The date was Sunday, October 7, 1973 and the Yom Kippur War had begun the day before. By the war’s conclusion twenty days later, US-Israeli relations were changed forever. By the conclusion of that evening, what my dad helped me discover about the origins of the Arab-Jewish discord changed me forever as well.
“The Wonderful World of Disney” was playing in background when my father, Marvin, asked what I was doing that diverted my attention from what was must see TV to my then 11 year old self. We had returned from the ‘breaking the fast’ at my grandparents’ house and while I am sure much of the dinner conversation went over my head, I evidently got the most salient point: Israel needed more fighter planes and out of blue and white Legos, I was making them some.
Earlier that year, “The Ten Commandments” was shown on TV for the first time and so clearly I remember my parents beaming at the wonder my brother, Hal, & I experienced as we watched the stories we learned in Sunday School come to life in Technicolor pageantry. Aware that the Egyptians had been the aggressors in this current conflict and with Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the villainous Ramses still fresh in my mind, I asked dad if the Egyptians still “disliked” us because their army was drowned in the Red Sea. Dad could see I was grappling to not just understand what was happening, but why, and in it saw an opening for what came to be a pivotal lesson between father and son.
Amongst “the seven words you could never say” in the Yaffe house, “hate” was number one. “Hate is the right word to use in this case. But it is never OK to hate…never ever,” dad stated emphatically. Together we looked at a map of the Middle East in the National Geographic Atlas and then read the The Toledo Blade’s account of the war where I learned Syria and Jordan were invading along with Egypt, as they had in the Six Day War in 1967. This provided me with the framework to forge my first real world, geo-political understanding that this was not just a continuation of an ancient battle being waged by the current citizens of Israel and the decedents of the Pharaohs, but also something bigger that emanated from of a bitter, deep seeded hatred that had begun, as I discovered next, even before the time of Moses.
Dad proceeded to tell me the bible story of Abraham and his family. First he said “hate” and now a bible story? I was seeing a side of my father for the first time that I now recognize was a window into both the core of his spirituality and the foundation of his Zionism. He told me that Abraham’s wife, Sarah was getting up there in years and she thought G-d had forgotten his promise to give them a child. Taking matters into her own hands, Sarah arranged for Abraham to have a child with her maid Hagar, and no, that was not the same ‘Hagar the Horrible’ from the Sunday Funnies, but adding with a laugh, she was probably a ‘meeskite‘ (yiddish term for an unattractive woman) too. He continued that Hagar did produce a son for Abraham and was named Ishmael. Today Ishmael would probably be classified as hyper-active ADHD but dad used another Yiddish word to describe him he knew I understood clearly, a trombenick; a mischief maker.
Dad went on saying 13 years later, G-d kept his promise, “as the Almighty always does,” stealthy squeezing in a bonus parable on faith and patience, and Sarah and Abraham had a son of their own, Isaac. To make sure Isaac would be the single heir, Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael back to Egypt. They never forgave her and even though he was just an innocent baby, they began to revile Isaac too. Eventually, dad explained, Ismael’s descendants became the Arabs, and Isaac’s became the Jews & later, the Christians.
Dad asked me to imagine how I would feel if after living like a family for two more years then the age I was at the time, I was suddenly kicked out of the only home I ever knew because a new son had taken my place. More importantly, dad stressed, even though he was just an infant with no say in the matter, how would I feel about that baby whose birth caused all of this? With the same heavy heart now as I had then, I recall saying in a low, pained voice, “I would hate him.” Dad asked if I thought I would get over it and I said “Never…never ever.” As we continued to talk, I began to comprehend that the hate would be so big, it would out live me and get passed onto my children, and my children’s children, and on and on, just like it did to Ishmael’s & Isaac’s offspring right up to the present day.
“But while everyone is so busy being mad at each other for thousands of years now,” dad said, “they forget the most important part of the story is also the reason there is real hope for peace: that in the end, Ismael and Isaac put their differences aside to bury their father together, as the brothers they always were.” This ushered in a chillingly poignant moment coming from a man who knew his sons would be doing that for him before they graduated from high school.
Though we never yet had formally discussed that that inevitability would be coming to this home sooner rather then later, the prophetical impact of that sentence hung in the now silent, still air long enough to render a future formal discussion of the matter unnecessary. Dad reached over grabbed my hand. “Who is your brother’s keeper?” he asked with a hint of a quiver in his voice I had never heard before. “I am,” I said in almost a whisper. “And no matter how old you get or how far apart you & Hally live, will that ever change, Harlan Blaine?” “No dad, never…never ever.” And it never has.
Dad returned to the story and asked me if I was Ishmael, what might make me feel better. I thought that after the funeral, if I could have my old room back and we lived together, maybe we could learn the share the house and get along. “If by then you were a grown man with a family of your own, do you think you would want to move them all into the same room you had a little boy?” Dad asked. “No,” I said, “but at least it would get us talking and maybe that’s how we could start to patch things up.” Dad nodded and kissed me on the forehead. “Now go play in traffic,” he said with his wry smile and deadpan delivery. Lesson learned. Son dismissed.
The physical land that comprises modern Israel is literally the common ground of both enduring faith and perpetual conflict for so much of the world, and for so much of our history. Perhaps, just perhaps, what will finally allow this open wound of humanity’s conscience to begin to heal is when we begin to deal the real cause behind it all: a four letter word called “hate.”
Happy Birthday, Dad, and thank you.
A fierce proponent of our Jewish upbringing, the youngest son of a kosher butcher and a staunch supporter of Israel, it is also true my father would be found much more often picking up Hal and me from Temple B’nai Israel then be seen inside it. There was, however, a notable yearly exception that not only led to his command of the story Abraham and Sarah, but helped to lay the foundation of my Jewish identity that is inexplicably woven into the core of the man I am today. Consider that a preview of coming attractions.