Ismail, Joseph, and My Sons
Ismail, a wise and wizened Egyptian man working at a Bedouin tent camp-cum-tourist experience near Petra, a widower with two young children at home, asked me as we sat as the only guests around a small bonfire if I knew any other languages besides the broken Arabic I was practicing with him. “A bit of French,” I said. And paused, hoping for a change in conversation.
“And you know Hebrew, dad,” my younger son chimed in, looking a bit confused at my omission. “Right,” I said sheepishly and under my breath, “some Hebrew.” A few minutes later, my older son would quickly offer up that we had spent 3 monthsin Israel when boys were little, another fact I had tried to avoid and had hoped would not come up.
I would not even say they spoke bravely. It wasn’t a choice for them whether to be honest with Ismail. To be open with our host who was showing us nothing but Abrahamic — human– hospitality was obvious and innate. Even though — and perhaps precisely because — we have taught them a bit about the conflicts in the region, they did not think to be afraid to make clear they were Jewish.
A few minutes later, with all fine, the fire crackling, and my boys off to chase yet another stray cat, I wondered what did I think would happen? Who is teaching who anymore?
Joseph’s Pit Redux
A year ago as I started my contributions to Jewschool, I wrote that I wanted to throw my boys into Joseph’s pit. I never defined precisely what I meant by that, but I saw the symbol of the pit as nothing more than a way to shield them, and me. That is, unlike many commentators who have viewed Joseph’s being cast into a pit as an evil act by his brothers that set him on a difficult course for many years, I wanted to see it instead as a type of salvation.
[icon-box] This series:
Part I: Jacob’s Pit
Part II: Netanyahu’s (ab)use of the Holocaust
Part III: Charlie Hebdo and the 9/11 Memorial
Part IV: Selma
Part V: Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress
Part VII: BlackLivesMatter/ Baltimore and the IDF
Part VIII: Nepal and Gaza
Part IX: BDS
Part X: Israel and Baseball Statistics
Part XII: Examining Hineni
Part XIII: Israel education
[/icon-box] I imagined Reuven embracing the pit as a temporary respite, a moment where he knew the brothers could pause, think, and find a new path before they did something irreversible. And for Joseph, perhaps the darkness of the pit opened up both the light and the darkness inside of him, both of which had only ever shown themselves through his youthful petulance and bravado.
As I realize now, I have felt like Reuven for the past year, trying to think about what to do next, what to say to my boys next, how to do whatever I can to be a good father, yet not do anything irreversible. How to give and teach my growing sons everything I can, and then more, but not tell or show them so much that they fail to learn, to love, to question, to live for themselves.
Rather than be much use for them, this year in Joseph’s cave has mostly been a self-centered chance for me to reflect on my successes, my dreams, and — as I experienced in that cold Jordanian night — my failures. I have wanted so much in life to be a person who lives in a respectful and impactful way, to achieve, to be kind, to prioritize what should matter most, and still to be joyful.
More than anything, like any parent, I want my boys to see those things in me and also to derive their own formulas for what and how they want to be. Their being in Joseph’s pit was meant to be my chance to to figure out how to achieve both.
I have also lived for the past 18+ years with the feelings that first welled up when I lived for three months in Ramallah, as an American Jew amid something that felt so simultaneously foreign and native. I have lived with an aching responsibility, the desire to scream and laugh, the outrage that I had studied so much about my people and about Israel from the time I was the age my boys are now and yet learned almost nothing of reality. I have lived with a memory of the delusion that I could somehow be the one to change things in Israel/Palestine and the region, if I just worked hard enough or made the right argument.
But save for a bit of volunteer work here and there, I didn’t work hard enough or make the right arguments. I made other choices. My boys, I have thought subconsciously, perhaps they will be the ones to succeed where I have walked away.
My Turn in the Pit?
I write this shortly after my wife and I have returned from taking our boys to Jordan and Israel for 2.5 weeks. The experience was incredibly rewarding in every respect, and I know we began to instill a love of the region and its people in them, as I will describe in some future posts.
But as I recall now trying to explain to them over the last few days why a settlement or bypass road existed, or why some particular aspect of Palestinian treatment by Israel was unfair, or why our family visit to a place like the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem is so inspiring, I am confronted over and over with my moment with Ismail in Jordan, my own fear, my own failures, my own moments of realizing that I am making that eternal mistake of parenting — wanting my children to accomplish what I was unwilling or unable to do myself, at times more than I am allowing them to find their own paths.
Ismail taught me that it is time to retreat in to my own pit, to look honestly again at myself, my experiences, my fears, my shortcomings covered in bravado, petulance, or guilt. And to let my boys run and play tag instead of seeing what I imagine I wish I had been able to see at age 11.
By doing so, as my boys showed me that night by just being and loving themselves, and by being willing to be themselves with others, they may well be the ones to do what I never could. To make the connections between peoples more powerful than the conflicts.
And as I reflect on the state of things in Israel and Palestine today, maybe that’s the lesson for our entire generation.