Fear Was My Father

At age 42, following his casting in a Ridley Scott film together with Leonardo DiCaprio, actor Alon Aboutboul is finally ready to confront his past.

Alon Aboutboul has never forgotten one night when he was six, leaving his room because he sensed danger in the air. "I saw my older brother being savagely beaten by my father," he recalls. "I tried to be careful. I froze like a rabbit caught in a shaft of light." The beaten older brother was an open wound for the little brother, the favorite. Aboutboul has never spoken publicly about this before. "I don't have the tools to cope with it," he says. "My brother is a wonderful gift. But as a boy, he was badly abused."

Far from a one-time incident, this was routine in the home of Moni and Arlette Aboutboul in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. "I grew up with fear and terror. You grapple with the fact that there is violence, tension, beatings, outbursts of rage," Aboutboul relates. "Today I say: My family was torn to pieces. It took me years to say that. It wasn't a ruined family in the cliched sense: There was no drunken father, no prostitute mother. It was a good family. We had pride. My father was captivating - the life of the party. But in reality, the family fell apart."

Aboutboul's mother saw what was happening, but divorce was out of the question. To separate was shameful, although the brutal violence prompted her to leave several times. It was only after 20 years of marriage that she mustered the courage to move to Tel Aviv, still without divorcing. The aim was to save her younger son, who had then been accepted to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts.

A few years after graduating, Aboutboul became one of Israel's biggest movie stars. He has since appeared in dozens of films, plays and television series. He can currently be seen in "Avedot vemitziot" ("Lost and Found"), a film directed by Shai Gabizon and co-written by him and Dana Modan, which is being made into a series on Channel 2. The zenith of his career may still be ahead of him: He is now in Morocco, shooting "Body of Lies," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Aboutboul plays an Al Qaida terrorist being pursued by a CIA agent.

There were also high hopes for Alon's older brother, Avraham, who was considered to have unusual acting talent, but that dream was never realized. It took years for his brother's physical and mental wounds to heal - years of torment and searching. He finally found tranquillity in the Bratslav Hasidic sect. In recent years he has released three CDs of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) music and appeared in the film "Ushpizin" ("The Guests"), set in the Haredi world of Jerusalem.

'Battles, tension, shouting'

Alon Aboutboul was born in 1965. His father was an insurance agent, his mother an accountant. Avraham is a year and a half older than Alon. "Before I became aware of what was happening in the house, I had an amazing childhood," he says. "It was always an open house, with people coming and going. My maternal grandmother and great-grandmother lived next to us, and every day after school I went to them. They were my anchor, always there for me."

Kiryat Ata was a violent town then, Aboutboul remembers. "It was the biggest 'station' for moving drugs from Lebanon to Israel. You would go outside and be beaten up."

So the culture of the street trickled into the house?

Aboutboul: "My whole childhood was a succession of card games. Making coffee, emptying ashtrays and getting tips through the whole night. There was always a cloud of smoke in the house. The lights were on until the small hours. I thought it was really cool ... I remember times when my father took me with him to work and in the middle we went to see a karate movie."

His mother, who declined to be interviewed for this article, arrived in Israel from Egypt in 1950. Acquaintances remember her as having a noble demeanor, impressively dressed, chain- smoking and well-read. "Her family lived in cosmopolitan, colonial Alexandria," Aboutboul relates. "Her father was a total atheist, from the minor aristocracy. He was tolerant, handsome, charismatic and spoke 10 languages. He barely spoke Arabic. They saw themselves not as Arabs, but as semi-Europeans. They had Arab servants. Mom grew up in a convent school. When they came to Israel in 1950, she brought a little china and a lot of books."

His father was also from a respectable family, which came to Palestine at the beginning of the last century by mule from Algeria, and engaged in commerce in Haifa. "My father was in the Jewish Brigade. After the War of Independence he went to France with his cousins. He fell in love with a Jewish woman, the daughter of a French soldier, and married her. They had a son. Three years later they divorced ... The last time he saw him was when the boy was 15."

Arlette and Moni met in Haifa in 1960 and were married a few months later. The fights began soon after; there was both physical and mental abuse. "My mother felt that she was a victim. They argued all the time. Dad wanted to live in Haifa, but she wanted to live close to her mother in Kiryat Ata. She also constantly wanted to go to America. He was frustrated in his job ... never satisfied with what he had. He gave the impression of being a family man, but wasn't really there.

