Short Story: Isaac’s Lesson

“Slow down, Isaac. This is a speech you’re practicing, not NASCAR. Pretend it’s for your bar mitzvah.”
“It is for my bar mitzvah,” I said.
My tutor, George Nader, shook his head. “I’m sure you’ll be ready by August.”
“George, my bar mitzvah is in July.”
“Let’s practice worrying.”
It was March 2005, and I, Isaac Rubin, was soon to become a bar mitzvah. Every part of me below the yarmulke was certain I would embarrass my family and the entire Jewish population of New York, New Jersey and Tel Aviv.
George said I’d do fine.
“What’s fine?” I asked.
“Anything less than the Titanic.”
At my next lesson, a week later, I told George I’d had a nightmare the night before.
“I was reading my speech, and everyone started pointing and laughing. When I looked down, I was wearing only a Speedo, with rubber flippers on my feet. When I tried to speak, bubbles came out of my mouth.”
George laughed. “Maybe we should switch your Torah portion to Jonah and the whale.”
I punched him lightly in the arm. “Whatever my dad is paying you,” I said, “it’s too much.”
George shook his head.
“If I took money from your father, he’d expect results, and I gave up my miracle business years ago.”
I asked what business George was in, and he told me he owned a men’s clothing shop.
He said he met my father at his store. When Dad mentioned my sister’s bat mitzvah, George said he volunteered to tutor her, explaining that he had studied the rituals and enjoyed sharing his knowledge.
A week later, I missed the subway stop for George’s house. An attendant at the next stop told me I was only a few blocks away. Walking down a busy street, I passed several stores with signs in Arabic. One of them – Hamid’s Falafels – had tables outside, and men sat around each of them, smoking and drinking from tiny cups.
When I got to George’s house, I asked about the neighborhood.
“Arabs have lived here for some time,” George said. “It’s a comfortable place for us.”
George pointed to himself.
“My parents moved here from Lebanon when I was a child. Any given day, you could have seen us at Hamid’s.”
I stumbled through my lesson and sat silently on the drive home. At dinner, I asked my sister if she knew George was an Arab.
“Sure,” Eva said. “He’s got photographs from Lebanon all over his house, and he gave me a plate of Lebanese food when I missed lunch one day. We even argued about whether hummus should be considered Arabic or Israeli.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Tell you what?” Eva replied. “That our Lebanese teacher is Lebanese?”
I said nothing, but I left the table feeling dirty that I’d been around an Arab all these months. I had never even thought about them until 9-11, when my Uncle Mark and my cousin Sam died at the World Trade Center. Sam was like my best friend.
I skipped my next lesson, claiming too much homework, and I called my father from school the following week, saying I felt sick and wanted a ride directly home.
Sitting in my father’s car, I quickly figured out we weren’t heading home. I didn’t know where we were going until we pulled up in front of George’s house.
“What’s this about?” I asked. “I’m sick.”
“I think the cure is inside that house,” my father said.
“What do you want me to do?” I snapped.
“Figure it out,” my father said. “I’ll wait here.”
I walked up the path to George’s house and rang the doorbell.
“Isaac, glad you’re back,” George said.
Head down, hands at my side, I trudged into George’s study, feeling as though I was marching to my death. I plopped down on the sofa and sat silently.
“Is something wrong?” George asked.
“You’re an Arab,” I blurted.
“Guilty,” George said. “Now, tell me what else I’m guilty of, other than being an Arab.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I suddenly found myself telling George about my uncle and cousin.
George nodded. “Your sister told me. I’m sorry, but you know I didn’t kill them.” As he spoke, tears dropped from his eyes. Then I started crying.
George stood up, walked to the sofa, and sat down next to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. It felt good at first, but then I pulled back.
“Your people, I mean those men, they, they killed all those people because their religion, they were Muslims, told them to do it.”
George stared at me.
“Islam didn’t kill your uncle and cousin,” George said. “Those Muslims did. Be angry with them; I’m angry with them, but not every Muslim. And, for the record, I’m not Muslim.”
“What?” I shouted.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t think it mattered. Some Muslims have done terrible things, some Christians have done terrible things, some Jews have done terrible things, all in the name of God.”
I snapped back: “God doesn’t tell Jews to kill.”
George took a deep breath.
“God doesn’t tell anyone to kill,” he said, “but some Jews kill, and Jews still die. Christians die, and Muslims die.
“Look, my family left Lebanon in 1982, when I was 10. Christians weren’t welcome there, but we left only after Israel invaded and bombed Beirut. A lot of innocent Lebanese died. One of them was my brother.”
“Was he a soldier?” I asked.
“His name was Joseph,” George said. “He was 7.”
George looked directly at me, his eyes watering again.
“I wasted a lot of time and energy hating Jews. Some of my family said they wanted to kill all Jews, but my father said hatred wouldn’t bring my brother back or help me live the rest of my life. It’s taken me a long time to accept that lesson in my head. I’m still working on my heart.”
I looked at George. “I’m sorry about your brother,” I said. Then I remembered that my father was waiting outside.
As we stood up, George extended his hand, and our handshake turned into a hug. We walked out, and George asked my dad if I could stay longer to practice.
We ended up talking about everything except my bar mitzvah. I asked George where he learned to read Torah, and he explained that Christians borrowed a lot of Jewish traditions, including scripture, cantors and chanting. He said he also learned from teaching Gregorian chant to a Catholic church choir.
I wanted to know more about the family members who wanted to kill Jews. George said his grandmother cursed Muslims for the way they treated Christians in Lebanon and cursed Jews for killing Lebanese Christians, who had never done anything to hurt them.
I told him about my grandmother.
“A few weeks ago, we were driving through an Arab section of Brooklyn. My grandmother made a spitting sound and said we should bomb the whole neighborhood.”
George shook his head.
“We should leave our two grandmothers on a desert island, alone. Let them work it out.”
Two weeks later, I stood on the bima – reading, chanting, and delivering my speech. At the end, I thanked just about everyone in the world, including George, who was sitting in the front row with my family. I ended with a line I had added that morning.
“I dedicate this day to the memory of Mark Rubin, Sam Rubin, and Joseph Nader.”

(Michael Ginsberg is a Louisville, author, journalist and copy editor for Community.)

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