Authors: Evan Fallenberg
The boys have stopped eating. Only Batya is still picking at her food. More than once Joseph has caught her eyeing the forbidden dishes that have been passing in front of her. Gidi noticed, too, and moved a plate of chicken breasts out of her reach. “How about singing ‘
’ while I clear the table?” Joseph does not wait for them to begin singing before he takes two serving dishes and heads for the kitchen.
Batya immediately begins moving the scraps from one plate to another, but Ethan stops her. “No stacking dishes in
house,” he whispers congenially. “Our father would rather make a dozen trips to the kitchen than breach etiquette.”
The boys continue singing until Joseph has removed the last of the dirty dishes and plates of food from the enormous table. Before returning to his seat he opens a drawer in the buffet and takes out a small packet of cards tied up with a silver ribbon, which he places facedown next to his napkin. “And now,” he announces ceremoniously, “it’s time for a little entertainment.
“First, I’d like to offer a very short
to you all, something I read the other day that resonated perfectly for me. On this Sabbath, we are instructed to remember what the Amalekites did to the Jewish people as we departed from Egyptian slavery. We are told to ‘blot out the remnant of Amalek’ wherever we find it, in every generation. Well, in a lovely little book of biblical exegesis called
From the Mouth of
we learn that blotting out the Amalekites does not mean we should seek to annihilate a human being, since we have no way of really knowing who the descendants of Amalek are today. Rather, we are expected to blot out our own misgivings and doubts, which the author claims are the real enemy. We can do this, he says, through the same formula for expiation that we use on the Day of Atonement, namely prayer, repentance, and charity, which we learn from the expression ‘to blot out’ as it is used in several places in the Talmud. Now, with the author’s permission, I would like to add a fourth variant to the formula: forgiveness. It often seems to me that the other three rely on our ability to forgive others’ transgressions, as well as our own. So on this special Sabbath may we all begin the process of forgiveness that will enable us to reach our highest potential.” Joseph smiles and turns his palms upward in a gesture of supplication.
Gavri asks, “Who wrote
From the Mouth of God?
Before Joseph can speak, Daniel answers. “Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, of very blessed memory.”
Joseph and Daniel stare at one another across the table, the one stunned and the other defiant. Joseph has never so much as uttered Yoel’s name in his sons’ presence, and this intimacy of Daniel’s with the rabbi’s work unsettles and unnerves him.
“Gideon prepared a
, too!” Batya says excitedly. Gideon scowls at her but reaches into his breast pocket for his notes nonetheless. Obviously eager for the opportunity, he ignores the tension at the table and plunges into a recapitulation of a sermon delivered by his father-in-law, his rebbe, one year earlier on this same Sabbath of Remembrance. His brothers quickly lose interest as he slips back and forth between Hebrew and Yiddish, a language they do not understand. His stories are episodic and rambling.
Finally, Noam can take no more. “Why do your stories always take place in Eastern Europe two hundred years ago? Shit, Gidi, why would any of this be relevant to us in late twentieth-century Israel?” His cheeks are red and he is sitting up very straight in his chair. He throws an apologetic look to Batya, who is mortified.
Gideon answers quietly, as if to a child who needs calming. “Some of our greatest rabbis since the times of the Talmud lived in Poland and Russia in the past few centuries. As far as Yiddishkeit is concerned, modern Israel is a wasteland. It’s where Jews are Jewish in name only, worse even than all the assimilated people in America. Pork eaters. Sabbath desecraters.” Gideon turns his attention from Noam to his father. “Sodomites.” He smiles and continues. “In fact, the biblical commentator Rashi argued that the Amalekites polluted the Israelites by pederasty. They debased them-selves and the Israelite men by lying with them. For this sin we are reminded to blot them from the earth, to remove them from human and divine memory. This is truly the sin of all sins.”
“Oh fuck this, I’ve had enough,” says Noam, pushing his chair away from the table.
“No wait, please,” Joseph begs.
Gideon continues. “There is not a single modern Israeli rabbi whose brilliance reaches even the ankles of someone like the Gaon of Vilna or any of his disciples.”
“Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, of very blessed memory.” All eyes turn to Daniel, but Daniel’s gaze is riveted on his father.
