Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Things I Didn't Know

Well. Just when you think you've got it all pegged, you take your second-grader to interview your father about his childhood and realize you don't know squat.

My dad tells a lot of stories about his very long and interesting life. Some are true, some are probably not, and most are a little of both, I suspect. I've heard them all--or so I thought. Tonight I heard some new ones. Or old ones. Depends on how you look at it.

My dad was born and raised in an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was born in 1927 and immigrated to the U.S., alone and penniless, in 1947, just before his country disappeared in the 1948 war that resulted in the birth of the nation of Israel. During his childhood, Palestine was a British protectorate, and Jerusalem was a cultural, religious, and strategic crossroads. His father was a police officer. They lived in a stone house without indoor plumbing, next to the Valley of the Hyenas (called that for good reason, and the source of a whole lot of truly hair-raising stories all by itself). There was a mud brick oven in the front yard and an outhouse around the side. Lest you think any of this is exaggerated, I saw the house myself, first in 1976, when his parents were still living there, and again in 1990, when I was working in Israel. I even used the outhouse. There was still no indoor plumbing in 1976--or 1990.

If you have ever been to Jerusalem, or know much about it, you know that it is unique, in that it is one city, divided into several sections, each with its own language, culture, and religion. The first school my father ever went to was a Rabbinical school for Jewish boys. He learned to read and write Hebrew and studied the Torah. He was the only Arab boy, and the target of ridicule and name-calling, until one of the Jewish boys stood up for him and refused to allow him to be bullied. They became fast friends. The boy's name was Ezer Weisman, and he grew up to be the president of Israel. In 1976, when my parents took us to visit our grandparents for the first and last time, Israeli security refused us entry into the country, until my father suggested that the security chief call Mr. Weisman (who I think was then Defense Minister for Israel). And--talk about a small country--the security chief did. He returned a short while later, very apologetic, to inform us that Mr. Weisman was ill and could not come to meet us, but that he sent his regards, and then we were escorted to a limo and driven to our hotel. True story. I was there, and I remember.

My father left the Rabbinical school when his father was transfered to another town. The reason he was transfered is a story in itself. At that time, the British Authority had decided that too many Jews were immigrating to Palestine and ordered the police to arrest any Jewish immigrants and deport them. One evening, my grandfather was on patrol near the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He saw a young couple swim from a Greek ship offshore a few hundred yards to the shore. They were Jewish immigrants trying to sneak into the country. They were very young, and scared, and they had nothing except the wet clothes they were wearing. Instead of arresting them, my grandfather took them home with him. My grandparents fed them and gave them dry clothes (my grandmother's spare dress and my grandfather's spare suit) and sent them to bed. In the morning, my father, who was eight years old, and my grandfather took them on horseback to the local Jewish organization that helped new arrivals. But my grandfather was spotted by another police officer, who reported him. He was demoted two ranks and sent to another village.

My father then attended a French Jesuit school. He learned to read and write French and studied the Bible. He became a devotee of Jules Verne and told everyone who would listen that humans would reach the moon in his lifetime. They all laughed at him. He didn't get to stay there long, though. His grandmother discovered that, while he was fluent in Hebrew and French, he had never learned to read or write Arabic, his native language. And so he was sent to an Arabic school, where he learned to read and write Arabic and studied the Koran. Along the way, he learned also English (he doesn't remember where or how) and spent a lot of time with an old Oxford professor who admired his intellect and encouraged him to consider leaving Palestine to seek an education and a better life.

One night in 1946, Jewish Zionists (they were the terrorists back then) blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British military command and part of the British government of Palestine. My father was living less than two miles away and saw the explosion from the front yard. 91 people were killed--including many wealthy American Jews, which is ironic. The police were sent out to round up those responsible, among them a young Jewish Zionist named Menachem Begin. My grandfather was alone when he found Begin, hiding behind a pile of rocks. He was small and pathetic-looking, and my grandfather, who had his gun trained on Begin, could not bring himself to pull the trigger. As his fellow officers approached, my grandfather looked at Begin and said quietly, "Run." Whether my grandfather made the right decision depends entirely on your political position. His superiors, however, were most displeased, and he was once again demoted, this time to act as the police department's blacksmith, shoeing horses. Begin ran off and went on to help found the State of Israel, and later to serve as Prime Minister.

My father decided there was no future for him in Palestine. He left in 1947, alone, with no money, on a leaky boat that nearly sank off the shores of New York. My father, who never learned to swim, was petrified. To this day, he hates boats. He made his way to California, eventually earning both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in engineering from UC Berkeley and USC. He was granted U.S. citizenship through an act of Congress, and shortly thereafter was drafted and sent to serve overseas during the Korean war. He went on to work in nuclear weapons development; it's hard to sort out the truth about his role, since much of it is classified, but from what he has told me, he was pretty deeply involved.