"I grew up with fear," Aboutboul continues. "There were always battles, quarrels, tension, shouting. Vicious beatings, in front of me. Battles were the family narrative. I remember big fights on seder night, and suddenly everything blowing up. My brother was in the front for me. I was always the little guy on the side. I never thought about whether it was normal. They designated a black sheep, so there was a black sheep."

His brother, he says, paid the price of being the firstborn. "He was the first to enter into my parents' fights. He became the butt of all their mutual accusations. He was the object, but he also cooperated. He stood up for his rights; he had tremendous courage."

For example?

"He was a prankster, fell off a tiled roof, smoked at the age of seven, came back from a brawl bleeding badly. He was brazen and spoke nastily. My brother is a flower, with a pure heart, but they didn't see that. He had a harsh experience of the deconstruction of the father figure. From his point of view, my father was an obstacle to his life."

Aboutboul, for his part, developed methods of defense, ways to escape the recurring violence. "They didn't touch me, didn't lift a finger against me. I tried to please everyone, avoid the fire. I was said to be good at buttering Dad up. I developed a mechanism of how to win. You learn how to play-act, how not to step on toes. I was proud of not being hit by Dad. Alon the good kid, happy with my good reputation."

When he was seven, his mother moved in with her mother, and he remembers asking her to come back. "She came back and said it was because of me. I was shattered. On the one hand, I really understood her, but on the other hand it didn't make sense that a small kid should make the decision for her. She came home, and I developed guilt feelings. I felt I was to blame for her suffering."

Three years later, his mother left home and moved to Tel Aviv - this time with the children. For a year they lived with her siblings, but when their family business failed, they had to go back to Kiryat Ata.

The violence of Aboutboul's father undermined the natural relations between the brothers. "Sometimes my brother hit me and I complained to Dad. He was punished. That scared me. I understood that to complain was dangerous. A confrontation turned into a very dangerous thing. You lost control. Then you are torn inside about whether to complain."

Were you close?

"Avraham pampered me, loved me, hit me. He tried to protect me, even though I was a major nuisance for him. He took me to class parties. All the girls he wanted most asked him who the cute kid was, so he stopped taking me. I was a nudnik, I became the focus instead of him. He was bigger, more handsome and stronger than me."

Avraham exerted a crucial influence on his brother's worldview. "When I was 11, he came back from a three-month stay at Nueiba [in Sinai] with a freaked-out friend. He came to the neighborhood with an earring and everyone blew a gasket. My brother brought hashish, guitars, Bob Dylan. Wow, the world! The post-1960s culture of searching for yourself, gurus, krishnas. He gave me 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' to read and told me to stop following the pack ... When I asked him about that kind of life, he replied, 'Learn how to live alone with yourself.' I internalized that. I remember that for a long time I was just with myself, without friends."

His brother also had an influence in connection with acting: Avraham wanted to appear on stage and pulled Alon in his wake. When he was 17, Avraham's searching led him to a Jerusalem yeshiva. "One time I went to visit him," Alon says. "Dad warned me not to go. I wrote him, saying that this was all I had, my only brother, and I love him. Then I saw a different world: end of the 1970s, Jerusalem, newly religious people - and me representing the family viewpoint, [asking]: 'What happened to him? What's with the skullcap?'"

The visit left a deep impression. "I noticed that I was shifting sides, experiencing conversations about the important things: why I live and die, what I am doing on the earth. People talked to me about lofty principles. I discovered an incredible, exciting world - and again, through my brother. I became his most precious ally. I had to look after him. When he fought with my father, I lied for him."

Ties that bind

Outwardly the family maintained a united front, which only heightened the confusion. "I lived in a contradictory, deceptive reality, with no connecting link. We were a good family, talented people ... Everything was fine. But suddenly you realize that the most wonderful person can also be the scariest and most threatening."

It took years for Aboutboul to understand where all that came from. "As a boy, my father got pounded by his father. When his father went blind, he had to read him the whole newspaper every day. In school the teachers whipped him if he didn't do his homework. That's the world he knew. If you're a bad boy, you are walloped; if you're a good boy, you're spared."

