Category Archives: family

Okay: Last Patriarch

Some time later, en route to see his estranged brother Esau (“in hope of gaining your favor”) but alarmed that Esau has amassed a small army, Jacob sends his people and animals, laden with gifts, ahead of him and returns, alone, to the side of the river he has sent them across. That night, “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Gen 32:25) The man, understood to be an angel (perhaps the angel of Esau?) does not defeat Jacob, although he renders Jacob lame.

This painting of their encounter is by the great 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt. The angel’s expression seems to express both compassion and pity for Jacob. 1-Rembrandt_-_Jacob_Wrestling_with_the_Angel_-_Google_Art_Project

Before the angel prepares to leave, at daybreak, Jacob insists on a blessing. “You are no longer Jacob,” the angel tells him, but “Israel”–one who has struggled with God. Recall that El, Elohim, is one of the names of God. Jacob’s descendants are know as the people Israel–the God-strugglers.

Jacob has 12 sons and a daughter, Dina. Dina occasions another strange circumcision story. She sleeps with a local man, Shechem. Her brothers understand it as rape and when Shechem’s father asks for Dina’s hand in marriage, they agree on the condition that all the males of Shechem’s family be circumcised. While they are still in pain, Dina’s brothers slaughter Shechem and his men, transforming the symbol of covenant with God into a prelude to revenge.  These are the same brothers who later conspire to kill their baby brother Joseph but instead sell him to the Ishmaelites who take him to Egypt.

Joseph finds favor with the Pharoah, brings his father Jacob and his whole family to safety in Egypt. In one of Jacob’s last acts, he mistakenly blesses the younger of Joseph’s two sons, despite Joseph’s effort to set things right. On his deathbed, Joseph instructs his brothers to carry his bones to the new land. (Although he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

The rest of the story follows the fate of the a particular people, the Hebrews, the people Israel (not yet the Jews), as they seek to fulfill God’s promise to the ancestors–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–in a new land.


Here I Am

So God has promised Abraham and Sarai a multitude of descendants–and unlikely as that sounds for a couple in their 90s, Sarai does conceive, and bears a son she names Isaac, for “he laughs.” Once again, she has Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, and they leave, to live henceforth in the wilderness.

Then God calls on Abraham, and Abraham answers “here I am.” In Hebrew, Hineni (dots are vowels).


And God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, seed of his descendants, as a burnt offering. And Abraham prepares to slaughter Isaac.


At the last minute an angel stays Abraham’s hand (photo is of Donatello’s sculpture) and provides a lamb.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kiergaard wrote Fear and Trembling to grapple with this behavior in the face of this command. The title, “fear and trembling,” comes from Psalm 55.5. The speaker is beset by enemies:

My heart is convulsed within me;
terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling invade me;
I am clothed with horror. 

Kierkegaard noted in a journal (IIIC4): “We ought to note in particular the trusting and God-devoted disposition, the bold confidence in confronting the test, in freely and undauntedly answering: Here I am. Is it like that with us.”


History, Like Sex

[Note: This story took place many years ago.] Passing a freight yard on our first family trip by train, Gabriel, aged seven, is struck by a funny thought: people traveling in freight cars. I don’t tell him that Jews, his very own great-great aunts and uncles, were shipped to concentration camps in freight trains. Fudging the issue, I agree it would be odd, never hinting that it happened. I wonder when I will break his innocence.

It seems something like sex, this question of history. I elect to wait until he asks me something about it.

Some weeks after that train ride, I find Art Spiegelman’s book Maus at the library and bring it home. Spiegelman’s artistry is not lost on my son. He grabs it eagerly and begins to read.

Not ten panels into the book, Spiegelman has raised the issue of French anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair, the Nazi collaborationists. Gabe skips those hard words, and I offer no explanation. After dinner, he urges me to read Maus to him—I’m so much faster a reader. “It’s a very sad story,” I warn him, “it’s awful.”

The beginning is bucolic, funny. Spiegelman’s father Vladek is so cheap is rations wooden matches, but leaves the gas burner on all day, because someone else pays for it. He has the dogged, powerful self-interest of the survivor. His scrimping old man ways are laughable. Soon, however, the story shifts back to Poland, 1944, to Vladek’s capture and arrival at Auschwitz.

“Does this frighten you?” I ask Gabe.

“No. Keep reading.”

The cartoon figures are naked now, with the face of mice and the bodies of men, and the camp guards, German cats and Polish pigs, are yelling the mice, who shiver, barefoot and shirtless, in the snow.

“Is this going to give you nightmares?”


I read on. Spiegelman’s gritty black and white cartoons now include smokestacks which Vladek grimly acknowledges.

I  ask, “Do you know that this is about?” We have only recently, the past Veteran’s Day, discussed the two world wars. I have probably even mentioned Hitler as the ruler of Germany, but have never spoken of his treatment of the Jews.

“Yes,” Gabe says. “The Germans killed the Jews.” He is matter of fact.

It is like sex, revealed to him some years ago by an older girl. Someone else has already told him about this history. Colin, a nine-year-old neighbor child whose favorite games involve lining the younger children up in order to shout orders and blow his whistle at them, has broken to Gabe the truth that seemed too dangerous for me to tell him.

Gabe has wept for hours about the injustice of Colin’s grandmother putting an inconvenient cat to sleep, and he has, as a younger boy, poured cup after cup of water down an anthill for the sheer thrill of the pandemonium it creates, but he has just begun, barely, to put the two together, the pity of an individual’s death and wholesale, unthinkable terror of mass murder.

He is too young to know he has lost his innocence about history. No longer a technical virgin in the human story, he has still has plenty more to learn. A more serious parent than I could start in: Hiroshima. Stalin. Pol Pot. Where would they end?

Some days after our reading of Maus, I hear him ordering his younger brother around in the language of a camp guard.

I keep writing history as though somehow this may be a story that goes somewhere, that shows some progress.

I wanted, like mothers before me, to protect my child from something unpleasant, in this case, one particular nightmare of twentieth century history. But history, like sex, will break through.

Give It Away

Confronted with a need to dispose of some possessions in order to make enough room to live, I found myself debating whether to give away my father’s old tape recorder. Few things still attach him to me and I was tempted to keep the recorder as tangible evidence of his presence. But I realized I would never use it, that it was a fantasy to imagine I would make another recording with it and the recorder was a pretty stupid way to hold onto my father. I gave it away.

I was sensitive to the issue because earlier this summer I had, hastily and thoughtlessly, given away a huge antique dresser that had belonged to my father. The dresser was too big for me and seriously in the way, and I offered it to a young man who does fix-it-up work for us and had just gotten divorced, leaving all his furniture behind. Foolishly, I revealed to one of my sisters that I had given the dresser away, with the result that she became very angry with me and after a few testy emails, cut off our relationship.Then my other sister wrote to ask, did I still have my father’s bicycle, which I had given away years before because it was too big for me. I had the sense that my sisters were trying to stay in contact with our father through things he had owned and if so, I knew where they were coming from.

It’s hard to want things you can no longer have. My brother, for example, owns a large house on Nantucket which, when I was married, I was invited to regularly, for weeks at a time. Thirteen years have passed since I have been there. I have never been invited back, although my sons are, regularly. I broke something in them in breaking my own life, I guess. So here we are, my sisters wanting scraps of my father that I no longer possess and me wanting to be restored to a space I once loved.

Friends, someone once said, are God’s apology for families.