Sadness and Grace

What was it about our fathers that we have to start getting to know them truly only after they are dead?

I first met Amikam Levy in the antiques store he once had on Shir Street. As was the case with everyone who entered the store, I had the feeling that I knew Amikam Levy from somewhere. Some people knew him from a previous store he had owned, but most people remembered him from his roles in television series. And like almost every first-time client, I bought a few items of furniture and some doodads I never knew I needed or were even to my taste. And I fell in love with Amikam. It's hard for me to resist people who, with the help of a wonderful sense of humor, transform the greatest horrors of their lives into a story over which, when you finish doubling over with laughter, you want to cry - or vice versa.

Like all my friends who have met Amikam, my children took to him instantly. One of them once explained the secret of his charm by saying that Amikam is the least stereotypical Tel Aviv gay person. Because on the one hand, he is completely gay, but on the other he has the mannerisms of a heavy Jerusalem coxcomb who is capable of sitting around the whole evening cracking sunflower seeds and offering spot-on criticism of everyone and shouting in exaggerated imitation of a prima donna bimbo: "I come from hard luck." But he really means it.

Because Amikam, who possesses the most extensive collection of female acquaintances known to humanity (and also has quite a few male acquaintances) really did come from hard luck. Though not of the kind we all have - where mommy-daddy didn't understand our latent potential, or didn't really love each other, or we have relatives who went through the Holocaust.

Amikam, his parents and six sisters all lived in one room next to the Mahane Yehuda produce market in Jerusalem. His father, an Urfali (from the ancient Jewish community in eastern Turkey), was a greengrocer. His beautiful mother was a housewife who buckled under the burden of raising the children, cooking and shopping. Amikam was born after his mother had given birth to eight girls (three of them died shortly after birth). He was the big prize his father had longed for and prayed for.

These were the 1950s and '60s. Avraham was already old when his first and only son came into the world, and no longer had the strength to raise him or give him the occasional hug, tell him a story or talk to him. He had had his fill of hard times and of children, and when he wasn't working in the market, he prayed. He remembered his son's existence only once, when, unusually, he decided to take him to a movie. It was a movie about Samson and Delilah, which at the end turned out to have a moral. When they emerged from the Eden Theater into the cool Jerusalem evening, his father told him he had taken him to the movie in order to learn from the great Samson how not to allow the punks at school to go on harassing him.

"If they hit you," his father said, "hit them back. Like Samson the hero."

Little Amikam never learned how to hit back, but on one occasion adopted Samson's courage when he came to the defense of his father, who was assistant to the chief cantor. When Amikam heard the chief cantor yelling at his dad for singing out of tune, he immediately assaulted the cantor, knocked his hat off and said to his father, "Let's get out of here." But his father, unfortunately, was not impressed by the courage his son displayed, and when they got home told Amikam's mother that the boy had shamed him in front of the cantor.

Avraham Levy was a gentle man, soft of heart and great of heart, and was admired by his community. He made sure his children lacked for nothing. There was food in abundance, and clothes and blankets were in plentiful supply. There was only one minor problem, having to do with the beds.

During the day, the room functioned as a living room, but at night it became one big bedroom. Mattresses were laid on the floor, two sisters per mattress. Another sister was pushed under the table. Amikam shared his mother's mattress almost until his bar mitzvah. Avraham adored his wife boundlessly and loved her fiercely and at night he would move from his mattress to her mattress in order to make love to her. He did not take into account their son, who lay next to his mother watching the goings-on, his hand - which his mother held in order to distance him - shaking and thrusting up and down to the rhythm of the shaking and thrusting of his father.

"Abadi" is Amikam's monodrama based on this story; it tells of his life as a boy and his constant search, as an adult, for a father's love, or at least a man's embrace. The play was a success when it was performed years ago. Afterward, Amikam appeared in television series, designed furniture and opened stores of his own. In the last of these, which was on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, he also opened a small cafe and held evenings of poetry and literature readings.

Then he disappeared for more than half a year to Sweden, where he performed a new version of "Abadi" in the Jewish Theater; it was a huge success. When he got back to Israel, he started to work with Ruti Dikes on the current version for the latest Theatronetto festival. I was at the dress rehearsal, and only then did it occur to me for the first time that "Abadi" is not only abadai, slang for "man's man" or "tough guy," but also abba, dai, meaning "enough, dad," the child's pleading with his father to stop hurting his mother while he sleeps, but with eyes wide open.

As in every meeting with Amikam, in the play, too, I cried when I wanted to laugh and laughed when what I really wanted was to cry, and when I got up the next morning my heart was enveloped in a profound sadness, grieving over what cannot be undone. What was it about our fathers that we have to start getting to know them truly only after they are dead? To try and guess what their childhood looked like in a different country and which of their siblings - and in my father's case, all of them perished, with their wives and children, before I was born - bugged them and which of them protected them and who carried them on their shoulders. And what else my grandmother said besides "Yossi was right" - which, rumor has it, she declared on the train taking her to Auschwitz, referring to the fact that my father preferred to abandon religion and settle in Palestine.

Maybe it was not just our fathers who missed the opportunity to know us, but we who squandered the chance to know them.