What role did your mother play?

"It was as though my father had married his mother-in-law. He had a powerful symbiosis with my grandmother. He wasn't sure that his wife was beholden above all to him. And on top of this, he had a son somewhere whom he hadn't seen for years. A broken circle. He wasn't aware of this conflict. Everything was either open or secret. There was no desire to understand needs, or different odd impulses that drove him. People who went into therapy were considered crazies."

At 15, Aboutboul enrolled in the Thelma Yellin High School. A month before he started studying, he went to Yamit, the settlement in Sinai, to get over a disappointed love. "When I got home, Mom wasn't there. She had taken advantage of my move to Thelma Yellin and rented a place in Tel Aviv. She wanted us to get away from him."

How did he react?

"Dad felt I had abandoned him, and I started to develop guilt feelings. Who did the abandoning? Did I really abandon him? As a child, you protect your parents. And then you see them and the contradictions begin. That hurts - as a child, and also as a parent. I felt that I was carrying the whole world and that I had to save it, to adapt myself to everyone's expectations, to live up to the promises."

Despite the separation, his parents never formally parted. "They were never divorced, it was never resolved. A kind of symbiosis. They couldn't stay together, but they didn't manage to end the relationship. They were bound together and couldn't untie the knot."

Aboutboul remembers the 1980s in Tel Aviv as being a bad period: "We were in a state of depression; things were shitty. It was a period of punk, a dark time ... No ground, no sky. Floating. And not at all patriotic."

At the age of 15 he appeared in the film "Kochav hashahar" ("Morning Star"; 1980). He spent his army service in the IDF Spokesperson's film unit. He then studied acting in the studio run by Amir Orian. His performances in "51 Bar" (1985) and "Shtai etzba'ot misidon" ("Ricochets"; 1986) marked him as a promising actor. "It is born of instinct," he says of his choice of acting, "and it is accompanied by totality that creates effort, great determination. To achieve perfection that counters your fear of not succeeding. There are things I can do easily and they turn out wonderfully. Acting is not hard, it's easy."

Moni Aboutboul died when Alon was 23: "He died in his sister's home, in conflict with my mother, my brother and, in some way, with me, too. The saga was never completed. He left scorched earth ... The feeling was that the world had gone off course. Someone had pulled the rug out from under my feet. I didn't know what to do in this world; someone had to save me. It was a shock. I have never had a greater shock in my life. That was when the panic attacks started."

How do you explain this?

"I was absolutely furious that he died. Who said you could go and die? Wake up, what's going on here? ... With him the feeling was of something being lopped off. When he died, he became far more present in my life. I had dreams about him. I had death on my mind. When I didn't think about him I was seized by panic. I was full of guilt, that I had betrayed him, thinking that I had left him like everyone, that I hadn't protected him enough, that the family had fallen apart. The first words I said were: 'This is what you wanted. Now you can be peaceful, no one will bother you anymore.'"

You loved him.

"I was the good son, his life. To this day I deeply regret that he did not see my children and was not aware of our ability to overcome the demons of the past - the little monsters that are rolling around somewhere in Algeria and Morocco. To salvage something through a Jewish point of view, through psychology, yoga, meditation, acting."

The crisis touched off by his father's death led Aboutboul into a decade of therapy. "I entered therapy with my whole body aching, unable to sleep at night, insulating myself from the world. I felt that everything was falling apart. There was nothing to hide anymore. Until then we were ashamed to talk about the terrible situation. When his health deteriorated, that became his bargaining chip: 'If you don't behave properly, I will be sick.'"

What did you understand from the therapy?

"That you are not your parents. That you can set your own course. I was terribly upset that Dad died unhappy. You taste it, you know what an unhappy, frustrated person is, and you don't want to be like that. If I am the father of this family, then I have to behave like a father. Not fall apart. The symbiosis has to he dissolved."

The therapy went on for so long.

"The therapy constructed my personality. For quite a few years I have felt that I am managing my life. For all those years, for example, I never thought of having children. It took 10 years. I met my partner, Shir, and within a few months we had a first son, and all with the insight that when you give birth you decree the child's death. Today there are already four children."