Eventually, he met and married my mother and settled in San Diego, where he became a successful real estate investor. He raised five children. His parents went on living in the little stone house in Abu Dis with no plumbing and no phone until their deaths in the 1980's. (My grandfather came to visit once. It was the only time he ever left Jerusalem. He was 72 years old, and when the plane landed, he knelt in his long white robes and kissed the ground. But he was a courageous man. He tried everything he was offered and kissed everyone who came through the door. He couldn't tell me any stories, though; he didn't speak English, and I don't speak Arabic.) My father lives in a lovely house in La Jolla, complete with indoor plumbing, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He wears jeans and polo shirts and sneakers. He turned 80 in August. He won't be around to tell his stories to my grandchildren. I guess I'll have to do it for him.

24 comments:

Donna said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the stories about your father and grandfather. (I have a few brushes with famous? people in my family tree too). Don't forget to write them all out for your future generations so that they will be remembered.
Happy knitting and happy holidays.

Angelika said...

Wow, I read every single word. That is so interesting. This is the time when memories like that get refreshed and stories retold, so they will never get forgotten.
Happy Holidays.

melissaknits said...

awesome.
tissue.

uberstrickenfrau said...

wow. Thanks for sharing with us, those are so interesting!Got anymore?

The_Add_Knitter said...

Thank you for telling a story that so many Americans are unaware of. As someone who lived in Morocco for many years, I think you and I would have a lot in common in terms of the types of stories we have heard.

Also, our fathers are exactly the same age.

Tammy said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

patrice said...

What a beautiful, rich history your family has. And how wonderful that your father is willing and able to share with you and your son. Bringing history alive, making personal connections with names normally seen in a textbook or on a newspaper page - these are the things that will fuel the next generation's ability to personally connect with people in other countries and cultures, which is what can help to prevent the misunderstandings that lead to war. Personal connections, working to make dreams reality - what a treasure your father is for you and your kids. And you thought you had heard every story before (!)-- what a great gift.

marit said...

Wow! That's really interesting. Is there any way your father could tell his stories on a taperecorder or something- or write it down himself, or with a little help? It would be too bad if his stories disappeared with him.
Happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

What wonderful stories! And it is great that you are learning them.

My Italian grandfather came over in 1898 with literally nothing. He worked in NYC to earn the train fare to San Jose with other Italians from the same hometown and area.

Recently I learned that someone's grandson was putting together the information from Ellis Island and family stories as to how everyone from one or two towns came to the Santa Clara Valley. I learned some interesting things about my Grandmother's father. Don't lose this wealth of information.

frnd4vr
Northern California

Kristin said...

WOW!
Did you really just learn all that?

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great history your family has. Write it all down somewhere, maybe even interview your father so his presence becomes part of it. What a precious thing to pass down. I was glued to every single line!

- MJ

Kim said...

All I can say is WOW! Amazing. BTW, we had a summer cabin in the mountains that had an outhouse, soI relate to the :outhouse' experience.

Fancy Pants said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. It was amazing to read about your family's history. I'm agog and have few words to express my feelings at this time, other than to say thank you.

charly said...

Wow is right.
You must write these stories down. Better still, can you videotape your dad telling them. What a treasure that would be, both for your family and from a historical perspective.
Thank you for sharing.

Life's a Stitch said...

Sweet history. My father died when I was 16 and I've missed those kinds of stories.

My husband's family didn't have indoor plumbing until he was five. And that was in Minnesota! He tells the story of how he was the first family member to try the toilet and how he had an audience.

Li

sandra said...

Amazing and wonderful, I printed this off to show my husband. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

sandra said...

Amazing and wonderful, I printed this off to show my husband. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

Sharon said...

Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading that.

Haley said...

wow. as usual you've been busy while i've been on another unintentional blogland hiatus. i loved reading all your recent posts. what an interesting family you have. i loved reading about your dad and your variety of holiday traditions. your recent knitting is lovely as well. happy holidays. enjoy them all!

5elementknitr said...

Your families life would make an excellent book. You should get over to his home with a tape recorder and some wine!

Sarah said...

Your dad's life sounds fascinating -- it makes me wonder what I'll be telling my grandkids. ("I was on Ravelry back was it in Beta!")

dale-harriet said...

My dear - do you realize the depth of the gift you've shared with us? Some of the other suggested this too - but I beseech you, spend as much time as you can with this heroic man and capture by pen or tape as much as you can. Ask about his childhood- do you realize the changes in the world that he has witnessed? There have been more changes - without exaggeration - between 1900 and today than there were in all of recorded prior history. And even for yourself, my dear: there's a book called "To Our Children's Children" by Bob Greene. It's not a fill-in-the-blanks workbook, it's just suggestions to prompt memories. There can be NO great legacy you can leave your children and theirs...and theirs....&c, than those stories. Again, thank you so much for that. And yes, even you and I share common threads through our heritage. Happiest of Holiday Seasons (and honestly, would you please shake your father's hand earnestly and tell him a Wisconsin grandmother sends warm greetings to him!)

Gauss said...

That is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

annmarie said...

Aren't you glad you asked? Thank you for sharing a truly fascinating story.