hope. Weather, ontology, talisman, and loving chain. Joseph Isaacs was false prophet of Emmanuel Saltiel’s promised land, a boundary eliminating map and route, opposing energies coexisting on an infinite plane of lapses, fragments, and tattered representation without chronology. Under the dream of self, “Emmanuel Saltiel” adhered to and included his erasure. Till the spine of language tipped to meet, on the tongue of his commanding officer, the charges that pushed him outside the walls of the garrison. Cotopaxi is a parallel absence which my gaze, transubstantial geography, must consecrate, a landscape so thick with reference it is invisible to the naked eye.
In David Lean’s Oliver Twist, Fagin, the Fence, appears at once bold and cowardly, fearful, deceptive, cunning, dull. His nefarious charm fills the screen. When Bill Sykes calls him “avaricious,” the word translates through him the image of an ancestral villain. Its chief physical manifestation, his nose, which Lean holds in long profile shots, is both fate and symbol, a racial caricature describing him in the most monstrous terms. I cringe at the exaggerated hook, the gaze it manifests. Or rather, I experience the inescapability of this gaze. Every time Fagin appears on screen, I feel exposed.
Last summer, I argued with a friend about depictions of African-American characters in an acclaimed urban crime drama. Inner city dialect and family-as-cultural-aporia (absent fathers, drug-addicted moms, etc.), I thought, diminished the personhood of these characters in relation to their white counterparts. Why was this what I chose to see? my friend asked. She noted my “discomfort,” questioning its root. I got defensive. I didn’t mention that a few years earlier, before I’d left Oakland, the day after yet another verdict that allowed the murderer of a black child to go free, I went to a party, where I talked with a friend of a friend. We discussed the verdict. He told me, this friend of a friend, about his experience in Berkeley. He was the bogey man, he said, an automatic villain. People crossed the street when they saw him coming. I listened to his experience, shaking my head to communicate the appropriate white person empathy and despair, not realizing at that moment, perhaps, that I’d done the same thing any number of times while living in the East Bay. I’d thought my actions had gone unnoticed–or I hadn’t bothered to think about it. But not only had I projected a racist image onto these men, I’d likely activated in their minds this image, which was a site of constant battle, within and without. I didn’t tell my friend this story, the one with whom I argued about the show, maybe because I only tell this story to my white friends. Maybe because it’s meant to give the appearance of implicating me in the systematic ultra-violence it describes when, in deploying it selectively, this is exactly what it guards against.
The acclaimed crime drama also features a Jewish lawyer who serves as counsel to the drug kingpin. His name is disgustingly, humiliatingly Jewish: Maurice Levy. I can see his wife slaving over a brisket on Friday night; I can see his fat little children, arrogant, smug, superior. In one scene, Levy pelts a witness with questions we, the audience, know describe his own character: “You are amoral, are you not?” he accuses. “You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city.” In another episode, the kingpin’s sister refers to him as “that Jew lawyer,” a racial epithet naming in him a complete lack of humanity. In the guise of justice-seeker, he demolishes, ruling by ruling, the political, social, and economic landscapes of city he claims to defend. He is a nihilist and a hypocrite, a servant of his avariciousness and that of others, embodying the show’s tautological refrain, “The game is the game,” the code of thieves on which the characters rely to justify their violence and amorality.
This show appeared at roughly the same time as Roman Polanski’s remake of Oliver Twist. Played by Ben Kingsley, Fagin’s nefarious charm becomes mischief playfully tinged with criminality. His nose is long but mercifully straight. His ethnic origin is ambiguous, or doesn’t matter, and, despite his self-interest, his relationship with Oliver is somehow tender. Rather than Fagin’s criminal nature, Syke’s rage sets in motion the circumstances placing Oliver’s life in danger. The film is more about the chaotic trajectory of his masculinity than Fagin’s practice of deception and manipulation. Polanski’s previous film, The Pianist, about a classical musician fleeing Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, drew on his own experience of the Shoah. As a child, Polanski escaped death in the Krakow Ghetto by assuming the alias Romek Wilk, finding shelter with a Polish Roman Catholic family till the war’s end. “I survived,” Polanski tells us, “because I did not look very much like a Jew.” Polanski was unable to accept his Best Director Oscar for The Pianist in person because he was fleeing punishment for charges of unlawful sexual intercourse from 1978, the last time he was in the United States or any country with whom the US had an extradition agreement.
I look online for the Sheik/Fagin nose. In a half-hearted attempt to disguise its problematic nature, it has been renamed the Cinema Secrets Sultan Nose Latex Appliance. “Overt racism. Nice!” someone writes in the comments. “I would just like to mention,” trolls another, “this can also be used as a Jew nose! A few sidecurls and a bag of money and you are good to go!” “Very good quality, fun costume addition,” says one satisfied customer. I purchase my nose for $7.26 + FREE SHIPPING. When it arrives a week later, I open the package and put it on, taking a long look in the mirror. It is monumental–in the sense that it remembers each curve and contour of the stereotype it evokes. A culturally transmitted gaze fills my eyes. I am looking at others looking at me: a meta-gaze over a meta-image superimposing its face on my own. I stare into this mise en abyme, disgusted but fascinated, unsure, for a second, whether I’m looking at myself or Fagin; I seem reflected endlessly into the past.
I remember a line from a review: “Someone’s ethnicity is not a costume.” But has this person ever felt, as I do, that he’s wearing his own face? At the time of his court martial, Saltiel writes to his uncle that he’s employed “the impudence of Satan” to navigate his difficulties. This makes me think of Dickens’ metonym for Fagin, “the merry old gentleman,” which was another name for Satan. If the devil is the self one must flee, it’s the one to which we inexorably return. When the words “Joseph Issacs” left his mouth, what angel of history leapt on what mountain of debris called Emanuel Saltiel? Inhaling the cheap plastic odor of my racist nose, I am the photographic negative of Emmanuel Saltiel, I think, the moment he dons overcoat and false mustache, becoming in disguise perhaps even more himself. In a split-second that’s forever old, I’ve felt many times in the eyes of stranger and friend, I’m demolished and rebuilt in this image. Fagin is my name and alias, says the costume staring back at me. My mask, my face, my nomme de guerre.