Mutual narcissism

Aboutboul acts and teaches acting at Sapir Academic College in Sderot. He attributes his teaching career in part to his awareness of his ethnic origins. When he first came to Tel Aviv, he relates, he felt totally alienated. "A family is falling apart and you come to Tel Aviv alone, you know nothing about anything, and you enter the world of the arts. That is a very Ashkenazi experience, which has no name. You go to Habimah theater and meet actors in a special world that is all Europe or Ashkenazi in substance. A cultural language that is foreign to everything I know. I felt out of place there. Ashkenazi cultural language is boring."

Meaning?

"I have no problem with Ashkenazi culture, I just think it is bankrupt. In the beautiful theater of the 1980s, with Hanoch Levin, there was still something vital - people exchanged blows with critics. That is gone. Theater, certainly in Israel, as Peter Brook described it, is dead theater with a dead audience; theater that does not renew itself. Nothing has changed there. If there is one thing that appalls me, it is being rooted to one spot."

What was there in the cinema that wasn't in the theater?

"In the cinema I discovered a pioneering spirit. Crazy people, off the wall, getting up at five in the morning. In the theater it's, 'Yallah, sell a ticket.' Nowadays artistic theater in Israel does musicals for workers' committees. In the cinema there is a change between generations. In the film world you make a movie, mortgage your home, lose and want to die, and maybe in five years you will have the strength to do something. Film is the most advanced area of the Israeli arts. Mizrahi consciousness" - referring to Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin - "feminine consciousness, post-Zionism, post-post-Zionism. Consciousnesses that have trickled down into the schools."

Did your success have a good influence?

"On the one hand I have a serious narcissistic disorder, while on the other I get from the world an appropriate narcissistic reaction. I think I am something, and the press writes that I really am something. You believe it, but inside you know it's not true. That it's illogical. When will they realize that it's all a fraud? In the periods when I succeeded, I wasn't happy. If your happiness depends on that, it's a prison; you will never be happy. Something external can never define your existential experience. My experience consists of a great many small, day-to-day details. Did you notice that the sun came up today? You have to be happy in the world and understand that it has an end, that everyone dies. A human tragedy - but, on the other hand, also a comedy."

These are not mere New Age slogans: Aboutboul's process of personal healing was accompanied by the development of moral and political awareness. In the last elections he supported Labor's Amir Peretz publicly and published articles in the press. "From the point of view of the inundation of the racist discourse in Israel, Amir Peretz is the best thing that happened. The subject emerged so powerfully that it is impossible to turn back the clock. Today there are more Mizrahim who can take pride in themselves."

For the past five years he has worked on a documentary film, "The Idealist," about Arie Lova Eliav, the legendary labor movement figure, whom he got to know when he attended high school with Eliav's son Eyal. The film, like Aboutboul's ties with Eliav, is a conscious attempt to examine his family and its surrogates.

"I examined the place of the father, his absence, what kind of fathers we have," Aboutboul says. "When your first child is born, you have to roll out the red carpet, organize the world for him. With Lova, the code of behavior was completely different. In high school, Eyal gave me a stereo. What parents of the kind I knew would allow their kid to give a friend a stereo as a present?"

Why was that so strange to you?

"I grew up in a culture that takes from you and gives nothing. The film about Lova is the examination of a model ... You can talk, you don't have to shut up. You can freak out and then embrace. What did I do in therapy? I asked for forgiveness and reconciled with my family, with myself, with my father's death, with the world. It sounds like a cliche, but it's the truth."

While Aboutboul's career took off, his brother's dream did not come true. Although those who remember him as a young man recall that he was a total actor, who was powerfully expressive, Avraham did not succeed in overcoming his past, and his unstable condition did not allow him to pursue a career in an organized fashion. Finally, in the 1990s he joined the Bratslav Hasidim, moved to Jerusalem and raised a family. Alon tried to help him: "Because he lacked paternal security, he came to me until he found God. These days he can talk with the father in heaven, the great father, particularly because he is an orphan."

What kind of relationship do you have with Avraham?

"The love between us is tremendously strong. We are close, connected. If I were to relive my life, I would hope to go through everything with him. It is a love that has no words to describe it. If there were ever an argument about who would decide, today - after he found religion and dropped his ego, and I worked on my ego - we know a great deal about what was and what is. We achieve a discourse of the heart. I love you. Nothing matters. You are my brother."