“Father, do you hear Gideon?” Noam fumes. “Are you listening to what he’s saying? He’s insulting us, each and every one of us. He’s holier than us all and has come to tell us what’s wrong with us. Well, I for one don’t need to hear this from anyone, my sainted fucking brother included.”
Joseph picks up the packet of cards from the table and waves them desperately at his guests. “I’ve made a small game,” he says quickly, afraid of losing them, “a trivia game of sorts, about our family. I thought it would be fun to revisit some of our happy memories and share family lore with our newest member.” He gestures grandly to Batya, who gazes down at her lap, blushing. The boys are silent. Several shift in their chairs. Noam groans and buries his face in his arms but does not leave the table.
Joseph continues, frantic to improve the atmosphere. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see. Here we go, first card. Who were the Raskin family?”
Noam moans into his arms, Daniel is silent. Gavri and Ethan share a discreet glance, then Ethan decides to rescue his father. “Our neighbors in Cambridge. They had a girl my age who probably still hates boys thanks to us. She was an only child, and we were a pack of wild boys. One of us would always fall on her or smash into her and send her flying. She was traumatized.”
“Right!” Joseph nearly shouts. He tosses the card to Ethan, who waves it in the air like a winner. “Now who can tell me,” Joseph says, brandishing a second card, “what color our tractor was?”
Gavri laughs. “Too easy, Dad. It’s still parked behind Grandfather’s cottage.”
Daniel adds, “You left, but it never did.”
After an uneasy silence, Joseph tries again. “In 1973, three events of great importance to our family—”
“Enough!” shouts Daniel. “This is pathetic. It isn’t going to work, so quit trying.”
Joseph puts the cards back onto the table and guzzles the remaining wine in his cup. He takes a deep breath, leans back, and surveys his small audience, who, around the enormous table, seem to be a great distance away. He takes them all in without moving his head.
“Daniel’s right. My apologies to you all for trying too hard. You simply can’t know how much it means to me to have all five of you boys, and now even my lovely new daughter-in-law, together for the first time after so many years. There is no better gift for my fiftieth birthday.” What he does not say is: Does anyone feel bad about not bringing even the tiniest present? Some silly tie or pair of slippers, or the latest corkscrew? Tel Aviv has recently joined the ranks of cities with shops for men, shelves full of expensive, useless junk for the man with everything. Did you never think to bring me something, alone or together, a token, a card, a certificate? I send you boys handmade sweaters and tickets to shows and meaty checks for birthdays. I make occasional disbursements, when an investment pays off or a bond comes due, of sums large enough to travel abroad or buy a motorcycle. I put money discreetly into your savings accounts and maintain pension plans for you all. I worry about you, anticipate your needs, tend to your future so you can enjoy your present. When will you stop punishing me?
It is Pepe who has inspired this unspoken tirade. Their coldness, their collective, insatiable sense of being owed something has always infuriated Pepe, who has lectured him on this subject so many times that Joseph refuses to discuss the boys with him anymore. He is jealous of Pepe’s relationship with his daughter, a young woman from whose life he has been totally absent but who seems grateful for every attention from him. And Joseph has offered so much to his sons over the years, which they repay with truncated phone conversations, snubbed birthdays, and a complete lack of graciousness at every gesture of generosity.
“Turning fifty is more momentous than I thought. I keep taking stock of my life and I feel I’ve been very lucky, or blessed, despite some very difficult decisions I have made along the way. But more than focusing on the past, I’m becoming obsessed with the future. And you boys, and Batya, are very much a part of that.” He crosses his legs and raises his empty wineglass in a toastlike salute. “For twenty years you have been holding my choices against me, each of you in your own way. And I have paid dearly for that and worked hard to overcome it. I have swallowed many, many insults from you all and endured endless humiliations. But you have never tried to understand who I am and why my life has taken the path it has. So I have a few things to say to you tonight.”
Batya nervously bites a nail. The twins look down into their laps. Ethan, pained, stares at the middle of the table and Noam surveys his brothers’ faces, a mischievous smile on his own, pleased to see some real action. Daniel alone looks at Joseph over the cluttered table. Joseph senses his displeased anticipation in his narrowed gaze and pursed lips. He speaks to them all but looks at Daniel.
