02. October 2019 · Comments Off on Abraham, Isaac, my father and me · Categories: Olio

My dad’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death, is today. Here’s a photo of him as a young man in Germany after he survived the war. The rest of his family were murdered.


By Jewish law, I’m supposed to, in remembrance of my father, light a candle and pray with at least nine other people on his yahrtzeit. As long as I don’t go to a Reform synagogue, I can always find far more than nine. My father died on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. At just about every Conservative and Orthodox synagogue, I can find hundreds who celebrate Rosh Hashanah (most reform synagogues only celebrate the first day of Rosh Hashanah) and read the Akedah: the Genesis story when Abraham takes his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed. It’s a gruesome tale for many. I know of a few rabbis who have found alternative chapters to read. Human sacrifice is just too loathsome for them. But I take a different view. I believe in the Biblical interpretation of great scholar, Rashi: God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice his son. For me, the Akedah (The Binding in English) is an allegory about father-son relationships. It is in fact the ultimate father-son story.

If I didn’t believe that life is mostly random, I might think my father willfully picked to die on this day of the Hebrew calendar because he hated Reform synagogues and our relationship was sometimes Abraham/Isaac-esque. I miss him every day. His memory is indeed a blessing.

Every father-son relationship has some expectation that the son be dutiful to the father. Occasionally or maybe frequently, the father has ridiculous expectations of what this duty or fealty means. Abraham had such a ridiculous expectation. Isaac went along with it without question. God ultimately intervened. My father had ridiculous expectations of me. Ultimately he put them aside. Let me explain.

My father was in the construction business. From the time I was two or three, he would take me along in his search for lots to buy. He thought I was his lucky charm. We’d drive around town, look at empty lots and he’d ask me what I thought. If I said the lot was good, he’d buy it. That a four year old could be the key decision maker on such an important financial decision seems strange, but that’s how my father rolled.

The key was that in my family, kids were expected to be part of the family business from the time they were little. I was doing the books for the business by the time I was ten. I was repairing toilets and doors when I was twelve. I was also bribing alderman and zoning officials when I was ten.

OK, that last sentence probably raised eyebrows. Let me back up. Construction in every major city is a crooked business. You have to bribe people to get anything done. Want to get a zoning change on a property? It isn’t going to happen unless you grease the wheels. Want to get a building permit and not wait an eternity? That isn’t going to happen either. Want to get your construction work inspected and approved? Good luck without a bribe. Want to get concrete poured on a rare warm day in the winter? The local mafia controls that.

My father had to bribe people to get anything done. When I was ten, he got the idea that I should do some of the bribing. I’d walk into City Hall with envelopes full of money and place them in bathroom stalls. Someone would come pick them up after I left. I did this without question for about a year. But one day I asked my father, “Why am I doing this and not you?” That was a very un-Isaac thing to do, I know, but fealty for me does have its limits.

“Because I could get arrested, but no one is going to arrest a kid,” my father said.

That statement made sense to me. I continued to bribe for my father. I graduated in my teens to making bribes on construction sites. My father would give me a wad of twenties. Inspectors would come and I’d make judgments on the spot as to how much they wanted. I didn’t like doing this, but I did it because I knew that corruption was inherent in construction and couldn’t be avoided. Still with every bribe, I’d feel more dread.

This continued until I was sixteen, when I went to a construction site for a final approval two days before Christmas. I knew the inspector wanted money. I could also tell that he was irritated that he was dealing with a pimple-faced teen. This was a big construction project. He wanted a bribe and respect, both, which meant that he expected a real man to be out there with him.

The inspector prowled around the site looking for something, anything, that was just a little off. He was measuring stuff down to 1/8”. He couldn’t find a thing and was getting furious. Finally he found one section of the newly poured sidewalk that was 3/8” higher than the other sections. “That’s a hazard,” he said. “One quarter inch is the maximum. Someone could trip and break a leg on that.” He smiled. “You’re going to have to rip out this sidewalk and repour.”

It was the dead of winter. Tenants were moving in on January 1st. There was no way we could get a repour of the sidewalk and a final inspection approval in time.

I looked into the inspector’s eyes. How much did he want? “Will $200 do?” I asked.

“That’s about right,” he said.

“Let’s walk around back and do it,” I said.

“No, I want it right here, right now,” he said.

We were standing in front of a major street. Cars were whizzing by. The inspector was asking me to hand him ten twenties in broad daylight with fifty or so Milwaukee citizens as witnesses. I didn’t understand why he wanted to do the bribe this way, but I didn’t have a choice. I pulled out the cash, gave it to him and he went on his way.

I was shaken by this encounter. I drove home and my father could tell something was wrong. He asked me what happened. I told him. “I could get arrested doing this stuff, dad. I can’t do it anymore.”

My father looked at me. I didn’t know how he’d respond to my lack of fealty. In the story of The Akedah, an angel provides Abraham with a ram for a sacrifice. No angel was going to help me.

“You’re right,” my father said. “This is a rotten business and you’re not made for it. You’re a smart boy. You need to do something else. You need to go to college. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

I was relieved. A huge weight had been lifted from my conscience. My father never asked me to bribe anyone again. He definitely wanted me to go to college and better myself. He even put together an application for me to go to West Point and forged my signature. But that’s another story, one that has no relation to Abraham and Isaac. I do miss the old man every day.