“You can’t know what my own little hell was like for all those years. I was bumping around inside myself, desperately unhappy and not even knowing what it was I wanted, what exactly was wrong. Every night I tried to count my blessings, the beautiful healthy children, the successful career, the loving wife, and every night I came up short. ‘So what’s wrong?’ I would ask myself, and I never had an answer. When I think back on those days, our years in Cambridge, and then back on the moshav, or before then, as an only child with a sad and lonely mother and impossible father, I wonder how I functioned as well as I did. Army, marriage, fatherhood, a doctorate. Teaching, writing, publishing. There were so many demands and I seemed to be managing them all.
“But I wasn’t, really. I was so short-tempered with you all. By the end your mother could barely manage to do anything right in my eyes. I was all criticism and no appreciation. The five of you were a handful, so close in age, so much energy, but I retreated to the university, where I could succeed at what I was doing, and your mother was left on her own to handle you and the house and my father and the animals.” He considers stopping here. Maybe he has made his point, or enough of it anyway. But no, this has been more of an apology than an attempt to explain himself, so he pushes on.
“It was then that I met someone who would change my life, a rabbi, an
the likes of whom none of you will ever, ever meet. Ask any religious person who Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig was, and they’ll tell you—the greatest, the wisest of his generation.” Several of the boys look at Daniel for a reaction, but none is offered. “Everyone remembers something different about him, and it was all true. He could quote whole tractates from the Babylonian Talmud, had memorized the Jerusalem Talmud, too, for comparison. He could recite a thousand poems from medieval Jewish Spain alone, spoke a half dozen languages, and read a dozen more. His scope included everything. He swallowed complex tomes of physics, biology, chemistry; studied anthropology, archaeology, sociology; knew both Jewish and general history as though he’d lived in every age in every country. But he loved literature and poetry the best. He was the great synthesizer, a giant of a man more powerful than a bear and gentler than a kitten. His lectures were attended by thousands. No hall in Jerusalem could contain the overflow and eventually he was put on television to accommodate the crowds.
“He was also a very conflicted man. I noticed it the first time we met, when I approached him for help with my first book. It wasn’t just his enormous proportions, the huge body with the brain of a computer. It was his sad eyes, the look of a man who could not appreciate his many gifts because he was overwhelmed by the burden, the responsibility. He saw this conflict in me, too, and that’s how we became . . . friends.”
Joseph feels energized. He leans forward in his chair and returns his glass to the table. They are listening, this tiny, important audience of his. Daniel’s gaze may have softened, Noam has not fled the table, and the other three boys are looking not at their plates, not at the paintings on the walls, but at their father. His success is palpable. He is winning them over slowly, and he has not yet penetrated to the core of his story. Now he selects his words with utmost care. He must make them see the unfolding of events through his own eyes. Their own personal histories have sheltered them too much to allow them to sympathize with anything sordid or shameful.
“Our friendship blossomed. We spent as much time as possible together and became very, very close. He had four children and we spent time comparing notes about raising you all. He helped me find sources for my book; I treated him to fruit and spices from our garden.” Joseph weighs the rapt attention of his listeners and dares to continue. “It’s not an exaggeration to say we loved one another deeply. We took seaside walks together when I could entice him to leave Jerusalem for half a day. We picnicked in a poppy field near the caves at Guvrin. We hiked in the Carmel Forest and explored the Arab
in the Old City. But mostly we spent long, quiet hours together talking and studying.”
This unburdening is wonderful; he thinks he could soar above this table and hover there.
Tell them everything
, Pepe has urged him. Joseph supposes he is doing just that, except for the most intimate details they would be loath to hear anyway.
Tell them you made love to one another. Tell them how. Tell
them how you felt about it, tell them, tell them, tell them.
In their three years together Pepe has prized these stories out of Joseph’s mouth, making him say words he had never uttered in his life.
Say those words to your sons. Tell them what really happened.
Joseph is deliriously thankful that Pepe is not here now. He can tell his sons what they need to know without shocking them. He is winning them over, gaining their respect and understanding at last. Soon he will earn their sympathy.